Star Wars fans have been yearning for the franchise to redeem itself for years now. Gamers got Knights of the Old Republic, but that was an isolated product that took place in the universe — not the core storyline — and was only playable by Xbox and PC owners. The prequel trilogy was much more mainstream, but ask any serious Star Wars fan what they thought of Episodes I through III, and you’ll likely get an eye roll before anything else. Frankly, the Star Wars franchise has been in the tank.
Because of this, The Force Unleashed, which ships this week for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, has a lot of ground to cover. Not only does it have to be a great game, it needs to redeem gamers’ faith in LucasArts’ first-party abilities, and it must deliver a plotline that’s worthy of the game’s status as Star Wars canon. Star Wars: The Force Unleashed doesn’t fire on all these cylinders, but it delivers where it counts. The Force Unleashed has the best plot this side of the original trilogy, it fills in some major story holes left by the prequels, and quite frankly, it has single-handedly redeemed this editor’s faith in the Star Wars franchise.
As a video game, The Force Unleashed does a great job entertaining players and delivering on the promise of feeling like you’re a Force-wielding badass. However, as a video game in the crowded third-person action genre, it also has some significant shortcomings, particularly in the later levels. To understand the gameplay issues, it’s important to first understand the story (don’t worry, there are no spoilers in this review. If you want Force Unleashed spoilers, we’ve outlined them here). Players assume the role of Darth Vader’s secret Apprentice, a young man whose Jedi father was killed by Vader and whom Vader secretly raised and trained to help him overthrow Emperor Palpatine. As a Vader trainee and a kid jacked-up on midichlorians, the Apprentice has some pretty significant Force abilities, from the standard Force Push and Force Lightning to the entertaining Force Repulse (a ball of energy that blasts all enemies in a nearby radius) and Force Grip (which allows players to toss foes however they see fit).
Using these Force Powers, the Apprentice begins by eliminating three Jedi to help clear Vader’s path to galactic domination. Once they’re defeated, Vader turns the Apprentice’s attention to more Empirical targets and, eventually, strategic attacks directly on the Emperor’s most-prized interests. All the while, the Apprentice grows stronger in the Force, learns new ways to defeat enemies, discovers some romantic feelings for his female pilot and feels a tickle of Rebellious emotion himself. This is where the plot gets interesting, and it’s where we have to stop our plot summary for the sake of ruining some fantastic canonized plot points.
With all that Force talent, the Apprentice (and thus players) don’t have to focus much attention on specific targets, as the Force just goes out there and does its butt-kicking thing. This is pulled-off from a gameplay standpoint by an auto-targeting system that automatically selects the most appropriate target for the Apprentice’s attacks. This core mechanic works just fine in the early levels, but as the game progresses and the enemies become more powerful (laser-toting Scout Troopers and Force Shield-equipped Stormtroopers with rocket launchers), it ultimately becomes the game’s biggest stumbling block.
On far too many occasions, we found our Apprentice facing a Rancor, AT-ST or Shadow Trooper, only to find that the game had auto-targeted a nearby crate for our level-three Force Lightning. You know, just in case we wanted to toss it or something. Because the Apprentice has a mana-like Force meter, this left us scrambling for cover while our Force powers regenerated. Once back in battle, we then had to move the Apprentice in some odd angles to get him to auto-target the enemy we actually wanted to destroy. Having massive power is one thing; apparently making sure those Force Powers actually strike their intended target is another thing entirely.
Several bosses also make for some frustrating experiences, either because the cinematic camera angles (which only go into effect in the boss stages) interfere with your view of the Apprentice, or because the bosses themselves take some incredibly cheap shots. As a powerful Sith apprentice, the main character is nimble and fast, making The Force Unleashed feel almost like Ninja Gaiden in a few places (in terms of its need for speed, not its difficulty). However, even as fast as he is, the Apprentice sometimes gets locked into a finishing animation, at which point the bosses generally decide to take a few cheap shots. The fact that every boss also requires a “quick action” button press sequence to defeat him/her doesn’t help matters, because if you’re pounding on the Force Lightning button and the quick-action display pops up in mid-combo, you’ll often get dinged for hitting the wrong button and lose a sliver of energy — the difference between victory and defeat in some instances. [Editor's Note: Will game developers please stop implementing quick-action sequences? They're annoying and tired and yank people from any sense of immersion they may have been feeling at the time.]
Ironically, it’s those same boss-spiking combos that keep Star Wars: The Force Unleashed from getting boring. We received many questions from readers who played the demo and wanted to know whether the fun factor could be maintained through the entire game. Our answer: yes. As players progress, they earn points with which to purchase new Force Powers, new moves and new abilities. Depending on the variety of ways you’ve killed your foes, you earn more points. So, if you want to go through the entire game using Force Lightning, you can (with the exception of the enemies who are resistant to the Force and need to be skewered with the light saber). However, you’ll earn fewer points in the process and thus have fewer opportunities to upgrade your powers. This keeps the game fresh, because you’re always on the lookout for creative ways to strike down your enemies and earn more points. In short, combos are your friend, and you’ll learn to experiment and find new ones. You’ll also find that the saber crystal upgrades (increased electrical damage and an energy-draining strike, for example) are a lot of fun to play with, particularly as you hot-swap them in mid-mission depending on the types of enemies you’re facing.
In terms of graphics, The Force Unleashed looks great. The first two levels (which are unnecessarily and artificially long, by the way) imply that much of the game will feel “old hat” to Star Wars fans and rely too heavily on traditional motifs, but once you push past those levels, the architecture and color palettes open right up. The lighting is also quite good, particularly on the Apprentice and his enemies, and the use of euphoria to create AI-generated reactions (not canned animations) really makes a difference in terms of graphical immersion. The downfalls of this detail are occasional framerate hiccups and some serious instances of draw-in, but only the latter happens with enough regularity to be annoying.
As for the audio, The Force Unleashed is a Star Wars game through and through, which means two things: you know what you’re getting score- and sound effect-wise, and you know it’s all going to be impressive. The voice acting, in particular, is great, and the actors’ performances help deliver the game’s fantastic story much better than the actors’ performances in Episodes I through III. Without giving too much away, there’s one incredible point where a certain segment of Episode I music kicks up and sets the stage better than any piece of Star Wars music in recent memory. You’ll know it when you hear it, and you’ll get darn near giddy when you learn why it’s there.
And really, “giddy” is the best word to describe how we felt during about one-third of the 10-12 hours it took us to beat The Force Unleashed. The gameplay has some issues, as discussed above, but the plot and Star Wars “vibe” delivered a level of excellence we never expected. Star Wars: The Force Unleashed is the ultimate bridge between Episodes III and IV, and it tells the type of story that Star Wars fans deserved but didn’t receive from the prequels. In spite of its gameplay snafus, The Force Unleashed pushed us forward through its narrative in a way few games have, and had it not been for the aforementioned gameplay frustrations, we’d have scored the game higher. As a Star Wars video game, The Force Unleashed just takes too many missteps to be a masterpiece. But as Star Wars canon, The Force Unleashed does very little wrong.
Buy Star Wars: The Force Unleashed for PS3 at Amazon.com.
Buy Star Wars: The Force Unleashed for Xbox 360 at Amazon.com.
- Score: 8
– Jonas Allen