The Farce Unleashed? First impressions of the new Star Wars game (360) September 18, 2008Posted by Mike in Console, Games, Impressions.
Did you know that the name of Darth Vader’s secret Apprentice in Star Wars: The Force Unleashed – “Starkiller” – was the original surname of Luke Skywalker in early drafts of the Star Wars screenplay? Or that Babylon 5 showrunner J. Michael Straczynski paid homage to this fact by giving his own lead character, John Sheridan, the Starkiller moniker as his nickname among the mysterious Minbari? No? Then be assured that I’ve now outlined my sci-fi geek credentials. You’re in safe hands here.
I’ve always ignored the litany of Star Wars expanded universe material. My view is that if a plot isn’t onscreen canon, then balls to it. Therefore the Lucas-approved storyline in Force Unleashed, which fills in the squiggly bits between Episodes III and IV of the Star Wars saga, is the first major draw outside the movies for me personally, for years. Just how did we get from the Jedi being wiped out, to the fledgling Rebel Alliance? And what does the Apprentice – who seemingly exists solely to do Darth Vader’s duplicitously dirty, off-the-books bidding, rather than shouting “That’s what I’m talking abaaaaat!” every five seconds – have to do with it all?
The early story cutscenes are promising. The Apprentice himself is surprisingly likeable and sympathetic rather than brimming with the expected genero-teen-angst evil, and an engaging droid character called Proxy provides the funnies while having more than a little bit of sinister bite behind him. He doesn’t even come across as an HK-47 rip-off, which is refreshing. The only downsides are Darth Vader’s “It’s not really him, is it? Why didn’t you get James Earl Jones, you idiots?” voice and subtly misjudged line-readings, which make you root for man-in-the-suit David Prowse to finally be given the chance to utilise his “The Farrrrce is strang wiv you, moi luvver” vocal talents. The first test, however, is easily passed. Since the story isn’t rubbish, Force Unleashed is automatically better than 99% of narrative-based games.
But the other story here – the gameplay itself – is more troublesome, and Force Unleashed has many of the same problems that crop up again and again in third person action adventures. The major issue is the automatic targeting system, which is, frankly, broken. It selects your target very vaguely based on the direction in which you’re facing, but there badly needs to be an option to switch manually, as in the middle of a fight against multiple enemies, with multiple targetable objects also around you, it’s almost impossible to Force Grip the exact Stormtrooper you really want to fling about.
This leads to the game becoming rather more of a button-masher than it should be. With the targeting woes hampering efforts at precision, the best strategy is to hammer the lightsabre and various Force buttons willy-nilly in order to rid the screen of all opposition. The Euphoria engine (formerly seen in Grand Theft Auto IV) proves itself to be the ideal technical gubbins to depict chaotic uses of The Force here, with the requisite Force Grip and Force Push abilities all present, spangly and correct. The action often looks spectacular onscreen, with enemies flying through the air in multiple directions, and electronics being ripped out of their housings to explode all over the place, but when the button-mashing is compounded by the dreaded QTE sequences that pop up when defeating some of the larger enemies and in boss battles, it often feels that you’re not in complete control of the action. Your inability to move while using The Force, and the swiftly dwindling energy bar for use of the ability (presumably both present for difficulty balancing purposes), are the final nails in the coffin. Having seen Jedis fight in the movies, the Force Unleashed’s control problems and restrictions make the combat more old man Guinness than young pretender McGregor. The game isn’t helped by the level paths’ extreme linearity either, which almost Jedi Mind Tricked me into thinking that N+ was a free-roaming extravaganza.
Still, the art design is absolutely lovely, the music recognisably Star Wars, and general presentation – apart from the screen tearing and some clunky loading times – is everything you’d expect from a big budget game. Certainly the compulsion to get to the next slice of the plot will overcome many of the gameplay problems for Star Wars fans. However, for anyone who has no interest in the story and has been fooled by the hype into expecting combat on the level of a Ninja Gaiden or Devil May Cry, this probably isn’t the game you’re looking for. Darth Vader, everyone’s favourite intergalactic Sir Alan Sugar, certainly shouldn’t fire his Apprentice, but neither should he be rushing to hire him just yet.