Star Wars: The Force Unleashed (Sony PSP)

Star Wars: The Force Unleashed
Genre: Action
Developer: Krome
Publisher: Lucas Arts
Release Date: 09/16/2008

It’s been more than thirty years, and there are still a nearly endless number of stories being created in the Star Wars universe. There are so many unanswered questions about its ridiculously large pantheon of characters that we’ll still be getting new books, TV shows, movies, and even video games for another thirty years at least. Just you wait and see.

The newest entry into official cannon is The Force Unleashed. Now as a Star Wars fan, I don’t think there is a person on this earth who could blame me for getting excited about the game. Everything leading up to the game led us to believe that it would be an experience like none other; the first game to truly give you the sense that you could control the force.

However, you may be wondering why anyone would want to play the PSP version over the other five or six version out there on the market. Well, being that I don’t have a Wii, Xbox 360, or even a PS3 (I do want one oh so badly though), my choices were between the PS2, DS, or the PSP. Now, unless there are some necessary stylus controls, I’ll choose PSP over DS any time a game is on both. (Better audio and visuals.) I’ve already got well over a hundred games for my PS2, and my PSP collection isn’t nearly so massive. Plus, I’ve had a blast with PSP games like Medievil, Ratchet & Clank, and Gurumin. I guess I just really love the classic 3D action games on my little handheld.

One more thing. The PSP is the ONLY version of the game that has exclusive modes. So, does this version of The Force Unleashed usher in a new era of Star Wars gaming on the go, or will it turn out to be another “Lethal Alliance”?

Story/Modes

As you probably already know, The Force Unleashed tells the tale of Darth Vader’s secret apprentice. His name is supposedly Starkiller. However, that name is uttered briefly only towards the end of the game and he is just called the Apprentice in the manual and even in Soul Calibur 4. It’s as if they realized at the end that they never gave him a name and tacked it on right at the end. They might as well have just left it out altogether.

Anyway, your mission is to fly around the galaxy on the Rogue Shadow with your pilot Juno Eclipse and the android Proxy. It seems a few Jedi weren’t killed after Order 66 and Vader doesn’t have the time to hunt them all down himself. The Apprentice isn’t really that bad of a guy once you get to know him. He doesn’t seem like he really gets a kick out of murdering people like Darth Maul would. This leads to some intriguing moments where he has to make the choice of obeying his master or choosing his own path. What follows from there on is one of the more interesting Star Wars stories I’ve seen since The Empire Strikes Back. I don’t want to give too much away, but if you want to play this game for the story, you will not be disappointed. Starkiller is an interesting character and is fit so snugly into the Star Wars mythos that you may find it weird that he was never mentioned before.

Along with the excellent story mode, you also get some basic ad hoc multiplayer options. The big addition, however, is three exclusive stand alone modes that only the PSP mode has. First off, you have force duel, which allows you to face a gauntlet of force users in an attempt to be the best of the best. You start off with some easy battles against low ranking Jedi, but towards the end you start having to face more than one at a time and your skills will truly be challenged.

Similar to this is the Order 66 mode. Here, you’ll face wave after wave of enemies to unlock more bonus missions and characters for the next mode I’ll talk about. While this could have easily been the weakest part of the game, it actually ends up being pretty good as the game gives you a large variety of basic enemies mixed with tougher ones. There are even some bosses thrown in to the fray. You will also get changing locales, so you won’t have to stare at the same scenery. It is challenging and rewarding. As far as I’m concerned, it should set the standard for this kind of mode in future games.

Lastly, there are historical missions you can battle. That’s right. You can use the Unleashed mechanics to re-imagine the battle between Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker in the carbonite chamber from Episode V, or how about the Anakin/Dooku battle from Episode III. There are several of these battles and each one keeps track of how fast you completed the mission and even lets you put in your initials if you’ve got the high score. It is a blast being able to replay the iconic scenes from the world’s most iconic film franchise with this engine.

And only the PSP has it.

Graphics

This is one section of the game that is a just a cut down version of its bigger brothers. While the graphics during gameplay look all right, they can look jagged and unfinished. Everything has a rough feel to it that takes away from the experience. You do see a lot of animations in some of the more important characters, but a most of the enemies move like something out of old stop motion. The bigger beasts like Rancors and AT-STs are particularly guilty of this.

