Review: Star Wars: The Force Unleashed (Sony PS3)

Star Wars: The Force Unleashed (PS3)
Developer: LucasArts
Publisher: LucasArts
Genre: Action
Release Date: 09/16/2008

I’ve been a Star Wars fan since I was a kid. And like many of you, I felt terribly betrayed by the prequel trilogy. It was like nothing more than pandering to a demographic; a collected 6 hours of commercials for new merchandise. (Nevermind the gross amount of merchandising when we were kids. That was better. Because it was. So there.) So needless to say I greeted the new Star Wars game with suspicion and trepidation.

Then I played the demo. I believe my friend Hess put it best when he said, “I think I may have reached evil nirvana.” More pointless ultra-violence than you could shake a droog at. Which is good for me, because sometimes, you just need to force-choke a Wookie.

1. Story / Modes

The story serves to bridge the gap between the awful pain that was Episode III and the sublime genre-setting joy that was Episode IV. No small task, but it’s one that is hit quite admirably.

You play as StarKiller, Darth Vader’s secret apprentice. Vader apparently wants to rule the galaxy on his own, without the Emperor’s help. And who better to wipe out the mastermind of a galactic takeover than a Sith who’s seems to have been named by a 9 year old’s fan fic? Seriously though, the story makes sense, moves along quite well, and has all of the required twists and turns in place. In fact, the story is so good, you’re quite certain they locked George Lucas in a broom closet with some candy and promised to let him out when the grown-ups were done being creative.

I know they made a big deal about the different experiences all the different consoles would get, but mode-wise, we get the short end of the stick. There’s the game, and um, well there’s a training mode. But that doesn’t seem to really do anything. No, the PS3 just has to settle for awesome graphics and be happy. Alas. And as such, that brings the score down a bit. How hard would it have been to give us, well, anything?

Story / Modes Rating: Good

2. Graphics
Wow. Just wow. The cinematics are amazing. Some of the best I’ve ever seen. It really feels like you’re watching a Star Wars movie. The even did those lame “wipes” to transition from scene to scene.

The game play is just about as good. Everything looks nice and clear. The backgrounds are beautifully detailed on the larger levels, giving you an incredible sense of scale. Foregrounds are decked out in nice little touches that give each level its own personality and color. The only problem here is the occasional “pop-in” of details as you move closer to objects. Annoying, but not game breaking.

Special effects are where the game really shines. The force lightning is amazing. Blaster fire looks (and sounds) like the real thing. And the lightsaber is perfect. It even comes in different colors, including black. Why a black lightsaber? Because it’s bad-ass, that’s why.

The lightsaber, sadly, is also where the graphics fail. There are no dismemberments or decapitations. None. You can hack away all you’d like on a Stormtrooper, even send him to the most painful and excruciating death you can think of, but he’ll be sent 100% in tact. Droids can be split neatly in twain, their innards glowing a cheery orange, but that hardly counts. Star Wars is well known and regarded for its dismemberments. Heck, a major plot-point in the life story of Boba Fett involves decapitation! But here, nothing. I can’t see how you can boast a state of the art physics system that doesn’t allow for flying limbs. It’s just not right.

Graphics Rating: Great

3. Sound
The score is classic Star Wars, again making the game feel more like you’re at the movies. All the sound effects are spot on, every lightsaber hum and every blaster, err, blast, sound exactly as if they were coming off the big screen at the theater. When I first got the game I was compelled to crank the stereo up and enjoy the earth-shattering cacophony of beautiful noise. It truly is a joy to listen to.

The voice acting surprised me as well. While there are a few spots where Vader fails a bit at sounding like James Earl Jones, the voice of StarKiller is remarkably well done. He brings actual emotion to the character, again, bringing it closer to being a movie than a game. In fact, I would go so far as to say that his acting is better than 90% of the cast of the first three movies. Not that it would be hard to do, I just wanted to step up on my soapbox again. Done now.

Sound Rating: Classic

4. Control / Gameplay
A game lives or dies by it’s gameplay, we all know that. And playing Star Wars: The Force Unleashed and trying to judge it’s merits in this regard is much like trying to judge a boxing match of a good man fighting himself. There is so much to like about the game, you wonder why it keeps punching itself in the face. It’s like LucasArts has a fear of success.

“You know, this game is just too awesome. I mean, you’re running around, abusing the Force like it’s some kind of red-headed stepchild, blowing $#*! up left and right. If we keep it like this, people will expect this level of excellence every time, and we won’t have any improvements to showcase for the sequel. I know! Let’s make it so you can’t aim up at things and have the auto-lock prefer rocks to enemies!” So it was written, and so it was done.

Let me explain. The fighting system is great. The Force powers blend effortlessly with the lightsaber fighting. You’ve got options out the wazoo. Direct attack, stealth, up close, distance. Even the environment. You can smash windows on a spaceship and have the enemies pushed out into space. Or my favorite, pick them up and slam them into laser shielding and watch them get vaporized. It all adds up to a plentiful cornucopia of death and destruction. Boss fights (as well as some special enemies) utilize Quick Time Events almost as well as God of War, and really stand out visually. Granted, they have a tendency to cheat (or at the very least, block forever and then spank you) and don’t seem to take very much damage at all, but still. Good times.

