Star Wars Lethal Alliance looks good, plays OK.
The Unreal Engine logo is probably the last thing you expect to see flash onto your PSP’s screen as a game loads up, but that’s just what comes up when Star Wars: Lethal Alliance fires up. The pint-sized engine does a pretty good job overall too and gave the developers an interesting platform to build on. It’s just too bad all they built was nearly nonstop, repetitive shooting levels broken up by occasional platforming elements and peppered with weak melee combat.
Set during the original Trilogy, you’re Rianna, an attractive, Twi’lek bounty hunter hired by Princess Leia and Kyle Katarn — yes that Kyle Katarn from the Jedi Knight games. Where was I? Oh yes, your job is to basically go into a bunch of areas, kill one or two people by stealth before being seen, then blast your way out of the rest of the level. The objectives range from locating crates, destroying crates, hitting switches, hitting more switches, hitting even more switches while shooting down flying drones that attack while your droid is hitting switches, and finally killing a certain number of guys that come walking out of force-fielded areas.
Hint: “Cover me while I slice this switch!” is the most common thing your droid sidekick will say.
The story is also forgettable in that there’s allegedly some major vendetta you have out for the main bad guy in the game. You don’t know this at all at the outset — you merely seem to take the job offered by the Alliance at face value and the text boxes that pop up don’t give you any new information. In-engine cut scenes usually have voice-overs, but the text had typos in it at least twice that I noticed. As a friend who tried it out also pointed out, you take the job from Leia and a badly-voiced Kyle at the outset, but suddenly have to shoot and kill everyone you see and can target. There’s no real explanation that you might end up in combat, and the moment you see anyone or anyone sees you it’s time to start shooting.
You never get the idea who this bounty hunter is and what motivates her except for very rare mention of the vendetta, so there’s really no empathy with the character. Yes we all love to shoot storm troopers, but let’s face it, they don’t have the supremely bad rep that Nazis have. Mowing all these guys down just to get to the other side just isn’t satisfying. Oh wait, here’s the story. She was a slave, and the main bad guy was her slave master. Ok now it makes sense. Glad I found that page.
Combat is done using one of four ranged weapons, selected on the d-pad, with X to shoot. The d-pad selectable weapons include a basic blaster that recharges over time, a stormtrooper rifle, and a sniper rifle. The melee weapon is automatically armed when you walk close to an enemy, and pushing X at that point attacks with it instead of your ranged weapon, even if they’re a little bit out of reach and/or backing away from you.
There is a simple combo system for the energy knife called the Thorn of Rylon. Doing a combo with the knife or otherwise involving Reeo in a kill by stunning an enemy with him first builds a little Alliance Meter on the bottom of your screen. When it’s full…something happens. I couldn’t tell if I was doing more damage, shooting more accurately, or maybe taking less damage when the Alliance icon appeared showing the meter to be full. The game didn’t really tell me much about it anywhere along the way.
The controls in the game are pretty good, with the analog nub moving you around easily enough, L+R or holding X (the fire button) to lock on, and the L and R buttons separately to switch between targets. Usually it does a good job of immediately turning you around to face another hostile target when you dispatch one, and a circular marker on each person tells you their health status so you know when you’re about to take someone down or whether you’re not hitting them at all if they’re hiding behind something at a distance. The stealth kills, opportunity to flip a switch using Reeo the droid, or ability to take over a turret is shown by a flashing button push in the upper right corner along with a small picture of who would do the action. This is a nice feature that makes things a little easier on the small screen.
Also notable are frequent visual readouts on the floor of some of the indoor areas that show you what you just unlocked and where you need to go. This is key since there is no in-game map of the area, and while the levels are quite linear you can easily get disoriented during the hectic gunplay.
The Alliance aspect of the game where you’re working in tandem with the flying droid is good, with combinations of dodging and deflecting shots working well, and the wall-walking puzzles implemented nicely in the game without needing to load additional data. Zeeo provides a decent way to tell the story and fill in what’s about to happen by being able to warn the player in as direct a way as possible — the droid always tries to protect its master, so it’s not out of place to see it talk every time it’s time to fight again.
There are levels on rails where you’re hanging onto Zeeo as he flies along, but your movement is limited to guiding Zeeo around obstacles and using the L and R buttons to lean one way or another to slip through slots in the scenery. The Unreal engine makes these open areas look rather nice, but there’s not much to them.
The shooting action is also pretty good, but it gets old quickly, even if it is supported by the excellent stock Star Wars sound effects. The stormtroopers look and sound good, the weaponry of each type of bounty hunter, trooper, and criminal fits what you might know from the films, and the music overall works nicely.
Also of note are the acrobatic sections of the game where Rianna uses Zeeo to travel along predefined areas of the level, sliding up walls, across ceilings, and back down another side or gymnastically vaulting from spot to spot along the wall, using Zeeo as a rung to hold onto the wall. The camera angle on these pre-set areas is good and the animation is very good. It also offers the ability to do stealth kills from above if you happen to jump off by a guard and see the right context-sensitive button push.
The Unreal engine in this game is put to good use in one other feature which is basically of no value to the gameplay but was nice to see anyway — a free-look camera. By holding L and R you can pan the camera around to look at the level around you, but most of the time this wasn’t of much use — if you needed to turn the camera it was because someone was shooting at you, and to shoot at them you had to use the L and R buttons separately to pan the camera around to fire back, or tap them to lock on.
I’m hopeful this engine makes its way into other games that do more with it. Running around an enclosed level, shooting trooper after trooper that enters through a force-fielded door, shooting down flying drones, and taking over turrets over and over just isn’t exciting enough, even with Star Wars trappings.
All of these things can’t save a poor story and abrupt level endings from turning a decent game into a generally poor one. Nothing is particularly broken about the game itself, it’s just that the core design decisions as to what to do with the technology just weren’t all that great.
The game has AdHoc WiFi multiplayer only, doesn’t seem to feature any unlockables at all, and has no skill or reward system for doing levels in any special way. As an example, the Jedi Starfighter games have medals awarded based on your performance in a level, which would at least hint that doing things better would get you more points or a better medal. In Lethal Alliance you get no feedback except for the game asking you if you want to save now or continue without saving. Disappointing for a Star Wars game, to say the least.
So give Star Wars Lethal Alliance a rent if you want to do an awful lot of shooting and not much else. Otherwise let go your conscious self and let the game flow through you, and off into the swirling mists of failed franchise concepts.