by Ken Gagne

Armed & Dangerous
 ETA: 11/14 (PC), 11/3 (Xbox)
Wrath Unleashed
 ETA: 11/3 (PS2, Xbox)
Star Wars Rogue Squadron III: Rebel Strike
 ETA: 10/15 (GameCube)
Secret Weapons Over Normandy
 ETA: 9/15 (PC), 11/3 (PS2, Xbox)
Star Wars Jedi Knight: Jedi Academy
 ETA: 11/14 (PC), 10/1 (Xbox)
Full Throttle: Hell on Wheels
 ETA: 10/14 (PC), 2/16 (PS2, Xbox)
Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic
 ETA: 10/14 (PC), 6/17 (Xbox)
 ETA: 8/19 (PC, PS2, Xbox, GameCube)
Star Wars Galaxies: An Empire Divided
 ETA: 6/26 (PC)

Amid the glory and glitz of the annual Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3), a mammoth publisher hid themselves away in a private meeting room. Behind these closed doors were candidates for "Game of the Show", yet LucasArts was showing its wares by appointment only. Tom Sarris, director of public relations, justified the intimate setting as allowing his staff to demonstrate their games in a more manageable, less distracting setting. Given the high ratio of staff to press (each game was personally demonstrated by a LucasArts employee to two or three people at a time), and the ability for Tom to explain this to me without screaming in my ear, I had to approve of their decision.

I took the time out of my E3 schedule to visit LucasArts not just to see another half-dozen Star Wars games, but because that was the least of their wares this year. The very first title I was escorted to was proof of their lineup's diversity.

Gladius features two avatars, Ursula and Ludo, each with a unique, 35-hour storyline that has them training in and managing a gladiatorial school, and recruiting students to defeat competing regions. Battles are turn-based, placing this title in the category of role-playing game (RPG), but physical and magical attacks feature real-time swing meters, requiring exact timing on the player's part to score critical hits. The use of magic, as well as the presence of minotaurs and giant scorpions, comprise the fictional part of this historical fiction adventure, though many real settings and figures, including 20 different arenas, are incorporated as well. Gladius is not being ported from one console to another, but is being built from the ground-up for Xbox, GameCube, and PS2. When I asked about unique features for each version, assistant producer Chris Susen grinned, then suggested that each edition will take advantage of its system's hardware capabilities. Hmm.

Star Wars Galaxies was the next title, and the one with which I spent the least time, due primarily to its lack of console representation. Galaxies was announced for PlayStation 2 and Xbox at last year's E3, but the regular delays in shipping the PC version have shifted the console editions to "wait-and-see," Sarris explained. Subtitled "An Empire Divided", Galaxies is LucasArts' first massively-multiplayer online RPG (MMORPG), in the tradition of EverQuest. That means almost every person you meet in this galaxy is controlled by another person, not the computer. You and everyone else can choose occupations and alliances for your avatars, such as a Rebel smuggler, Imperial bounty hunter, a merchant or bartender, and other residents. With several planets to explore, this galaxy will not seem so far away once you're living there.

I then moved onto another Star Wars game, this being Jedi Academy, the third in the Jedi Outcast series. Former protagonist Kyle Katarn takes the role of mentor to a new generation of Jedi in this game developed by Raven Software, who also handled the previous Outcast games. Unfortunately, I couldn't get a good look at this title. It appeared to be the only game other than Galaxies that LucasArts was demonstrating on a PC, and the demonstrator continuously moved from standing aside the monitor holding a joystick, to in front of the monitor to use the keyboard. I jockeyed for a good vantage point, but it seemed he and the two other people in his audience were caught in the game's minutia, such as the variety of hilts available when creating your custom light saber. Jedi Academy appears to be another 3D action-adventure game, but what distinguishes it as an "Academy" game, I could not discern.

I jumped 4,000 years back in time for Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. Though none of the characters will be known this long before the films, technology hasn't actually changed much since the discovery of hyperdrive 20,000 years ago, so the galaxy's mechanics remain unchanged. This role-playing game (RPG) lets players become a member of a variety of races — human, Wookiee, android, and more — and choose to follow either the light or dark side of the Force, each with a different ending. Learning each side's various powers have different costs, including physical manifestations of following the dark side, such as a pallid skin tone. Players will return to Tatooine and also visit Dantooine and Kashyyyk, the Wookiee homeworld.

I briefly left a galaxy far, far away to observe Wrath Unleashed, an action-strategy game. It struck me as bearing a slight resemblance to another game, but the more I saw of Wrath Unleashed, the less slight the resemblance became, until I had to ask the LucasArts rep, "Have you ever played an old game called 'Archon'?" Rather than profess ignorance or extort the differences, he simply nodded and said, "Exactly." Wrath Unleashed sets four warring factions on a hexagonal map that contains eight temples; six must be held for a set number of turns to claim victory. The four clans each represent a different element — earth, fire, wind, and water — and are more powerful on terrain that matches that element. When two opposing pieces occupy the same hex, a real-time battle ensues. Damage from one encounter is carried into another, so several consecutive rounds of attacking pawns can drag down even the most powerful general or overlord. Magic can be cast both in and out of battle to affect terrain, strengthen allies, and the like. Unfortunately, Wrath Unleashed fails to include the online play featured in the 20-year-old Amiga classic it resembles.

