Stumbling across a good Star Wars game is like finding a parking bay in Mos Eisley long stay: a thrill to behold, but one that rarely reveals itself in day-to-day life. Lost in the library of mediocre titles, childhood memories of Dark Forces and Jedi Knight are more or less faded. Not even the near perfect Knights of the Old Republic was enough to restore faith in this tired franchise. So does Lucasarts’ latest take on the Star Wars universe cascade into the same doomed mineshaft?
One of the most enticing details that fuelled the train of hype as it raced towards the release of The Force Unleashed was, rather than taking the reigns of the usual [rebel] suspects, the linchpin was instead Vader’s secret apprentice. Although the game commences with a morally inept Wookie wipe-out prologue in the boots of Vader, you quickly shift to controlling the Apprentice. Throughout the course of the game the Apprentice straddles the line between good and evil leaving the player with the final verdict on which side of the force to ally with during the closing moments of the game. It’s a little trivial, but also far from surprising considering this is Star Wars.
Besides the colour me excited prospect of playing the dark side, the game also shines in its use of its celebrated force powers. Though there aren’t even ten different powers to unlock each has three levels of strength that can be upgraded with the various power orbs stranded through the levels and gifted to the player upon leveling up. At first it’s more akin to a Force Leashed with the powers all performing at a weak level. However once they are unleashed it becomes a battle towards the most comical death, thanks to the impressive physics engine. Enemies will link hands in the air and dance to the tune of your sadism as you hurl them about rooms, darting electricity through their veins before sending them tumbling down into the chasms of a tie-fighter factory. You can impale foes with a quick toss of your lightsaber; hold enemies in the firing line of the Death Star’s planet-shredding firing ray; cast passing tie-fighters at a group of storm-troopers, and all manner of other force-inspired deaths. It’s the games selling point and the point it excels in most admirably, it makes the lightsaber look dull and increases the fun-factor tenfold.
The narrative nests comfortably between the conclusion of episode III and the commencing of episode IV, filling the void far more efficiently than another film could. As a separate chronicle it has no difficulty harnessing the Star Wars essence, crafting an interesting plot with somewhat likeable, well voiced characters, both new and old alike. Rested within the crevasse of the two trilogies and it excels in fusing the arteries of both stories. The narrative is an emotional safari with betrayal, friendship, loyalty, and the battle between good and evil all prevalent; true to the Star Wars nature.
Also true to the Star Wars nature are the nine beautifully rendered levels. One planet is littered horizon to horizon with the skeletal remains of gigantean crashed cruisers and other debris, complete with its own orbiting field of wreckage and fragmented shards of felled ships. Other memorable locations include a Rancor graveyard, with a handful of dwelling Rancor monsters to add to the scene, the belly of a Sarlack and the Wookie domain Kashykk. Despite there only being nine levels, as the final third of the game rears the game recites some of its previous locations, leaving the expedition back, to some extent, less impressive.
Besides eliciting havoc at every step, each level has two side quests to complete and a menagerie of collectables to hunt. These range from costumes to different shades of lightsaber and crystals to enhance and refine your weapon as you see fit. Furthermore force points and upgrading orbs can be discovered to enrich your force powers and learn new lightsaber attacks. Whilst this isn’t going to add a realm of replayability (though the four levels of difficulty may) it does promote exploring through the large but linear levels which in turn may increase the overtly lackluster play-time.
For all the praise besieged upon The Force Unleashed a hailstorm of criticism is equally deserved. Despite being exceptionally fun to use, actually targeting an enemy to initiate a torrent of lightning or hurl them out of the map, is a lottery of chances. The system is woeful with an inexcusably high chance of wasting precious force power on hurtling an unexpected, and defenseless, Jawa out of the map rather than a creature of any significant threat. This is frustrating in the latter quarter of the game where utilising the limited force meter is vital to survival.
Further disappointment hails from the intrepid use of quick time events. Cinematic elements are ruined by a necessity to observe the lower screen for button prompts. Set pieces are torn down as it becomes patent all that was required to defeat a Rancor monster was to press ABYAY – Luke you did it the hard way. Any sense of the player being immersed in verisimilitude is destroyed and any sense of skill and achievement is drowned in a lake of monotonous, lethargic button mashing. Nothing good comes of quick time events and yet they riddle The Force Unleash like it’s suffering from a particularly nasty case of the chicken pox.
The Force Unleashed is an incredibly short, often frustrating but nonetheless engaging escapade back into the Star Wars galaxy. Its unforgiving gameplay problems are softened with an enticing narrative complete with characters carefully tuned to those so loved from the original trilogy. An incredibly accomplished physics engine, allowing gamers the truest representation of the power of force, and an ensemble of enemies to unleash your fevered hate upon, make for a far more entertaining experience than one that is refined.