Star Wars: The Force Unleashed is a behind-the scenes story that bridges the gap between the "Revenge of the Sith" and "A New Hope" movies. It tells the story of Starkiller, Darth Vader's secret apprentice and personal assassin. Vader took Starkiller as a boy and raised him in secret, away from the prying eyes of the Emperor, to be his secret weapon, both against the remaining Jedi in the Galaxy and against the Emperor himself when the time came. The Force Unleashed begins with Starkiller being sent on a final series of "tests" of his ability by Vader to prove that the boy is ready to help his master kill the Emperor and ascend the throne. Before long, Starkiller's tests turn into something far more important, and his seemingly normal adventures end up shaping the events in the original "Star Wars" trilogy.
The idea of a "shadow" who wanders through history is fairly neat, but what Starkiller does ends up so completely over-the-top and ridiculous that it feels less like an interesting but forgotten part of history and more like someone's fan fiction character was interjected into a video game. He does so much and so blatantly influences the Star Wars plot in front of so many of the movie characters that it is basically impossible to believe that this guy was a forgotten part of history instead of a major icon. It's really quite silly, and while the idea of forgotten characters isn't exactly new to the Star Wars video games, The Force Unleashed handles it much more ham-handedly than the Knights of the Old Republic and Jedi Knight franchises.
To make matters worse, The Force Unleashed quickly drops any pretense of Starkiller being anything but a heroic, if sometimes misguided, individual. He's a likeable and fairly goofy character who does things like program his best friend-slash-personal robot to randomly try to assassinate him like Clouseau's house boy Cato. They're cheerful and friendly assassination attempts, and they always laugh afterwards. He comes off a slightly misguided hero instead of an assassin who's been trained by the most evil individual the galaxy has ever known.
Early on, he'll dive off a cliff to rescue a Jedi he was sent to kill, and by the middle of the game, he's a full-on hero. He uses a blue lightsaber in cut scenes, wears white clothing, and saves innocent animals from harm's way. There's absolutely no choice involved here, either. Despite the game billing itself as playing as Darth Vader's apprentice, you're effectively a Jedi through and through, and there's no choice involved. There is a single choice in the entire game, which occurs right before the final battle between light and dark (you can re-make the choice by simply replaying the level). The light ending is the canon ending, but the problem is that the dark ending still makes you act like a Jedi instead of a Sith. While I'm someone who prefers playing as the Jedi, when the game is built around being Darth Vader's personal assassin, perhaps there should be some Dark Side involved in the character.
On the surface, The Force Unleashed is a fairly simple beat-'em-up game. Starkiller is easy to pick up and control, particularly because of a well-designed system that gives you access to all of your abilities at the press of a button. Each of the Xbox 360's face buttons is bound to a specific ability: X uses your lightsaber, Y fires off lightning, B uses a Force Push, and holding the right trigger performs a Force Grip on whatever you're staring at. The left bumper performs a Force Dash, which is a non-offensive burst of speed that can be used in the air or on the ground, and the left trigger blocks and changes the other Force abilities into their advanced forms. For example, holding the left trigger and pressing Y (the lightning button) creates a Lightning Shield around Starkiller instead of shooting it from your fingertips. It's a very intuitive control scheme, and it allows you to easily switch between abilities on the fly.
That is not to say that there aren't some pretty nasty control complaints. For one, The Force Unleashed's targeting system is just awful. Trying to actually use the in-game lock-on feature is usually less effective than not using the lock-on feature and just slashing your way through everything in your path. There is an exception to this for one-on-one boss fights, but that's about it.
The camera is a bit too close to Starkiller for comfort, and even after you've mastered it, it's far too easy for enemies to hit you from off-screen. It isn't a frequent problem, but when it does occur, you're sure to curse it. Assuming Starkiller isn't in the middle of using an attack, he can automatically block blaster shots fired at him, even while he's on the move. This ability starts off pretty lackluster, but if you upgrade the lightsaber deflection ability to the maximum, it makes off-screen attacks significantly less frustrating, although there are a number of attacks near the end of the game that can't be blocked at all.
