The Best Star Wars Game?

One of the first games I ever played was Star Wars Episode I: Racer. As a defender and fan of the Star Wars prequel trilogy, having a racing game based on the high-octane drag racing sequence was a formative gaming experience, and one of the main reason I play games today.

While the original game was on the Nintendo 64, the game recently got an re-release for the PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and Nintendo Switch. The update was a simple polish and shine, updating the graphics and the frame rate so the game would run smoothly (sometimes the N64 would play like a powerpoint) and that was it.

It was kind of refreshing to see a game of a very particular time be brought to a modern console. The early 3D graphics where every shape needs a right angle, the stripped-down story, and sometimes odd animations, it has a retro charm that goes a long way to papering over its failings. Being a Star Wars game it would have been so easy for the Game Overlords that run the SW brand to force micro-transactions or some daft online ranking to the game, but it’s thankfully been kept as pure to its original form.

So, as a defining game of my childhood, I decided to pick it up and blasted through it over a lazy weekend. Despite the rather short lifespan of the game, I loved every moment, so I wanted to list a few reasons why it is one of my favourite games of all time.

Start Your Engines! Why I Love Star Wars Episode I: Racer

1. The Universe

While we’ve only seen pod racing once in the entire cinematic Star Wars canon (in one of the best sequences of the entire saga) the game builds upon the work the film did with new tracks and worlds that are not even seen in the other movies.

I think a lot of SW films are kind of boring when it comes to their landscapes, mainly just reusing the same sand/snow/forest landscapes, but in Racer we have a whole host of planets and racetracks.

While the game has the sands of Tatooine and the snowy mountains of Ando Prime, it also has the methane lakes and geysers of Malastare, the smoky quarries of Mon Gazza, and the modern architecture and rocky cliffs of Aquilaris. Those are just the tame ones.

The game also features some standout tracks such as the abandoned gas stations of Ord Ibanna, suspended in low orbit, just like Cloud City from The Empire Strikes Back. Another is Oovo IV, which is a space prison situated on an asteroid belt, complete with cells and airlocks. My favourite tracks are on Baroonda, a planet of tropical jungles, swamps, and beaches, complete with Moai-inspired statues as well as the odd volcano.

While the locations are a high point, the are pushed even further by their individual quirks that helps bring them to life. Ando Prime is inhabited by monk-like aliens, with statues and flags reminiscent of temples in Nepal and Tibet. The race course on the asteroid Oovo IV has several sections without gravity and rogue asteroids. The spice mines of Mon Gazza feature everything from massive diggers to transports that litter the courses. The machines slowly move backwards and forwards so that they are not in the same place as each tracks progresses.

Each planet has its own look and feel, which leads onto…

2. The Tracks

While the game only has eight planets, it manages to keep each one rather fresh, even while refusing certain sections of a map. When attempting a new course it’s a fun mixture of certainty and fear, knowing how to tackle some corners and sections, while at the same time having to pick up on the fly how to navigate other sections of the map.

While the earlier tracks are definitely the easier and less interesting with wide open spaces and flat plains, there are always a few little extras to spice up runs, be they secret areas obscured by vines or waterfalls as well as branching paths that take you to completely different areas of the track than your competitors, or just really big jumps that let you glide effortlessly above the other racers.

Later tracks becoming increasingly difficult with sequential hairpin bends (with nothing to stop you flying of the side of the rocky cliff face that you’re racing on) or erupting volcanos that change the layout of the course.

Even in some of the earlier tracks there are hazards. Pod racers are good on solid terrain, but when going across the ice lakes of Ando Prime, the swamps of Baroonda, or the methane rivers of Malastare, pods can start to drift, sending them careening off course, usually to an explosive end.

The Boonta Classic, the track that is featured in The Phantom Menace and the last track of the game, also features sharpshooting Tusken Raiders and moisture pockets, both are severe dangers to weave through. These little features are great, as it throws a curveball into racing so even if you’re ahead of the pack, one wrong move could have them catching up to you.

