To celebrate my triumphant return after finishing my doctoral exams (no results yet), here’s a review you can use! I’ll probably have another one for Smackdown vs. RAW 2011, Dead Space and Dead Rising 2 in the next week or two.
Star Wars: The Force Unleashed
For the first time in a Star Wars game, you play the bad guy. That should be enough to whet your appetite right there.
The Force Unleashed has some superficial similarities to the Jedi Knight series of games. he game takes place between the end of Revenge of the Sith and the beginning of A New Hope. You play a force using, lightsaber wielding Sith, Darth Vader’s secret apprentice. You are assigned to hunt some of the remaining Jedi left in the galaxy after Revenge of the Sith.
One huge different from Jedi Knight is how the force is used. It’s much more powerful, particularly formerly simple powers like Force Push, which can knock a bunch of stormtroopers back fifty or a hundred feet. Lightning is another hugely important power, particularly after you gain the ability to charge it. Force Grip can be used on objects as well as people, throwing them around with style. It’s so powerful that, in the coolest scene in the game, you actually rip an Imperial Star Destroyer out of the sky.
On the flip side, the lightsaber seems strangely underpowered. It takes multiple hits to kill even a stormtrooper. The game clearly intends for you to use the force against most enemies, saving your lightsaber mostly for times you are out of the force or are fighting bosses.
Each boss is a little different, and some are particularly easy to beat using the force. After you wear them down a certain amount, you get a God-of-War style button pushing experience that makes finishing off your opponents particularly satisfying. None of the battles are particularly hard, but many are challenging enough that when you do kill the boss, it’s a huge lift.
The combat is absolutely incredible, and you legitimately feel like a badass, particularly as your character gets stronger. There’s an RPG style element, where your Sith grows over time, improving his mastery of the force, learning new combos (including the ability to punt Jawas), and maximizing his ability to strike with the lightsaber. You can play the game again in a sort of New Game + after finishing it, which will let you experience the other ending of the game (there are two) with a lot more power. There are costumes, videos, and artwork to unlock too, providing plenty of replay value.
Combat aside, it’s still a Star Wars game, so story is very important. The voice acting is all quite good, and Vader’s actor is just as good as the original — so good I had to double check the manual to make sure it wasn’t James Earl Jones. There are some twists, but nothing truly shocking until the very end. You’ll see lots of familiar faces, and they are all well integrated into the story. The trouble is, the characters are not as well developed as they are in other games, much less the movies. Proxy the Droid is great, although no HK-47. Part of the problem is that there’s just not much character interaction — for most of the game, you only see Proxy, Juno Eclipse (your pilot) and Vader. The second half is more interesting, but until you get to that point, the most exciting part of progressing in the story is more force powers.
All the planets are very unique, and they avoid some of the staple Star Wars planets (no Tatooine, no Dantooine, no Coruscant) to give you a much wider range of scenery. Most of the levels are quite well designed — the camera does have issues in narrow passageways, but these are rare enough that they are a minor irritant and not a devastating failure. The score is typical Star Wars, and everything sounds the way it should.
Three major problems stand out with the game. First, the controls, especially for Force Grip, are a bit unwieldy. Targeting is incredibly imprecise, which is problematic when a huge number of stormtroopers (or republic soldiers) attacks you at once, and they always do. Jumping is also a huge pain, and while thankfully there aren’t many platforming areas, these areas are the most frustrating in the entire game, at least for me. Games like Assassin’s Creed and InFamous use “smart” jumping that automatically guides you to an area — it’s much freer in the Force Unleashed, and some of the areas you need to reach are very thin.
Second, the AI tends to be unforgiving, and you’ll die a number of “cheap” deaths. The computer is conscious of the numbers superiority it enjoys, and they do a good job of surrounding you when they can. The biggest problem is getting shot out of the sky when you are trying to jump, which usually makes you vulnerable to more attacks, or enemies with the ability to freeze you. At this point, you will inevitably get torn apart because you will get swarmed. The lightsaber isn’t effective enough to hold up in close combat with large numbers of enemies. The game doesn’t punish you much for dying — you keep all your Force Points (for upgrades) and you rarely lose much ground — but you do die a little more, and in cheaper ways, than an all-powerful Sith ought to.
The third problem is one that plagues a lot of games — long loading times. It’s not as bad as other games, like Dragon Age, but where it does fall short is when you bring up the screen to upgrade your force powers. There is absolutely no reason for there to be a loading screen to essentially check your map or objectives, yet there is, and it’s incredibly irritating. It also has to reload the planet, so you get another loading screen while you cancel out. Very rarely, the game will freeze on loading screens — it only happened once for me, but I’ve heard others complaining too.
Overall, it’s a very good game and a worthy companion to other Star Wars games — but it falls short of many of the other Star Wars games. If you come in expecting Jedi Knight or Knights of the Old Republic, you’ll be hugely disappointed — it’s not that good. It’s better than a lot of the lousy Star Wars RTS games, and light years better than the original Dark Forces. The story is very slow-starting, but once it does start, it’s captivating. Even the tutorial level is awesome, because your player is none other than Darth Vader.
Bottom line, if you like Star Wars and appropriately modify your expectations, you’ll enjoy the experience, most of the time. It’s even better the second time through. It’s cheap, too — $19.99 when I picked it up with a Best Buy Reward Zone Certificate. There are DLC levels as well — I haven’t tried them, but I’ve heard they’re quite a bit more challenging and inferior products.
+: It’s Star Wars!
– You haven’t lived until you’ve punted a Jawa.
– Starkiller not only has an awesome name, he’s easily the most powerful Force User ever to appear in a Star Wars game.
-: The controls are wonky at times, especially for grip.
– Loading times!
– Plenty of cheap deaths.