Lego Star Wars II is a very lightweight adventure game based on the original trilogy of movies, with everything made out of Lego. Mostly fluff, but a fair amount of humor, and the whole package is really quite fun.

The best part, for me: it’s very easy, and has a cooperative multiplayer mode. This meant that Miranda and I could play through it all together. I’ve never done much cooperative video game playing; I highly recommend it, especially with one’s daughter. It worked great in this game; we could both happily wander our way through the levels, puzzles weren’t too tough (and there were a few that she solved before me), and, on the rare occasions when she got too frustrated, she could drop out for a minute without penalty.

Gameplay: you wander through areas from the movies. At any given time, there are at least two playable characters in your party; most of the time, there are more than two, and you can switch between them (almost) at will. Different characters have different abilities: force-wielding characters can manipulate certain objects; certain doors can only be opened by, say, one of the robots; R2D2 can hover across chasms; the robots can’t jump up platforms, etc. There are your standard switches and the like to manipulate the environment; you can often destroy parts of the environment, as well, and you periodically encounter piles of lego blocks which you can assemble into something. You can imagine the puzzles that result: human A gets to location B, assembles something or flips a switch to let C3PO go somewhere, C3PO flips another switch, or R2D2 flies somewhere and flips a switch, eventually the whole party has crossed a chasm.

You accumulate money as you go along (used to unlock extras); if you die, you lose some of the money but reappear in the same place, and if you’re out of money, there’s no cost to dying. So an amazingly forgiving game in that regard. I wouldn’t propose this as a general model, but there’s something here that other games can learn from, I think. Why don’t all games do this? As far as I can think of, there are two good reasons to penalize characters for dying:

  1. You want to make the game harder, so you require people to carefully navigate a series of challenges without making a mistake.
  2. It’s hard to figure out what state to put people in when bringing them back to life.

The former is pretty obvious; let me explain the latter. In a typical game, you have various bits of state: location, health, ammo, items, money, etc. So, when you die, the game has to decide what state to restore you in. Sometimes, games give up and restore you to the last time you saved the game. Another common choice is to bring you back to a recent checkpoint: Halo, for example, takes this route.

But Lego Star Wars has a remarkably small amount of state. There’s no ammo, there are almost no items. (The only exceptions are hats (usually stormtrooper helmets) that you occasionally wear, looking quite silly; those get knocked off the first time you get hit, so it’s reasonable to not restore them when you die.) You do have health, but your health bar is so short (four hearts) that it might as well just restore you to full health when you die. So the only choices the game has to make are what to do with your location and money when you die. And it simply preserves the former and docks the latter a bit (an entirely acceptable choice, given how unimportant money is, and how easy it is to acquire).

I was, of course, aware of the virtues of the lack of state when doing certain types of programming, but this was the first time I’d thought of that when designing video games. I certainly wouldn’t recommend that all games go this route, but it’s a valid choice that I wasn’t aware of.

And other games impose penalties on dying for reasons other than the two listed above, for no good reason that I can see. While playing this game, for example, I was also working my way through parts of GTA III. When you die in that game, it plunks you near a hospital; you’ve lost all your guns, ammo, and armor. Assuming you’ve saved before starting the mission, there’s absolutely no reason to not reload your save game at this point, if for no other reason than to get your guns back. Which leads to the following problems:

  • The default action on death is useless.
  • It forces you to explicitly go to your hideout in the game to save before starting each mission, even if you’re near the start point for the next mission, in case you die during the next mission.
  • When you die, you have to drive back to where you were given the last mission, and then drive from there to where the action in the mission actually happens. (And sometimes watch lengthy cut scenes for the n‘th time.)

Which is pointless. Making you replay stuff in order to make the game harder is fine in general, though it can certainly be overdone, but there’s a difference between that and forcing you to repeat busywork. Why not just put in a simple checkpoint right before the start of the real action of each mission, and leave it at that? The sad thing is that this flaw is still present in later games in that series.

Enough about death; back to the regular gameplay. Once you’ve played through each level, you can play it again using a wider range of characters. (Including ones you assemble yourself by mixing and matching lego pieces, should you so choose.) Which is a nice way to extend replay value: they hide lots of stuff in each level that you can only access by using special powers or by being certain characters; so you have lots of stuff to look for the second time through the level, while also at times rethinking your basic approach (since your new characters may move in different ways than the original characters you used for the level). I didn’t play through too many levels a second time, but that was because I had other games I wanted to try; I’m sure I would have happily replayed the whole thing had I been in a bit more of a game drought. (Or had been only able to acquire video games at restricted intervals, instead of being able to buy them whenever I felt like it.)

I don’t want to claim that the game is a vast advance in the genre, or anything. But it’s quite well done, made several smart choices, and the cooperative multiplayer is great. I certainly recommend it to anybody who wants to play video games with a child, and I imagine lots of people in other circumstances would enjoy it as well.

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