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Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (PlayStation) artwork

Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (PlayStation) review

"The taxation of trade routes to outlying systems is in dispute. The Greedy Trade Federation has stopped all shipping to the small planet of Naboo with a blockade of deadly battleships... "

The taxation of trade routes to outlying systems is in dispute. The Greedy Trade Federation has stopped all shipping to the small planet of Naboo with a blockade of deadly battleships...

Taxation? Was anyone else distressed by the opening scroll for the fourth Star Wars film the first time they read it?

As confusingly as the film begins, so does the game. Star Wars: Episode 1 The Phantom Menace - which I shall refer to simply as 'Episode 1' - blasts off with the John Williams music and that dense opening scroll. The game is a grandiose third-person action-adventure which faithfully follows the plot and events of the film from A to Z, removing only some vehicular action and in fact adding and imagining many scenes.

As a satisfying film-to-videogame translation, this is definitely one of the finest I have ever played, in spite of the very obvious straining of a game engine stretched thin as it's called upon to rein in hundreds of varied characters and situations across several fully-realised worlds. Episode 1 allows you to relive the experiences of all the film's key characters, including Obi-Wan, Qui-Gonn Jinn and Queen Amidala (and the not so key, like Captain Panaka) and it comes close to achieving the holy grail of translating cinematic experience into gaming experience without sacrificing the most important elements of either.

While you may not be able to utter, 'Bye bye Binks!' as you deliver a renegade saber chop to the floppy-eared fool's back (he's invulnerable), you can molest the Queen by treading on her dress -

'I never knew a Jedi could be so rude!

- or 'accidentally' zap her with a blaster, or throw civilian fools you've grown weary of about with The Force, or play very funny Jedi mind tricks on bounty-hunting scum in Mos Espa to start fights. In short, there's a nice capacity for mischief throughout the game, but never to the extent that it soils the sanctified reality of the Star Wars universe which George Lucas spends so much time worrying about. You can play as a scrupulous Jedi, or as an almost-scrupulous Jedi who suffers from the occasional lapse of judgement...

'DIE TC-14! DIE!'

The game sprawls across thirteen big levels and a variety of mission styles. Out-and-out combat, strategic combat, puzzle-solving, escorts, jumpy-jump platforming challenges and 'appease the Tatooine yokels' roleplaying will all hit you in rapid succession. Most levels are impressively monstrous in their scope, especially the city of Mos Espa whose individual streets and dwellings you can explore. The graphics can get a bit ragged up close, and the recreation of certain natural features in geometrical fashion, such as the square-edged swamp on Naboo, leaves something to be desired. On the other hand, the total visual inventory is massive enough that you'll rarely find time to dwell on the shortcomings. From the shiny halls of a Trade Federation cruiser to the tranquil waterfalls of Amidala's palace, to the grit of a Mos Espa junkyard, the game propels you from one spectacular environment to the next with feigned effortlessness.

The onscreen view is novel on the one hand and a liability on the other. The character you're controlling is always seen at centre-bottom of the screen from an overhead camera tilted strongly downwards. This is good for showing off the immediate environment or the pyrotechnics of close combat, but the lack of longer range perspective (imagine walking down the street gazing at your shoes the whole way) can confuse you, or leave you feeling overly vulnerable when baddies are swarming all around.

You'll get to play with blasters, thermal detonators and proton missile launchers, but of course the key armament of the Jedi characters is the light saber. There's nothing greater than the steely feeling of authority you get when you casually ignite your weapon in readiness to settle some dispute, its green or blue aura falling across the screen. You can even deflect volleys of lasers back into an approaching army of droids to mow them down in spectacular style, just like in the film. But on the Dark Side, Obi-Wan and Qui-Gonn swing their weapons around with a complete lack of finesse in a melee, and you have to be right in someone's face to connect. While the other running, rolling and jumping controls are typical and well-handled for this genre, Episode 1 features what is probably the worst saber control I've seen in a Star Wars game. (For the best, or at least the most detailed, try Masters of Teras Kasi) The blaster combat involves aim, placement and dodging, but most of the saber combat is a button-mash frenzy.

Fortunately you can use your diplomacy skills to avoid a lot of unnecessary saber action in the first place. The levels are crammed with friends, strangers, civilians - and regrettably, total buffoons like Jar-Jar Binks - with whom you can converse at the click of the Circle button. Considerable effort has gone into this aspect of play, though as I alluded to earlier, it's still 'spread thin.' There are scores of characters, with only a little bit of attention going into each one. It's thrilling to have Qui-Gonn fight alongside you or guard a position while you scout ahead, all of his own volition, but when he keeps yelling out the same thing - 'We must find a way to open this door' - the AI pokes its head out and dampens the illusion. There's a lot of neat cause and effect to play with, often within very small moments of the game, which is where you really appreciate it. If a civilian tells you to get out of his home and you ignore him then sneak back later, you'll find he's activated a gun-turret security system. Slaughter innocent Jawas and you'll get rightfully teased by street urchins elsewhere.

