|Even though people still line up
around the block to see it, it seems as though The Phantom Menace hype has finally
resolved itself into continuous, mind-numbing, soul-sucking online and late-night t.v. and
radio discussions concerning the possible promulgation of racial stereotypes, bad acting,
and skimpy plots in the latest STAR WARS movie. But let the critics carp and pule. The
movie kicked ass, if for no other reason than making one forget the six bucks and two
hours invested in seeing it. Hell, I've blown a lot more time and money on things that
didn't even begin to lift my gaze from the here-and-now to get me daydreaming about life
and happenings long, long ago in galaxies far, far away. The Phantom Menace
computer game is one of them.
That's right--while The Phantom Menace game allows players to extend their viewing pleasure and participate in the on-screen story, it is a disappointing multimedia gaming experience. Of course, it's important to consider that LucasArts didn't develop this game as a title intended to break new gaming ground. It is a game for the fans of the STAR WARS saga. It is fitting, then, that the game allows players to interact with the story line of the movie through four different characters and by means of familiar first person action and adventure gaming conventions. Indeed, this combination of different gaming genres is this title's most compelling feature. In the end, though, the ways in which this game's story deviate from that of the movie aren't very intriguing. More often than not, most players will probably wonder why they've had to jump carefully through so many episodes--the "Naboo Swamp," for instance--to complete levels that end abruptly and offer very little to preserve any sense of narrative or gaming continuity.
As mentioned above, players assume the identities of four characters: Obi-Wan Kenobi, Qui-Gon Jinn, Captain Panaka, and Queen Amidala. Obi-Wan first initiates players to the subtleties of the 3/4-view interface, which, for the most part, looks sharp and provides a flexible and comfortable point of view from which to play. In general, though, the graphics are pretty average and are accompanied by typical shortcomings such as clipping. In addition, some of the rendering--especially of foliage--is downright ugly, too flat, planar and angular for a 3D environment. While the overall visual and narrative incoherence of the game is unsatisfying, playing Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon is a freakin' hoot. Naturally, both are equipped with light sabres and, even though players pick up other weapons throughout each level, it becomes a real challenge to try and use the light sabre exclusively as a defensive and offensive device. The Phantom Menace does not offer this condition as a gaming imperative, but it does encourage players, especially through interaction with NPCs, to maneuver Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon through the game with an appropriately Jedi-like comportment. Indeed, on its most convincing level, the game "punishes" players who play their Jedis too aggressively; hacking and slashing NPCs when they don't give players the answers they want or simply for being in the way will ensure immanent demise.
On the other hand, beginning the game as a Jedi means that fun with light sabres will have to come to an end when players don Captain Panaka's helmet or Amidala's vestal attendant disguise. What the levels played as these characters lack in swashbuckling swordplay they're supposed to make up with mental challenge, a debatable contention, at best. Players must solve several conundrums throughout the game, most of which, as indicated earlier, are of the jumping through/over/past chasms/dangerous flooring/ tiny surfaces variety. For the most part, the puzzles in The Phantom Menace succeed in annoying players more than they sharpen anyone's analytical skills. And when players get to the point in this game where they don't even have a light sabre to console them through the tedium of trying to jump up to grasp that too elusive rope, then New Hope rapidly unspools into frustration. Still, this game has its moments and can be a lot of fun, especially during the earlier levels played as Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan. The "Mos Espa" episode in particular provides a satisfying balance of adventure and interactive puzzles.
Despite all of these shortcomings, the game does possess a couple of commendable features, namely: the sound and score are fantastic. The reason light sabre combat is so much fun in this game surely owes a great deal to the menacing "zhoom" the laser blade makes when it slices through virtual air, punctuated by the jarring sizzle and crash of disintegrating matter on contact. The Phantom Menace shares the same score as the movie, so its pretty gratifying to play this game with the speakers cranked up; if playing itself doesnt prove satisfying, then players can at least count on the music to thrill.
When all is said and done, though, it's a shame that a title offering players so much possibility as a sort of hybrid gaming experience ends up being such an average product. In this sense, maybe The Phantom Menace game prepares players for Anakin Skywalker's assured fall from grace. But that's another movie and probably, if merchandising trends remain as tried and true has they have for any number of on-screen entertainments, another game.