Star Wars: The Force Unleashed is one of those games that never had any hope of living up to its hype. I saw advertisements for this game two years before it was released. There were action figures, Lego sets, novelizations, graphic novelizations, sound tracks and advertisements. Every gaming magazine and website had articles and interviews with the writers and programmers.
By the time the game came out there was a virtual frenzy of excitement. People were convinced that it would come with a real lightsaber, provide them with Force powers and draw Darth Vader to their door.
Alas, it is not so.
However, it is a reasonably well constructed game. I played the version for the Playstation 2. I understand that the versions for the more advanced systems have… more… of everything, pretty much.
You play a secret apprentice of Darth Vader’s. It seems old mister emphysema has decided that he needs help bringing down the Emperor. So he sends you on some missions to find some old forgotten Jedi that are still floating around the galaxy. After that things sort of avalanche. Nothing is what it seems, layers of deception that are surprisingly… surprising… for a video game. It’s worse than you know.
There are usually two reasons that I play video games. I want to experience the story that is being told, which, believe it or not can be fairly compelling and complex, or I want to just have fun for a little while. The Final Fantasy series has incredibly rich stories but they are tedious to play – I’ve started three and finished zero. Guitar Hero and pretty much any racing game has no story at all but they are fun diversions. The games that I remember and that I love have both. Prince of Persia, Myth, and Marathon are probably the best examples of well-written story combined with enjoyable gameplay. Stories in Star Wars games have been rather spotty as a general rule. The Force Unleashed has a very well written story by Hayden Blackman. It also is immensely fun to play.
The story is enhanced by the fact that the voice actors are actually quite excellent. Much better than the newer movies, which, sadly isn’t saying much.
Since you are Darth Vader’s apprentice you use the Dark Side of the Force. This gives you the opportunity to blast Force Lightning around, choke your enemies, and reign destruction down around yourself. This is, somehow, intensely therapeutic. You start out, unlike most games, with a fairly large array of Force powers. This helps you feel like you are not completely crippled at the beginning of the game. As you progress you earn points and upgrade your Force powers. These power, while fun, are also kind of weak at first. About three quarters of the way through the game you are allowed to upgrade past level 2. This is where the true fun begins. Your Force push is so powerful you can run through a room full of Storm Troopers and clear it completely with a quick shove from the Force that sends Troopers, computers, chairs, railings and even wall panels tumbling about. You can pick up enemies and smash pieces of debris, rocks or even other enemies into them. You can repulse surrounding enemies with giant shock-waves. You can dart around at Force enhanced speeds, shoot lightning from your fingers, drop enemies over cliffs, choke them to death and slash them with your lightsaber, just for good measure. At one point I even grabbed a tie fighter out of the air as it flew by and hurled it across a chasm.
The game never gets old or repetitive. Things are always changing. Just when you think you understand where the story is going it turns around. Just when you think you can handle everything you gain a new Force power, or meet a new kind of enemy.
The Force Unleashed has impressive graphics for a system that is so old. They run smoothly and look beautiful throughout the entire game. Seemingly everything is destructible. Wall panels fly off at a shove from the Force, pillars topple at a swipe from a lightsaber. Rocks can be lifted, trees uprooted or chopped down. For, your ally is the Force… and it is powerful.
I do have a few complaints. The camera controls were a little unwieldy for me. In those moments where I wanted to see what was around the corner, without running over there and getting shot, I would rotate the camera. For some reason the programmers decided to make the camera controls backwards from every other game. So I would try to look right and the camera would pan left. Some people prefer it this way but I couldn’t find a setting to reverse it like there is in most games.
I felt the Force powers where a little underrepresented. All of them were purely designed for combat. There was no Jedi mind-trick, no Force pull, no Force senses. Star Wars: Jedi Knight: Jedi Academy – despite winning the most colons in a single title award – based on the ever versatile Quake III Team Arena engine allowed you to use Jedi mind tricks to sneak past guards, pull the weapons right out of their hands, look around with your Jedi senses to see if there were bad guys waiting to ambush you on the other side of that door. I suppose the lack of noncombat related Force powers in The Force Unleashed could be because you play an apprentice to Darth Vader. Old Iron Lungs wants a killing machine, not a touchy feely Jedi.
I was pleasantly surprised, several times, with the quality of the story and the thought put into writing it. I think this is the most impressive thing about this game. The gameplay was tremendously fun, especially for the last quarter, and always fresh and new. This is definitely the most beautiful game I have played on the Playstation 2, with the exception, possibly, of Prince of Persia: The Two Thrones. This was a great diversion and a fun experience.
(One side note: If you have played a lot Star Wars games and read a lot of Star Wars books it becomes apparent that the plans of the Death Star were captured by dozens of people simultaneously – and all of them were vitally important to the Rebellion, which, surprise, was also started by several different people simultaneously without any of them ever knowing about each other… Hmmm…)