3. The Podracers

Podracing to me is so cool. Taking the high speed of Formula 1/drag racing, place them on dangerous terrain, and just boost everything to as much as it could be. The idea of a small pod that by the sheer speed and force of the massive engines makes it float is such a novel and interesting concept, and Racer replicates that dangerous sense of speed perfectly.

While we only saw a fraction of the racers in the film, the game goes all out, adding all the racers that were included in the deleted scenes, each with different strengths and weaknesses. And while some racing games’ vehicles would be simple re-skins or little tweaks, here every pod racer is unique. You have the monster truck equivalents of Sebulba and Mars Guo, to the dainty butterflies like Anakin Skywalker and ‘Bullseye’ Navoir. My favourite is Neva Kee, who is unique in the fact that his pod has no cables (that purple energy bar that connects the engines), and is essentially just a tiny cockpit glued to two giant rockets.

As you complete each race you usually unlock a new pod racer which can be useful considering the different tracks layouts as you aren’t stuck with one machine. If you’re on a course that has a lot of tight corners, you can choose a racer that is more suited to turning. On a course with long straights, you can pick someone with a fast boost and high acceleration. Size and weight also plays a factor in choosing a podracer. Smaller pods are generally faster, but can’t take as much damage as the larger, slower, pods.

The pods do everything they do in the film, which is something unique in the racing genre. While they have the standard boost, the pods can also flip sideways to fit through narrow gaps and have air brakes that allow you to float over jumps and gaps. It’s thrilling on tracks like Ando Prime where you can boost off the top of a mountain peak and then just gently float across ice gorges and alien monasteries of that planet.

Each pod can be customised, either through buying from Watto’s Shop or by exploring for parts in the junkyard. While these custom options are more for building stats than changing the look of your pod, it’s still great fun to max out your speed and boost stats, leaving you on the edge between ‘in control’ and ‘totally lost it’.

The sounds design helps sell the illusion of the pods with every single engine having a beautiful hum and rev. Even the small things like shutting down an engine to repair it or put out a fire, to the whistling air as you fly across a gap, to the hiss of the air brakes, each one is solid, sounding exactly like what would you think these gigantic machines would sound like, and mixing perfectly with the ‘vroom’ of the pods around you.

And it doesn’t hurt to having the excellent John Williams score layered over the top. Nothing beats hearing the boost of a pod over the pulsing strings of ‘Duel Of The Fates’ our soaring through the air to the blaring trumpets of ‘Battle of Naboo’, and making you want to shout, “NOW THIS IS PODRACING!”

Conclusion

Despite being over twenty years old, I had a so much fun with Episode I: Racer. And while there was a sequel by the same studio for the PlayStation 2 called Racer Revenge, it was met with mixed reviews.

Episode I: Racer is still fondly remembered by many, featuring highly on several ‘Best Star Wars’ game lists, and was happily received with its re-release. It took a sequence that was only about fifteen minutes of the first film, and delivered all the promise that it offered.

I was partly raised on racers, with things like Gran Turismo, Forza, and Mario Kart being pretty much constants throughout my gaming life. And while each of those is fun in their own right…there is just something better about Racer.

I could be biased, but there is just something about the sense of speed, trying to control two full force engines, flying through impressive vistas and winding corridors that no other game has replicated.

The only other game that really worked in the same way is Split/Second: Velocity, a beautifully daft arcade racer, also published by Disney. Split/Second is filled to the brim with powerful looking and sounding cars, interesting and unique locations, and explosive gameplay. It too, like Racer, has been left behind by Disney, a one-and-done game that deserved a sequel.

Despite Disney breathing life back into the Star Wars property, the games have been few and far between, with only two controversial Battlefront games, one action adventure (Jedi: Fallen Order) and one flight sim (Squadrons) being released. With the new trilogy finished, now would be the time for games to fill the space between new films and television shows being created.

