There is a definite sense of excitement that strikes many when a new Star Wars game is announced. The same sort of feeling that sweeps over you when you realise that there’s one last Milk Dud – secretly glued to the bottom of the packet with it’s chocolately, milk-like goodness and that it’s all yours.
This latest game in the Star Wars universe promises to deliver an experience that fans had never witnessed before. As the name implies, The Force Unleashed finally gives players the chance to harness the mind-blowing powers of the Jedi or Sith. Plus the game is set in one of the more exciting periods in the Star Wars timeline – after Episode III but before A New Hope, encompassing everything we grew to love from the original films. Which means no more bloody Gunguns. Before the end of this game you’ll encounter flame-throwing Storm Troopers, Tie Fighters soaring above battlefields, a blind drunken Jedi who has lost the ways of the force and enslaved wookies.
The story telling in The Force Unleashed is beautifully crafted – complete with incredible cut-scene cinematics and voice acting. It was reminiscent of the original trilogy, with enjoyable characters and a sweeping plot that for a game, keeps you keen and interested through-out. Fans can even expect some great appearances from classic Star Wars cast members and an unexpected plot twist. Unfortunately though, there are other aspects of the game that fail to hit the mark set so high by the narrative.
In The Force Unleashed you play as Darth Vader’s new, secret apprentice. Found and raised from a very young age by Vader himself, your presence has been kept under wraps from the Empire as Vader intends to over-throw the Emperor with your help. To kick-start the story, the first level of the game puts you into the black shiny boots of Darth Vader himself - on the wookie planet of Kashyyyk to hunt down a powerful Jedi
The ability to finally play as Lord Vader is a definite perk for many. With a similar approach to Assassin’s Creed, this first level gives the player access to attacks that are soon after locked in the game. It is essentially a tease, showing you what Force powers you can hope to unlock later on. It works well and is a great display of the game’s features. As Vader you’ll be picking up and choking wookies, throwing rocks at wookies, slashing wookies with your lightsaber and ripping apart trees that wookies like to climb in. In fact, after the first 30 minutes of wookie-bashing you almost start to feel sorry for the poor buggers. Luckily though you can just as easily direct your awesome might towards your fellow Storm Troopers too, tossing them aside like dwarfs on a diet with no consequences for your treacherous actions. In fact, later on in the game, it is even encouraged that you lay down the beats on everything you see – both friend and foe.
This intro part of the story ends nicely with Vader finding his apprentice, Galen Marek, the character that you take control of from this point on. As you would expect, Galen has plenty to learn about the ways of the Force, so your initial array of moves will be limited compared to what you had at your disposal initially. The Force Unleashed allows you to unlock different lightsaber combos, force powers and upgrade your health stats as you progress. Combat with your trusty lightsaber is both fun to watch and relatively easy to control and includes the ability to block against trickier foes (ie: other Jedi). Although the attacks with your glowstick are via just one button, the timing with which you hit X determines how your attacks are strung together. This means that button mashing doesn’t give you the best result, instead pressing X with a rhythm and at the end of each swing provides the best result.
All of this makes for an excellent game, and possibly one of the better Star Wars titles that we’ve seen. However, there are a few elements to The Force Unleashed that bring the game down a couple of notches.
The main problem is the targeting. When you’re running around hacking away with your lightsaber, this isn’t really a problem. But when you come to use your Force powers you’ll find that the unintelligent targeting system of the game turns what could be a very cool experience into a frustrating chore. Quite often you’ll want to stylishly pick up a nearby rock and hurl it at an enemy. Although this is possible, actually targeting the rock you wish to chuck makes the process so difficult you’d rather just slash away and get the job done old-school lightsaber styles. There is no way of changing or rotating through possible objects so all the player can do is turn and face the object and just hope for the best. If the wrong object is highlighted then you have to jiggle around and do a little dance to try and get the right one. This same problem occurs outside of combat too when the puzzle elements kick in – some requiring you to move certain objects with your Force push or pull in order to proceed. With enough time, you can get it right but when you are surrounded by laser fire it can get very irritating.
The other main issue comes from the camera angles. For most of the game, the camera works perfectly maintaining a relatively angled third-person viewpoint. However, for some reason the developers decided to switch this camera angle when tackling the bosses at the end of most levels. The end result is very cinematic, but also makes your job that much harder by obscuring some of the action or making it difficult to judge perspective in the 3d arena. Some of these bosses can be extremely frustrating to beat, even on the easiest difficult so expect to see the loading screen multiple times.
