Star Wars: The Force Unleashed Preview
The Force Unleashed probably hasn't gotten the respect it deserves from game journalists. Originally compared to many previous mediocre Star Wars games, many have passed off the game as something that looks flashy but just doesn't deliver enough to be fun. Oh, sure, LucasArts has put together a crazy new physics engine (called Digital Molecular Materials) to power the game's many interesting new effects, like breaking planks of wood or panes of glass realistically. Of course, one might ask just how much plywood and glass is really present in the Star Wars universe, so you'll find that while the developers have put plenty of fights on Star Destroyers and classic Imperial bases, but they'll also be out in the wilderness so that your character, Darth Vader's secret apprentice, will be able to take down trees and smaller, less concrete-type structures with his massive Force powers.
The plot is interesting, mostly in that Vader goes against the usual Dark Side and Sith traditions of one master and one apprentice and takes his own student, the son of a Jedi that Vader is assigned to track down and kill. And from that murder comes the new apprenticeship, and your character - nicknamed Starkiller - is a force to be reckoned with. Of course, this isn't the first action game to bring Dark Side powers into your hands. The classic Jedi Knight series on PC from Raven Software did it if you chose to be on that side of the Force, and it's been meddled with here and there in other titles, but this time the Force powers are a central piece to both the game's new technologies and its combat. Many of the scenes in the game will include lots of destructible objects, pits to Force Push enemies into, and Stormtroopers to toy with.
Yeah, Starkiller is often assigned to take out what is technically his own side, but that's because Vader is actually trying to set him up to help him kill Emperor Palpatine. Granted, this game takes place between Episodes III and IV, and since we know Palpatine was around after that, it seems reasonable to think that maybe Starkiller didn't actually succeed. But the question one might ask is what happened to him, and if LucasArts can deliver on putting together a solid story and just enough of the original characters and settings with plenty of new material, they could have a real winner on their hands. Unfortunately, LucasArts isn't exactly well known for making great stories, as the iffiness of Episodes I through III and the horrible reviews the new animated Clone Wars movie is getting really shows that LucasArts is losing their grip on the franchise overall.
The demo that's available on Xbox Live right now has you entering a high-tech base and taking on a full contingent of armed forces from both sides in the conflict between the budding Rebels and the Empire's Stormtroopers. Some fights are open-ended, where you'll come into a big room with people shooting at each other with blasters and you'll get to decide how you want to take them on. Pick up the many physics-enabled objects in the room with Force Throw and toss them at your enemies? Go in slashing with your saber? Charge up a big Force Push and then deal with them one by one? And what about the guys on the other side of the room who are clearly going to switch targets when they see a lightsaber?
These choices can make for some really fun gameplay, although there will need to be a very wide range of fights like this with different enemy types to keep players' attention for the duration. The demo's final boss, an AT-ST walker (the ones seen in the jungle on Endor in Episode III), is a tough foe so you'll need to stay behind it and try not to get stomped on. The game does make use of button-press Quick Time Events during some bits, which in the case of finishing off the AT-ST produced a fantastic result, but I still wonder if the cutscene would be more enjoyable if I was able to just kick back and watch it - rather than pressing buttons that the game tells me to like a trained monkey. Of course, that's a complaint I have with most games that use this system.
The game uses the same Euphoria AI and physics system that Grand Theft Auto IV did. You can see it when you use Force Grip to hold an opponent in the air, and as you bring him near things by swinging him around while he's in the air, he might try and grab on to stuff to break your grip. It's a great technology, but this just doesn't seem to be the right kind of game for it. For years now we've seen TFU trailers showing Stormtroopers being thrown around by Starkiller, seeing enemies holding hands and legs of other guys to try and keep from being sent flying off. It's just awkward and strange, and later iterations of the game show that they haven't really adapted the system to do much productive from an in-game perspective. It's really more like a strange kind of eye candy.
So while the wacky new tech makes The Force Unleashed look interesting, its fun factor will be decided based on how fun it is to actually kill your enemies, not on how one guy grabs onto a crate whenever you dangle him near one. And keeping that in mind, the demo simply didn't give us enough to decide: there are no lightsaber duels in the demo level, and while there is the promise of new combos - our anti-hero can level up and gain new moves in the final game - none of that is available in the demo. Sure, it's fun to hold up a Stormtrooper in the path of a TIE Fighter flying nearby and letting him get bashed into oblivion, but LucasArts has to be careful not to rely on that specific situation too often throughout the game.
One thing you shouldn't be expecting is lightsaber combat that emphasizes finesse and placement of the tip of your lightsaber like Raven Software's Jedi Knight 2 did. This is a decidedly console-like implementation of lightsaber combat, where sequences of buttons allow you to mix up swings right alongside lightning from your fingertips or a push off of a ledge. You won't see the kind of chess-game dynamic between the different speeds of saber styles, nor will you see the dismemberment that that one incredible cheat code in Raven's games made wildly swinging a lightsaber around so fun - LucasArts never wanted you to be able to do that, and only with a series of cryptic commands was that even allowed by the developers in the first place.
No, if you're looking for some kind of next-gen version of the strategic saber battles that PC gamers got five years ago, you'll have to wait at least a little longer. Of course, that doesn't mean there isn't merit in TFU's action, but it's important to set the record straight: this game's combat is much more about multiple, weak opponents and Force-power juggling than it is tweaking that backwards-slashing attack with the slight twitch at the end to give you the reach to beat a tough opponent. Of course, with only rudimentary versus modes in the DS, PSP, and Wii versions and no multiplayer at all on the 360 or PS3, this game never seemed to be too big on dueling other players anyway.
While the notion of a lightsaber-toting action game isn't exactly brand new, The Force Unleashed looks to infuse a lot of great style and interesting combat scenarios into what otherwise could have easily turned into a totally ho-hum action game. From the way Starkiller holds his saber behind his back when he isn't swinging it around to the ways you'll be able to combine the various Force powers in combos that haven't really been done in Star Wars games before, this could be a very fun romp. It seems likely that due to the rigidity of the Star Wars universe, the developers won't really be taking full advantage of the game's fancy new technologies, but I am ready to be surprised. The Force Unleashed will be hitting all major console platforms (nope, no PC version is planned) on September 16th.