If we were to ever get more Star Wars games, I hope that one is based on pod racing. With today machines, Disney could push it further and farther than before. New tracks from planets across the saga, new racers, more customisable options, a strong story, and even the option to build your own pod racer from scratch.

There is so much that could be created and improved…and with a name like Star Wars, it’s all but guaranteed to make money.

Banner Photo Source: nintendo-insider.com

Another Top Five Dialogue Scenes In Gaming

After my first post on my top dialogues in gaming I got thinking about other games that I thought had great dialogue sequences. I started to move away from just my favourite scenes instead looking at the different ways that dialogue is used.

I still like all of the scenes that are listed below, but I’ve tried to pick some dialogues that are special in the ways that they use character interaction especially those that work within adaptations or use factors outside of a simple back-and-forth.

So, let’s skip this preamble and jump right in, this is Another Top Five Dialogue Scenes In Gaming.

  1. Lara Croft and Pierre Dupont meet in Tomb Raider Anniversary

Tomb Raider Anniversary is a remake of the first Tomb Raider game. With a fantastic blueprint to work from in terms of level design, the creators, Crystal Dynamics, decided to focus on updating the story and fleshing out the characters who were mere cardboard cutouts in the first game.

While at this point we’ve already had a few verbal sparring matches with the morally-grey mercenary Larson, it’s Lara Croft’s interaction with fellow treasure hunter Pierre Dupont that takes the number five spot.

In the original game Pierre wasn’t much of a character. He would turn up during points of the Greece section of the game and shoot at Lara before running off and vanishing into thin air as soon he was out of line of sight.

Here in TRA we see two people who seem to have prior knowledge of each other. This can be seen by the fact that they are both on first name terms with each other, discussing each other’s personal philosophy that informs how they go about their work. This adds up to create a backstory for these two characters that will probably never see a gaming screen (although Pierre and Larson did come back for Tomb Raider Chronicles which was set before TR1). This gives all the characters a few different shades and facets rather than just “bad guy” and “good girl”.

The way that the cutscene plays also informs us about Pierre as a character. We only see his character model once during the sequence, instead following his voice as it reverberates around the room. This was meant to be a callback to his vanishing act from TR1, (1:50) but I read it as Pierre toying with Lara and messing with her head since she can’t find him.

When we finally see Pierre, he is in the shadows hidden from Lara and pointing both of his guns at her. He has a clear shot, ready to kill her, but backs off and disappears. This adds another layer to his character; he likes a challenge rather than eliminating his competition.

This continues through the game, as we hear his voice throughout the next levels, taunting us and finally ambushing us at the end, where once again, he and Lara’s conflicting worldviews clash.

All this makes him a much more interesting character rather than a simple shoot-first character like he was in the original.

(Cutscene starts at 10:32)

 

  1. The Confrontations with Red Grant in From Russia With Love

This one is quite different as it is an adaptation/remake of a film, but the subtle changes make it a good one to look at.

From Russia With Love came out during a period in the James Bond series between Pierce Brosnan being let go and Daniel Craig being signed on to play 007. EA wanted to keep making James Bond games so got Sean Connery to come back to play the iconic spy and took one of his films, From Russia With Love (an odd choice due to the film not being action heavy like Goldfinger or Thunderball) and adapted it to a game.

While the game takes several liberties with the original story it also remakes scenes shot-for-shot, word-for-word. The scene I’ve chosen is a mixture between the two.

The two characters, Red Grant (the bad guy pretending to be an MI6 agent) and James Bond meet on a smoky Turkish train platform, each providing their part of the secret code to each other to identify themselves. Red Grant is rather jovial, coming across as naive as he plays sidekick to Bond.

