Name: Star Wars: The Force Unleashed
Platform: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Nintendo Wii, Nintendo DS, PSP, PS2 (Reviewed on PlayStation 3)
Star Wars: The Force Unleashed is this generation’s first real foray into a galaxy far, far away, and Lucasarts has assured us that the events of the game take place in Star Wars’ canon, acting as the next chapter in the ever-expanding universe. Wizards of the Coast is releasing a Force Unleashed miniatures game and RPG Campaign guide, and LucasArts has commissioned books, comics, action figures and other collectibles based on the missing sixteen-year period before Luke's Jedi awakening, so to say that there are plenty of eggs in its basket might be an understatement. Early reports were very optimistic, but as its release grew closer a dark side was apparent, and there were rumblings of anger and, indeed, fear.
There are many things that The Force Unleashed does right. The game gives a definite sense of being a Jedi or, in Starkiller’s case, a Sith. Throwing large rocks at Stormtroopers and watching them writhe as lighting pulses through their armor is rewarding and as realistic a feeling as a Star Wars game can provide. The issues with the game, however, aren’t in its concept, nor are there any real problems with the core game. It’s other, smaller issues that result in larger problems. The Force Unleashed’s controls might be where the game suffers the most, and this is compounded by the ruthless difficulty. Never before in a Star Wars game has the player had this much control of the world, and even when compared to the stellar Jedi Knight series, Force Unleashed does an amazing job at giving the player tons of gameplay options.
The problem is, there simply isn’t any way to give players true control over all these various elements and powers, and Lucasarts decided to add an automatic targeting system to solve this issue. Sometimes it works, and throwing a crate will hit a nearby enemy. Other times, the game decides to target something entirely different, or nothing at all. It leads to blinding fury, pulling me ever closer to the dark side as, yet again, a room full of enemies kills me because Starkiller decided to throw an explosive crate at the wall, instead of the trooper on the turret. The developers knew we wanted to fight dozens of enemies at once and obliged, but because of control issues these encounters become more trouble than they are worth, and it’s often smarter to dash through a room full of Rodians than it is to fight.
The visual presentation and game engine in general are stunning achievements. Earlier in the year, Lucasarts talked about the difficulties in combining different aspects of the Havok Physics Engine, the Euphoria Physics Engine, and Digital Molecular Mass into one game. On paper, it sounds confusing, but in practice it works well. The Havok physics controls the trajectory of the crate being thrown through the air, Digital Molecular Mass controls the shattering of the glass window it goes through, and Euphoria controls the poor Storm Trooper’s animations when it smashes into him. There are issues with the engines, however, suggesting that the current generation’s consoles can’t actually handle what The Force Unleashed is trying to do. Glass windows shatter realistically, but the fragments often fade and disappear before they even hit the ground. Objects often get stuck in the environment when thrown, freezing oftentimes in midair. The Euphoria Engine, which creates startling realistic character animations and replaces the outdated rag doll physics, oftentimes is far too realistic, and trained Stormtroopers will trip over rubble and fall foolishly to the floor. I feel like it could have been better if they had implemented sense and intelligence to have Wookies falling over their own feet and Imperial Guards knowing to step over a Mouse Droid instead of slipping on it like a banana peel. There aren’t many slowdowns but it oftentimes feels like they tried too much.
Bosses in The Force Unleashed are an accumulation of Unleashed’s many problems, and turn out to be some of the must frustrating segments of the game. The targeting issues are especially noticeable when trying to throw objects at the bosses, which is a major part of just about every battle, and the relentless difficulty turns just about every boss into an hour long event that will either end with their death or the controller being thrown through the television. Some of them, mainly the less complicated ones, can be fun and epic experiences. Others, as they get progressively more complex, seem to lose the original point of unleashing the force and, in turn, being a freaking Jedi. There’s nothing less epic than hiding behind a large box and throwing crates at an AT-ST as it glitches against the wall. Well, maybe shooting an Albino Rancor with lightning over and over again until he charges you, and repeating the process for five minutes. There is just a sense of weakness when it comes to the design of these encounters, made worse by the Force Unleashed’s trouble with pacing in general.
As hoped, the high point is the story. Playing as Darth Vader’s secret apprentice, Starkiller, brings an entirely new angle to the Star Wars universe. It’s hard to talk much about the story without spoiling plot details, but know that it completely redefines several important aspects of Star Wars without butchering the story or feeling tacked on. It might be hard to believe many of the aspects of the story (and that characters in future movies and novels wouldn’t mention them), but all in all, this canonical addition to the franchise should be well received by fans. It's safe to say, in fact, that the plot is the best in Star Wars games, rivaling Knights of the Old Republic's. As expected in a Lucasarts title, the Force Unleashed has amazing sound, music, and presentation, with better voice acting than most of the movies.
Just as is the case with prequels, Star Wars: The Force Unleashed provides insight into the dark areas of the Star Wars Universe while being flawed in many ways. For anyone who considers themselves a fan of the series I would recommend a purchase, there is definite replay value in repeating earlier levels with newly gained abilities, and many of the game’s flaws fade into the background when your character is powerful enough to dominate a level. There are challenge rooms, unlockable costumes and different modifications for your Lightsaber, so there is plenty to find on repeated plays through, as well as the satisfaction of occasionally going back to the first level and Force Choking hundreds of Wookies again and again. For casual fans of the Star Wars movies and everyone else, I recommend renting it, just to see the technological achievement in the title and a glimpse into what the future of gaming holds.