28 October 2008

Star Wars: The Force Unleashed Review

The Force Unleashed is a very perplexing game. There's so much that it has going for it, and yet at the same time there's a lot that - from any other developer - would be considered heinously bad game design. But seeing as it's LucasArts...apparently they can get away with it. Still, they've managed to produce a decently entertaining game that, whilst rife with problems, still has a thoroughly enjoyable core set of gameplay elements.

As you probably know, The Force Unleashed is a 3rd person action game that puts emphasis on hugely over-the-top Force powers being blasted about. It uses a couple of revolutionary technologies, and its story finally fills in the gap between Episode III and IV, which has been so closely guarded by all the creators of Star Wars.

The story itself is actually pretty good. It goes that you step into the shoes of Darth Vader's secret apprentice, who Vader abducted as a young child and trained to help him fight the Emperor. It's a bit of a startling revelation, in truth, but it fits surprisingly well into the Star Wars canon. What's more, it's highly cinematic, with some fantastic cutscenes (both standard and interactive) that are at the very least equal to anything that the prequel movies churned out, if not better. There's a huge amount of imagination being thrown at the CGI entries into the Star Wars saga at the moment, and the Force Unleashed is no different. The only problem with it is that it suffers the current generation trend of short and sweet stories, but don't hold that against it.

What's more, there isn't a single bad performance from the 'cast', from Battlestar Galactica's Sam Witwer in the lead role to the voices of the supporting roles, everyone throws in at the very least a decent performance, and this helps draw you in deeply to the story and connect with the characters, giving emotional gravitas to the final, chaotic battle which ends in a rather unexpected manner.

The core gameplay mechanic is, of course, the lightsaber battling and the Force abilities. They're all linked together with the combo system, and you can put together some ferocious combinations of lightsaber blows and Force lightning, push and grip. Later on you acquire the ability to chuck your lightsaber at opponents, as well as an ability that propels all the enemies around you away. When pitted against wave upon wave of basic enemies, this system allows you to plough through them with relative ease and - importantly - is an enormous amount of fun.

However, it falls down when the game tries to up the challenge, pitting you against tougher enemies that simply feel odd. In an attempt to counter-act this tidal wave of Force energy, the designers decided to give a lot of enemies the ability to survive many, many, many lightsaber strokes - and this goes against the whole mantra of the Apprentice being 'unleashed', as having to pound at a 'Stormtrooper Commander' for four or five lightsaber strokes when you should be able to take him down with a single one is just frustrating. There are so many other ways of making enemies more challenging, and yet LucasArts still made the decision to make them tougher where they really shouldn't have. A good half of the boss battles, too, feel unnecessarily difficult, especially towards the end of the game - with the games final couple being exercises in luck and trial-and-error rather than skill.

It also fails to expand the game outside the combat - the platforming elements feel tacked on and half-arsed, with a lot of them being badly laid out and poorly pointed towards. One particular moment - where you must take down a Star Destroyer using only the Force - is wrestled from iconic and pulse-pounding into a frustrating exercise in just trying to get through it without dying, simply with the addition of wave upon wave of TIE fighters coming after you and interrupting your attempts. Realistic? Sure. Fun and iconic? Not any more.

The level design, despite being absolutely gorgeous, is yet another black spot. It simply lacks the required logic to funnel you towards the next fight, and you'll find yourself backtracking and going in circles quite a lot. Which is a huge shame, because the level of detail involved is absolutely incredible, and had there been more thought put into the actual layout, it could've been one of the most beautiful games ever produced.

The new technologies are also hugely underused. Euphoria - the new AI tech that imbues character models with nervous systems and human-like reactions - feels completely peripheral. On my play-through, I only encountered a handful of moments where the Euphoria really shone through. The enemies simply don't have much chance to use their new-found abilities before the Apprentice cuts a swathe through them and they're dead. DMM - Digital Molecular Modelling for those who don't know - is also sorely in need of better use. Lightsabering through walls would've been nice, but as it stands there's very little in the way of destructible environments, and whilst the effects that are there are incredibly impressive, there's simply not enough of it included in the game for the amount of brouhaha that LucasArts made of it.

At the end of the day, The Force Unleashed is a trade-off game - you should go into it expecting both pulse-pounding action, and frustrating banality in equal measures. It's just about pushed into 'worth it' by the incredible and cinematic story. There's a lot to like about it, but the crap that you have to wade through to get to it prevents the game from achieving greatness.

Ross' Rating: 65%

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