Since you have access to all of your Force powers at any time, you can chain them together in unique ways to do more damage. All of the basic — and some advanced — abilities can be combined with the mere press of a button to activate new abilities. Press the lightning button while using a lightsaber attack, and you'll wrap electricity around your blade for extra damage. On the other hand, if you press the Grip button while hitting someone with electricity, you actually Force Grip the electricity and hold it inside the enemy until it bursts from within them for extra damage. You can shoot Force Push blasts from your lightsaber, turn enemies into impromptu cannonballs or even impale an enemy with your lightsaber, and it's very easy and intuitive to do so. Furthermore, using these abilities earns you additional Force Points, which levels up Starkiller faster and unlocks more new abilities for you to use.
Starkiller doesn't level up in the usual RPG fashion. He gains new abilities by using Tokens, which come in three varieties — Combo, Power and Talent — and are gained in three ways: leveling up, completing an objective, or finding it tucked inside select Jedi Holocrons. No matter how you get your tokens, they all serve the same purpose. Starkiller has three different trees that you can level up by spending the appropriate Combo, Power or Talent token. The Combo tree unlocks new combinations of abilities that you can use, the Power tree lets you amplify your Force abilities, and the Talent tree governs Starkiller's passive abilities, such as health, lightsaber damage, and the regeneration speed of his Force bar. One nice feature is that you can spend a single token to reset your spent tokens in a specific tree and reassign them to other places, although it means you permanently lose the token that you spent to do so.
The problem with The Force Unleashed is that the Force never feels unleashed. For the vast majority of the game, you'll be primarily using your lightsaber, with other Force powers tossed in from time to time. The most useful of the bunch is lightning, which you'll use pretty consistently, but that's about it. Force Push is useful early on, but once you start encountering enemies who are immune to it, it's difficult to justify using it over the area-of-effect lightning power, which is superior in almost every way. Force Grip stops being useful except for puzzles and the occasional boss fight. The problem with Grip is that you can't move, and it's a very slow process. In order to grip an object, you have to fight the targeting system to lock onto it, then stand still and slowly move it into position while enemies snipe at you from far away. It's basically useless in anything but the tamest of combat or for an opening gambit against certain faraway enemies.
You can pick up enemies, but that's a fairly losing prospect, too. Tossing them isn't much more effective than a good Force Push, and you'll be vulnerable while you do it. This same problem also continues through most of the combos. Sure, you can mentally pick up an enemy and impale him with your lightsaber, but it is slow, risky and ineffective compared to just physically slashing him with your lightsaber. You'll probably end up mostly using the lightning-saber combo or the Force push-saber combo and leave the fancier skills to gather dust. To make matters worse, the enemies against whom you'd most likely want to use advanced attacks are the ones who have grown immune to them, so the more exciting attacks are relegated to being used on boring Stormtroopers, who die in two slashes anyway.
The result is that most of your fights are the same boring button-mashing affairs that will grow tiresome after roughly 20 minutes of gameplay. The only thing that really spices up combat is boss fights, and even those are pretty lackluster. Most of the bosses are unsurprisingly Jedi or Sith, and you end up fighting most of them in the same way: knock them down with Force Pushes, stab them while they're on the ground, and repeat. Sometimes, you toss in lightning and saber combos to stun them, but despite the fact that you're facing potentially interesting Force users, they're all pretty toothless fights. There are some interesting elements to the boss fights, though. For one thing, bosses seem to do less damage than regular foes, which gives the fights a neat feeling of being a duel. Admittedly, once you learn to dodge their simplistic attack patterns, it also means that bosses are much easier to defeat than some of the regular enemies. Each boss is also finished off with a lengthy, cinematic God of War-style button-pressing sequence.
There are no random health drops in The Force Unleashed, which is sort of a mixed blessing. There are only three ways to recover health: find a Sith Holocron, kill enemies or level up. It helps keep the action fast and furious and encourages you to slaughter everything in your path, but it also makes it possible for the game to slow down to a crawl as you slowly move forward trying to find a Stormtrooper or weak droid soldier to kill so that you can recover your blinking red health. Considering the awkward camera and terrible target system, this is actually more harmful than it would have been in a more polished title. Since enemy sniper attacks and ranged attacks can and will hit you from off-screen, it's entirely possible to get a huge chunk of your health taken off by an expected attack and be left in the red without any way to heal. There are no real punishments for death beyond having to restart from the last checkpoint, so this is a minor issue at best, especially since checkpoints are plentiful.
