Nick's Gaming Blog

The Force Unleashed Review

Hey all, my review of The Force Unleashed was supposed to be in Kalamazoo College’s “Week 2″ issue of The Index. Instead, due to some planning/executive decisions, it has found its way into the third week issue. That being said, I’ve decided to give all my blog fans (is there a term, or some sort of jargon for a “blog fan?”) this entry first. A blog nut? A blog groupie? Do blog groupies exist? I’m not certain I’ve ever heard of anyone getting hot and bothered over a blog, so I doubt it. Anyway, the point is this, I’m throwing the review up on my blog first. I mean, to be fair, I did let the Index have the option of “premiering” it, and they wanted to wait a week. So, to give an incentive to my online readers, you guys get this first. I haven’t taken the time to extensively edit this, but considering it has a more “free” bloggy style than my more formalist stuff, it’s probably fine.

So, without further ado, here’s the review: (accompanied, as par usual, by my pics and not funny captions:

For the past decade or so, Star Wars films and video games have shared one distinct similarity aside from their subject material: endorsing the principle that just because a franchise continues to spew out installments at a frenetic rate is not proof that the quality and integrity of the franchise is intact. In recent years Star Wars fans have not only been forced to watch Hayden Christensen get paid to make expressions only severe constipation and/or childbirth can induce. They’ve also had to put up with such downright putrid games as Force Commander, Super Bombad Racing, and Obi-Wan that huddling up to one’s neck in tauntaun guts for warmth seems preferable to playing them.

In fact, the few and far between occasions when Lucasart’s titles fell between “above average” and winning “Game of the Year” awards occurred when they handed over the development reins to third-party studios. The Battlefront series was developed by Pandemic, Traveler’s Tales handled Lego Star Wars, and Bioware created one of the best games ever in Knights of the Old Republic. Lucasarts is slowly coming to terms with that fact that if they handle the distribution, marketing, and funding, and leave the actual design and development to someone else, all’s well in George Lucas’ money pit. Perhaps at this point you’re wondering just who Lucasarts put in charge of The Force Unleashed. The unfathomable answer is…Lucasarts. And did Lucasarts at least wisely place the game’s events eons before the dreadful prequel trilogy like Knights of the Old Republic did? Nope, the game’s events act as a de-facto bridge between the “new” and “old” films.

Starkiller, meet your employer, Mr. Vader. He really doesn’t take failure for an answer, and always has someone ready to take your place. That being said, he runs a tight ship.

Rather than put you in the shoes of a beloved Star Wars character, Force Unleashed has you donning the Jedi robes of Darth Vader’s secret apprentice known only as “Starkiller.” Playing as Vader in the prologue level, you discover this apprentice as a mere toddler in a hunt for one of the few remaining Jedis on Kashyyyk, the Wookie homeworld. Something in Vader’s heavily mechanized heart causes him to start a Big Brother-esque program for orphans of the great Jedi purge, and he takes the youth on as his own. Of course, there’s more in a father-sith relationship than flying kites, playing catch, and channeling your hate to strike down people in cold blood. You’re tasked with taking on covert missions to root out some of the remaining Jedi, as well as running some errands Vader expects to be kept “under the radar” of Emperor Palpatine. As par for the course with one’s traditional Star Wars narrative, the notion that you will irrevocably adhere to the tenants of the “Dark side” for the entirety of the game is questionable, to not give too much away. Let us not forget that even the dark lord himself had a “change of…mechanized life support.”

And to think, all that Stormtrooper ever wanted to do was fly. But probably not through an airlock. Or down into that hole. Or smack dab into that TIE Fighter. Or right into his fellow trooper. Or…umm…did I mention all the evil things one can do in this game?

In terms of the gameplay, the emphasis on The Force is to be commended. Many of the abilities we’ve all come to love from the movies are here: force lightning, shoving people with the Force, even Vader’s esophagus-crushing tactics. The only thing left out is the ability to inform people that “these aren’t the droids you’re looking for.” While the controls aren’t entirely intuitive and have a small learning curve, it isn’t to the point of hurting the title. What is harmful is that despite Starkiller’s unlockable moves and upgradeable abilities one never reaches a point of being disturbingly powerful. Near the end of the game almost everyone appears to have the Kevlar equivalent for lightsabers and many shrug off the Force like it’s a brisk wind. Now it’d be one thing if one was a wussy Jedi who wanted to sit around and levitate and train in swamps with oversized gremlins in my knapsack, but when one is a Sith, one expects overwhelming brutality. Instead, one is forced to take on a handful of enemies that have somehow spent their free time in woodshop class constructing lightsaber-resistant armor and personal force fields that can withstand my intention to turn them into piles of smoldering ash, along the lines of Uncle Owen and Aunt Breu’s demise. It of course makes one wonder why the Rebellion didn’t utilize such technology against Vader, but that is a different argument altogether.

Big plus about this game? There’s no real question over “who shot first” with this relative of Greedo’s. (Yes, I know he’s a Rodian, but I assumed most of my readers aren’t that obsessed with Star Wars)

The Force Unleashed finds redemption in the excessive production values of the title, greatly attributed to the fact the Industrial Light and Magic had their own branch within the studio. The Force powers look downright amazing and the Havok physics engine powering these effects only adds to the believability of your abilities. However, what really stands out are the character models, especially their facial animation mapping and lip synching. One can tell the motion capture techniques for this game are first rate, on par with Half-Life 2: Episode Two, if not an actual improvement. All of the cutscenes were fully motion captured with the actors who contributed their voice and likeness (instead of having everyone recite their lines in a recording booth by themselves, hoping their performance would look believable in the end product), and the performances have arguably set a new standard for what should come to be expected from acting in video games. Samuel Witwer’s (best known as “Crashdown” on Battlestar Galactia) performance as Starkiller is particularly nuanced and offers layers of emotion Hayden Christensen could only hope for.

The uncertainty of knowing whether or not stormtrooper armor is a good conductor of electricity didn’t stop me from attempting the above.

Overall, The Force Unleashed is best compared to a summer blockbuster film: big budget, impressive special effects, large ensemble cast, all contributing in creating a sequel to a decidedly bankable franchise. Alas, all the money in the world can give a title legs, but it cannot ensure that it has a heart. While the production values are unparalleled, the storyline (much like the level design) suffers from being overly linear. Despite being handed a multitude of fancy lightsaber combos and flashy force powers at the outset, you will find yourself button mashing only two or three for the latter half of the game, as the rest become entirely ineffective against heavily shielded foes. Simply put, choosing to cram the tale between the third and fourth films severely constrained the writer’s plot options, making the protagonist’s fate predictable, if not inevitable. Still, The Force Unleashed stands as the best Star Wars game since Knights of the Old Republic (though the competition for such a title isn’t entirely cutthroat). Its an enjoyable romp across an already well-trod galaxy, if one waits until the price drops to $30,otherwise, don’t say I didn’t warn you that…”IT’S A TRAP!”

Leave a Reply