The big problem is the in game cut scenes. For some reason, every character’s face looks like a Muppet. Mouths are triangular flaps that don’t move in tune to the words they are speaking. Eyes are lifeless and don’t move at all. It can be pretty unnerving how they never blink and how they seem to stare off into some other dimension. Darth Vader is the worst of the bunch, even though his face is obscured by a mask. His fingers aren’t separated, meaning they look just like a Lego man’s hands. This is especially hilarious because of Lego Star Wars.

The environments aren’t that bad really. Felucia in particular looks nice. Any time you are on an Imperial Star Destroyer, it feels like a slightly stylized version of the real thing. They are also full of plenty of destructible set pieces, most of which you can pick up and hurl around with the force. Glass will splinter. Computer consoles will spark. The whole experience is elevated thanks to this.

Visually, this is definitely cut down, but the strength of the art design and the realistic way the force interacts with the environments keep it from being an ugly game. Chains of Olympus this isn’t.

Audio
Will there ever be a time when John Williams’ score will ever grow tired to our ears? I think not. TFU fuses the classic tunes with some original ones to create one of the best video game soundtracks I’ve ever heard. Couple that with the classic Star Wars sounds of blasters, light saber hums, the wheeze of Vader’s helmet, and even the distinct voices of the storm troopers, and you’ve got a heck of an ambient aural experience.

How about the voice acting? I’m happy to report it is fantastic. I’m so sick of the lifeless, dull performances we’re used to in games. (Aerith in Kingdom Hearts II.) Starkiller is given real character thanks to great performance from him and his supporting cast. Even the droid PROXY manages to convey more emotion than most main characters!

That’s not to say there aren’t flaws. There were a few cases were the audio never clicked on, laser blasts didn’t make any sound and the score seemed mysteriously absent. Also, the ending cut scene suddenly got very quiet. I had the volume cranked all the way up and could barely hear what the characters were saying. I didn’t notice this at any other point, but I have heard reports on a few forums of the audio turning off altogether during such moments.

Still, the overall experience is one of the best in gaming when it works. (Which is a vast majority of the time.) This is one of those games where you will never want to turn the sound off to listen to something else.

Gameplay

Anyone thinking that the same amazing physics engine that powers the next-gen versions of this game can be found in the portable version is going to be sadly mistaken. Still, Krome did manage to give the player the feeling that they were really using the force to accomplish some simply amazing things.

TFU is, at heart, just a 3D action game with a few nifty gameplay mechanics to give it a boost above others in its genre. That being said, it suffers from a lot of the pitfalls that that this genre often breeds.

Here’s a basic rundown on the controls. The analog stick moves Starkiller around while X jumps and Square uses your light saber. The rest of the buttons are used to control your various force abilities. Triangle will allow you to grip most objects and people and lift them in the air. From there you can use the analog stick to move them backwards, forwards, or side to side and chose whether you want to throw them to the side, push them forward, choke an enemy, pummel them with objects that litter the floor, or just hold them in space for a well timed light saber throw or force lightning attack. Most but not all enemies can be lifted this way, and I was hard pressed to find any objects that couldn’t be lifted. There were some that seemed to be bolted to the floor, but this is the exception rather than the rule as even trees could be thrown around like a plastic bag floating in the fall breeze.

This controls pretty well, although you’ll have to deal with objects getting in the way and the horrible camera. You also won’t be able to move or defend while using these techniques, which prevents you from abusing them too much. Not being able to move is a real pain though, especially since you see them all do so in cut scenes and quick time events. Circle will help you use force lighting, which is the best technique in the game as it hits multiple targets and prevents them from fighting back unless they can block it. It is also your best bet against flying targets if you don’t want to use the force grip.

The game throws a myriad of enemy types at you. You might think that all you’ll fight is basic storm troopers and a few rebel troops, but the variety is surprising. Sure, you’ll fight a lot of guys with blasters, but you’ll also come across sword and spear users. These guys can block light saber attacks and the spear carriers can use lightning attacks that are similar to your own to hold you down while their buddies blast away at you. Some enemies will use laser cannons that have to charge and use a visible scope. Others have spread rifles and throw detonators. You’ve even got jetpack users that avoid your attacks and shoot rapidly back at you. If you get too close, you’ll be rewarded with a blast from a flamethrower. These are just the basic enemies. You’ll also come across several mini bosses like Rancors or AT-ST’s that are so massive that you have to try your best to keep your distance to avoid being trampled into oblivion. The game cranks these different enemy types out in small doses to keep the experience relatively fresh for the whole game.

