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Review – The Force Unleashed

posted on November 3rd, 2008 by christian

Star Wars: The Force Unleashed is now the fastest selling Star Wars game of all time. Being the biggest closet Star Wars fan on this site, this was reason enough for me to check it out. The current general sentiment about the game is that it is a rental at best, and perhaps not even worth that due to a variety of issues.

Some of these gripes are valid, but others appear to be the usual negatives that spread thanks to speedy reviewers (and the comment section trolls that parrot what they hear from them). Force Unleashed is buggy and filled with many of modern gaming’s worst tropes, but it also has decent action bolstered by the sheer fun of using The Force, and it tells a story that tries hard to be worthy.

Force Unleashed begins like so many other games of its ilk. The opening stage explains very little about your abilities, hoping players either read the instructions or can button mash their way through. Of course, this opener lets you play as Darth Vader himself, so there is very little struggle to be had. Once finished, you take control of the main character (Vader’s secret Sith apprentice), and begin the tutorial proper.

As usual, it involves an NPC telling you how to do things your character should already be familiar with, using terms like “the grab button” which are directed at the player but are spoken to your in game persona. As you shatter glass panes by chucking crates, you notice the cracks in the fourth wall, but before you can shake your head at this, the first real mission begins. As much as this approach to tutorials and intro levels frustrates me, Force Unleashed at least does not dwell on it for long.

With first impressions out of the way, we can delve into the story, which aims to be as well made as any of the prequel films. To do this, the game uses fancy lip syncing technology and a decent voice cast to make the cutscenes look as believable as possible (insert snarky comment here about how they look more real than the CGI laden prequels). This backfires a great deal: sometimes character mouths don’t seem to sync up at all, leading to some very creepy moments. The voice acting is also occasionally spotty, enough so that it stands out like a sore thumb among the better delivered scenes.

There has been a lot of praise for the voice actor behind The Apprentice, much of it well earned, but he often reads lines quickly and with little emotion, or adds the wrong emotional angle to the moment. Basically, he still often sounds like a guy alone in the booth with no direction and his eyes on his watch. It was reported that the actors studied their characters in order to know them better. Again, this is apparent when things click, but this is not the case 100% of the time. I would disagree with those who maintain that the plot of Force Unleashed is superior to the prequel trilogy. Like it or not, the game has its Hayden Christensen moments to go along with its Ewan McGregors.

As for the gameplay itself, Force Unleashed continues the unfortunate trend of modern Star Wars games striving to be massive Jedi blowjobs. Years ago, Jedi Outcast presented one of the first enjoyable and reasonable representations of Jedi combat. Force powers were varied but not supreme, and the lightsaber was instantly lethal to all (including you). It even went out of its way to explain how you could take so many blaster bolts to the chest (you wore a portable shield). Jedi Outcast was solidly grounded in the universe, and every game since then forgot to pay attention.

Lightsaber combat is now something that is as effective as any other melee weapon, while new and ridiculous powers (such as KOTOR’s Force Immunity) are invented and abused. The idea of the Jedi was simple and deadly, but due to fan desires, they have increasingly transformed into something reminiscent of Dragonball Z characters.

Force Unleashed takes the trend to its extreme, allowing The Apprentice to dash through the air, fling three enemies, and kill three more with lightning before your Force meter is drained. Somehow it still manages to be much more enjoyable than past SW trainwrecks. Part of this is due to its Ninja Gaiden inspired combo system, which allows for a variety of ground and air based attacks that are appropriate in various situations. Part of it is due to the mostly sane way that Force powers are used and controlled.

I am particularly pleased with how Force Grab is used to control objects. It isn’t perfect in the heat of battle, but it can be used to soften up foes from a distance or to clobber a few nagging enemies (not to mention that no one should expect to be able to stand and throw every Stormtrooper as they all begin to open fire on you).

After the initial learning curve, it becomes a simple matter to dial in a variety of attacks. When played on the harder difficulties, Force Unleashed is a reasonable action game that rewards strategy and speed. At the same time, like even the best action games (or Ninja Gaiden pre-patched) it suffers from game breaking moves, such as a lightning infused saber strike that stuns most enemies.

I am also able to tell you that the verdict on Force Repel is incorrect; even at level 1, the attack can knock bosses onto the ground, allowing your coup de grace move to do huge chunks of damage. If you are diligent at collecting the game’s secret trinkets (miserable as they are), and enjoy finding enemy exploits, Force Unleashed becomes incredibly stacked in your favor, as by the end you will have godlike stats that increasing numbers of enemies cannot counter.

Despite the enormity of the Star Wars galaxy, its games like to rehash the same locations with great frequency. Once a mystery planet, the Wookie homeworld of Kashyyyk is almost guaranteed to pop up in any new SW release. It does so once again here in Force Unleashed. The rest of the levels consist of standard Imperial flight decks and new worlds with familiar themes (there is a jungle world, a junk world, etc).

To save art assets, these planets are all visited twice in order to make up the full campaign, and no number of different hallways and canyons can make up for the fact that you saw the same damn trees and junk heaps two hours ago. Force Unleashed drops the ball in regards to its potential for whimsy, but lately that is par for the course for this license.

When you toss in the assortment of bugs and boss ending QTE scenes, you realize what Force Unleashed is: the next gen experience applied to Star Wars. I am quite content with this. Because it attempts to deliver that “AAA, movie like presentation”, it ends up treating the non-Jedi source material with a great deal of respect, as opposed to the mess created by something like KOTOR. And while it will not stand up to the champions of the action genre, the Star Wars flavor is enough to make it interesting.

I have always thought that the key to a good Star Wars game is to follow the movies – take simple themes and execute them well. With that in mind, my vote for best modern game in the franchise still goes to Republic Commando. But Force Unleashed is an admirable effort, and for the price of a movie ticket, it is worth the trip to the video store or a spot on the Gamefly queue.

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