The Force Unleashed is short, so it's possible to finish the game in a day, and that includes getting both endings and finding all of the Holocrons. To make matters worse, there really isn't much variation in the gameplay. There are 10 levels, and of those, three are returns to the same planet you visited earlier, two are about 10 to 15 minutes long, and one is a tutorial level. You can change the difficulty level, but that sums up the game's replay value: slightly more difficult fights, which just encourage the spamming of the best moves instead of having fun with your Force powers. The game has two endings, but as mentioned above, the choice between the two is made during the last five minutes, and you can get the Achievement for both endings simply by replaying the same stage again from the Mission Select screen and making the opposite choice.
Most of the unlockables in The Force Unleashed are fairly lackluster. Extra costumes and lightsaber colors for Starkiller are nice, but considering he changes uniforms every level anyway, it doesn't really do much to mix up the visuals, and the game tends to assume specific outfits and lightsaber colors for some of the cut scenes, taking away from the fun of customizing Starkiller. The rest of the unlockables are nice but not enough to keep you coming back for more: artwork and the ability to rewatch the in-game cinematics. There is an option for Xbox Live downloadable content, but there are no details at the moment, so it's impossible to know if this will entail additional gameplay.
When it works, The Force Unleashed is a pretty solid-looking title. The character animations are nice and fluid, there are a lot of nice-looking visual touches, and when the game actually supports it, your Force powers can cause some amazing havoc around you. Sadly, the first level on Kashyyk is probably the most impressive of the bunch, and blowing Wookiee houses to shreds with a Force Push as Darth Vader far outdoes bending doors as Starkiller. There is also an unfortunate amount of reused assets that make the game feel even more repetitive. Returning to old locations isn't really exciting in a game as short as The Force Unleashed, especially when you just saw that planet an hour or two ago.
The Force Unleashed is unfortunately marred by an absolutely incredibly number of technical glitches. Enemies will consistently "break" their AI, freezing in mid-air, refusing to acknowledge damage, firing at walls and other nasty bugs. Sometimes, objects will vanish into thin air, including doors and other obstacles. More than once, I had a door that I was opening with Force Push literally vanish as I was doing so. Enemies will sometimes vanish, leaving only guns floating in mid-air and firing at you. There is also an amazing amount of slowdown in areas. The game stutters fairly often, but in some of the busier areas, it slows to an absolute crawl, looking more like a slideshow than a video game. I also encountered a few collision detection glitches that promptly led to Starkiller's untimely death as he fell into a distorted void somewhere under the ground. This is a game that feels distinctly unpolished, and the result seriously mars the visual splendor that LucasArts was trying for.
The voice acting in The Force Unleashed is fairly good, if you don't compare it to the movies. A number of characters from the movies appear, and with the exception of Bail Organa, who is voiced by actor Jimmy Smits, none of them even vaguely resemble their movie counterparts. Particularly bad is The Emperor, who sounds awful, and Princess Leia, whose accent and voice couldn't sound further from Carrie Fisher if she'd tried. Still, it is overall a solid cast, and most of the characters perform their roles admirably. The usual "Star Wars" soundtrack is here in full force, including songs from all six movies. My favorite track is "Duel of the Fates," which is put to hilarious use during a boss fight against a special cameo character.
Star Wars: The Force Unleashed doesn't manage to live up its premise. There's no feeling of being "unleashed," and the actual implementation of Force powers is drastically inferior to older games like Jedi Outcast. The impressive graphics and there are a few awesome moments when all of the ideas come together to give you a real sense of power, but they occur so rarely that they may as well be non-existent. For every moment of playing as Darth Vader and smashing through a Wookiee Hut, there are a thousand moments of wandering through endless identical corridors, slashing identical enemies with a lightsaber. Hardcore Star Wars fans are perhaps the only ones who will really enjoy the plot, which is filled with a number of unintentionally goofy moments. The Force Unleashed is a mediocre game that has glimmers of fun, but they're buried in a sea of monotonous gameplay, and the numerous technical problems and nonexistent replay value makes it difficult to justify dishing out the full $60. The length of the game makes it perfect for a rental, but nothing more.
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