Star Wars Episode I The Phantom Menace is the game for anyone who watched the new Star Wars movie and wished they were there. Which, if the popularity of the new movie is any indication, is just about everyone.
But unlike a lot of movie tie-in games that fall well short of the movie they are based on, this game stands on its own merit. Even if the movie did not exist, this game would still be a lot of fun to play. As it is, it’s the perfect way to extend your Star Wars experience well beyond the theater. It’s obvious from all the cut scenes and animated takes from the movie that George Lucas had a hand in this game, and the quality that is his mark shines through.
To begin the game, players take on the role of Obi-Wan Kenobi, though later you get to play others from the movie. The game starts pretty much where the movie does, with Obi-Wan and Master Qui-Gon Jinn about to be gassed by the unscrupulous Trade Federation. This leads to a mad-dash type battle to escape the evil Trade Federation battleship.
For the first time ever I think, with any accuracy anyway, you get to use your lightsaber to actively block laser blasts, knocking them back towards the enemies who fire at you. Sometimes a blast or two gets through, but with practice, your lightsaber becomes a potent offensive weapon and a pretty good shield as well.
The interface for the game puts you above the action. This is a great way to see your surroundings at a glance, and about the only way I think players can really block laser blasts. With a first person Dark Forces-type view, another game that featured this ability, the blocking actions were much more automatic. With this interface, after a while it kind of becomes like baseball, with opponents lobbing lasers at you, and you knocking them out of the park.
Perhaps the best part of the game are the elements that you don’t really notice, but that combine to make a unique and very rewarding experience. The music is subtle and builds to a crescendo at the appropriate moments. This blends with the environmental sounds to really build the mood for the area you are exploring. Lightsabers whoosh, native animals growl, computers and droids beep and whir and explosions rumble. In the underwater city of Otoh Gunga, you hear bubbles and various other sea-like sounds outside of windows and walls, giving the illusion that you really are underwater. The unique view is also used with great effect, and at times a fish or eel will swim in front of your view.
Unfortunately, the interface also gets in the way at times, though to an extent this is determined by your video card. On some of the GiN test machines, areas like the city of Otoh Gunga and the surrounding swamp were nearly impossible to play because tree cover or roofs would obscure all view of your hero below. Several times I found myself randomly wandering around blind trying to find a path to a more clear location. Fortunately, this was a very rare occurrence.
The voice acting in the game is top notch. In some cases the voice actors are the same ones that were in the movie. For others, the likeness is nearly indistinguishable.
The graphics themselves are awesome too. It’s by far the best graphics I have ever seen on a game of this type, and ranks very high against any game. You will need to have a 3D accelerator card to play, something that caused Shadows of the Empire to lose points when we reviewed it years ago. But that was then, and this is now. Accelerator cards are now much more commonplace, so although we won’t give bonus points, we won’t take anything away either for not having a software rendering mode. We did have some problems with some cards, including the new Voodoo 3, though the game worked fine with a Riva TNT and even an ATI card running on a laptop system.
Star Wars Episode I The Phantom Menace gets 4 1/2 GiN gems, with just a few points shaved off the top for some obstructed views and compatibility problems with certain video cards.
The bottom line is that this is an incredible game to play. If you want to sit down and just play for a few minutes, you better clear your schedule anyway. The first time you send a laser blast soaring back toward your stunned opponent, you are going to be hooked. Unless you have the willpower of a Jedi, you won’t be able to leave. Go ahead and try. May the Force be with you.