Strangely enough, this isn’t to say that the game is difficult to beat. But even experienced gamers should expect to restart plenty of times until they find a particular weakness that they can exploit against a big bad guy. For example I found that picking up a piece of debris and constantly throwing it at an enemy over and over was a good way to get through one level. Another trick I found out by accident is to leave your upgrades (which can be activated by pressing the BACK button at anytime) until you are in the middle of a duel. If your health drops dangerously low, quickly do a health upgrade (if possible) and when you return to the game you’ll have a fully replenished health bar. Pretty cheap I know, but after facing a midget Jedi on mechanical spider-legs for the eighth time you’ll probably want to do the same thing.
Despite these short-comings, you’ll still find yourself trying time and time again to get that little bit further in the game. This is mainly thanks to the enthralling story, but also the stunning graphics. The character animations are brilliant and there are dozens of different units that you’ll come across in the game – including banthers, jawaas, R2 droids and AT walkers. On top of the highly detailed models, The Force Unleashed also showcases the impressive Euphoria engine. Euphoria is a ground-breaking physics engine that replicates materials such as glass or rubber and renders them with their real-life counterpart’s properties. On top of this, it also gives each substance the appropriate attributes as well, so a glass window shatters just like actual glass. This isn’t all that amazing as we’ve seen this dozens of times before, but the Euphoria engine comes into play perfectly for vegetation and plant-life. Plants sway and move just like the real thing, with rubbery mushroom like appendages bouncing like jello when pushed or hit. Even wood splinters like the real thing, making throwing your lightsaber at a nearby tree extra satisfying. Euphoria is also used in the lifelike ragdoll physics of the units, including enemies trying to grab onto nearby structures (or even fellow troops) to save themselves from your Force pull or push. Every now and then, you’ll also get a camera track on the foes that you have just thrown into next week (which can be triggered manually by pressing up on the D-Pad).
The ingame graphics are worth the price of admission alone, however there was some slight lag on the Xbox 360 version. Not enough to distract gameplay, but it’s noticeable. The cinematic cut-scenes are equally brilliant, portraying facial emotions accurately. Unfortunately though, it is obvious that the cut-scenes are pre-rendered as quite often you’ll encounter some huge inconsistencies. For example if you decide to change the colour of your lightsaber blade, or switch costumes (which you can do at any point in the game once you have unlocked them) you’ll find them instantly default in the cut-scene. It’s a minor bug, but certainly is a lack of fore-sight for the developers who failed to consider this possibility.
One last aspect of the gameplay that needs mentioning is the interactive cut-scenes littered through-out. Personally I’m not a fan of having to push a button when a prompt appears on-screen in order to proceed. It always seemed a bit of a cop-out, making you think that you’ve accomplished something amazing by just pressing Y and then B. These really only occur in The Force Unleashed towards the end of a big duel and only once you have reduced your enemy’s health down to a fraction. They are excusable due to the fact that they are combat related and that they do look amazing when being executed, usually revolving around excessive use of your Force powers. Of course this leads to the problem of you trying to watch your spectacular display and then missing the prompt for which button to hit next. Luckily though, the chance to repeat it is always there – unless you run out of health that is.
I know that this heading towards geek-town, but I do have a couple of issues that are constantly nagging me. Firstly – we all know that lightsabers can cut through anything. Episode I showed us this as Qui Gon manages to melt a door with his. So why is it that in this game, a little troll dude can block my lightsaber with his axe-like thing and that I don’t just slice him in two with one swipe? The other niggly little detail is (and we’ve seen this in the trailer so I hope this doesn’t spoil anything), your Force powers are so awesome you can pull down an entire Imperial Destroyer from outer orbit – so why can’t we just pop skulls left right and centre instead of having to battle it out like a fool?
Anyway, these things aside (which would make for a pretty dull game I agree) – The Force Unleashed has an excellent storyline, graphics that push the boundaries of interactivity and great character development. This is a Star Wars game that reminds you how brilliant Mr. Lucas’ creations can be. But I can’t stress this enough – there are plenty of frustrations to be encountered amongst the brilliance too.