Considered the Dark Ages by most, there hasn’t been much content covering the 19 year time span between Revenge of the Sith and A New Hope, so when LucasArts announced their next multimedia project would fill in some of those blanks, fan excitement went nova. The project was named The Force Unleashed (Dubbed “Episode 3.5”) and its multimedia offerings included a novel, video game, graphic novel, and toys. The Force Unleashed video game released in September of 2008, telling the story of Vader’s secret apprentice, Starkiller. It went on to be one of the fastest selling Star Wars titles of all time. And despite its occasionally frustrating gameplay, The Force Unleashed has an intriguing plot and wonderful sense of Force-wielding empowerment.
The game’s story starts with Vader hunting down a Jedi Knight on Kashyyyk, where he finds out the Knight had a son. Dispatching the father, Vader kidnaps the child and takes him on as an apprentice. This youngling grows up to be the game’s protagonist, Starkiller, a devout servant to Vader and the dark side. Vader gives him a mission to hunt down a few remaining Jedi, and if successful, he’ll be powerful enough to join Vader and take down the Emperor, ruling the galaxy themselves. This is standard operating procedure for any good Sith Lord, but what follows is so full of romance, deaths, rebirths, betrayals, and an interesting revelation about the ultimate origin of the Rebel Alliance that collectively would even make characters in the Game of Thrones series blush. That is, if it was all executed properly.
If TFU was to be judged on the plot alone, I’d tell you it was a must buy. Unfortunately, its presentation of said story can fall flat. For example, the romance between Starkiller and his female pilot Juno Eclipse, feels forced and unbelievable. One minute, Starkiller’s yelling at Juno not to ask about his mission and the next he’s telling her everything about it…then they start to flirt. Having read the book, the romance actually comes across as genuine, but in the game it just kind of happens. Various characters change allegiances throughout the story, but their motivations to do so get breezed over, especially important ones like Starkiller, Juno, and Maris Brood (Shaak Ti’s apprentice who switches to the dark side after her master’s death by Starkiller’s hands). Also, Jedi Master Kazdan Paratus’ slip into insanity, building a mock Jedi Temple and Council out of junk on Raxus Prime, barely receives a mention in-game (You’ll find most of these glossed over story elements in greater detail in the novelization).
No matter how the story’s presentation is, gameplay truly makes or breaks a video game. TFU is a strictly linear third-person action game, forcing you down various corridors to bring death to all that stands in the way. Starkiller’s weapons include the requisite lightsaber, the Force (unleashed, of course), and the environment around him. The lightsaber and Force can be upgraded in an RPG-style way, where you accrue points for the death and mayhem you cause and also from picking up glowing holocrons hidden in the levels. The points eventually cause you to level up, bestowing one point for Force powers, Lightsaber combos, and Force talents (basic upgrades).
Lightsaber upgrades consist of three aspects: Power crystals, which change the blade’s properties, like your attacks have a chance of electrocuting enemies; Color crystals, which simply affect the blade’s color; and a long list of “Force” combos. Though all three are a nice inclusion, you’ll only end up using the first few combos and probably only selecting the power crystal listed above. The reason is simple: after a certain point, you’ll find that button mashing and your Force powers are more than enough to dispatch any enemy type you come across. Later combos look great and are powerful, but when you don’t even need to use them to defeat your enemies, trying to learn them is unnecessary and beside the point (a fact that doesn’t change even on higher difficulty levels).
There are 6 distinct Force powers to upgrade, like lightning, grip, repulse, and push, which are a blast to use on enemies and the environment around you. And from the first time you electrocute a stormtrooper, to the 30th time you throw a Felucian into a Rancor’s head, using the Force is full of fun factor and easily the most powerful means of attack throughout the game (when it works that is, which will be covered later). Combine the Force with the two new (at the game’s release) physics engines and some neat, random events happen. The Euphoria engine causes enemies to grab out at passing objects or people as you drag them around the world before throwing them to their screaming deaths and the DMM engine makes glass, wood, and metal break and bend somewhat realistically.
The basic upgrades, or Force Talents, consist of gaining more health, more Force, and faster Force power regeneration. Combos and Force powers sap away a blue Force bar underneath the green health bar, but you’ll rarely be out of juice when you need to send your next hapless victim to their doom. Littered about levels are Sith holocrons which give you instant powers, like invincibility or unlimited power (Palpatine has that copyrighted, I think). These holocrons are handy in several locations and you’ll live or die depending on how wisely you use them.
