Star Wars: The Force Unleashed Review
Long before George Lucas released Jar Jar Binks on our unsuspecting souls, worshiping his original epic sci-fi trilogy was actually considered cool; at least in most pop-culture-appreciating circles. Unlike Trekkies, who’ve always been considered pointy ear-wearing nerds, Star Wars fans could proudly sport a Boba Fett tee or even display a Stormtrooper action figure without persecution. Sadly, those days are over; thanks to the aforementioned Gungan as well as midi-chlorians, whiny Jedi tykes, and Trade Federation debates, Star Wars' faithful are now treated with the kind of disdain usually reserved for those folks with Starfleet Academy bumper stickers on their cars. The funny thing is, this backlash seems to have tainted the critical response to the series’ newest videogame adaptation Star Wars: The Force Unleashed. How else can you explain the piss-poor reception it’s received by game critics? The title is barely breaking a 70% on the industry’s web-based barometer Metacritic, yet, two years before Revenge of the Sith hit theaters—when we still grasped some hope the trilogy capper might redeem Eps. I and II—Knight’s of the Old Republic was the belle of the ball, scoring over 90% on the aggregate review site.
Maybe my logic is a bit backwards—honestly, would respected critics really punish George Lucas for killing their childhood memories by panning his new game? Probably not, but I can’t help think a few keys were tapped with an unconscious “take that, you midi-chlorian-loving moron!” when many Force Unleashed reviews were typed. Of course, it could just be my taste in Star Wars games; because, while I had a blast with this one, I had to drag myself to KOTOR's conclusion. Admittedly, it was worth it just for the killer twist ending, but getting there felt like a slog to me. Unleashed, on the other hand, with its quick pace, gorgeous visuals and truly badass action, offers a sci-fi epic that’s entirely my speed…breakneck.
The game begins with players in the big black boots of Lord Vader; the helmet-head is only playable in the very first mission, but his brief appearance is a Star Wars fan’s dream. Walking with his restrained deliberateness, the Sith Lord pauses only to Force-choke Wookiees, toss his lightsaber like a baddie-slicing boomerang, and destroy the environment using all that physics tech we heard way too much about prior to the game’s release. Believe me, I’d be the first one to choke—not Force-choke, an actual full-on barehanded throttle—the next person who tries to sell me on the game-defining wonders of the new technologies LucasArts put into this game (known as Euphoria and DMM). But, I’d also be the first one to sing the praises of sending Stormtroopers flying through the air, and turning trees into piles of pointy sticks. So, while I wish they’d shut their pie holes about the tech, there’s no denying its coolness in the final product.
Vader’s story-setting mission offers only a hint of the physics-heavy chaos to come, though. Once wearing the Jedi robes of Starkiller, Vader’s not-so-secret apprentice, you’ll be remodeling the world and its inhabitants with grip, push, repulse and lightning powers—all upgradeable through a light and super accessible RPG-style system. And your pissed-off protagonist looks great harnessing all these powers to boot; small touches, like his cadence changing when ascending or descending an incline give him a jolt of life you rarely see in videogame avatars. Of course, he looks just as cool swinging that blur of light—the Force isn’t the only thing flying, as Starkiller wields the Jedi’s weapon of choice, the lightsaber, like an old pro with crazy-ass animations in tow. This too, can be tweaked with upgrades, and using it in concert with your mystical magic provides endless moments where you feel like a complete AT AT-thwarting baddie.
If your previous Force-fueled fun was powered by the Jedi Knight games, you might find yourself missing those titles' more sophisticated approach to wielding the saber with a larger number of pure saber swings. Sure, Unleashed allows access to a variety of fun melee combos and finishers along with the ability to integrate classic Dark-side Force powers into combos in completely unheard-of ways, but overall the feel is far more button-mashy than strategic. The aim seems to have been to allow any Jedi-wannabe, regardless of skill level, to enjoy the action. Still, even with the simpler approach to felling foes, it’s hard to resist the adrenaline rush of plowing through hordes of familiar characters with your lightsaber and stable of Force powers. As sick as I was of seeing pre-release trailers of Stormtroopers being tossed like windswept tumbleweeds, I never tired of being behind the business end of this act in the game.
The combat does stumble a bit with its wonky targeting system; it’s not nearly as easy as it should be to chuck your lightsaber at a specific enemy or even direct your Force powers at certain objects. The action is so fast and furious—it rarely lets you catch your breath—that this doesn’t become a game breaking issue, though. Repeatedly taking the shotgun approach with all your arsenal allows generally gets the job done with overkill to spare. Some enemies, though, will frustrate you; those with Force-repelling shields are a particular pain in the ass. And a few bosses make you feel as vulnerable as C-3PO being carried around in pieces by Chewie in Empire. It’s not so much the difficulty of these encounters that becomes frustrating, but the fact they’re standing in your way at all when you’re supposed to be the fiercest Jedi force this side of Vader. It’s similar to the issue we’ve faced in every single Superman game: How do you build a challenging title around a character that’s near invincible?
While this element will occasionally nag at you, the game’s excellent narrative will surely make up for it. Unleashed offers the best Star Wars yarn that involves the original characters since the first trilogy. It takes place between Eps. III and IV, and reveals plot points that actually affect the films’ canon fairly significantly. It’s easy to hate on this one due to the franchise’s recent waning goodwill. However, don’t let your Jar Jar phobia tarnish what is the best Star Wars game to orbit the gaming galaxy in years. Top-notch storytelling, an amazing audio/visual presentation—complemented by John Williams' rousing score and slickly produced cutscenes—and a protagonist that finally allows us to do all the things we’ve wanted to do in a Star Wars game come together, despite its flaws, to deliver an experience that’ll make you feel better about blowing that ten bucks on the Clone Wars movie.