E3: Inside the LucasArts booth

LucasArts shimmied into a slightly larger booth at this year’s E3 to show off their larger, more diversified product lineup. We had the opportunity to tour the booth and focused on checking out the current-gen and next-gen console offerings you’ll see on store shelves beginning in the Fall.

When LucasArts first announced the amusement park simulator “Thrillville” for Xbox, Playstation 2 and PSP, we all thought the effort was another doomed attempt at replicating the fun of building and managing a theme park on the PC to more casual platforms. Remember the horrid experience of navigating menus via a controller in Infogrames “Roller Coaster Tycoon” for Xbox? I’d prefer not to. But the developers at LucasArts have designed “Thrillville” from the ground up to first and foremost appeal to casual console gamers by offering a variety of gameplay options and intuitive mouse-less controls.

Core gamplay mechanics are centered on a whimsically designed third-person ground floor perspective where gamers can traverse the park and choose to hop on rides, play mini-games, manage the park with customization and statistic tracking approaching the depth of theme park simulators only PCs have offered or complete upwards of 150 story-driven missions. Hopping on one of 25 pre-built roller coasters or a custom creation switches to a first-person perspective with customizable camera positions for an infinite number of perspectives. Not only can the rides be ridden, the thrill can be tweaked for a new experience with quick and easy access to a camera editor. If a ride isn’t up to snuff then it can be edited in real-time section by section, even while in the process of riding it.

Aside from tighter, easier to use controls, LucasArts has built in an impressive number of distractions aside from typical amusement park rides to keep the game fresh and dynamic. A variety of Midway games can be accessed at any time offering up four-player cooperative gameplay and high scores. A couple examples of these games include a Wild West shootout against robotic mannequins, go-kart racing and performing tricks on a trampoline. A more complex game example would be mini-golf with completely customizable courses.

LucasArts is clearly on track to achieve their goal of creating the first worthy theme park simulator for consoles. The depth of mini-game options layered with customization of everything from water rides to go-kart tracks should keep stale repetition at bay and erase the need for PC-quality graphics. Somewhere in either a ride or mini-game there’s a memory everyone will want to revisit. For me, that memory is a trip to the mini-golf course and infatuation with shooting a perfect game.

Lego Star Wars II: The Original Trilogy
They’re back, and they’re more customizable than ever! Lego Star Wars is thankfully returning in the incarnation we wanted to see from day one: the Original Trilogy. Episodes 4, 5 and 6 will be represented on the Xbox 360, Xbox and Playstation this September by Lego’s animated plastic men.

This extension of the original Lego Star Wars game keeps the core gameplay including coop intact while offering a few noticeable and welcome tweaks and an emphasis on humor. All vehicles can now be piloted by either player, customized, and in some cases such as Luke’s Landspeeder, washed and sold to scavenging Jawas. Some vehicles must be built first via the game’s many puzzles, like the AT-ST in Mos Eisley. Any character other than droids has the ability to build vehicles and other objects, unlike the first game where only Jedi possessed this skill. LucasArts defines this tactic as “building with purpose” since most everything built is a necessary component or answer puzzle needed to move forward through a level.

Speaking of skills, the Jedi now have a more robust repertoire of Force abilities at their disposal. Look for Force chokes, Force lightning and a couple other surprises coming from the Emperor, Darth Vader and other lightsaber wielding followers of the ancient religion. Non-Jedi characters have now been given their own unique attacks to spread the wealth such as Chewbacca’s arm-out-of-socket move, Lando’s martial arts kick and slave Leia’s dance attack. Even Dewbacks contribute to the humor by pooping frequently as they walk about. Maybe that’s not a physical striking blow attack but it is a unique attribute nonetheless.

The meat of new additions comes in the form of either a single or multiplayer character customization lab where literally millions of character combinations can be created by easily putting together various different Lego Star Wars pieces. Each combination yields one of many freaky CPU generated names that LucasArts is adding to on a daily basis. Not all of the character customizations will be available up front. Many appear as progress is made through the campaign mode.

Revisiting the Lego Star Wars series is perhaps the easiest sequel for LucasArts to nail. All they needed to do was build upon a sound foundation laid by the prequel Lego Star Wars title without tinkering with what works for the sake of unnecessary change. They did just that with new additions complimenting gameplay instead of impeding it. “Lego Star Wars II: The Original Trilogy” will be the second and hopefully not last hit in the Lego Star Wars series.

Indiana Jones
The crown in LucasArt’s upcoming lineup of announced games belongs to the ambitious Indiana Jones project slated for a Summer, 2007 release on Xbox 360 and Playstation 3. Indy has come a long way since being announced exactly a year ago by showing up with two playable levels ” both designed to show off the life-like character reaction and “never the same game twice” effect of utilizing NaturalMotion’s euphoria technology. Lest not forget Industrial Light and Magic chipped in to help with lighting, shading and archival Indy materials.

The first example of euphoria in action pits Indy facing off against a couple thugs in the streets of San Francisco. With his whip, Indy is able to grab onto the leg of a thug and send them flying into the front of a nearby car. On impact the front car window breaks and the thug slumps over the right quarter panel. A second toss of the thug into the rear of the car results in an entirely different result. Other examples of euphoria in this level include one thug tripping over another and a thug dangling from a downed catwalk before plummeting to the ground.

The second example finds Indy atop a fast moving cable car battling, you guessed it, more hapless thugs. Here the camera dynamically shifts into cinematic angles as Indy dispatches of a thug by tossing them off the top of the car. The demonstrator had no control over these camera changes; they are built into the game. Euphoria did a great job of not only varying how the thugs were ejected from the cable car, but how other vehicular traffic frantically swerved to avoid the out of control cable car barreling their direction.

LucasArts is also excited about “Open Set,” a play on words to represent the exact opposite of a Hollywood closed set. In Open Set, any object appearing on the screen can be picked up and used as a weapon. If these objects are breakable, they will shatter in a stunningly realistic matter thanks to new Digital Molecular Matter technology. Any surface including wood doors and others to be announced will take advantage of DMM when impacted by a blunt force.

With an impressive array of all-new technology in its corner, “Indiana Jones”” only enemy will ironically be the archaeologist’s creator. George Lucas is involved in writing an original storyline bearing no resemblance to the classic films we know and love. If he can manage to keep Star Wars prequel moments out of Indiana Jones lore, this game should shape into a must-play gaming experience next year.

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