October 03, 2008
The venerable Star Wars saga makes its debut on current-generation consoles with The Force Unleashed, giving players the power to slice, dice, fry, and fling about helpless Stormtroopers with their midi-chlorian enhanced might. The design team felt that players needed to be able to "kick someone's ass with the Force," and they've done a fantastic job of jacking up the Force powers to make the destruction feel epic.
Set between Episodes III and IV of the Star Wars timeline, players take on the role of Starkiller, Vader's secret apprentice, as he goes on missions to eliminate the last of the Jedi. The story progression generally comes in the form of cut scenes before and after a mission, with some integrated into the level, such as before boss fights. Lucasarts worked very closely with George Lucas to make sure the story was both top-quality and true to the Star Wars mythology, and that dedication pays off big time here. Prepare for the plot twists and surprises you'd expect from a good Star Wars movie.
The combat is as fast and lethal as you would expect in a Star Wars game with the open combat system allowing players to defeat their enemies in a variety of ways. Enemies can be blasted with "Force Lightning", pushed over ledges, gripped and hurled, slashed by your lightsaber, and more. Experimentation and variety in the use of powers is rewarded with more "Force Points" than simply button mashing; Force Points are like experience points in RPGs in that they help you level up. As you level up, you will be able to improve your character's stats, examples include more health, better defense, and faster Force energy regeneration. You will also be able to make your individual Force powers stronger, and unlock new combos for more varied and powerful combat possibilities.
Character progression is also helped along by finding the "Jedi Holocrons" scattered throughout each level. Some of them are in plain sight, while others require some creativity to reach. These Holocrons can provide spheres necessary for improving abilities, Force Points for leveling up, costumes for your character, or crystals for the lightsaber that can change its color or give it special abilities. It's worth your time to hunt down as many of these as you can to maximize Starkiller's potential and make combat easier. "Sith Holocrons" provide temporary bonuses, like invulnerability or unlimited energy, and can turn the tide of battle in a hurry. All told, the leveling system and combat system work great together to create an exhilarating experience.
Unfortunately, there are disturbances in the Force. There are a few issues that may tempt you to Force Hurl your controller into a wall. The greatest sins of them all are the occasional glitches, take for example ... At the end of Felucia, Starkiller vanished under the ground in the middle of the boss fight. I could not move him, or get him to reappear on the level, and thus had to win by launching up force lightening from underground whenever the boss drew near. Stormtroopers may also get stuck with half of their bodies inside a railing, and stay there, unable to move, until you cut them down. Thankfully, these errors are infrequent, but highly noticeable, and inexcusable.
Also of concern is the enemy AI, Jedi mind tricks will not be necessary to defeat these morons. They won't shoot a buddy you may be dangling in their line of fire, but they are too stupid to seek a clear line of fire. They also don't understand that if you're holding something afloat with the force, it may be a good idea to move, or at least spread out. Flanking? They don't teach that concept at the Imperial Academy, it seems. Then there were the Rodians on Raxus Prime who stared at me and didn't even shoot, or that Stormtrooper who was fleeing from me by trying to run through a metal railing. They're truly in a league of their own. Learning how to defeat these geniuses boils down to nothing more than pattern memorization. Each enemy, including the bosses, has its own distinct attack pattern, and short list of moves. Figure these out, and you'll dominate that enemy type every time. It's disappointing to have enemies whose tactics become transparent in thirty seconds to a minute.
The game features a lock-on system for combat, but you'll rarely use it. It may help if you really want to direct attacks against a specific enemy, but targeting that specific enemy is a chore. By default, you'll lock on to the nearest enemy, and can switch targets with the right analog stick but it's a slow and awkward process to try to manage when you're getting shot at and want to kill that one guy with the heavy blaster. Charging right in and slashing away is more effective.
