If you slapped the Lucas logo on a computer game in the early to mid-90s, you knew you were in for a good time. The name was synonymous with quality. No matter what they did it was a blast to play. From the Star Wars franchise (X-Wing, Dark Forces) to their adventure games (Full Throttle, Sam and Max Hit the Road) it was as if the development teams could do no wrong. Here’s some perspective -- consider the reputation that Blizzard has for putting out solid and stable games once every few years; now imagine doing that two or three times a year.
So, of course, it couldn’t last.
Its hard to pin down where or when the Lucas name started to mean less. Sometime after X-Wing vs. Tie Fighter the house of ideas started churning out some awful stuff. The sense of the gaming community was that they were just exploiting their Star Wars franchise and cashing in on their good name. Games like Battle for Naboo and Force Commander were just awful. For every good game they released there were four more to make you forget it.
Recently, Lucas has started to show some sparks of life again. Jedi Academy and Knights of the Old Republic have gone over well with gamers and have sold well to boot. Apparently the folks in San Rafael, California have taken notice. I was invited to attend a Lucas press event where they would be showing off a number of their upcoming Holiday titles. So is quality control a part of their vocabulary again? Well, let’s just say I was the last guy to leave.Gladius
Gladius is a fasninating animal. A story-driven turn-based gladiator game. That’s right. Turn-based. The story is actually fascinating with a number of plot twists and good dialogue. The story’s sophistication actually made me more inclined to give the title a try. You choose one of two characters to play. Either Ursula or Valens. Ursula is the head of a school of gladiators that is doing well in the ring. While Valens struggles to make a name for himself. You can build your own school of gladiators, choosing either character and carry your warriors through the levels of arena fighting. Gladiators range from historically accurate (archers) to fantastic (undead). The interesting part of Gladius is that half-way through playing it, the story suddenly twists and takes you out of the arenas, throwing you into an adventure with your fellow warriors. You must beat back an evil that threatens to take the land. Sure, it sounds like standard stuff but the attention to details seems to be there. Interestingly, the gameplay itself is actually pretty action-packed, considering it’s turn-based. The designers seem to have done a great job making sure your hand stays clenched on the controller (unlike many turn-based games). After entering your orders there are certain moves that require you to use the controller to maximize the force of the attack. The result is a strategic and tactical experience with a good story to back it up. If you love Advance Wars you’ll love Gladius. AW is the fave game of a number of the designers of Gladius.Secret Weapons Over Normandy
Not to give game designer Lawrence Holland too much credit, but Lucas wasn’t the same after he left. Its probably coincidence but things just went south when he started his own development house, Totally Games. Well, he’s back and his latest effort for Lucas looks like a fun one. Flight games are not my thing (with the exception of Crimson Skies) but SWON looks like it will be worth checking out. The team wanted to give players a game you could just pick up and play. But they also wanted to offer the depth of realism that would make a game like this special. Indeed, you can fly any number of planes that were used in WW2. Some of them were cutting edge craft, like the “Pancake” which looks like a UFO or the gorgeous Me-262 which blasted the allies out of the water (luckily Hitler mistakenly thought they would be perfect as bombers instead of as fighters). Controls seemed easy and seeing what was going on in the sky is made easier by the third person perspective. I got to watch some dogfights for a few minutes and I was impressed with the amount of action on screen. Even on the antiquated PS2 ;-) the game looks sweet. While I didn’t get a long time with SWON I could tell it would be right up the alley of my flight-sim/action buds.Star Wars Galaxies
Haven’t played this one yet but, damn, it looked fun. Lucas was showing off their “expansion set” to Galaxies which includes more worlds to play as well as the long-promised mounts. That’s right now you can fight the rancor on the back of a dewback. It’s a really nice touch that should make any Star Wars Galaxies fan work their butt off for one. The mounts let you cover the ever-expanding galaxy quicker and in style. I saw the kaadu at work and it’s a fast little sucker. It gave its rider a huge advantage over mountless players in an epic battle with a rancor. Also included in the expansion are cities. Now players can build in a common area and create a community.
I also got a look at the vehicles expansion, due out next year. Nyah nyah. Looks sweet! This might be the detail that will make me plunk down the cash for the game. Let’s just say if you liked the scene in Attack of the Clones where the Count skimmed over the surface as he escaped our heroes, then you’ll love the vehicle expansion. All of this is, of course, just a warm-up for the spaceship expansion which will allow for dogfights in space. I was surprised to learn that no one has become a Jedi in the game yet!! That’s incredible. Looks like someone is close though (and I gather he doesn’t know it) so the folks at Sony and Lucas are prepping a little celebration for when it happens.
There have also been some improvements in Customer Care as they launch the game in England. When the blackout happened in the US, the UK folks got a chance for some on-the-job training and the game’s support center became a cross-continent affair. The team is huge and always growing, Lucas and Sony insist that the community is happier with Galaxies than they have been for any other MMO at the same point in its development. I don’t know about that. You tell me.Armed and Dangerous
The last game I got a gander at was Armed and Dangerous and this is the blue ribbon winner, baby! Man this thing looks fun!! By the makers of MDK and Giants, Planet Moon has apparently perfected the funny, action-packed and gimmicky gameplay that they essentially introduced. This time around you get incredible weapons like the Topsy Turvy Bomb, which turns the whole screen upside down and “drops” the bad guys into the sky. There’s also the Land Shark Gun which lets you sic a great white shark on the baddies. The localized damage works better in this game than any I’ve seen. Hitting a grunt in the lower butt means you actually hit him in the lower butt. The physic engine looks awesome.
Graphically, I was blown away by the settings. I saw the X-box version and Planet Moon has tapped its power very well. The characters look a little blocky at times and their movement can be a little wooden but when you’re constantly getting blown away by fun gameplay its hard to notice that. Perhaps I’m being too enthusiastic for a game I only got 30 minutes with but it looks THAT good, folks. If you’re a fan of Giants or MDK (and always wished those games were just a LITTLE better) then I think you’ll want to watch out for this one.
Look, guys and gals, I went in to this press event with a chip on my shoulder. I admit it. I’ve watched in awe as the Lucas name has meant less and less over the years and more and more of their games go straight to the bargain bins. But something seems to be changing here. Whatever alterations they’ve made it seems to be working. The games look great. They seem tight -- as if they were given the time that they needed to be as good as possible. There’s innovative gameplay, deep stories and even good graphics (not usually a Lucas staple). I’d say I’m cautiously optimistic about the future of this great company. If they’re putting out consistently good games in a year and exciting people with their new product announcements (like they used to) then I’d say you can track their resurgence to Summer/Holidays 2003.
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