Star Wars games have a fairly spotted history.
From Rebel Assault to Pod Racer, the plot of a Star Wars game had to fit into one of two categories. Either the game:
- retold the story of the movies from a perspective close to the main characters, or
- told a completely independent story with mostly new characters and settings, most of which looked like or were planets from the movies.
Characters didn’t often come with many layers, and when they did, the games themselves were written so the deep emotional conflicts of Light Side versus Dark Side were typically kept out until the final act.
The idea of a strong, plot-driven game was something that LucasArts strove to create even in its earliest days, and for the most part it eluded them. Yes, BioWare knocked it out of the park in both gameplay and story with Knights of the Old Republic, but I consider that to be BioWare’s baby, not LucasArts’.
Then something wonderful happened.
With the end of the Jedi Knight series of games LucasArts was done telling the story of Kyle Katarn and needed a new force-powered hero.
They were also done trying to build a hybrid first person shooter/third person force power/platforming game and returned to the strength of their force-using franchises with Star Wars: The Force Unleashed.
A longtime fan of the various Star Wars video game franchises offered by LucasArts, I was anticipating Battlefront III (still not released six years after BFII) when they announced The Force Unleashed.
The initial concept art pieces and materials released for the game along with its original trailer made it look fun and thrilling to engage in. The entire concept of Vader having a secret apprentice made it clear that this game’s story was going places left untouched (deliberately, it was revealed in behind the scenes materials), and that the story was taking center stage. For the sake of curiosity, the game looked like it was worth a try.
Then again, in the concept art, he was using the Force to cut an AT-AT walker in half.
Remember the giant walkers from The Empire Strikes Back? One of those. In half.
So much about the initial teaser information and materials screamed “cool” that it was all too easy to get excited over. The teaser cinematic was Starkiller ripping a destroyer from the sky and having it land feet in front of him overwhelming him in size and scope before he aggressively draws his blade. Honestly, it was difficult to see that and not immediately think “WANT.”
TFU is very story-driven, and the developers did a great job of making the player feel like he or she truly commands the raw power of the Force, especially in the graphical design and sound editing.
The writers worked hard to create an identifiable character that was still rough around the edges. That would become his perspective on the world, so the visuals were made to match. They are at times very slick and cinematic; probably the most realistic a Star Wars game had ever been up to that point. At other times they are so grandiose that you rightly feel like Starkiller is tiny compared to the size of the things going around him. Still he manages to be the gravitational center of the galaxy.
The gameplay is a combination of elements. Inspired by fighting games, TFU primarily uses combo attacks and quick time events to fight large groups of enemies, monsters and bosses. With its own Force power dynamic as a twist, the game uses platforming to get around fairly linear paths in the worlds it explores.
The game did not fare wonderfully in reviews. Many fans were upset that the game simply didn’t offer them more.
It did get two more levels, alternate “what-if” scenarios that have Starkiller looking for the droids on Tatooine and leading the invasion of Hoth, but the fans were still left only somewhat satisfied.
The strongest praises for the game come for its visuals, story, original soundtrack and voice acting. The actors performed with motion capture devices, immediately giving the characters more credibility than had been seen in a Star Wars game before. Seeing characters with human faces instead of carved up face-looking blocks made it much easier to empathize with them.
Hearing a soundtrack that was more than just recut John Williams tracks gave the whole story a sense that as a player, you were experiencing something truly new but still classically Star Wars. Mark Griskey’s work (featuring two tracks by Jesse Harlin, including the main theme) is available online for free, and I have to recommend it to skeptics and fans alike.
The key part of the gameplay was the Force itself, and the Force powers at the player’s disposal. The player starts out with only a few powers, but earns bonuses and upgrades through collecting floating cubes called holocrons, usually hidden around the world and discoverable through occasionally frustrating feats of platforming.
The “unleashed” part becomes evident almost immediately when you start throwing soldiers around like rag dolls and listening to them scream or watching them try to grab on to anything nearby, including fellow soldiers. The game is made to make the player feel in control almost all the time, save boss battles, and it’s the game’s depiction of the Force that lets you do that.
The designers worked hard creating a way to blend three different physics and NPC behavioral engines to give the “Force wrecking ball” approach the backdrop it needed to truly shine. By the time you’re cutting AT-ST walkers in half, fighting Rancors or simply ripping a mile-long destroyer out of the sky, you realize how empowered you feel playing this game. The developers cranked the Force up to 11, and it’s a blast.
Of course the game’s greatest strength is its plot. Coincidentally, it’s also the game’s greatest weakness, depending on how highly one values multiplayer. Everything that a Star Wars game could get right in terms of the story, this one did. The only real downside is that it didn’t do it enough. The story, for all its strengths, is short. Given that the only other thing to do in the game is challenge maps, it limits the whole experience.
The characters are bright, complex and original, acting as guides and foils to Starkiller’s emotional development. Some familiar favorites stop by to pay a visit to the main storyline, including a young Princess Leia and Jimmy Smitts reprising his role as her adoptive father, Bail Organa. Sam Witwer, who plays Starkiller exceptionally, does double duty as the Emperor as well and does it very convincingly (here he is talking about it).
The game’s controls can get a little sticky, and the boss fights change the entire player perspective, forcing the player to learn a new camera and control system all at once. Still, the penalty for death is almost non-existent, so the game isn’t too frustrating.
Despite everything, LucasArts couldn’t help themselves from inserting two endings, and both are worth playing. The fun part of the two expansion levels are that they assume you chose the non-canon Dark Side path, which sets up some classic fights with brand new twists.
Still, the fact that the entire emotional journey of the character comes down to a single decision makes the character arc feel a little cheaper. It wouldn’t have hurt the game to put a series of these decisions in and use those to determine Starkiller’s fate, but alas, it was not to be.
Why You Should Play It
The Force Unleashed is an experience unlike any other for even the most casual Star Wars fan.
The story is fast-paced and fun, and the acting is through the roof. Although the game is short, that makes it fun and easy to come back to. You don’t have to spend a lot of time worrying about complex or convoluted plot lines, and the story it tells is engaging.
The graphics are modern and well integrated with the physics systems. The game has the look of the “lived in” universe that Star Wars popularized for science fiction in the 70’s and 80’s. The feeling of the infinite power of the Force is exceptionally well communicated, from the tiger-like roar of Force repulse to the loud booms of Force push, to the twisting and straining of metal under your control.
The sheer number of Force power and lightsaber combos is worth exploring and infinitely fun. The sheer entertainment value of using powers like lightning grenade, where you pick an enemy up, shock it, then throw it so it explodes on contact, cannot be underestimated.
Through various gimmicks, the player gets to face off against other famous faces in the Star Wars universe. The surprise and excitement in facing off against a film favorite or two alone makes The Force Unleashed worth it.