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TVG turns to the Dark Side in this bridging instalment to Lucas' epic space franchise...
- Strong storyline for Star Wars fans.
- Solid combat combos.
- More engaging than anticipated.
- Poor enemy AI.
- Showcase Star Destroyer sequence is poor.
- Little room for replayability.
The dust may have settled on the 'new trilogy' of Star Wars movies, but it seems that Uncle George still isn't quite content to leave well alone. Bridging the gap between Episode III and IV and charting the rise of the Rebel Alliance and the strengthening tyranny of the Empire, is the work of the so-called Extended Universe, with upcoming live action TV series and The Force Unleashed project all working together to shed light on the dark period.
Originally planned for a 2007 release, The Force Unleashed has had something of a difficult conception and production. Not least because internally developed Star Wars games in recent years have been poor to say the least (the six-year old nightmare of Obi-Wan still makes us shudder), forcing LucasArts to rethink their strategy. Bringing together three outside technologies, Havok, Euphoria, and Digital Molecular Matter, has also had its own set of problems - and it's likely that was the cause behind the delayed released of the game.
After all that however, does The Force Unleashed meet its expectations? Is it more Empire Strikes Back than The Phantom Menace?
A Long Time Ago...
Set just a few years before the events of A New Hope, The Force Unleashed follows a previously non-existent 'Secret Apprentice' of Darth Vader on a journey with the Dark Side of the Force towards ultimate revenge or redemption. It's a familiar theme to any Star Wars nut, only this time the Secret Apprentice (codenamed 'Starkiller') has the ability to 'unleash' the full power of the Force itself.
The idea of the brand's mystical power being 'unleashed' was first established in a teaser trailer back in 2007, which ended in the apprentice literally plucking a Star Destroyer from the skies above a planet. At the time, controlling a character with such strong powers called into question exactly where the challenge would come from. After all, if a player could bring down such a gigantic object, what would stop him for shredding his enemies throughout a level with just a single thought?
Starting the game as Darth Vader is nothing less than a masterstroke on the part of the design team. Giving players the chance not only to unleash a variety of Dark Side moves including a Force Choke, but also play the most iconic bad guy in cinema history, immediately gives The Force Unleashed a presence that could have been missed by dropping us into a 'weak' apprentice's first mission. Of course, there'll be some who'll question the lack of a run button on Vader, but why would you sprint when you're the right-hand man of the Emperor?
Throughout the story, players can improve the apprentice's range of Force Powers and combat moves, which help during the latter stages, with plenty of Force Shields, Saber Throws, and Force Lightning upgrades to be had. 'Levelling up' as the number of points accumulate through pulling off combos continues in a similar vein to numerous games, dampening down The Force Unleashed's chances of really pushing the boundaries of the genre. Considering the mix of Force and melee powers however, what is surprising is how solid the control system is. Overall, switching between targets is pain-free, and even when faced with numerous enemies switching between using a lightning attack on one or two opponents whilst cutting down a couple of others, all feels straightforward enough. It could have been a minefield.
It does have to be said that The Force Unleashed does suffer from too many lengthy and bland levels, all of which are nothing more than extended corridors with different skins. Even walking through the stomach of a Sarlacc is a linear experience that allows a little bit of tedium to set it. It calls into question whether the game would be less enjoyable if it wasn't a Star Wars game, with all its slick production values and John Williams score bouncing off the TV screen and speakers. The answer is, quite simply, yes. In fact, The Force Unleashed does at times appear to be little more than a tech demo to showcase the triple-bill of middleware used by the studio. A little more time spent on crafting a more compelling series of levels could have lifted the game to higher heights, though thankfully a very solid and engaging storyline does just about enough to distract you from some of the more banal areas of the game. Star Wars fans, this is the most important bit - there really are some startling revelations to be had here, and it's now canon!
I Have A Bad Feeling About This.
Whilst The Force Unleashed does exceed our generally unexcited pre-release expectations, and redeems an otherwise lacklustre performance from LucasArts studios in recent years, the game is far from perfect. Enemy AI can be laughable at times, especially when they're pitted in a 'fight to the death' against one another. You'd assume for instance, that a shot from a blaster would cause a largely unprotected creature to curl up and die - especially when all they have as a weapon is a large club. However, you'd be wrong. What actually happens is that the two end up in a pointless tussle that resembles a bust up between Punch and Judy.
The sense of self-preservation that Euphoria is supposed to give NPCs is also rarely seen; grabbing onto close crates (or one another) as the apprentice tries to lift them up into the air just doesn't happen enough. Most of the time they just float there, suspended in the air for a second before getting thrown across the room, their cheesy screams providing some sense of satisfaction. Additionally, there are too many occurrences where Starkiller gets cornered and attacked relentlessly from all sides without much chance of escape - so what, now they decide to band together and work cohesively?
The AI can largely be brushed aside however, especially in the face of a sequence that will no doubt gain some measure of infamy post-release. It's somewhat ironic that the most annoying and weakest sequence in the entire game is one where Starkiller pulls a Star Destroyer down from the skies. After all, its CGI inspiration proved to be one of the more defining memories of the early marketing machine in flow. But instead of making players feeling like a badass, what we're actually left with is a frustrating bit of gameplay where players have to pull down a few TIE fighters before turning the Star Destroyer into the correct position and (slowly) pulling it down. It's just drawn out, feels tacked on, and ultimately is only there to satisfy fans of the trailer.
That said The Force Unleashed does have pretty decent boss battles, especially later in the campaign. Some are more challenging than others, but all reflect the more dynamic head-to-head battles of the New Trilogy. A mix of melee and Force combat, and quicktime events that try to create a fairly cinematic experience, the battles are certainly better than a lot of the lacklustre encounters in other recent games.
There's no multiplayer (not in the Xbox 360/PS3 versions), and there's very little reason as to why gamers would go back to the storyline once the credits roll. Sure, there's the opportunity to uncover all of those Jedi Holocrons or complete secondary mission objectives, but once you've played through the two final missions (one 'Light', one 'Dark'), The Force Unleashed is unlikely to sit in the console disc tray for very long. It's more than worthy of a play through if you're a Star Wars fan, and it does redeem LucasArts' recent run of poorly developed internal titles - but unlike the Force, The Force Unleashed won't always be with you.