With so many of the different blanks in the Star Wars universe filled in by books and prequels and all sorts of other media, it's probably getting harder and harder to tell a meaningful story with so many things nailed down throughout its timeline. That's part of why the story in Star Wars: The Force Unleashed left me pretty impressed. The tale of Darth Vader's secret apprentice slots itself into a space just prior to the events of Star Wars. As a result, you get to see some pretty pivotal stuff along the way. Of course, all this comes with a catch. The action is insanely uneven, flipping back and forth between an easy and fun physics toy to overwhelming combat sequences that feel like they belong in a different game.
Things start out slowly enough, with an abilitease-style segment that has you playing as Darth Vader with all of the available Force powers. After that quick and easy mission, things accelerate a bit and you take control of Vader's new apprentice, a young adult named Starkiller. Since he's still building his strength, you'll only have a few abilities at the outset, but one more thing unlocks per level. The first power you get, Force lift, is also the most fun. With it you can lift up objects or enemies, move them around in the air, flip them around all crazy-like, and fling them into other things. Stormtroopers will hopelessly attempt to grab onto rails, boxes, or even each other for safety, resulting in moments where you have two of them, holding hands, flipping around in mid-air. I could have played the entire game this way, if it had let me.
Unfortunately, you can only really get away with that sort of slow play for the first two missions. After that, the pace picks up in a big way, and you'll be too busy being surrounded and maimed by enemies to slowly use your telekinesis powers to do the damage. The biggest problem with The Force Unleashed is its erratic pacing. Things go from easy to frustratingly difficult and back again at the blink of an eye. At various points in the game you find yourself completely surrounded by enemies that block or avoid most of your Force powers, which instead makes you rely on your lightsaber. The melee combat is more sophisticated than you'd expect out of a game like this, but you only really need to rely on a handful of basic attacks to succeed. In addition to a basic four-hit combo that you get by just mashing the attack button, you can also unlock different branching attacks that add a little Force power to your strikes. So you can bust out a lighting combo or two, use Force push to bounce an enemy into the air for juggle combos, and so on. Most of the button presses for Force attacks and melee combos are well-designed, but it's a little surprising to see how technical some of the moves get, especially when you only really need a few basic attacks to get through the game.
All of the combat suffers a bit due to poor targeting. When you have a grip of enemies running in your direction, you usually want to use Force lightning to stun or eliminate the smaller guys so you can focus on the larger targets. But pointing at the right enemy can prove to be difficult, especially when your targets are up close. This led to a lot of frustrating deaths that felt like they were totally out of my control. Also, the lightsaber feels grossly underpowered when you compare it to how the weapon has been portrayed in films. This thing should be running through Stormtroopers with one swing, leaving nothing but severed and cauterized limbs in its wake. This being a T-rated game, it shouldn't come as a surprise to you that you won't see any limbs flying around here. But it also takes multiple strikes to take things down, and this also seems incongruous with what the weapon is "really" capable of.
While I'm getting all down on things that don't quite match up with how they've been portrayed elsewhere, boy, there sure are a lot of different types of Stormtroopers in this game. You would think that the divisions of flamethrower-wieiding troopers with big energy shields that block all Force-related attacks would have survived long enough to be portrayed in the films. In fact, the sheer number of Force-sensitive and Force-resistant enemies in the game feels pretty out-of-whack when you stop and think about it. Of course, the game is better when you don't think about it. Your ability to suspend disbelief against something that already requires you to suspend disbelief may be stretched to its breaking point by this game, or you may be able to happily write it all off as exactly the sort of things that a developer has to do to give a game variety.
The combat issues culminate in the game's boss fights. As the bulk of your missions are about hunting down Jedi, the game's battles pit you against a fighter with many of the same moves that you have. The boss fights feel out of place with the rest of the action. Though they're significantly more difficult than most of the other battles, that's not because you're having an interesting, balanced fight. Instead, it's not very easy to discern what weaknesses your enemy may have, when he or she may be susceptible to certain attacks, and so on. I felt like I was somehow cheating my way through the battles by finding little corners of the screen that rendered me safe from incoming Force pushed objects and stuff like that. Overall, none of them were much fun at all and felt like the game was trying to do something that it wasn't designed to handle. Plus, almost every major battle against a boss or large enemy ends in a God of War-like quick time event. Not to make sweeping judgments of well-worn game mechanics or anything, but that barely interactive stuff is starting to feel really dated.
The game's story is helped along by some good voice performances from the actors voicing Vader, Starkiller, your pilot, your friendly robot sidekick, and so on. I didn't much care for the music in the game, as the standard John Williams-like music that you expect from a Star Wars game is present and accounted for. It'd be nice to see something a little more modern-sounding in a Star Wars game, but I guess that's one of those "it's not Star Wars without..." things that you just can't mess with without inciting a riot in the process.
The Force Unleashed looks nice from start to finish, both in its cutscenes and during the game itself. The game delivers a lot of different-looking locations, from wild-looking plant worlds to enemy-filled junkyards to the interiors of large, unfinished installations. Each one looks good in its own way, with enemies that match. Along with the standard canned animations for your attacks, the game also has loads of intelligent ragdoll behavior that makes flinging things around and blowing open doors with the Force look cool.
Overall, the story is the main thing that I'll remember about The Force Unleashed--I found it to be more satisfying than the last three movies combined. Though you go in sort of knowing how it has to end, since it has to lead into Star Wars, there are plenty of significant events occurring throughout. It's enjoyable to watch it all unfold. That said, it's unfortunate that the game isn't a bit more even, because the constant flips from too easy to too hard really drag things down and prevent The Force Unleashed from being great. But even with its lengthy list of caveats, The Force Unleashed is still one of the best Star Wars games to be released in quite some time.