As we left E3 2008, we knew we had to create a special award category for Star Wars: The Force Unleashed. When LucasArts unveiled The Force Unleashed three E3s ago, it did so behind closed doors, a move that some interpreted as a lack of faith that LucasArts’ internally developed game was good enough to win over Star Wars skeptics. What a different three years makes. Not only is The Force Unleashed shaping up to be a truly great Star Wars game, it’s on its way to being one of the year’s great next-gen action titles. Since leaving E3 2008, we’ve gotten our hands on another demo build for some extended hands-on time, a rousing good time that has officially Force Pushed the game into our Most Anticipated list for this fall’s releases.
Set to ship on September 16, The Force Unleashed takes place between Episodes 3 and 4, during a time when Darth Vader takes on a secret apprentice. LucasArts has spent considerable time on the story, to the point that its goings-on are actually being adopted into the official Star Wars canon. At its core, The Force Unleashed is a story of redemption, as the main character becomes Vader’s apprentice only after Vader kills his Jedi father. As one character says, “Sith always betray,” so it’s clear that the apprentice will end up wanting to utter a famous line like “now I am the master.” But Vader appears in Episode 4, and the apprentice doesn’t. So we all know how the game ends, right?
Or do we?
LucasArts is remaining mum on the full plot, but we know it involves love, betrayal, anger — and the taste we’ve gotten so far is one of the most compelling Star Wars tales since Return of the Jedi. But the plot isn’t the only thing that’s surprisingly good with The Force Unleashed. The gameplay, too, is shaping up to be remarkably fun.
As the name implies, the brunt of the gameplay sees players using Force Push, Force Lightning, Force Crush, Force Throw, Force…you get the picture. However, the ease with which players can use the Force is remarkable, and the nature of the skills fit perfectly with the game’s Dark Side nature.
As the apprentice walks through any given area, items highlight briefly to indicate whether they can be manipulated. It’s best to think of it as an auto-targeting or lock-on system. On occasion the game auto-targets items that you don’t want to target, and there’s no way to manually select targets other than moving your avatar’s point of view, but generally the system works very well. The result is a setup that, after about 10 minutes, makes using the Force feel surprisingly natural and instinctual.
By far, the most prominent and instinctual power is Force Grip, which lets players grab almost any item, including TIE Fighters, and wiggle it around in the air like a plaything until they decide to toss it like a ragdoll. This act, in and of itself, is sadistically rewarding, but when you consider that you can determine the trajectory of those items, there’s a whole new level of guilty pleasure awaiting as you decide to play Stormtrooper bowling or “let’s see if he can catch the exploding barrel.”
This enjoyment is boosted by the use of Euphoria, a new technology that essentially gives each AI-controlled NPC a mind of its own. At first blush this sounds gimmicky, but when Stormtroopers and rebels realistically grab railings, boxes, pipes and even other NPCs to try and keep you from tossing them around, the game delivers a level of psychological immersion that you haven’t experienced in any other game.
All told, Star Wars: The Force Unleashed includes eight Force powers, but accounting for the various combinations, there are about two dozen combat options total. Our personal favorite is charging a foe with Force Lightning, then throwing him like a lightning bomb into a group of helpless NPCs. See, we weren’t kidding about the “sadistic guilty pleasure” bit.
Since it’s been in development for four years, The Force Unleashed definitely runs the risk of looking outdated, but rest assured that the game looks incredible. Between the animations, lighting effects, textures and overall modeling, The Force Unleashed truly looks the part of a next-gen Star Wars game. The environments vary too, which will be welcome news to Star Wars gamers and graphics whores alike. Not only will fans see the post-Episode-3 planet of Felucia, but also the planet where Jedi Maris Brood is hiding — along with her pet Bull Rancor. And while Star Wars fans will like that insight, graphics nuts will just plain like the levels themselves.
Even after our extended playtime with The Force Unleashed, a few questions remain. For one, will tossing rebel scum ad Stormtroopers get old after a few levels, or will the RPG-like addition of new Force skills and combos keep the gameplay fresh? Second, can the plot, which is great in these early stages, keep up the pace for an entire game? And third, will the quick-time button presses in boss battles prove just as tired and frustrating as they are in dozens of other games, or will they be more forgiving and shorter?
We won’t be able to answer these questions for another month, when the game ships for Xbox 360 and PS3 (Wii and PS2 versions will also be available), but the fact that we can’t wait to answer those questions is quite encouraging. The quality, polish and fun of The Force Unleashed truly surprised us at E3, and it continues to make us smile devilishly even as we play and play and replay again the same areas in this early build. If playing with the Dark Side is this much fun, we have no idea how Luke resisted it.
Click here to pre-order Star Wars: The Force Unleashed on PS3 from Amazon.com.
Click here to pre-order Star Wars: The Force Unleashed on Xbox 360 from Amazon.com.
— Jonas Allen