Promised the ultimate experience, but falls short
The Star Wars universe is one of the most expansive in modern fiction and allows for the creation of games that explore the initial success of the films. The lucrative franchise has given birth to some of the most impressive games but also shows how such a popular entity can be misrepresented and misconstrued.
From its initial announcement, The Force Unleashed has been advertized as the ultimate Star Wars experience. An experience which will not only let the player control Darth Vader’s omnipotent apprentice, but guarantees that the “force will blow your mind”. This promise is seemingly fulfilled at several points in the game because of the engaging storyline and the beautiful level design, but it is diluted by unabashedly annoying enemy design and interruptive technical glitches.
Although fans of the Star Wars saga may find it particularly predictable, the story is still intriguing and fills in the largest gap in the canon. The main focus is on the secret apprentice of Darth Vader, but his own journey sheds light on the dissolution of the remnants of the republic while explaining the circumstances surrounding the establishment of the Rebel Alliance.
While the story unfolds, you will travel to some beautiful locales. Both new planets and familiar places are among the bright and vivid worlds the apprentice explores as he attempts to complete his master’s bidding. Many of the levels are made up of wide open spaces that show phenomenal art direction and allow the apprentice to use his full repertoire of force powers. Yet often times the apprentice is contained—both literally and figuratively—in dark small corridors of space stations.
In addition to the story and the level design, the game does a number of things right, particularly at the beginning. Before you take control of the main protagonist, the player has the ability to fight as Darth Vader on the Wookiee planet of Kashyyk. The game gives an enticing preview of what an all-powerful Sith lord has at his disposal as Vader can force grip, choke hold, and throw his lightsaber among other deadly moves. The prologue level is one of the best parts of the game as you are in a vivid world, able to use all the force powers, and technical glitches do not hamper the experience as they do in later parts of the game.
It is the initial success of the game that makes the shortcomings of the later levels all the more unacceptable. Almost immediately after taking control of the apprentice (aptly named Starkiller as homage to the original name of Luke Skywalker) it becomes apparent that like in so many other games, the player must accumulate all of the force powers and powerful combos.
The prologue’s ease is completely reversed as the apprentice has problems mastering even the most basic skills of lightsaber combat—reflecting laser fire. At the same time, the apprentice has the ability to lift things with the force as monolithic as Tie Fighters but the power is often times rendered obsolete because of the horrid targeting system. In most games where there is an automatic locking system, the way the camera is facing will determine which enemies are targeted. In one of the biggest design flaws, the targeting system in The Force Unleashed is based upon what Starkiller is looking at. This makes beautiful level design burdensome as the confines of small corridors further illuminate problems with the camera.
In an ironic turn, once the player gains experience and chooses which force powers to power up, the enemy design makes the use of force powers less effective. Throughout the game, the player gains force spheres by gaining levels and finding holocrons which allows player to strengthen force powers, force skills, and force combos. However, once the player attains these powerful upgrades, the enemies become less threatened by the force. Some gain force shields and others can block lightsaber blows with ease, therefore making the most simple of enemies a difficult and frustrating affair. Adding to the frustration, many times enemies will glitch, either not having a health bar or simply stuttering around. This coupled with the fact that the player can only load from specific checkpoints (many times placed before unskippable cutscenes) makes many harder sections of the game simply not fun.
When Starkiller faces off against Jedi masters, the force powers become almost useless. Many of the fights will feel like they are more based on getting lucky hits with a lightsaber than any sort of skill or strategy. Lightsaber battles, a staple of the Star Wars experience, are never epic---rather the game relies heavily on the archaic God of War button press mini-game to dispose of bosses as well as the larger enemies such as Rancors and AT-STs.
The gameplay tends to lose most elements of fun and every sense of being fair due to the drastic changes in character design and the unoriginal boss battle mechanics. Yet there are still sections of the game that will prove awe inspiring to fans and non fans alike. As mentioned before, what really saves the game experience is the overall presentation and intriguing story. The game has incredibly imaginative and beautiful worlds and likeable characters which create a Star Wars film experience. One can argue that some characters mirror those in the films and that some take away from established themes, but they are crafted well and combined with John Williams rousing score, add emotional weight to the story.
The Force Unleashed is a Star Wars fan service—filling in holes in the canon and allowing players to have control of mystical force powers. It was promised to give the ultimate Star Wars experience and was hyped to be one of the best games of the year. While the game has impressive elements, unpolished and uninspired gameplay mechanics and frustrating enemies do not allow The Force Unleashed to achieve greatness.