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Star Wars returns to the arcade with Star Wars Battle Pod

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Japanese game-maker Bandai Namco did the almost unthinkable today, it unveiled a brand new Star Wars-themed arcade machine.

At a time when the golden age of arcades is a distant memory, the publisher behind Ace Combat, Dark Souls, Dragon Ball and, yes, Pac-Man, held a nearly hour-long event on the eve of New York Comic-Con to unveil their new machine destined for what few arcades remain.

Star Wars: Battle Pod, is a dome screen arcade system designed to offer gamers an experience they can "only dream of." It's a game, according to the company, that you don't just play, you experience.

The Battle Pod is a single seat Star Wars vehicle combat sim that uses a curved screen to drop players into the game, and the movies. Players sit inside the pod, using a flight stick and throttle to fly and fight their way through the Star Wars franchise.

The 180-degree domed screen works in conjunction with a seat that uses low-frequency vibrations to deliver the feel of impacts and explosions, special fans used to mimic the feeling of acceleration and speed, vibrating controllers and 5.1 surround sound. The vibration, air blasts and sound turn the game into an incredible Star Wars "toy," they said.

Each setting in the Unreal Engine 3-powered game features a unique vehicle. In Yavin, players will control an X-Wing. In Hoth players control a snowspeeder, in Endor it's a speederbike and Death Star 2 is the Millennium Falcon. The game will also feature a final "Vader's Revenger" stage which has the Sith lord trying to take out the Death Star in an Advanced TIE Fighter.

The game plays out as a set of disconnected stages. Players choose which stage they want to play through after dropping in their money (Dave & Busters will likely be charging a "couple of bucks" a game, I'm told.). Once a stage is selected, the game opens up with a short in-game tutorial which incorporates the beginning of the roughly four-minute-long game session.

Players use a right-handed flight stick with a trigger and button and a left-handed throttle lever to maneuver in the game. The first-person view in my run through of the Endor level included the protruding nose of the speeder bike I was on. The wrap around display, the inside of a concave screen that stretches from shoulder to shoulder, offers an immersive view of the action around you. You can, for instance, glimpse to the right as you rip around a sharp turn to the left.

Blasts of air from hidden fans, rumble in the controllers and bumps in the chair combined with the view and controls help to create the "experience" gameplay that Bandai Namco seems to be going for. While players have control of whatever Star Wars vehicle they're driving, it's not complete control. Instead control is more about shifting around within a pre-determined route, dodging obstacles, trying to lock-on to targets and choosing slight shifts in what path you want to take. The lack of complete control isn't that noticeable unless you start really missing your turns.

Since you can't really fail, the object of the game is to rack up the highest score possible by destroying enemy craft and getting combo bonuses through quick kill streaks.

This is the third dome screen arcade game Bandai Namco has released. The other two are Lost Land Adventure and Mach Storm.

The game will start to hit arcades this coming January, but if you're in New York you'll be able to check the game out at the Midtown Dave & Busters. The machines will be there starting tonight until Nov. 2.