Star Wars games are hit and miss, mostly miss these days, especially since the prequels landed on our screens. I've been waiting for a game to stand head and shoulders with the Jedi Knight series of Star Wars titles, so far, nothing has ever come close to eclipsing the adventures of Kyle Katarn that began with Dark Forces a long time ago on my old 386 DX 66.
When I heard that LucasArts were working (with Lucas' blessing) on an official Star Wars game that bridged the gap between Episode 3 and 4 I was somewhat sceptical, after all, I didn't really get on with the prequels and would have preferred the trilogy to stand alone. I however watched the Force Unleashed closely, because it promised some new game technologies that would bring us better, reactive environments and new life-like animations from the likes of Digital Molecular Matter and Euphoria.
I'll go on record stating this right now, Force Unleashed has been getting some pretty average reviews and I can see why. However it has some of the best music in a Star Wars game as well as some of the best game storytelling in any video game I've seen for a long time. Unfortunately the game is plagued with several glitches and problems that hamper the enjoyment if you're unlucky enough to hit those things right away.
You are thrust into the role of Darth Vader's secret apprentice, codenamed: Starkiller. Fans of Star Wars will tell you that Starkiller was going to be Luke's original name until George Lucas changed his mind and re-wrote it. I won't spoil the plot by telling you anything more except that the game does have two separate endings and you can see them both if you pay close attention to the final moments of the penultimate battle.
The big selling point of Force Unleashed is that it's the FORCE Unleashed, re-imagined and redesigned to be bigger, better, bolder and totally insane, over the top. The game does a good job of that in the first few levels, it's fairly well designed and the difficulty is pretty reasonable. Then when you get past a certain point it ramps things up and throws in force resistant enemies, enemies that can block your lightsaber and enemies that laugh off even the most powerful blast of force lightning you can muster.
You go from being Darth Vader's secret apprentice to feeling about as badass as Vader's teaboy. Where even the most ineffectual insult from a half blind Uganaut can leave you crying on the floor. The AI seems capable of picking you off from half a mile away with their sniper rifles and you face up against Imperial Evo troopers who are equipped with environmental shields, shields that can stand up to being hit by a thrown rock the size of Texas it seems.
As you progress, you level up Starkiller and can choose to upgrade his powers, taking them to newer and newer heights. This works fairly well, you can add new combination attacks and abilities, upgrade the force and even change his costume and lightsaber crystal. The latter provides a certain bonus to your saber, from damage, to environmental effects like lightning. The controls handle fairly well outside of this system, combos are easy enough. Though it feels more arcade than the Jedi Knight games, it is fun. The lock on system is pretty abysmal and Starkiller will often hurl objects towards the wrong enemy compared to the dangerous AT-ST you were aiming the rock at.
You collect Holocrons as you progress to unlock new costumes, new ability/force/talent spheres and even saber crystals, so there's some replay in going back to find the goodies that you missed. Unfortunately that's where one of the biggest and nastiest glitches can occur, that'll leave you unable to actually progress any further and level up your force powers. Something in the game breaks and you'll need to restart from scratch.
The force is definitely ramped up in the game and it's down to the systems of technology that LucasArts have employed, from DMM to Euphoria (skeletal animation system technology that doesn't require complex keyframe/motion capture animation). Euphoria is the clear winner here since it brings the enemies to life, especially the hapless Imperial Stormtroopers, as they grab onto each other, boxes, railings, anything to prevent themselves from being hurled into oblivion by a well placed force grab!
When I first heard about DMM, I thought it was going to be more reactive than it was. I had visions of blaster bolts leaving permanent scars in the metal, lightsabers being able to gash through various types of material and so on. Yes, metal does bend like metal, wood splinters in a variety of entertaining ways like wood and rock breaks like rock. Yet the environments don't feel as though they're given justice, for every tree that bends or shatters, there's one that refuses to do anything when the force interacts with it. For every beam that bends, there's a dozen that sit there inert when the same power goes off near them.
It breaks the immersion of the game and shatters the illusion that the force is all powerful, that the force is unleashed. It's more just let off the lead a little and allowed to go and sniff a nearby lamppost before the rigid structures of game design pull it back to heel with a cry of: bad dog!
Yet as a Star Wars game with a gripping story, Force Unleashed works, it works really well and I actually found myself caring about the ending. I wanted to see it through and I was able to do that in a few days worth of play, it's not a long game if you're not bothered about the Holocrons and secrets. The story is brought to life with gorgeous looking graphics and excellent set pieces; the level design feels a little hap-hazard in some places with far too much emphasis on platforming and perfect jumps using some of the force powers creatively.
The animations, especially the Euphoria system work really well, they provide a great level of animated detail to the characters and add a visceral edge to the combat. The game does have a few simple quick-time button presses that seem the norm for this day and age, they're not particularly taxing and they are more a cool payoff for a boss fight and a job well done. Again though, rather like the vehicle hi-jack presses in Mercenaries 2, I could have done without them. Or at least give me the choice of turning them off. I'll also give props to the facial expressions in the lavish cut-scenes, these are extremely well done.
The voice work is solid and the performances are superb, with a fairly convincing Vader and Emperor to boot. Starkiller handles his role well enough and his pilot, Juno Eclipse, is a particularly decent character. As expected, Skywalker Sound was involved so the sound effects to the game are perfectly done. The studio also managed to recruit Mark Griskey, who did the excellent score to KotoR II and has crafted one of the best Star Wars scores that compares right up there with the likes of A New Hope, Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. His music harkens back to the days when Williams own work wasn't tainted by the prequels, since that music doesn't quite have the same oomph to it compared to the originals. The game uses some neat technology to pace the music to the player's style, yet most gamers won't notice this effect at all.
Star Wars the Force Unleashed is a particularly fine example of a good Star Wars game, not a fantastic game, nor a truly great one. Just a good one, if you don't hit any of the glitches you're in for a fun ride (as long as you don't mind the strange difficulty ramp about ¾'s of the way through.) that showcases interactive storytelling at its finest. This is the kind of story that could (and probably will) end up as a big budget Star Wars movie, and with it being the official canon between films 3 and 4, it fills the gap nicely.
I can't help but feel that if a little more time and effort had been spent on the game mechanics, the controls for combat (especially the lock on) and the balance in the enemy types and their abilities, this game would have been able to stand right up there with Jedi Knight and that series.
As it goes though, it's just not able to cut it even with superb next-generation graphics and decent solid framerates. Gameplay is number one here and the game just feels a little rushed in places. If you have a Star Wars game, you need a good combat system and Force Unleashed's major flaw is that it's far too easy for someone to block a lightsaber attack even in the earlier Felucian levels, leaving Starkiller looking like an idiot and the player feeling underpowered.
Given the short nature of the game, there's only replay value if you want to collect all of the Holocron secrets.