But as soon as they get to the dining car, Grant’s jovialness twists on a dime. His smile becomes a frown. His light-hearted phrase, “old man” takes on a sarcastic touch. Bond catches on when Grant orders red wine with their grilled sole (which adds to a funny line later when Grant hits Bond over the head with a bottle and says “There’s your white wine, old man!”). After pulling into the train station, Grant and Bond trade words lifted straight from the film. It is a cool scene, seeing dialogue that was originally in a tense interrogation repurposed as the start of an action sequence.

The connections made through Bond and Grant’s dialogue adds to up to their final confrontation at the very end of the game. After destroying the multi-appendage contraption that Grant is piloting, Bond finds him lying on the floor, defeated. Bond levels his gun and Grant starts to mock him.

“Are you going to shoot me in cold blood, old man? You don’t have the guts. It’s not the ‘English’ way. It’s just like red wine with fish.”

The way Grant delivers the line is perfect. The sneering disapproval of ‘English’, the reoccurrence of “old man” as an insult, and the final hint of their previous encounter with the mention of red wine and fish. Grant and the organisation Octopus set up the murder of Bond in the story because they misread the “British mentality”, which is stated at the beginning of the game (and the film). That’s why is hits much harder when Bond blows Grant away before he even finishes the word ‘fish’.

Bond’s final line of “That was for Kerim” also adds a somber tone to proceedings. Throughout the game, Kerim Bey has been by your side, helping you out along the way. Grant kills Kerim just before you meet in the dining car, and we see no hint of emotion from Bond when he first learns of Kerim’s death during gameplay.

Adding it here adds a nice little pathos to the end of the game and cements the fact that these two characters had a friendship rather than Kerim being just a helpful NPC.

(19:29-21:58 and 29:13)

 

  1. Sam Fisher in Ghost Recon Wildlands

I put another Splinter Cell moment on my first list because the writing in Splinter Cell is top notch and Sam Fisher is one of the best-written characters in the entirety of gaming. Michael Ironside, the original voice of Sam Fisher, worked with the developers to create a more three-dimensional character, giving Sam not just a great voice but something more on a deeper level.

Ironside explains that originally Sam was going to be a G.I. Joe-esque, two-dimensional, flat, gung-ho type character. Ironside wasn’t interested in playing a character like that. He saw Fisher as, “…a weapon that the government has used too many times.” (0:52). The character is not a gruff, macho one-man army (who do have their place in gaming), Fisher is instead imbued with cynicism, dark humour and genuine moments of tenderness (such as when Sam is asked to tap phone lines for his former field handler Frances Coen, he says, “For Frances…of course I can” (2:30)).

But the moment I want to talk about it the character’s most recent appearance, as an NPC in the game Ghost Recon Wildlands. The Ghosts help Fisher with a mission (again voiced by Ironside rather than Eric Johnson, who took over for Splinter Cell Blacklist), before they help extract him and bring him back to their field handler, Karen.

The two characters of them have some nice banter (with Sam calling her Linda, to which she replies that she’s “Karen nowadays”). Karen notices that Sam has gotten old and he responds, “I’ve heard they don’t make them [spies] like me anymore” (14:44) before mentioning one guy that used to be like him. Most fans got a kick out of the scene because Fisher starts to describe Solid Snake. Karen cuts him off with, “I heard he finally retired.” (15:04).

Whether this was a reference to David Hayder being passed over for Keifer Sutherland or a wider swipe at Metal Gear Solid being shut down by Konami, Sam replies with a quiet, “Then it’s only me.” (15:09).

The beauty of this line is that it has so many different layers. The initial reaction is one of smug superiority; after many years of the two competing franchises Sam Fisher has outlived his greatest rival. But then it’s a sad dawning. Sam’s line of “they don’t make them like me anymore” has extra metatextual meaning; they don’t make spy/stealth games like Splinter Cell or Metal Gear Solid anymore.

Looking at it from a character perspective, what has Sam got? He’s outlived every other rival, and what does he have to show for it? He’s pushing sixty, in a job that he will never get any recognition or respect for, all of his friends have either betrayed him or died, he’s lost countless lovers, and he hardly knows his only daughter.

