The Force Unleashed

I once got kicked in the head because I liked Star Wars… Admittedly I was only four years old at the time. I’d been crouched down on the floor playing R2D2 and the accidental blow came from a similarly-aged child carried on Chewbacca’s back. Being kicked by C3P0 hurts a lot more than you’d think.

At this point I should probably say something like, “…but that’s nothing compared to the pain that George Lucas would dish out to our generation years later.” However, this isn’t the place to take swipes at the prequel movies or to look back at the original trilogy through rose-tinted Force crystals.

There is only one question to answer. Spanning the gap between the old and new, can The Force Unleashed live up to its hype and satisfy both die-hard Star Wars fans and those looking for a decent gaming experience?

The initial signs were promising. Most fans’ wish list for a new Star Wars film or game would have ‘Darth Vader battling Jedi’ right near the top (probably just below ‘more girls in metal bikinis’). Fans can tick off the former request immediately. The introductory level of the game sees you donning the black robe and helmet of Skywalker Senior as he strides across the surface of Kashyyyk, merrily Force choking wookies as he goes.

This first segment also introduces the game’s main protagonist, Galen “Starkiller” Marek. Vader killed Galen’s Jedi father and raised the boy in secret, training him as his apprentice.

As Starkiller you spend the early sections of the game carrying out missions for your master, tracking down Darth’s enemies and the remnants of the Jedi Order (who quite strangely don’t seem to have got up to much in the twenty years since the Revenge of the Sith). You’re accompanied, in the cut-scenes at least, by the psychotic shape-changing droid Proxy, who is programmed to kill you should any suitable opportunity present itself. Your “love interest” comes in the form of Juno Eclipse, an Imperial pilot, who sports a suitably clipped English accent and a uniform that definitely isn’t standard-issue.

At its heart The Force Unleashed is a button-bashing brawler. Equipped with only a lightsaber and a selection of Force powers you follow an extremely linear path (yawn!) fighting through the games levels, talking out the occasional end-of-level boss battle as you go.

You start out being able to push and move objects around with the Force. Later levels add lightning attacks, an energy shield and lightsaber throw to your arsenal. These powers can be combined to produce more devastating attacks. Force lightning, in particular, is an effective way of powering up your lightsaber moves.

A health and Force bar keep your superhuman Jedi skills in check. Use your abilities too much and you’ll have to wait for your exhausted Force energy to recover. Defeated enemies release glowing health orbs. Varying which attacks you use increases your experience score bonus. Yes, there’s a hefty chunk of Devil May Cry-style gameplay in there.

Once you get the hang of where everything is mapped on the controller it becomes easy to switch between powers and use them like a pro. Well apart from Force grip, that is. Picking up objects and throwing them around is easy… unless you actually want them to go in a particular direction. There are issues both selecting specific items and also manoeuvring those items in 3D space. Luckily, you’re not reliant on this power to progress through most of the game although you’ll be cursing the lack of a decent aiming system on some of the later levels. The showpiece Star Destroyer battle , for example, should be a memorable and outstanding moment but it’s ruined by dodgy target selection.

All of your Force powers can be upgraded and more combos purchased by collecting or earning Force spheres. It’s hardly a deep role-playing experience, as by the end of the game players will have maxed out their stats in most areas, but at least it gives you the chance to specialise early on.
The levels themselves are graphically impressive and full of detail. There’s plenty to grab hold of and fling around. Smash a window in a space facility, for example, and your enemies will be sucked out into the void before the emergency shutters come crashing down. Locations in the game include Kashyyyk the home planet of the Wookies, imperial installations, a familiar city in the clouds and even the belly of a legendary beast. The problem is that each level is simply a constant trek from point A to point B, killing all in your path.

Ultimately The Force Unleashed suffers, like all many Star Wars games, from the poisoned chalice that is the lightsaber. It’s hard to balance a game where the lead character wields both powerful magic and an unstoppable energy sword. How do you come up with suitably interesting and challenging enemies for such a hero to fight?

The Force Unleashed’s solution it to beef up virtually every enemy in the game. As a result rather than fighting with a super-sharp laser sword you basically spend a lot of time feeling like you’re clubbing Stormtroopers to death with a piece of wet celery. The fact that several enemies can block your Force powers mean that, in places, your combat options become quite restricted… i.e. less fun. Often I found that groups of minions were far more challenging than larger enemies and the end of level bosses.

The inclusion of quick time events also quickly becomes annoying. They’re very easy to mess up as many appear when you’re in the middle of mashing your normal attacks. Thankfully most of these sequences automatically repeat themselves without any significant penalty.

The Force Unleashed’s story has been approved by George Lucas so everything, apart from the non-canonical alternate ending, can be considered as part of the official Star Wars saga. After all the hype, I found the plot quite disappointing. It’s an enjoyable enough story but I can’t say that I was surprised by any of the events, cameos or the ultimate conclusion. It attempts to tie the two trilogies together but, in doing so, creates a number of inconsistencies. No surprise there, really. What is really disappointing is that not enough time is spent actually telling the story, leaving characters and some of the pivotal relationships underdeveloped.

The choice between the path of Jedi or Sith has always been an important element in Star Wars Force-based games. It’s almost ignored here. Starkiller isn’t really a proper Sith, he’s actually almost likeable. Nothing you do in the game really feels evil. The only choice you get between light and dark is at the very end of the game.

The achievement system is well implemented. Although you don’t get much reward for completing each level, plenty of points are handed out for defeating enemies using your different powers. The large bonuses for completing the game on the various difficulties stack, but completionists will need to play through twice in order to unlock the hardest difficulty setting.

The sad thing is, though, unless you want to see the alternate ending there really isn’t much else to encourage a second play through. Additionally, as it only takes a few evenings to finish the campaign you may seriously feel short-changed by this title and bemoan the lack of any multiplayer elements.

In short, despite the hype The Force Unleashed is not a triple A blockbuster game. It’s enjoyable enough while it lasts but all but the most ardent Star Wars fans would get better value spending their Galactic Credits elsewhere.

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