"Quick-Time Events" (QTEs) in The Force Unleashed are a nice idea, and cinematically well executed, yet they don't live up to their potential. These QTEs show up near the end of a fight against a major enemy. To finish off the opponent, players must press the appropriate button shown on the screen within a time limit to advance the scene. The knife fight in Resident Evil 4 is a famous example of a QTE. On the positive side, these only appear when an enemy is essentially dead anyway, meaning you're not robbed of combat time, and they provide a cinematic finale to the battle. Unfortunately, after killing a few AT-STs or rancors, the "wow" factor of the kills disappears from seeing the same kill animation over and over. They're also limited strictly to the four face buttons, and require no more effort than pressing ONE button at a time. Having to execute button combos, button mash, or maneuver the joysticks could have made these sequences more engaging than simply pressing a button to advance the animation.
Graphically, the game shines in some areas while appearing merely decent in others. Interior areas, like the insides of ships or military bases, look fantastic, with light gleaming off the surrounding polished metal. These areas look like picture-perfect renditions of movie sets, and are a joy to run around in. Except for the rancors, who generally look too smooth, the enemy and character models are among the best on the system whilst at the same Force effects are far from disappointing. Outdoor areas, however, are hit-and-miss, with backgrounds and skylines looking fantastic; the junkyard hell of Raxus Prime being the foremost example and the sky is cluttered with the detritus of thousands of ships. When your gaze shifts down to earth, however, you'll be less impressed. Most of the plant life looks bland, and the rocks lack enough texture to feel real and the clouds and smoke effects, as showcased by the Kashyyyk prologue, can be downright ugly. It's unfortunate to see such graphical inconsistencies between the different parts of the game.
The audio, however, will leave you breathless. Lucasarts have brought out every audio asset they possess and pulled no punches in making The Force Unleashed sound absolutely perfect. John Williams' classic scores return, excellently placed as background music. Add in the classic sounds of blaster fire, the screams of TIEs, and the hum of a lightsaber, and you have the definitive audio experience. The voice work is excellent throughout with Starkiller and Juno Eclipse delivering captivating performances, and the Imperials talk and sound just like you'd remember them from Episodes IV, V, and VI. Unfortunately Vader, as well as a couple other characters (names withheld for fear of spoiling the plot) are not voiced by their original actors, and the almost-but-not-quite quality of their performances is the only blemish against the phenomenal audio.
The achievements are a pretty uninspired affair, and come in 3 major flavors. You'll get the points for level or game completion, killing X number of enemies, or killing X enemies with Y Force power. There are a few exceptions to this, but there's nothing spectacularly original about the list. Getting 800 points in this game should be easy enough, with the final 200 coming down to if you're good enough to complete the two harder difficulties. Since the Sith Master difficulty is locked at the start, the game must be played at least twice for the full 1000, meaning you're in for more than 20 hours to get everything.
The Force Unleashed remains an exhilarating action fest despite its imperfections, and it's absolutely worth a weekend rental. Whether or not it's worth your $60 boils down largely to how much of a Star Wars fan you are, how badly you need a new action game, and your willingness to look beyond the game's weaknesses. While certainly not the Jar Jar Binks of Star Wars video games, The Force Unleashed lacks the polish necessary to be a Sith Master.
The music and sound effects are spectacular, as is the voice acting. The fact that some characters are not voiced by their original actors is just noticeable and distracting enough to keep this from being a perfect score.
Interiors look great, as do most of the characters, but a lot of the outdoor areas look more bland than they should. The fantastic skylines make this even more apparent.
The combat system is smooth and easy to learn. Using Force Grab correctly to throw things could take some practice. Only the lock-on system is a major area of concern.
Terrible AI, requiring only pattern memorization for success, glitches, and unusually long load time to access such things as the character progression screens drag this score down considerably.
It's an uninspired, straightforward list. At least getting 800 points should not be too challenging.
The audio is fantastic, and the graphics will impress more often than not. The fun combat system and epic story are moderately spoiled by a poor targeting system, bad enemy AI, and some glitches.