Ever since Luke Skywalker decimated the Death Star, Yoda lifted an X-Wing, and Darth Vader conquered the Emperor, fans of Star Wars have wanted desperately to wield the “force.” While there are still no Jedi Academy recruiters visiting local high schools for prospective Padawans, Lucasarts has developed “The Force Unleashed” for those hungry to learn the ancient ways of the force. The question is, is this an honors course or remedial studies?
The Force Unleashed drops the player somewhere between, “Revenge of the Sith,” and “A New Hope,” allowing control of Lord Vader for the training level on Kashyyyk. The representation of the force on this first level is an exaggerated, menacing incarnation of the graceful power found in other reaches of the Star Wars universe. It’s entertaining to see force lighting-blasted Wookies being slung off of flailing bridges, but the real initial draw is seeing the dark, ominous Vader stalking about the vibrant, green wildlife of the planet. Never before has one of fiction’s greatest villains looked so amazing on screen. His cape billows around him as he plows through ranks of Wookies, always keeping a determined, steady pace without running. The essence of Vader is captured perfectly here.
The nostalgic bliss that flows through the first level is immediately interrupted by a stubborn camera. The game urges the player to use quick God of War-like combos to dispatch foes, while simultaneously babysitting the viewpoint. The problem only gets worse when introduced to the game’s main protagonist, Vader’s apprentice “Starkiller.” This main character is far faster than Vader, utilizing dodge moves and lightning fast attacks that leave the sluggish camera in the dust. Even with the sensitivity cranked all the way up, the camera never truly felt like it was flowing naturally with the combat. Boss battles take a different, yet equally annoying approach as they opt for a mostly static camera angle that zooms in and out at its own leisure. Just when it feels safe to focus on dodging and combos the broken camera snags and awkwardly shifts, punishing you in a way no boss in the game can. Think of trying to watch the Darth Maul lightsaber scenes of Episode I with a 5-year-old holding the camera. You get the picture.
As control shifts to Starkiller, the mighty powers that were bestowed upon the player as Vader are immediately stripped, and so begins an upward climb to regain the powers. Throughout the eight hours of the game Starkiller will learn the Star Wars video game standards like force grab, force push, force lighting, lightsaber throwing, etc. Nothing too new here, except in the execution. Doors do not simply open when force push is used upon them, their hinges are shattered as they blow apart. Enemies aren’t simply tossed about the air with force grab, they cling to objects around them like other troopers and hand rails as they float helplessly through the air, only to be thrown into an abyss. In these terms the force is truly unleashed.
However, the fun that is produced by manipulating objects with the force is fleeting, and these sorts of antics are not required to complete the game. In fact, toying with your subjects like a bully with a magnifying glass and an ant farm will most likely result in a blaster-shot through the heart. This boils down to quick flicks of the joystick to toss enemies aside, and devastating lightsaber combos to clean up the mess, a concept not altogether extraordinary compared to other action games. The lock-on system is automatic and very touchy, making it is difficult to target who you want to reach out to with the force. Additionally, the melee combat is sloppy and imprecise, causing “expert Jedi” Starkiller to hack through an enemy with a movement-restricting combo that inevitably causes him to fall off a cliff. Sometimes it doesn’t even take a fierce battle to cause premature death, several times the character would be stationary, only to slide down an imaginary slope and fall to his doom. Despite the lack of never actually playing on the ice-planet Hoth, there is the consistent feeling that Starkiller is treading on ice, never with sure footing. The platforming sections of the game are deplorable for this reason. Imagine trying to throw a tennis ball on a pyramid and getting it to stay put, that’s what it’s like trying to get Starkiller to jump on a platform at times.
The game takes a quick turn for the difficult after the TIE fighter factory, throwing tough, force-immune droids at the player. It is hard to feel like a Jedi when made to run like a chicken for cover while waiting for the force meter to be replenished. Attempting to soften the blow of oddly overpowered enemies, force powers are gained and upgraded by racking up kills, leveling up, and finding hidden orbs. Throughout the process of the game the awe of force unleash-ness never matches the magnitude of the first level.
The main draw of this game for any Star Wars fan should not be its interpretation of the force, but rather the canon storyline, stamped with George Lucas’s approval. The plot features standards like Vader and Emperor Palpatine, along with many familiar faces that I won’t mention for sake of the fanatics that have yet to play the game. Lets just say that the cameos are likely to cause a wistful shiver to run down any fan’s spine. Epic Star Wars characters aside, the plot contains some confusing twists and a somewhat sloppy origins story for a vital component that defines the classic trilogy. Despite all the minor issues with the story, this is Star Wars canon, enough said.
Reviewer’s note: The Xbox 360 version was tested for this review
This is a beautiful looking game, and hosts the best virtual representation of Darth Vader I've ever seen. However many of the level designs are uninspired, and enemies are recycled far too often.
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A finicky camera forces you to babysit during the level, then during the bossfights it becomes rigid and constricting. Force powers and lightsabers can only carry uninspired and sloppy controls so far.
All the brilliant ear candy from the movies is here, including solid voice acting.
I have no desire to play this game ever again. There are multiple endings but it only takes selecting the last level from "level select" after beating the to quickly see the other ending. The unlockable outfit changes are hardly incentive to replay this game.
In the end The Force Unleashed felt like a rushed and unpolished vehicle for a good Star Wars story. If it had spent another year in development and had all the kinks smoothed out, it could have been a truly memorable gameplay experience. Only diehard Star Wars fans need apply.