Combining brilliant marketing with clever entertainment, the "Star Wars" video game that hit stores May 4 is a deep preview of the "Episode III – Revenge of the Sith" movie that arrives May 19.

For example, early in the "Revenge of the Sith" game for PlayStation2 and Xbox, you play as Anakin Skywalker in a fairly challenging lightsaber duel against a major villain, leading to a severe outcome that foreshadows the film.

Don’t expect to read anything more revealing here – it would be wrong to spoil huge chunks of drama – but rest assured that the tie-in between the game and the flick is substantial, as opposed to a mere tease.

The glossiest material is the inclusion of more than 12 minutes of film footage in the game. Playing at different times as Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi, you access additional movie clips with each mission you successfully complete. The footage is relatively chunky, at least compared to the now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t style of trailers and TV commercials.

Of course, the critical question is: How good is the game? Here’s the answer in terms of the average consumer: If you’re a Star Wars fan who likes video games, it’s worth buying. It’s fun for long runs of time and engages you with the kind of interactivity – such as choosing between the use of dueling skills and mystical "force powers" – that feels intensely strategic and splendidly imaginative at the same time.

Unfortunately, there are weaknesses that are more than trivial but less than major.

Issue No. 1 is a highly specific case of the uglies. The facial animation for the two key characters is surprisingly crude. To be fair, the game is more focused on the Jedi battle choreography and environmental aesthetics, such as the interior of a space cruiser and exotic planets. But this is supposed to be an era in which game characters convey emotional depth, and that’s undermined by what looks like Jedi fright masks.

Equally annoying is some sluggishness in the controls. In a fast-paced fight, the average gamer is going to notice some lag in trying to switch between certain tactics and maneuvers, and there can be a big price to pay in the hits and damage that you instantly suffer.

Among a number of secondary irritations is the inability to save your progress at any point. You either have to complete an entire mission or reach a relatively advanced checkpoint in some of them. The only reason it’s not a big deal is that the game’s challenges are consummately reasonable.

I’m not a born gamer. But I was able to play through about half the 16 basic missions in a smooth fashion, overcoming most sticking points with only a few repetitions. In order to give readers the timeliest possible review, I got help from the publisher, LucasArts, in accessing all the later missions without sequentially playing through to them. The console I used was a PlayStation2.

The more skillfully you play, the more you’re able to enhance the fighting abilities of Skywalker and Obi-Wan. The choices you make – deciding, say, to boost the power to heal yourself before improving some lightsaber moves – may ultimately even out. But as lead producer Isa Stamos notes, the game experience changes. As your challenges change, you’ll have to align your tactics with your powers.

Good play also rewards you with bonus material, including a mission that triggers a simple but tasty little bite of animation that imagines a much different ending for Episode III than you’ll see in the film.

Stamos thinks the most popular bonus may prove to be the characters you can unlock for the versus mode of one-on-one duels. You can play alone – fight as Count Dooku, for instance, against a programmed opponent, such as Obi-Wan. But you also get to play head-to-head against anyone else with a second controller, and part of the treat is using additional Star Wars characters. This is a sliver of a spoiler but also will motivate you: Mace Windu is among them.

The voice acting for Skywalker and Obi-Wan isn’t from the movie actors (Hayden Christensen and Ewan McGregor, respectively). It was done, however, by veterans of the Cartoon Network’s "Star Wars: Clone Wars" series: Mat Lucas (no relation to George Lucas) as Skywalker and James Arnold Taylor as Obi-Wan.

© 2005, San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.). Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.