The levels, on the other hand, are often simple straightforward treks through enemy infested terrain. I only came across a couple of sections where you needed to do any platforming and there was no exploration necessary thanks to the map highlighting the next check point. It can feel like a real grind. There aren’t even any puzzles to solve. You get a couple of sections where you need to force grip a transformer and smash it to lower a defense field and that’s it. On top of that, any time there is a door you need to open, the designers thought it would be cool to make you sit still, hold the triangle button for several moments, and then release it to blast the door open. All this serves to do is annoy you as you spend ten seconds just to open a damn door! Not even God of War‘s incessant need for you to jam on the circle button compares to this. Why can’t you simply use a force push? Why?

Now it’s time to talk about the one problem that is almost always existent in these types of games; the camera. This is probably the worst camera for this type of game I’ve ever seen. You have zero control over it. Instead, the game decides it is going to turn and face whatever direction Starkiller is looking. It also tries to stay behind him at all times. This causes it to go absolutely batshit whenever you get stuck in a corner. It will fly around and often leave you without the ability to see yourself. That’s right, you disappear! Also, if you get knocked back by a stampeding rancor or AT-ST, you often get back up facing the other direction! Then the camera shifts to face the opposite way! You won’t be able to see the colossus that’s kicking your tail anymore! You’ll often have to run around hoping you’re heading to the health pack you saw before, only for the camera to shift so you start heading the wrong way. You can push R and down to focus the camera on a boss in a kind of lock on, but this just means you’ll never see what’s to the side of you. A lot of storm trooper got shots off on me because of this. Also, you won’t be able to look up. When you’re facing any flying enemy, you’re screwed. Your best bet is to double jump and hope that force lighting will bring them back to earth. I’m not done yet. When you use the force grip technique, the camera will zoom up directly behind you and follow whatever direction your turn. Often, you will disappear. Mostly though, the sudden zooming in will just leave you completely prone to an attack from behind and from the sides. You’ll have zero peripheral vision. There was no point in the game where I felt as if I didn’t have to fight the camera more than the enemies. It can really take you out of the game and makes it hard to play it.

The game also relies on quick time events to end every boss fight. While this does leave you with some cool finishing moves, the timing of the button presses is often confusing in regards to how it fits what’s going on screen. It’s clear from these sequences that the dev team was trying to replicate what Sony did with God of War, but it ends up feeling like a cheap attempt.

The biggest disappointment comes in the form of one on one boss battles against other force users. These are long, boring, and often all too easy. Jedi almost always block any light saber attack, and most can shake off your force grip techniques. Your only option is to run around and blast with your force lighting. You can feel free to try and land a few hits with your light saber when you have to recharge your force meter, but the force lighting will undoubtedly end up dealing the bulk of the damage. Also, these guys can take a hit! A full force meter’s worth of lighting will only deal a small fraction of damage. Successful light saber hits will deal suspiciously little. It’s sad that what should have been the game’s best moment’s end up being the most boring.

Despite all of this, the overall experience is fun simply because of the intrinsic joy of picking up an enemy and throwing him off a scaffold using the force. The game is short enough that this never gets old. The bad camera and occasionally unresponsive controls can deaden it once in a while, but it is just as easy to get back into it. I may not want to replay any of the boss battles, but I love going back to throw some storm troopers around. In that sense, the dev team succeeded in their plan for this game.

Replayability

As is the case for most action games, TFU is pretty short. The story didn’t take me more than six or seven hours to complete. The game does offer you the ability to go back and play through with all of your upgrades, abilities, costumes, light saber parts and extras intact. It will also give you the chance to go back and find any secrets you missed the first time. (There are over 200 holocrons you can find that unlock concept art. If you find them the first time, you deserve a medal.) While there is some fun to be had replaying early levels with fully upgraded force lightning, most of the replay value comes in the exclusive modes I mentioned earlier.

You have three different play modes, and each can reasonably last you several hours, especially the gauntlet challenges of Order 66 and Force Duel. I ended up playing these for a couple of hours just the first day, and they’ll be what I go to if I ever feel like playing the game again. It’s nice that there is an action game out there that doesn’t require you to play through the story just to get into the action.

These bonus modes give it more than average replay value for an action game.

