Star Wars Episode I: The Gungan Frontier Review
Many a sigh of relief has been breathed since the return of an old friend to the Macintosh platform. After leaving Mac users to exist without the joys of multiplayer X-Wing/TIE Fighter battles for so long, a return of any sort from the Lucas camp was sure to grab the attention of the Mac gaming community. One such title to recently hit the Mac shelves is Star Wars Episode I: The Gungan Frontier. It is important to realize that this game was made by Lucas Learning, Ltd. This is not Lucas Arts, the same company which brought us the Rebel Assault, X-Wing and TIE Fighter titles several years ago. If youre the sort of die-hard gamer who is used to such quality titles, you might want to start saving for Star Wars Episode I: Pod Racer, which is slated to arrive on the Mac later this year. The Gungan Frontier, although having several enthralling and detailed cinematic scenes, does not carry the same graphic punch characteristic of the Lucas Arts titles. Nor will the game appeal to the tried and tested simulation game fan. In the tradition of Lucas Learning Ltd., The Gungan Frontier is aimed toward a younger audience with the goal of providing an opportunity for learning, capturing the imagination and allowing creativity to flourish.
In the game, you assume the role of either Obi-Wan Kenobi (the less wrinkly version) or Queen Amidala (the kabuki dressed not-quite-as-luscious-looking-a-babe-while-meandering-on-Tatooine-but-still-a-babe version). The Gungans, like any normal sentient beings, have decided that they can no longer live in the area that Mother Nature made for them. Instead, in the Zerg-ish fashion, they have decided to expand their underwater realm to one of Naboos nearby moons. They have gathered creatures from all over the galaxy among which you may choose to populate the barren moon. Once you have established an ecosystem on the moon, the Gungans will then move in and begin pillaging and slaughtering all the plants and animals you have spent many turns building, all so the new Gungan city can thrive. Oops, hold on. Let me turn off my psycho environmentalist button. Put simply, your main goal is to establish a stable ecosystem on the moon, regulate the gathering of resources for the building of the new Gungan city, and to maintain the delicate balance between the two.
As the game loads, you are provided a glimpse of the Gungan frontier environment with creatures of all shapes and sizes traveling across the screen. John Williams Jar Jars Introduction plays in the background. You can almost smell the swampy air and the piles of dung which are just waiting for Gungans named Jar Jar to step in. When a new game is started, one is hit with the standard Star Wars movie beginning as the story of the Gungans desperate plight scrolls up the screen. You are then provided a glimpse of Naboo and your vessel jetting toward the surface, just one more thing to make you feel a part of a movie event. Thus begins your discussion with Boss Nass where you are given further insight into the game and told what is expected of you. Whats this? R2-D2 is coming along? And Jar Jar Binks? Another companion will be the Kresch, a living clam-like creature who holds a bounty of valuable information. With over 200 entries about the creatures, the characters and the places that make up the Gungan Frontier, each with its own cross-referencing links, the Kresch is by far one of the most inventive in-game design encyclopedias Ive encountered. It makes the Civilization II Gold encyclopedia seem disjointed and incomplete.
The Gungan Frontier follows the same formula as all its Sim predecessors. One must first establish a booming plant-filled moon surface and then populate it with creatures, slowly moving up the food chain to create a balanced ecosystem, making sure that one species does not destroy another. A variance to the formula is that the Gungans also need to harvest food and building resources from this fragile ecosystem. Doing so is not always as easy as it sounds, especially with the random disasters feature activated. These disasters can also be triggered at any time by the player and range from a devastating plague, a moon quake (complete with an R2-D2 scream and meaningless babble accompaniment from Jar Jar), and the accidental release of creatures and plants into the ecosystem (Jar Jars fault, of course. Meesa so sorry! Whatever, Jar Jar. Dont make me slap you around and join the web ring. You know the one Im talking about.)