A game can give you as many cool powers as they want, varying enemy types, and several challenges but there has to be a fun factor to go with it all. With TFU, the fun factor hinges on your life to death ratio, and since there are enough issues with the game to stack the favor into death’s scaly hands, this makes for a varyingly frustrating experience. As mentioned earlier, the Force is great to use, but it seems to have trouble working at times. If you pick up an explosive barrel using Grip to fling at a stormtrooper in front of you, it’ll more likely hit the wall on the opposite side of the room than your intended target. You can aim your projectiles, but the aiming is literally hit or miss. There’ll be lots of perfect aiming followed by a random object sent hurtling to the ceiling at a critical moment. And the biggest downside to the Grip power is that Starkiller moors himself to the ground like a ship’s anchor, leaving him vulnerable to attack. If he’s so powerful, why can’t he move while picking things up?
While your aiming might be off, stormtroopers, Felucians, or anyone else you’re trying to kill all have better aiming than you. These aren’t the stormtroopers from the Original Trilogy who couldn’t hit the broad side of a Hutt, these guys are bulls-eyeing womp rats in their T-16s. As powerful as you are, your deflection skills are almost no match for your opponents, especially later troop variations like the electricity powered shock troops or the creepy and large Purge Troopers. This forces you to never stop moving, always zipping around the battlefield, approaching enemies from new angles, making the anchoring aspect of Grip feel that much more out of place. It’s not a complaint per se, but their aim suddenly turns your power trip as Starkiller to a screeching halt with frequent deaths and an unforgiving checkpoint system, especially in later sections of the game.
Another issue is the option to lock-on to enemies. Want to target the large AT-ST in the middle of a group of enemies? You’ll lock-on a random object in the foreground before you ever lock the AT-ST in your sight. Then when you try to use Force lightning on it, even when you’re facing it, you have a 1 in 5 chance of hitting it. Issues like that rear their ugly heads most noticeably in the fights with Jedi and in one of the game’s biggest moments: tearing a Star Destroyer out of the sky. As awesome as that sounds, the moment is ruined by several aspects: continuously having to point the tip of the Destroyer at the middle of the screen, for no apparent reason, and the confusing button prompts that try to help you do so; TIE squadrons that never stop coming; and the difficulty grabbing the moving TIE fighters so you can continue pulling down the Star Destroyer. You’ll tear hair off your head before you bring the Star Destroyer down, but the cutscene really makes it look as great as it sounds.
Here are a few other things:
- Getting knocked down or knocking enemies down is extremely hard for either side to recover from, but one lightsaber strike on ANY (even bosses) enemy laying on the ground deals more damage than any other attack in the game. I don’t know if this is a glitch, but it certainly comes in handy.
- QTE (quick time events) are set up so failure is basically not even an option, keeping the game fun but a little easy
- Enemy AI is either the Three Stooges one second or elite commandos the next.
- From Rodians yelling Rodese, Jawas screaming like you’d expect them too when you electrocute them, to the familiar sweeping musical score, the sound in the game is exceptional.
- The menus need to load for some inexplicable reason, which feels jarring and is unacceptable.
While there certainly are many issues, they aren’t total deal-breakers. The planet hopping story (you’ll visit and see 9 different locations), variety of different enemy types, and empowering Force powers actually adds up to a rather entertaining package. Before writing this review, I had already obtained the platinum trophy, so despite the issues I’ve listed, I’ve found myself returning several times to TFU. In fact, giving the game a second go is required to experience the (Legends) non-canonical, but intriguing Dark Side ending.
When you consider picking up the game, aim for the Ultimate Sith Edition. It includes the DLC level packs (which are expensive bought alone) that came out after the game’s initial release. Two of the DLC levels continue the story of the Dark Side ending, sending you to Tatooine and Hoth to dispatch a few fan favorite characters in a fun what-if scenario. In the end, even though you’ll experience frustration, there’s more than enough good left in the The Force Unleashed for it be an experience any Star Wars and/or video game fan shouldn’t pass up.
+ Force empowerment
+ Galaxy-hopping story
+ Physics engines
+ Proxy battle
– Aiming and enemy targeting issues
– Tearing down Star Destroyer sequence
– Stand still using Grip
– Menu loading
Ryan is Mynock Manor’s Head Butler. You can follow him on Twitter @BrushYourTeeth.
This review is based on the PS3 version (the 360 is the same) developed by LucasArts, which is different in numerous ways from the PS2/PSP/Wii/DS/Mobile/NGage (developed separately) versions.
THE FORCE UNLEASHED SERIES REVIEWS:
The Force Unleashed II