In many ways Star Wars: The Force Unleashed is more than just a game, it is a chance for George Lucas and the team at LucasArts to tie up a lot of loose ends, string together the gap between the films Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith and Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope. It's also another chance, perhaps the greatest since Jedi Knight, to let gamers tap fully into The Force in all of its deadly nuance.
Star Wars: The Force Unleashed, packed with new AI and physics technology and a story written by Haden Blackman, certainly has potential, but is The Force with this game?
Epic Story: More than anything, it was Star Wars: The Force Unleashed's story that kept me going through the game. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the game's story wasn't just emotionally evocative and engaging, but vital to fans of the history of Star Wars. There are moments in the game that are genuinely breath-taking, relationships I cared more about than in any of the first three episodes and a linchpin moment that helps to hook the original classic movies to the abortive modern trilogy. I've actually gone back and re-watched the cut-scenes again. That's not just a first, it's something so beyond the pale for me as to be likely a first and last.
The Force is With You: Who doesn't love the idea of being able to move shit around with your mind? The force implementation (when the targeting works) is the best I've seen to date. In the later levels I can run through an area lousy with Stormtroopers and fling them willy-nilly without breaking stride, just like I always imagine it should be. Frankly, they could have made this game be a bunch of monkeys running around with the force and I would have loved it.
Art Direction: Right up there with the deep, engaging plot is the art direction. The game forgoes the unnatural creations of the modern anti-classics - plastic, soulless beings like Jar Jar - and instead reaches deep down into the crevices of George Lucas' dried out husk of a soul to find a menagerie of beings that don't just fit it, but add to the alien feel of the game. Exploding plants, bug-like creatures imbued with the force, mega-Stormtroopers; and it all looks so beautiful.
Voice Acting: There are plenty of games out there with good voice acting - Metal Gear Solid 4, Gears of War, etc, etc - but it still surprises me when I run across another. High among the talent is Sam Witwer, who nails the ethos of the Secret Apprentice.
Fun Combo System: The Force? Fantastic. Electrocuting, choking, throwing a light saber? Also wonderful. Combining them into grisly combos? Unforgettable. My favorites among the list of devilish force combos include impaling a struggling enemy with your lightsaber after you've floated him over a high drop and a whirling lightsaber Sith combo that ends with a force ground pound that lifts everyone in the area slowly up into the air.
Digital Molecular Matter: Pixelux's physics engine was introduced to the game to make things react as they should in the real world — for example, when a berserk Jedi comes rampaging through an area. And it really adds to the power of the game. DMM really shines when you're forced to blow down a wall or door, or when you rend hunks of metal from the surrounding scenery. It really gives the punch needed to convey the power of the force that you wield.
Glitches: Endless falls, getting stuck on the scenery, suddenly invulnerable enemies, these are a few of my least favorite things. While the glitches that crop up in the game are pretty infrequent, when they do happen they almost always require having to start back at your last save. Unforgivable.
Boss Battle That Made My Son Cry: There is in The Force Unleashed one particular boss battle of sorts involving a Star Destroyer that isn't just onerous, it's broken. This one fight manages to coalesce everything wrong with the game into one dark and painfully long moment. The battle involves lots of hiding, running, force use, and a mini-game that requires you to follow the on-screen thumbstick manipulation directions to a T. The problem is that those on-screen directions can, on occasion, be just plain wrong. The level became so frustrating that on one particularly long play through of more than a hour, which had me within minutes of winning, I died and my son, feverish to get on with the game, broke down and started crying. That's a first.
Poor Targeting System: The Force and its derivatives are often the most addictive part of The Force Unleashed. But getting a force lock-on and then getting things to go where you want isn't entirely flawless. At times you can grab anything with a flick of a trigger, but other times it's just impossible to do a force grab. And because of the dual thumbstick controls of an object being held by the force, throwing it where you want to is as much art as it is science... in a bad way.
Too Much Euphoria is a Bad Thing: Lots of attention was given to Euphoria, the advanced AI for the game, before its release. And in many ways it adds a level of detail much needed when grabbing people and flinging them to their death over and over again. Stormtroopers struggle, call for help, run at or away from you. All good. But do we really need the Emperor's elite guard tripping over wreckage in mid combat, or Stormtroopers hiding away behind containers in epic battles? Sure it's real, but maybe a bit too real.
What makes The Force Unleashed such a pleasant surprise to play isn't really the gameplay, but how it taps into the wealth of existing Star Wars lore and history. There is, in the game, a level that has you playing through the Death Star. The gameplay and the puzzles you have to solve to get through this portion of the game are fun in their own right. But what makes this level so amazing is how it also manages to give you a sort of behind the scenes tour of an object so iconic to Star Wars. You play through this thing and learn how it works, see how it works. And that's what The Force Unleashed does throughout on a much smaller level, it gives you a chance to glimpse some of the moments and things behind what become keystones of the epic battle between Rebellion and Empire.
The Force Unleashed is most definitely a flawed game, but with the help of some amazing acting, a deep plot and rampant force kills is sure to please most Star Wars fans.
The Force Unleashed, developed and published by LucasArts and released on Sept. 16 for the DS, Playstation 2, PS3, PS, Wii and Xbox 360. Retails for $48 to $50. Reviewed on Playstation 3. Played through campaign mode, tinkered with saber customization.
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