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Lego Star Wars: The Force Awakens finally shakes up an old formula

Introducing 3D flight combat and shooter-style blaster battles

Lego Star Wars is an important franchise for Traveller's Tales. It's the game that kicked off a never-ending stream of Lego games following a similar formula 11 years ago, and the developer has returned to Star Wars over and over, finding a natural match with its family-friendly approach to co-op gameplay.

And it's perhaps in part because of this important connection that Traveller's Tales is using Lego Star Wars: The Force Awakens as the opportunity to finally mix up the formula it's become so consistent with (see trailer, above).

Lego Star Wars: The Force Awakens

"In the 10 years since our first Lego Star Wars, technology has moved on," says associate producer Tim Wileman. "So has the way we make games and the different features that we can bring to them. It's changed immeasurably. We're trying to bring all of that together."

Those changes aren't obvious immediately. At first, Lego Star Wars: The Force Awakens has exactly what you'd expect from a Lego movie. There are 18 levels, and large sections of them focus on simple 3D platforming and brawling, allowing you to smash up the environments and gather Lego studs.

These levels aren't all retreads, though; 11 of them are based on plot points covered in the movie, but seven are what Wileman calls "new story levels — stories we've created ourselves with the help of LucasFilm." These will showcase events prior to the timeline of The Force Awakens, such as revealing what Han Solo and Chewbacca were up prior to the film.

For some of the outside-movie stuff, the team at LucasArts have an idea of how they want it to look," Wileman says. "But in some instances, we’ve been able to create our own Star Wars content. And it’s content that’s going to be used from now on. That’s fantastic for the team and fantastic for the game."

Lego Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Along with content that's new to Star Wars, Traveller's Tales is introducing gameplay that's never been seen in its Lego games before. Most notably, the game will have open 3D arenas in flight combat for the first time ever. Previous Lego Star Wars games have featured on-rails flight sections where players can only move on a 2D plane; those will still be there. But now they'll also be able to take part in dogfights with tie fighters in the wide open while flying Poe Dameron's X-Wing.

"This is all our own work," Wileman says, confirming that the studio didn't bring in new developers specifically to handle the new flight combat. "It's something we've always wanted to do. We love the on-rails situations. They've always been a visual feast, because we can script it. But I think the open-world areas, it’s an internal thing. It’s taken quite a while to get to where it is now. We’ve really refined our work on controls and the viewpoints and the scenery and size of these areas. It’s going to be a lot of fun."

The open arena section we saw took place on The Force Awaken's desert planet of Jakku. However, Wileman confirms that there are multiple other planets as well as space battles that will make use of this style of gameplay.

Wileman also describes a new feature coming to the game called blaster battles, though it wasn't on display yet in the demo we saw. With blaster battles, certain sections of the level will switch from the Lego Star Wars' traditional zoomed-out third-person camera to an over-the-shoulder look more associated with shooters. Players will be able to take cover, aim and shoot at enemies, while also retaining their ability to build with legos in order to create new cover.

Wileman isn't ready to show off blaster battles, but he says to expect much larger numbers of enemy forces than are normally available in Lego games.

Lego Star Wars: The Force Awakens

In addition to these fresh elements, Traveller's Tales is tweaking some classic mechanics. One of the most recognizable parts of Lego games is revealing a pile of bricks and using them to automatically build a puzzle solution by holding a single button. Lego Star Wars: The Force Awakens introduces "multi-builds," where a single pile of bricks can create several different items.

Initially this feature doesn't add a ton more complexity to the game. You still just hold a single button to build, you're just able to push the analog stick in one of two or three different directions to decide which thing you automatically build.

But in some areas this adds a tiny layer of strategy to proceedings. For example, you can choose to just build the item you need to solve a puzzle and progress. Or you can build a turret that you can then use to take out the enemies waiting in the next area first. Or you can build a third item that's just used as a funny joke (usually with a present of bonus Lego studs for good measure).

These various changes and improvements are relatively small steps forward, but for a series that's been running as long and in as many iterations with so few changes as Lego, it makes a difference. It remains to be seen just how different Lego Star Wars: The Force Awakens will feel with the new flight combat and blaster battles, but it's the first time we've expected something really new from the series in years.

Lego Star Wars: The Force Awakens comes out on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Wii U, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, Nintendo 3DS, PlayStation Vita and Windows PC on June 28. In addition to 18 linear levels, it will feature five open-world hub areas, 40 controllable vehicles and over 200 playable characters.