GameFile: Laughable 'Lego Star Wars,' 'Yakuza,' Soldiers As Game Characters And More -- Testing UMA -8 final

'Lego Star Wars II' breaks gaming rules by being funny, easy. -- Testing UMA -8 final

Here's a winning video game combination, believe it or not: "Star Wars" stormtroopers and a hot tub.

Last year's acclaimed and best-selling "Lego Star Wars" proved that building blocks and George Lucas' star fighters can combine for a fantastic video game. Movie games are often bad; games based on toys are often even worse. But a cocktail of all those elements somehow produced a winning mix. Anakin Skywalker played well as a chunky Lego man. Now, a year after the Episode I-III first game, comes "Lego Star Wars II: The Original Trilogy," covering the story lines of "Star Wars," "The Empire Strikes Back" and "Return of the Jedi."

The first game succeeded while breaking several video game rules. It was easier than most games. In fact, it gave players infinite lives. It could be switched from single-player to multiplayer in the middle of any of its levels, allowing a second player to join or leave the game midflow with little more than the plugging in or removal of a second controller. And the game was funny. The developers wanted players to chuckle.

Because of the last game's humor, the stormtroopers in the hot tub shouldn't have been that surprising. The game's first level begins as the original "Star Wars" movie did, within a rebel ship under siege from an Imperial star destroyer, Darth Vader and a fleet of white-suited troops. The player is put in charge of Princess Leia in her cinnamon-roll hairdo, blasting stormtroopers amid corridors and computer stations, all made from clearly recognizable Lego pieces.

Most "Star Wars" fans have seen the 1977 cut of the scene as well as George Lucas' mid-'90s touch-up of the same. Only in the "Lego Star Wars" version of the opening scene can Leia break from shooting the enemy to shoot away some debris near a window and have a row of flowers sprout to life. Only in the Lego version does the rebel whom Vader hoists off the floor by his throat disassemble into tidy head, body and leg toy parts. And only in this version does C3PO's search for a Tatooine-bound escape pod lead to a hatch full of stormtroopers in helmets and trunks warming themselves in a tub.

Games aren't often made to be funny, and they actually turn out to be funny even less frequently. Many games include jokes, but so do many action movies. Many games are goofy and cheerful, which is kind of like being funny. But something like a traipse through the Mushroom Kingdom is played more for glee and whimsy than for laughs. "Lego Star Wars" and the upcoming high school black comedy "Bully" aside, video games are mostly and primarily serious. They're more "Mission: Impossible" and "Pirates of the Caribbean" than they are "Nacho Libre" and "Talladega Nights." They're "Snakes on a Plane" without the irony.

"Lego Star Wars II," however, is designed with punch lines in mind. Everyone knows the story. And everyone knows, more or less, what the action of the game will be. There's no big surprise when one "Empire"-based level pits Luke (player two can be R2) against Darth Vader and no stunner when the man in black reveals exactly who Luke Skywalker's father is. The only surprise is that in this Lego version, Darth Vader pulls a Polaroid picture out of his cape to prove it.

That Vader father moment is a sight gag. It happens in front of the player rather than being triggered by the player. Something that happens because the player made it happen — and turns out to be funny — would be true interactive humor. Usually whatever funny stuff happens in games isn't interactive. It's overheard or seen in the distance, like the argument between narrator and lead character in 2004's role-playing-game spoof "The Bard's Tale" or the visual joke of obese, short-shorted Larry Craft in last year's Europe-only "Asterix and Obelix" "Spaceballs"-style spoof of dozens of major games.

Thankfully, "Lego Star Wars II" gives a go at actual interactive humor. A button press triggers an action that, hopefully, makes the player laugh. Piles of Legos litter the levels, and pressing a button when a character stands near them will build those Lego pieces into small objects. Some constructions are bombs and ramps, but the player will also build a disco stage for Jabba the Hutt and a tractor for Yoda.

Other laughs come from slicing and blasting the Lego head off supposed allies, which will likely prove more humorous to those doing it to allied characters that are controlled by the person next to them on the couch. Since the game offers infinite lives, there's not much deterrent to destroying a friend's Lego man and not much reason for the friend to get angry. And some characters do this kind of thing with flare. Luke may use his lightsaber, but Chewbacca rips off limbs. Princess Leia delivers a royal slap.

Every so often, someone inside gaming will give an interview and express the need for someone somewhere to create a game that will make players cry. The interviewee usually implies that it hasn't been done before. That might be right, but at least it's debatable. The Lego game's rare stab at humor shows that there's an even more elusive goal for game makers: a game that will make players cry because they laughed just that hard.

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For those who haven't been to Tokyo, Sega's new "Yakuza" game does a good job re-creating some of the city's seedier elements, including the town's pay-for-a-drink-date hostess bars and the stuffy "Don Quijote" discount department store. It's streets are thick with pedestrians and its storefronts rife with neon at ground level and above. The clubs, the arcades, the corner casinos all resemble Tokyo's real versions. Through this environment, the game presents a tough-guy fantasy: a gritty M-rated conflict between protagonist and the Yakuza to which he once belonged, where a break of the action can be spent wining and dining the girls from the bars. The game is full of street brawls and F-words. The game has gotten mixed reviews, stratifying into love and hate. One prominent feature is among the game's most ordinary elements: the shopping. The player can go to noodle shops to buy a meal to restore his health. He can buy snacks at a convenience store that offers no flair beyond the convenience stores of real-world Tokyo. For some players, this authenticity will provide the bedrock for fun. It did for those who relished the game's spiritual successor, Sega's "Shenmue" (2000). That game's ambitious first chapter of what was to be an epic series of games set the player in a plain Japanese city and, between back-alley fistfights, let the player shop at the market and play in the arcades. It also made the player get his character a job driving a forklift and then made them work the job, just driving that forklift around. Fans found the extraordinary in that bit of ordinary. "Yakuza," with its flashier crime-filled story, is made to be enjoyed more easily, but it still raises the question of "Shenmue": whether gaming can be at its most wonderful when a character is made to keep his or her feet in the real world. ...

For many Americans, the soldiers fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan are little more than faces glimpsed on the evening news or a name and a quote in an online news story. Since 2002, the U.S. Army has produced a free first-person shooter called "America's Army," a game designed for both fun and as an education and recruitment tool for the military. An updated version, available this week, will now also serve as a way for players to get to know some real soldiers just a little better. The Army is launching its Real Heroes program, a showcase of eight veterans of the Iraq and Afghan conflicts, each of whom was awarded a Bronze or Silver Star. Rendered to look as they do in real life, each soldier can be found in the game's virtual recruiting office. There, they will share information about their service and the actions for which they were honored. The firefights they experienced and their valor under fire are anything but virtual. The updated version of the game will be available later this week from Testing UMA -8 final

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