Lets discuss for a moment the in-game design. R2-D2 provides updates on the creatures activities, population status (no SimLife Ooo-lala, unfortunately), and tells you when things may need your attention. Little R2 also recommends ways to stop these ecological problems before they get out of hand. If R2-D2 is your surface liaison, then Boss Nass is your contact for the underwater Gungan city. With enough yousa and meesa commentary to make the neighbors move, the Big Nassty one tells you how the city is faring. And again, theres Jar Jar. Meesa thinks yousa building a grand ecosystem. Thanks, Binks. There is no need for me to visit the www.diediediejarjar.com site any more than I already have (yes, the site exists). Lets see here… Settings menu, then down to the Jar Jar Sleep option. Ah, peace at last. The voices for these characters are done by the same people who did them for the movie, and their animations deserve kudos.
Whereas the introduction screens and movies are a treat to observe, the in-game animation of the moons surface and creatures are second rate. The creatures, plants and moons surface appear blocky and distorted, especially when the camera is zoomed in. Although the graphics are still good enough to be able to distinguish one specie from another, a little eye candy would not have hurt anything. I expected more in the graphics arena from a game bearing the Lucas name.
Within the game, one has access to population/time graphs which can track individual species or the ecosystem as a whole. The species charts also provide information on each species life cycle, methods of living, and food chain placement. A counter in the upper right-hand corner of the screen shows you your current bio-score and Gungan population, providing a quick reference as to whether or not your planetary manipulations are successful. There is also a button allowing you to switch from the surface camera to a view of the underwater city. Unfortunately, there is not much going on there besides the ability to see the current Gungan citys size and growth. Some additional game play features allowing more advanced or older players to interact with the citys growth would have been nice. The tool selector allows you to stun, capture, place and track the health and status of individual members of a specie. Access to the Kresch and harvest controls are easily obtained. There is also a zoom meter, but again, it gets ugly up close. And Im not just talking about the Rancor.
Another game feature that is outstanding is the Create-A-Critter option. Create a color scheme, determine its ways of living and give it a name. Ever dreamt of making your own little Star Wars creature out of something more than Play-Doh? Well, now you can. =)
In my opinion, even with the advanced game and mission features, this game just cant hold the attention of an adult gamer. I found little challenge in the game, even when playing the most difficult missions. But it is important to remember that the stated games target audience is for ages 9 and up. Thus, it made sense to me to take the game over to a neighbors house so that her 10 and 13 year old could play the game and give me some feedback on what they thought.
They loved the game! With all the various creatures with which they could play and the ability to bring on a moon quake with the click of a button, they were simply enthralled. It comes down to this: kids like Star Wars, thus theyll like playing The Gungan Frontier. (The same probably applies to insane Star Wars fanatics. You know, the ones who keep the Darth Maul Pizza Hut box covers hanging on their wall?)
Taking this review in a slightly different direction, because the game is sold with the premise that children can learn something by playing and that Im finishing my degree in elementary education, I decided to put it to the test. Once the children and I had a stable ecosystem going, I asked them what they thought would happen if we suddenly unleash a horde of Rancor upon the population, or if we changed the Gungan harvesting amount to Most for all the species on the moon. The children agreed that the planet would not function as well as it was currently, and that some of the creatures and plants would die. Pretty astute, kids! People in education know that one has to set up an environment for learning. Just giving your children this game will teach them very little. However, if you provide them with some scenarios and ask them open ended questions, I think youll be surprised how much theyll want to discover.
As for the Rancor, they wiped out everything and destroyed the ecosystem. The children knew it would happen, but it was good to let them see such things in action. We then spent some time discussing why the ecosystem crashed and what we could have done to prevent it, and how this game might parallel the real world. Is this game really educational? You bet, if placed in the hands of a parent or teacher who is willing to set up a learning environment while using the game as a tool. A willing teacher and a fantastic Star Wars setting are the perfect mix to grab a childs imagination. I plan to use this game in my classroom.
Although the upper teen and adult Mac gamer might easily become bored, this does not detract from the games value. For the target age group, The Gungan Frontier provides a wonderful world for them to explore. I only wish the game had come packaged with a set of lesson plans or discussion questions to help adults enhance the games educational potential. If you know someone in the games target audience, The Gungan Frontier is a perfect gift.