A lot of the dialogue options have no real impact on the course of events, but they're all fun and add light and shade to the whole experience. Ewan, Natalie and friends couldn't make it to record their vocal lines (though of course Ahmed 'Jar-Jar' Best had no problem finding the time) but all of their stand-ins are fine, especially Obi-Wan's and Amidala's. My two favourite dialogue ploys are:

(1) As Obi-Wan, end an underwhelming conversation by muttering, 'I have no time for you now,' then suddenly turn all Dark Side and deliver a brisk saber uppercut to the other participant's head.

(2) As Queen Amidala, continually fob off your adoring subjects with a haughty, 'I must first liberate the planet!'

The old double-speed Playstation CD drive really groans under the weight of so much spoken dialogue, bleating as it cues up the lines. 'I'm right behind you!' says the queen, striding boldly in front. While such cute mistakes probably won't be found in the PC version of the game, it just makes me feel a big dumb respect for the old Playstation warhorse that it can pull Episode 1 off, packing its enormous contents all onto the one disc. Such is the quality of the source material that players can now lazily expect excellent and accurate audio from any Star Wars game, and get it. This is largely true again for Episode 1, though I did notice more clipping than usual at high volumes. This game exploits a much broader than usual selection of the films' musical scores, rapidly altering the mood to suit its highly varied scenes.

Based on reviews I'd read, and considering the broad audience for this game, I was expecting an easy adventure romp lasting a few hours. How wrong I was. Eighteen hours had been racked up by the time I first triumphed with the lousy rank of some kind of dancing slave girl (fit for Jabba's pleasure barge, no doubt), and that's not just because of the sloppy light saber controls or the days spent losing my sanity as I 'talked to everyone about everything' in the RPG stretch of Mos Espa.

While the game starts off accessibly enough with Obi-Wan and Qui-Gonn running around in space completely lording it over invading droids, it gets rough fast. There's no map system and you can easily find yourself lost in daunting forests or cities while baddies constantly regenerate and outnumber you. The escort missions are especially hair-raising. It doesn't matter how many times you tell Queen Amidala to sit tight while you scout ahead, because that woman is the kiss of death, and there's always another horde of robots and tanks ready to mow her down. If you ever stray too far from Her Worshipfulness, there's a shock blast of orchestral music as the funniest game over message in Episode 1 slams across the screen:


This game also has one of the best collections of fatal plummets I've ever seen. There are just so many terrifyingly high structures you can fall off! Basically, you're going to die a whole lot, and in ways that the ability to save the game at any time doesn't inure you to. Thus the challenge continually jumps around in nature from addictive to excruciating, and even to boring in the case of Mos Espa, yet the game remains completely compulsive at all times. I was always engrossed by the powerful sense of the characters' quests and the majesty of the Star Wars universe I was able to explore. In summary, what the game lacks in 'game', it makes up for in cinematic clout, story drive and the Star Wars factor. The excitement lies in the fact that you're controlling the fates of the real characters here, not just some guy named Kyle Katarn.

While never technically outstanding in any particular area, Episode 1 is nobly ambitious and the first attempt to translate the entire experience of a Star Wars film - not just its parts - into a game that can be enjoyed by a broad range of players. In this respect it is a great success, making you feel genuinely heroic and testing your Jedi mettle. I had a lot of fun with it and recommend it strongly to all keen Star Wars fans. I'd also recommend it to any action-adventure fan looking for an entry into the genre on a grander than usual scale, as the game's enormous environments always create a powerful sense of place. Players not falling into either of the aforementioned groups will be quicker to harp on the game's rough edges, and could shave a point or two off my final score.

-- Star Wars: Episode 1 The Phantom Menace -- 7/10 --

P.S. The game disc also includes the video clip for the John Williams composition 'Duel of the Fates', playable from the main game menu. The clip is a slick mix of Episode 1 footage, behind-the-scenes fun and a curious existing-nowhere-else monologue by Darth Maul. The novelty of the clip's inclusion would undoubtedly have been a lot more exciting fresh on the heels of the film, but it's still cool, and again I'm surprised that they were able to cram this onto the disc along with everything else.

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Community review by bloomer (March 08, 2004)

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