Even the menus work well. The experience system is solid. It allows you to upgrade Force powers, talents, and attacks. They could have diversified a bit more (or a bit less in terms of attacks), but it comes across as easy and effective. The lightsaber crystal switching is quick and painless, allowing you to customize color and damage/special abilities on the fly. You can even drop into training mode in the middle of the game (Not that you’d want to). You’ll go back to your last save, but I can understand that.

And then the trouble starts. Each of these actions takes an unreasonable amount of time to load. A sub-menu should not be a 10 second wait. Heck, it shouldn’t be 5. But it gets worse. Changing costumes requires a reload to your last save point. That’s right, you can swap blades on the fly, but making yourself look different takes a reboot? How detailed can these costumes be? Or should we be grateful we can change our look at all? I can’t understand the reasoning here. But then, reason doesn’t seem to have a lot to do with the gameplay at this point; because, as I said, you can’t aim up.

If someone’s shooting from a vantage point above you, you have to jump and hope the auto-lock notices them. Or use force grip to grab something to throw, but if you don’t move it far enough, it just bounces off ineffectively. And the auto-lock! It really does prefer objects. I’ll be standing there, being burned alive by an Inferno Trooper, and my guy will be fervently trying to kill the small stone at his feet. Plus, once you get locked on and you try to circle, the camera won’t track well enough to keep up, so you’re better off just using both joysticks to track and attack.

Speaking of cameras, this game features all the usual faults of a mobile camera. Specifically the frenzied spinning anytime you’re in a small environment, which usually causes you to get killed due to enemies who can see you just fine, or falling off whatever object you’re on.

It’s sad to see a fantastic game cripple itself so.

Control / Gameplay Rating: Enjoyable

5. Replayability
If you can make it through the gameplay faults, you’ll find yourself coming back for more.

Each level features three objectives. Usually a points based, hidden object based, and a challenge to kill or destroy a certain number of things. You’re allowed to go back and replay any previous level in its entirety to help with the “gotta catch ’em all” quests, which also gives you an opportunity for more experience to build up your force powers.

Plus, despite its flaws, the game is simply fun enough to warrant a second or third playthrough.

Replayability Rating: Very Good

6. Balance
This game definitely doesn’t know if it wants to be on the Light side or the Dark side.

For most of the game you’ll be fine. Effortlessly killing swarms of Stormtroopers, and then challenged by unique enemies or situations. Truly enjoyable game play. And then you’ll open a door to a whole squadron of enemies who hit you with repeated paralyzing blasts and then shoot you until you die. Again, and again, and again.

There seems to be a quality versus quantity issue going on here. More isn’t always better. Especially when More cheats with stun-guns and rockets that fly around corners.

Balance Rating: Poor

7. Originality
Alright, it’s based on a franchise, so you can’t say it’s completely original. But given what they’ve done within the confines of said franchise, and kept it in canon, that’s impressive. A job well done under what must have been some, shall we say, restrictive, conditions.

Originality Rating: Great

8. Addictiveness
It depends. Do you enjoy holding enemies in a Force-grip and impaling them with a lightsaber before setting them ablaze with electricity and hurling them like a bomb into their companions? If you answered yes, then you’ll want to play as much as you can as often as you can.

If you answered no, why have you read this far?

Addictiveness Rating: Very Good

9. Appeal Factor
I think I’ve made it apparent by now, but it bears repeating. Ignoring all of the flaws, this game is a hell of a lot of fun to play. And it’s that sheer joy of wanton slaughter that allows you to look past the problems. I may not be able to target an enemy easily, but when I get him in my grip and use him like a human wrecking ball, all sins are forgiven.

This is doubly true if you’re a Star Wars fan. Just watching the video preview at the end of the demo, I knew this was a game for the old school fans. It was like LucasArts apology for the bad movies. “It’s okay. We understand. Please, use a Jawa to beat a Stormtrooper to death. It’ll make you feel better.”

Appeal Factor Rating: Classic

10. Miscellaneous

As you’ve read, Star Wars: The Force Unleashed is a study in almosts and contrasts. It brings fantastic elements, and cripples itself at the same time. But here is the one point where it gets it right. Star Warsyness. (Yes it’s a word. Shut up.)

This is what Star Wars was meant to be. Lots of aliens, different planets, awesome ships, epic battles, good versus evil. It really is the full Star Wars experience brought home. It only leaves you wondering why they didn’t do this before, or why they didn’t film it.

And yes, there’s merchandising here as well. But tell me you don’t want a giant day-glo painted Rancor to decorate your cubicle.

Miscellaneous Factor Rating: Classic

The Scores
Story / Modes: Good
Graphics: Great
Sound: Classic
Control / Gameplay: Enjoyable
Replayability: Very Good
Balance: Poor
Originality: Great
Addictiveness: Very Good
Appeal Factor: Classic
Miscellaneous Factor: Classic
FINAL SCORE: VERY GOOD GAME

Short Attention Span Summary
This is one of the best Star Wars experiences you’ll ever have. It’s not without its faults, but if you’re a fan, you owe it to yourself to get a copy post-haste.

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