A few steps to the right, and I was watching Luke Skywalker on the planet Hoth for the millionth time. Rogue Squadron III: Rebel Strike, the only GameCube-exclusive title LucasArts was showing, is a flight action game that builds on its predecessors by including more vehicles and foot-based missions. Han Solo, Leia, and Chewie are all now playable characters, as is Luke, who can ride a Tauntaun and climb AT-ATs on the aforementioned ice planet. A new two-player mode includes all the levels from the GameCube game Rogue Leader, and can be challenged in a variety of formats, including cooperative, tournament, capture the flag. Rogue Leader has been further improved upon in Rebel Strike by doubling the enemy fighters it can simultaneously manage (now up to 100), displaying terrain fifteen times more detailed, and incorporating vehicles such as speeder bikes and AT-STs. Players can spend a full day completing all the missions, or a month earning all the bonus medals and unlocking various extras. Despite the addition of foot missions, such as when Luke must rescue Leia from the Death Star, the game remains firmly entrenched as a flight-based game, unlike the Nintendo 64 game Shadows of the Empire, which was primarily pedestrian with only a few vehicular levels.

I stayed airborne but changed eras for Secret Weapons Over Normandy, a game set in 1940 — 1944 Europe. It's not a flight sim, but an action game, I'm told. Regardless, I wasn't overly impressed, despite the presence of the "Flying Pancake" prototype plane, or the authenticity of sound effects, taken from the LucasFilm audio library. When targeting an enemy, the camera maintains a focus on it, not the player, which creates some cinematic but confusing angles that I've not appreciated in other games. Except for downloadable content via Xbox Live, I did not see any stand-out positive qualities, though history aficionados may find different attributes to value.

From the accurate to the absurd, I made the transition to LucasArts' next game, Armed & Dangerous, developed by Planet Moon Studios. Among this strange game's protagonists are a British robot and a Scottish demolitionist on a fantasy Earth. A&D features two modes of play. The first is a typical third-person, 3D action-adventure game, but with more than a touch of hilarity. "Rag doll animation" displays enemies being sent sky-high upon detonation, only to scream and bounce upon impact. At one point, I watched the main character whipped out an unusual weapon: "Topsy Turvy", a corkscrew which he planted into the ground. The screen then flipped 180 degrees; all on-screen enemies, with no screws of their own to hold onto, immediately fell victim to gravity's new polarity, only to come crashing back to Earth once the perspective was righted. Weird. The other mode of play charges gamers with defending a castle's walls, similar to Helms' Deep in Lord of the Rings. If 100 enemies make it over or through the wall, it's game over. With more than 1,000 grunts to overcome, these levels could take awhile.

Speaking of grunts, biker Ben may be known for his brawn, but gamers will supply the brains in Full Throttle: Hell on Wheels, a sequel to a 1995 point-and-click PC game. The sequel is 3D and fully interactive, including a variety of characters with whom Ben can interact. The conversations progress through selectable responses, and in both this, art style, and humor, the game reminded me very much of LucasArts' recent Escape from Monkey Island. But Full Throttle features more action, as when Ben gets into bar fights and the Mojo Meter comes into play, allowing him to embarrass enemies by breaking chairs over their heads, sliding them down bars, and other classic moves. I found Monkey Island to be funny, but not fun; perhaps Full Throttle will possess both qualities.

Full Throttle concluded my tour of the publisher's booth. What about what LucasArts wasn't showing? RTX wasn't on the floor, apparently to conserve room for works-in-progress; with a June release date, RTX is "imminent", Sarris explained. Also, announced for the first time at E3 was Star Wars: Republic Commando, which will be one of the company's showcase titles at E3 2004. This Xbox title depicts players as clone troopers in the Episodes I — III era, hunting new and familiar enemies from a first-person perspective.

LucasArts' 2003 lineup displayed variety, expanding beyond its Star Wars namesake while adding further depth to that familiar universe as well. But will they ever mine a Star Wars source other than Lucas' movies? The New Jedi Order series of books "are no less fertile than what we do from the films", Sarris responded. Though nothing is currently in the works, LucasArts seems at least open to the possibility of creating game that would appeal to their literary fans.

It is Star Wars for which LucasArts is best known, despite many of the franchise's titles traditionally being less than stellar in quality. Almost half of their E3 titles this year are set in that galaxy, but in general, LucasArts looks to have on their hands many hits and a few questionable titles, regardless of heritage or originality. This will be a year long remembered.

This article is copyright (c) 2003, 2007 by Ken Gagne. All rights reserved. Not to be distributed without permission.

Original publication: Mensa Computer Gaming SIG, 01-Jun-03