Release Date: September 16, 2008
Since the announcement of Star Wars: The Force Unleashed, Star Wars fans have been giddy with anticipation at the thought of having the Force at their fingertips. The Euphoria game engine showed some amazing promise when it was first shown off, with enemies having natural self-preservation instincts and everything moving around and interacting realistically. The game is finally here, and much of what was promised has made it. However, The Force Unleashed really could've used some more time in development, as the final product is missing several layers of polish and has some extremely questionable design choices. Despite these severe problems, when everything clicks, there's a ton of fun to be had.
The Force Unleashed puts you into the shoes of Darth Vader's secret apprentice, Starkiller, during the time between Episodes III and IV of the movies. As Vader's apprentice, you're initially under orders to kill any of the remaining Jedi that Vader can find. The story goes off in a fairly interesting direction that turns much of the "Star Wars" story on its head — in a good way. For the Star Wars fanatics, there's no canon-breaking going on here.
The entire game is about the Force being, well, unleashed. The Force Unleashed introduces this by putting you in Darth Vader's shoes for the first mission. You'll get your first taste of throwing enemies around, shattering trees, tearing homes apart, and generally wreaking havoc everywhere you go.
It can be a lot of fun to use the environment and enemies as your playthings to destroy anything that stands in your way. However, this first level also demonstrates several of the title's major problems. The level of destruction that you can cause is amazing, but The Force Unleashed removes the rubble from the game world within five seconds of it settling. After you cross a wooden bridge and bring down its support beams onto the Wookiees in front of you, everything is cleaned up as soon as the battle is over, and it looks like nothing actually happened. This is very disappointing, since much of the game's emphasis is on transforming the world around you to rubble.
The second major problem you'll find on the opening level entails problems with enemy spawn points. Countless times during the game, I was able to witness an enemy spawn into the world, which is really distracting. Even worse were several instances of infinite enemy spawns. Some of these are masked well, such as an enemy arriving in an elevator every time I finished killing a wave of baddies, but there were other times when enemies would just keep spawning while the mini-boss that I was fighting was still running around. In a few instances, the game would push me several feet to the side to make room for an enemy to spawn, which is a terrible design decision and makes The Force Unleashed feel extremely unpolished.
The third problem I found was the extremely linear level design. You will never, ever find more than one route to get the job done. Even though much of the game takes place outdoors, more often than not, you'll find yourself running down a 10-foot wide pathway to get to the next objective.
It's not all bad, though, after the first level, you take over as Starkiller and play the rest of the game as him. During the seven-hour adventure, he'll visit several different planets, some more than once. Some of these planets look absolutely gorgeous (Kashyyyk and indoor levels come to mind), and others look somewhere between mediocre and bad. This can be amplified by some environmental pop-in and occasional pauses or frame rate issues. The main characters are all wonderfully detailed, and the Force powers and environmental destruction look spectacular.
The Force Unleashed is mission-based, with the story being told mostly between missions. The game has 10 missions, and you'll find yourself marching through entire armies using the powers of the Force to reach a boss fight. The boss fights range from annoying battles of attrition to epic struggles that are an absolute blast to play. The highlight of these boss battles is Starkiller versus a Star Destroyer. In this fight, you're tasked with using the Force to crash a Star Destroyer on a planet's surface. However, the Star Destroyer is constantly sending waves of Tie Fighters at you, and you need to deal with them. To win the fight, you need to use the Force to pull the Tie Fighters out of the sky and throw them at one another so you can focus your efforts on the Star Destroyer. There are even a few battles that just feel like fan service (a fight against Darth Maul comes to mind, complete with "Duel of the Fates" as the accompanying music).
As you fight your way through the game, you'll discover The Force Unleashed has some light RPG elements to it. As you level up, you're rewarded with "orbs" of three different types, which can be used to learn or upgrade Force powers, learn new attack combos, or passive skills that make you able to do things like take more damage without dying. While it allows you to feel like you've gone from a weak little Jedi to a god by the end of the game, there's a 10-second load time to get into the menu, and once you do get there, the interface is a bit clunky.
The Force Unleashed has a few other light customization elements. In every level, Starkiller wears a different costume. and you're allowed to change it at any time. You're also allowed to tinker with your lightsaber, but only if you've found the parts. Scattered around every level are "Jedi Holocrons," which contain leveling orbs, experience points, or lightsaber parts. You can customize the power crystal, which determines damage dealt by the saber, or the color of the light saber, which is a purely aesthetic choice.
While running around and destroying everything with the Force sounds good on paper, the first half of The Force Unleashed is an unpolished mess. Graphical bugs, scripted events going off at the wrong time, physics bugs that force restarts — it's all there and makes the game frustrating to play. The worst of it comes in the middle of the fourth mission. During one segment, you're placed in a valley with three Rancors. The valley is big enough that the edges pop in and out over time, and it suffers from infinite enemy spawns, so while I'm running around trying to pick my fights with the Rancors, the game will frequently push me several feet to the left or right to make room for a smaller enemy to spawn and start harassing me. Sometimes this works out, as killing enemies results in regaining some health, which is often needed during boss battles. However, when the game does things like that just for the sake of being difficult, the urge to turn off the game will grow stronger.
The second half of The Force Unleashed fares significantly better than the first. By then, you're strong enough from leveling up and gathering Jedi Holocrons that you feel like you're unleashing the Force on your foes, and the game's polish seems to improve quite a bit, as evidenced by the significantly fewer bugs. The story also kicks into gear at this point, and your interest is piqued enough that you want to see where it goes.
Unfortunately, this doesn't change the fact that you'll spend a lot of time wrestling with the spotty camera and awful auto-targeting system. The camera is never quite where you need it to be, and the targeting system will often pick out strange targets. During one battle, I was trying to throw explosives at Tie Fighters, but the game would decide that the optimal target was a stationary tower off-screen that had nothing to do with the fight at hand.
The Force Unleashed sure sounds like "Star Wars." The music has the right feel to it and includes a number of tracks from the films. All of the blaster fire, lightsabers and cheesy sci-fi goodness sounds spot-on. From the opening sequence to the end of the credits, The Force Unleashed sounds just like any "Star Wars" movie. The voice actors aren't bad, either; these guys are true masters of acting compared to what we saw in "Episode III." Even "Chad Vader," the guy impersonating James Earl Jones as the voice of Darth Vader, does an admirable job.
Once you've finished the The Force Unleashed, there's some replay value via several difficulty settings, about a dozen unlockable costumes, and the Training Room mode that consists of several challenges for you to complete.
Star Wars: The Force Unleashed can often be a frustrating mess. There are tons of polish issues and questionable design choices. Even with a 2.5GB install onto the PS3, there is still far too much loading. However, when everything works, there's just something innately satisfying about being able to kill dozens of Stormtroopers with the flick of your wrist. Chances are that if you're a big Star Wars buff, you'll love the game, but most gamers will probably see a bug-ridden title with an interesting premise and wonder what all of the fuss is about.
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