Thursday, October 23, 2008

Review: Star Wars: The Force Unleashed


PC, PS3, Xbox 360, Wii, PS2 (and stripped-down versions for PSP, DS, iPhone)

Many Bothans died to bring you this review. Well, it was just one, but in my defense, he was being kind of a dick.

Released to a collective fangasm – the equivalent of millions of voices whimpering in pleasure as one – The Force Unleashed fills in the blanks between the old (good) trilogy, and the new (shinier, less good) Star Wars trilogy. You take the role of ‘Starkiller’, Darth Vader’s secret apprentice – through the course of the game you’ll hunt down numerous rogue Jedi knights, kill hundreds of storm troopers, bash a few wookies over the head, and – of course – fall in love in the cheesiest possible manner. So it’s par for the LucasArts course, then.

After a couple of decades of an ever-expanding Expanded Universe (EU), every possible gap after the original trilogy has been filled in. (Did you ever wonder what Han Solo and Princess Leia’s children would be like? Turns out they were force-sensitive twins, one of whom – Jacen – got broody, fell to the Dark Side, changed his name to Darth Caedus and was killed by his sister Jaina in a dramatic sequence worthy of Days of Our Lives.) But while the animated Clone Wars films filled the gap between episodes two and three, there’s a correspondingly large gap – say, 18 or 19 years – between episodes three and four, just begging for a George Lucas-approved plot filler.

I’ve often wondered just what happened to eliminate the Jedi who survived the Clone Wars. Could Vader really have hunted them all down himself? How would he have balanced all that Jedi-hunting with the effort required to keep his black robo-suit nice and shiny? These are the things that keep me up at night. And this is one reason why The Force Unleashed is one of the best releases this year, on any console.

Gamers like acting out through vicarious violent games, and Unleashed supplies plenty of fodder for your force lightning throughout – since Vader wants to keep knowledge of his new apprentice secret from his own master, you’re given carte blanche, and simply instructed to kill everyone you run into, storm troopers and rebel scum included.

While the force isn’t exactly ‘unleashed’, Starkiller is an incredibly satisfying character to play from the very first level. Picking up crates, explosives, droids and TIE fighters at the press of a button never gets old, and flinging them towards your enemies for maximum ‘splosiveness is a heck of a lot of fun. Even if the targeting system for choosing the right barrel isn’t exactly accurate, the auto-targeting of enemies is flawless.

Not quite so flawless are the controls, however – Starkiller’s steps don’t map onto his movements, it’s all too easy to fall off cliffs in the middle of (epic) lightsaber battles, and no angled surfaces in the game offer any kind of purchase for your character’s feet, which pushes the game into punishing platformer territory. But it’s a testament to the power of the IP and the game’s original story that even these nearly crippling issues don’t mar the experience.

Graphically, Unleashed delivers a stunning show for the major consoles – the PS3 and 360 versions are really slick, showcasing textures with fine details, impressively long draw distances and a solid framerate. Due to the Wii effectively being one-and-a-half GameCubes duct-taped together, the Wii version suffers a little in terms of its graphics, although being able to use the Wiimote’s motion controls for lightsaber battles makes up for these losses.

Since it’s a banner title, Unleashed has also been released on all currently active consoles, including the DS and, perhaps unsurprisingly, the iPhone. Neither of these handhelds can offer the same graphical fidelity as the top-end consoles, but both still offer something different. The DS version, put together by developer n-Space, runs in full (blocky) 3D, while also using its touchscreen and stylus for force powers. Clocking in at around two hours all up, the iPhone version offers a much shorter game, but it’s correspondingly cheaper – around $15 to $20, compared to $80 for the DS version, and upwards of $100 for the flashier consoles.

Taking hardware limitations into consideration, in each different port The Force Unleashed’s art direction is utterly brilliant – like the films, it hits the visual high notes. However, unlike the films (and episodes one through three, I’m looking at you), Unleashed avoids most of the lazy plot holes and head-slapping pratfalls. If there were ever a post-Timothy Zahn argument for someone (anyone?) other than George Lucas to write stories set in the modern Star Wars universe, Unleashed is convincing evidence indeed.

[This review first appeared in Critic magazine.]

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