Balance

One of the things about this game is that you should be overpowered. After all, you are a force wielding dark Jedi among a bunch of clones with guns. For the most part this is true. You can hold down your light saber to block and reflect enemy fire. You can run in and force lightning everyone in sight. You can even pick up an enemy and throw him off a ledge and down to a horrible death. There are health packs everywhere to replenish what stores of health your enemies actually managed to deplete, AND they regenerate so you can you can use again a few moments later.

That being said, you can die in this game. As it goes on, the games throws better equipped enemies at you and some that are not so easily manhandled, even with the force. I died due to excessive gunfire on more than one occasion. There was a section near the end where it was next to impossible not to take heavy damage. So even if the game is never truly hard, it does ask that you have some skill in order to stay alive.

Of course, when you die, you respawn within a few seconds walk of where you died with a full life and force meter. All the damage you dealt before your demise stays, so it really is more about perseverance than skill. There was no real penalty for dying that I could see.

This makes it a game that even a small child could beat if they had the patience.

Originality

I’ve never played Psi-Ops, but all I’m hearing seems to point to TFU using similar game mechanics for its force maneuvers. In any case, I haven’t played too many games like this, especially not in the Star Wars universe. This is, surprisingly enough, the first time this kind of game has been created with the license. Also, this is the first time that I’ve heard of a game becoming official cannon in a franchise. I know that Ghostbusters is going to do it later this year, but TFU beat it.

That being said, the action genre is far from new for Star Wars and far from new for Star Wars on the PSP. Lethal Alliance broke that ground. It may not be something we’ve never seen before, but it is one of the better examples of the genre.

Addictiveness

This is one of those games where the story is good enough that you’ll actually want to continue playing through the game just to see what happens. Think about it. Darth Vader has a secret apprentice that goes around hunting the remnants of the Jedi? Why haven’t we heard about this before? What happens to Starkiller? The sheer unknown about this story led me to play it first thing after I got home from work every day until I finished it off.

The game gives you good reason to keep playing until the end, and you may find yourself so hooked that you want to see it again to catch all of the little nuances and foreshadowing that goes on. Of course, once the honeymoon is over, you might not be so pressed to continue. As much as I enjoyed it, I probably won’t be playing TFU again for a while.

Appeal Factor

This has been one of the most anticipated Star Wars games in several years. The ability to control the force using Darth Vader’s apprentice is a treat so seductive, that only the stingiest of gamers will be able to avoid its call.

However, this is the PSP we’re talking about here. Everyone but those of us who actually like the little system already have it in their heads that this version is vastly inferior to all others, and that it would be beneath them to play it. I told one of my friends about the exclusive content, and he laughed it off because it wasn’t included in the “real” versions of the game on the PS3 and 360. Therefore, it didn’t count towards anything because it wasn’t made by the “original developers”.

Of course, if you’re a handheld guru like me, you’ll find plenty to love here.

Miscellaneous

I haven’t brought it up before, but there are some serious issues with the game that HAVE to lower the score, even if they aren’t directly part of the game itself.

For one, the load times are ridiculous. I don’t know what it is about LucasArts games on the PSP, but you can spend nearly a minute looking at a loading screen in between mission. Every cut scene, even the little ones after you beat a boss that shows how you finished them off, take another twenty or so seconds to load. It doesn’t make any sense why this is. We’ve seen more powerful games like God of War and Crisis Core push the system to the limit without nearly this kind of problem.

What this game also does is lag. The game will pause frequently throughout the levels and you’ll hear the whirr of the UMD as it desperately tires to catch up with what’s going on screen. I was playing this on an old PSP, but I’ve heard the problem exists just as much on the Slim as well. Again, more powerful games didn’t have this kind of problem, so why should this one? If anything confirms the arguments of the console elitists who snort at portable play, it’s this. It disgusts me.

That being said, PSP owners get three bonus modes. So there.

The Scores:
Story: Great
Graphics: Mediocre
Audio: Very Good
Gameplay: Decent
Replayability: Above Average
Balance: Decent
Originality: Mediocre
Addictiveness: Good
Appeal Factor: Below Average
Miscellaneous: Mediocre
Final Score: Above Average

Short Attention Span Summary
Star Wars: The Force Unleashed is ahead of the curve as far as most action games for the PSP go. Thanks to its great story and bevy of exclusive modes, it is worth a spot in any handheld aficionado’s collection. It does have a god awful camera and some serious loading issues, but these serve as minor problems rather than an all out deterrent. I suggest anyone who doesn’t want to spend sixty bucks for the next-gen titles (or has yet to upgrade) give this game a try. May the Force be with you.

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