Lego Star Wars: The Force Awakens is, without being flippant, another Lego game. If, like me, you love developer TT Games' blockified vision of fictional worlds you'll already be jumping for your gamepad. But it's understandable that, for some, the iterative gameplay isn't always a match for the invention shown in translating Marvel's comic heroes, Harry Potter, et al, into ickle Lego blocks.
What this latest entry into the now-11-year-old franchise has to its advantage however is a wave of momentum and good will towards its source material. Thanks to Episode VII, Star Wars has rarely been more popular, and with only one new film currently out – diluting the memory of the woeful prequels – there's little opportunity for fans to dive back into that galaxy far, far away beyond picking up the Force Awakens DVD or Blu-ray next month.
That enviable position – and distance from the prequels – is something that TT Games is obviously revelling in. The series' brand of humour fits far more easily alongside Abrams' film than it did when the game studio adapted Lucas's dour Episode I, II and III. Early on during the game's press event, I was shown a cutscene recreating the Episode VII moment where moody Kylo Ren confides with the broken mask of Darth Vader. The voice acting is pulled straight from the movie, a pained Adam Driver pouring out his inner conflict...and then the camera pans around to reveal Lego Kylo's emo, Darth Fanboy bedroom, complete with Anakin posters and a Vader alarm clock. It's perfect, and you have to wonder if TT Games' early access to Episode VII assets allowed them to predict the emo Kylo meme that we've all since chuckled at. For once, a Lego game is participating in a current pop culture moment, rather than leaning on nostalgia.
Gameplay itself however will feel very familiar. 18 story levels (with 11 based on the film and seven excitingly expanding on moments only referenced onscreen – Han and Chewie's rathtar hunt, anyone?) will be complimented by five larger openish-worldish hub areas – Jakku, Takodara, Starkiller Base, D'Qar and the inside of the Millennium Falcon. More than 200 characters are playable (letting you take control of minor background cast members), while you can also take control of over 40 ships and creatures, including Kylo Ren's shuttle and the Falcon, natch.
Which leads nicely onto the few genuinely new additions on show here. First are the playable ship flight sequences. Lego games have given you control of flying vehicles or characters in the past, but the aim here is to make their moments in the spotlight far more integral and responsive. Levels will segue naturally into ship combat, split between Star Fox-like chase views and larger arena locations in which you may have to shoot down a certain number of Tie Fighters or protect a convoy. It's still not perfect in terms of control, but barrel rolling out of a Tie Fighter's crosshair lock-on is far smoother than zooming around as Iron Man ever did.
Secondly, buildable items made of the series' signature jiggling bricks will now have multiple construction options. Push the stick towards one holographic blueprint and you may build a mini sandspeeder, or in the other direction you'll end up with a turret. Don't like what you ended up with? Smash it up and try its alternative. In some cases this will be used to offer options in trial-and-error puzzles, while in others it'll serve to reinforce replayability, giving you multiple approaches to an otherwise-linear action sequence.
Lastly, there's the introduction of "Blaster Battles". I only saw these in a static slide, so we'll have to take TT Games' word on how it works, but they sound like mini Time Crisis-like challenges dotted around some levels. At certain points, characters will find themselves overwhelmed by fire from Stormtroopers, and will have to hunker down and take cover. The camera will swing in close to the minifig you're controlling, and you'll blast your way free from the shooting gallery, making use of destructible environmental elements as you go.
Elsewhere though, it's business as usual, if more refined than ever before. You'll still take a tag-team approach to action/platforming levels, using each member of the wide cast's individual powers. Across levels set amidst Jakku's Star Destroyer ruins and the Nima Outpost, I had Rey showcasing her athleticism by wall running and spinning off her staff to jump to new heights, Finn take on distant targets with his ranged blaster, and BB-8 both complete nostalgia-packed puzzles which mimic R2-D2's hacking ability and be catapulted up like a pinball on its spring to access hard-to-reach platforms. Combat is beefed up by a combo chain that now lets you activate a special area-of-effect move once a certain gauge is filled. But if you've ever clobbered the blocks out of the scenery in a Lego game before, you'll know exactly what to expect here.
That said, the attention to detail is spot on throughout (Daisy Ridley has even recorded all-new lines for the game), from the ghostly-blue sweep of Rey's goggle-scanner to the screech of the Tie Fighters. In-jokes and sight gags are littered throughout too – see if you can spot a tiny Jabba's Palace sandcastle, or find a Gonk Droid suit to disguise yourself with. Visually, it's easily the best-looking Lego game to date, with surprisingly-atmospheric lighting and each frame of every level jam packed with animated life and detailed detritus.
A New Hope
The fear will be that Lego Star Wars: The Force Awakens won't be able to match the depth of content that previous multi-movie Lego games have had to draw from. Lego Star Wars: The Complete Saga had both the prequel and original trilogies to draw from, Lego Lord of the Rings three films and the massive tome itself, at least three films per Harry Potter Lego game, four films for Lego Jurassic World and 75 years of comic book history for Lego Marvel Super Heroes. There's only one post-Lucas Star Wars sequel for TT Games to draw upon here, and it's too early to say if the new wave of extended universe material is being tapped.
But, that could also play to its advantage – though I'm sure there are strict guidelines dished out on how you can use the all-new Star Wars characters and settings, there's room here for the developers to fill in some blanks, expand upon J J Abrams vision in a way previous Lego-licensed properties have been too pre-defined to allow. It may feel like another Lego game, but it'll be an all-new way to see this new chapter in the Star Wars saga.
Lego Star Wars: The Force Awakens will hit PS4, PC and Xbox One on June 28th 2016.