It’s a sad realisation and as Sam thinks through his place in the world, Karen snaps him out of his pondering, saying that he has a new mission and he’s shipping out in one hour. This adds even greater sadness to the scene and character. Just as he looks at his life from a different perspective and starts to have doubts, he gets pulled back in.

(Cutscene starts at 14:44).

 

  1. The Cristina Memories from Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood

I am not a fan of Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood. I feel that it was a step down from Assassin’s Creed II and negates the entire downer ending of that game (although Revelations did bring it back round for the finale).

The only thing that kept me remotely interested in the game were the Cristina Memories. Cristina Vespucci was a minor character in the opening of Assassin’s Creed II and is one of Ezio’s many conquests throughout the game. She’s rather important because they are childhood sweethearts. It is safe to assume they were each other’s first relationship. While we hardly see any of that in AC2, their relationship is explored during the “Cristina Memories”, little vignettes of their relationship in Brotherhood.

These scenes are interesting because we get to see what being an Assassin does to a relationship. All of Ezio’s other ladies; Caterina Sforza, Rosa The Thief, Lucrezia Borgia, countless courtesans, they are all mainly one-offs or “distractions”, sex just for the hell of it. Cristina is so much more, and it can be seen during the dialogue.

Their first meeting is beautifully awkward with Cristina initially being dismissive but then intrigued by her would-be suitor (with his plea for a “second chance” to woo her (1:12)). The second memory has so much in what isn’t said. When Ezio asks Cristina to come with him, she simply says, “I want to…but I can’t…my family,” (9:55) reflecting Cristina’s conflicting priorities between her life and her love for Ezio.

My favourites of the Cristina Memories are the third and fourth. In the third scene Ezio returns to his belle only to find she is betrothed. His previous playful banter with Cristina is diminished as he learns that while he has been gallivanting around Tuscany sticking Templars and collecting feathers, Cristina has been living her life in quiet desperation. She has had to move on with her life while he is still chasing people that took away his former happy existence.

While Ezio has had to mature beyond his years to care for his mother and sister, but when he sees Cristina again he regresses back to being 17 years of age and hoping that pure love she had for him hasn’t waned. It hasn’t, but he sees that his life isn’t compatible with hers, and his final line of, “He’ll make a good husband, I made sure of it,” (13:55) is gently tender yet painful as he must accept that she can’t wait for him forever.

The fourth scene is especially heart wrenching, as Ezio tries to recapture that spark of what should have been, if only the couple had time and history had been different. When the two meet in a dark Venetian alley Cristina is understandably pissed at him. He pretended to be her husband and he says he, “…was afraid that you [she] wouldn’t come if I [he] just asked.” (17:00). Cristina confirms this, and it’s here that we see the pain of loving and losing someone.

Cristina stills loves Ezio, but she had to change. He was forever teasing her, reappearing every few years, tempting her with a life and a love that was true and innocent, but with him racing off faster than he arrived, leaving her alone again. And she couldn’t do it anymore.

She loves him too much, and to paraprhase a line from Professor Layton and the Unwound Future (and another great romance scene), “ she doesn’t want to say goodbye again. She can’t, she won’t.” (1:00). Because it hurts her every time when he leaves. She tells him that she loved him but she has to end their connection. He had his “second chance” and she leaves, telling him to never find her again.

For the finale we see that Cristina still carried a torch for Ezio after all the time spent apart, hoping that one day he might return to her. She whispers, “I wish we could have had a second chance,” before passing away in Ezio’s arms.

What hurts more is that Ezio never truly recovered. Despite having endless flings and floozies throughout the subsequent games, no one ever comes close to Cristina until Sofia Sartor arrives, when Ezio is well into his fifties.

And in a similar way he originally doesn’t want to get Sofia tangled up in his messed up life and endless struggle against the Templars, but she stays anyway. In a letter to his sister Claudia, Ezio says, “When Cristina died, something withered in me,” (15:55) showing that even with time, some wounds never truly heal.

 

  1. Elena and Nathan and “Are you Happy?” in Uncharted 4.

I know I mentioned in my first post that the Grosvenor McCaffrey interview in L.A. Noire is my favourite dialogue in all of gaming, but this one takes a close second.

After Uncharted 3 many people thought the series was over. Most games go for trilogies rather than quadrilogies, but Naughty Dog came back to tell one last hurrah.

The scene in Uncharted 4 shows life in the Drake household now that the two treasure hunters have “settled down”. Elena still has a little bit of adventure, travelling all around the world for travel magazines, while Nathan is relegated to menial cleaning jobs.

The two eat dinner and Nathan starts to zone out while Elena goes on about her current assignment. She can tell that he is dissatisfied with his job, but even when she tries to push him in a direction that would make him happy, he refuses.

Elena goes to wash up but Nathan says he wants to do it. He says he’ll play her for it on her “TV game thing” (a lovely jaunt through Naughty Dog’s Crash Banidcoot). One short game session later Nathan has lost and Elena starts to sweetly trash talk him, “You can give it another shot. C’mon double or nothing, my car could really use a good cleaning…there’s this mode called “easy mode”, I just switch it. It’s way easier on easy mode.” (12:37).

The two start to bicker like the cute married couple they are until Nate snaps and grabs Elena, tickling her into submission on the couch. The two stop and stare lovingly into each other’s eyes, until Elena says one of my favourite lines in all of gaming,

“Hey, are you happy?”

Nate’s unsteady reply of, “Yeah…course,” says so much about the two’s relationship, of settling down and moving away from hopes and dreams so they could have a shot at a safer and normal life.

The scene ends beautifully too with Nate asking, “You?” Elena puts on a mock thinking face and says “Um,” before the two laugh and kiss.

I would call the scene verisimilitudinous, but that would be a disservice to the scene, because it isn’t a simulation of the real, it is real. I’ve had this conversation in real life and similar ones like it as I assume many other people have. This isn’t just a sweet scene with some heartfelt emotion and some beautifully understated lines, this is a perfect representation of real life with all of its mundanity and shows of affection. And that’s why it tops my list as one of the best dialogue scenes in all of gaming.

(Start at 5:49).

 

Conclusion

Rounding out the list are some honourable mentions as well as a few single lines not from dialogues that I like. In terms of dialogues pretty much all of 2008’s Prince Of Persia  is excellent with the main characters of the Prince and Elika seamlessly morphing from vaguely antagonistic to potential lovers over time (and all in optional dialogue, which is interesting).

In the Hitman series Agent 47 and Diana Burnwood’s interactions are fascinating dialogues mainly because of their working relationship. Diana is the only person that is “close” to 47, and even then he doesn’t see her face whenever they are together. Like the Prince and Elika their relationship has changed as the games have gone on, developing as the stories have got more intricate and personal.

For single lines (disqualified from the numbered entries because I wanted more than one character in the scene), the Max Payne series always has good lines. While I and my housemates have fun shouting lines from Max Payne 3  at each other (especially the over-the-top ones where Max’s voice cracks), my favourite line from the series is the last line of Max Payne 2;

“I had a dream of my wife. She was dead, but it was all right.”

That line sums up the pain of Max and his redemption over the first two games, quietly bringing the second chapter of his life to a close.

And lastly a funny one (warning, phonetically-spelt swear words ahead). From Rainbow Six Siege, the SAS Operator Thatcher has a hatred of all electrical gadgets, listing them, “GPS Satelittes, Unmanned drones…” and my favourite, “…fookin lazeh soights…” (as it is phonetically pronounced). The delivery of the line sealed my appreciation of it, and much like Max Payne 3, this line became a staple of my university house, with much hilarity ensuing when a barely audible “fookin lazeh soights” would be heard when passing each other on the stairs.

 

Photo Banner Source: gamesradar.com.