You know, The force unleashed really had a lot to live up to. Among Star Wars titles, it had even more pressure on it to be awesome than Metal Gear Solid 2 (unarguably, THE most over hyped game of all time) did at the time of it's release. Here's a brief laundry list of the hype and expectations that have been piled onto this game.
- It's canonical. Thats right, TFU's storyline has been approved by George Lucas as an official chapter in the Star Wars legacy. The eighth cinematic endeavor that took shape not as a film, but as a video game. As a point of fact; Immediately after seeing Revenge of the Sith, the creators of Force Unleashed started working on a game they wanted to be a big hit and sat down with the grand Jedi Master; George Lucas himself, to work on the story. And like all Star Wars canon, Force Unleashed is the work of three years labor, a third of that was taken to get the story ironed out. So unlike the expanded universe (comics + novels) that can do whatever the bloody hell they please with entries that run the gamut from piping hot (anything by Timothy Zahn is golden) to fawking awful (that would be anything by Kevin J Anderson. Scuttlebutt has it that this guy was told by George (Jar Jar Binks seemed like a good idea at the time) Lucas not to write anything else for the franchise) this story is an official chapter in the pop culture juggernaut that is Star Wars, so the story itself is under tremendous scrutiny.
- Then there is the legacy of Star Wars games... I mean sure, for every Star Wars: Demolition, Masters of Teras Kasi and Bounty Hunter title, there is a mega hit that defines it's particular genre. The Rouge Squadron and Starfighter games have the arcade/space shooter genre nailed perfectly. Role Playing has rarely been finer than it has been in the Knights of the Old Republic. FPS titles have the super-awesome Dark Forces (a game I consider to be far more awesome than all the Halo titles put together) as well as Republic Commando. There have even been prior Jedi esque games like the Jedi Knight series that have a reputation for excellence. Star Wars also has a lock on space sims with The awesomely intense X-wing and Tie-Fighter series being second to none. Even 2-D platformers have representation in the form of the Super Star Wars saga that took place on the SNES. A series that was super fun, and had the kind of difficulty that lead to my having to explain to my parents, on more than one occasion, how a SNES controller wound up flung through the television screen. So considering the legacy of awesomeness Star Wars has experienced throughout the years, fans are demanding a lot from every new release and will always place it amongst the greats of the past. Especially this one considering how much hype has been generated over it over the past few months.
- Even from a merchandising standpoint, TFU is under a lot of pressure. There has been a graphic novel put out by Dark Force, a hardcover novel which has spent the past few weeks sitting pretty at #1 on the bestsellers list, and action figures for the kids to collect.
Environments have an insane amount of detail to them
So yah, there's a bit of pressure for Force Unleashed to be awesome. And you know what? TFU lives up to the hype Lucasarts generated for it as well as the standards set by it's gaming forefathers set in the galaxy far far away. In fact, in a year when I've just gotten around to playing many industry darlings like Ninja Gaiden Black and Devil May Cry 4, I can honestly say Force Unleashed is the most fun I've had with a video game all year.
And the critics can't bash it enough. You see, unlike Konami or Capcom or Square or any other major big name developers, Lucasarts isn't in the habit of giving exclusive interviews or private media events to the media just to win high scores from a particular outlet. All Lucasarts media events are open to media, and any in depth interviews outside of those events most sites and magazines have to beg and fight for. So critics don't have to think about that whole "you scratch our backs with exclusive interviews that people will buy our magazine for, we don't speak about the shit you released as a video game and give you a favorable score no matter what" aspect that often goes into reviewing a video game (why the fuck do you think Final Fantasy and God of War get so many lengthy and stellar reviews despite often playing like utter shit?). Henceforth many sites and zines don't really feel compelled to spend time playing or speaking highly of Force Unleashed. And in the worst cases, they'd play a demo version for the sake of saving time and write a half assed review on it. Frankly, I say a lot of the more popular gaming websites out there are full of shit when they scored this game and will speak more of it later... but before I do I'd like give you a bit of background on the game itself.
In the Star Wars novel "Rise of Darth Vader" we see the events that take place immediately after Revenge of the Sith. Surprisingly, the Darth Vader we see in the beginning of this novel is not the ultra hard core picture of badassery we see in the original trilogy. Thanks to all this limbs now being artificial and the injuries that require him to wear the suit to survive, Vaders connection with the force is substantially weaker and his swordsmanship a mere shadow of what it once was. Early in the novel he duels with a mediocre Jedi and wins only by merit of stronger force powers rather than through technique.
However, by the end of the novel he has adjusted and is powerful enough to lead an attack on the wookie world of Kashyyk in order to eradicate Jedi hiding there and gather slaves for the Death Star project. In the battle that follows Vader carves a path through the legions of wookies so blithely he makes them look as menacing as a flock of rabid care bears. He battles with multiple Jedi owning them all through sheer swordsmanship, and beats the best of them to a bloody pulp using the force to hammer him with objects of all sizes. It is a final battle that shows that the dark side is in full effect my little padawans. And one of the coolest things about Force Unleashed is that the prologue chapter occurs with you PLAYING as Darth Vader through this awesome rite of passage.
Force Lightening owns EVERYTHING! It's pretty much the most important of your core force powers.
Awwwww yeah. Fuck whining about being held back or crap romantic dialogue. Vader enters the battle in a Lambda class shuttle (the one you saw in Return of the Jedi), and marches into the thick of things in that awesomely badass way he did back in the original trilogy. After Vader finishes smacking around an incompetent imperial officer and tells him in no uncertain terms to stay the fuck out of his way, you will immediately begin the battle with options such as force choking wookies, tossing them around like playing cards, hurling boulders and debris in their faces, force shoving their arses clear into the as-of-yet unwritten third trilogy, or just slicing them up with your lightsaber. Vader in this prologue is unstoppable. Unbeatable. An ebony-cloaked, ass ripping monster of death and destruction that even his own troops know to stay the fuck away from him when he goes on a rampage. The boss battle is against a lone jedi and Vader fucking owns his ass so hard that the jedi may as well have fallen on his own lightsaber for all the good it did him.
Oh, but WAIT kids... there's a twist. Just before Vader finishes off this unnamed jedi, he feels the presence of someone more powerful in the force. Thinking that the jedi must have a master nearby, he begins the interrogation of the Jedi by force-choke only to have his own lightsaber force-grabbed from his own hand... by the Jedi's infant son. Strong in the force indeed, turns out this jedi got his midichlorians in some strong coffee somewhere along the line. Vader finishes the jedi off and saves the child from imperial stormtroopers by executing everyone on the scene that would know of the childs existence. Absolutely badass. The moral of this introductory level would be that you do NOT fuck with Vader. EVER! Now THIS is the dark lord that would fuck your shit up without even looking at you if you so much as spoke to him.
Fast-forward some fifteen years later. Vader has raised that child to be his own secret apprentice. He's given him the name of Starkiller, a cool ship and a battle droid programmed to keep the apprentice sharp by daily assassination attempts while obeying his every whim (and yes, that particularly conflicting bit of programming is played for jokes. Picture C3-P0 with a gleefully homicidal streak and you'll get a rough idea of the droids personality). Now the apprentice is truly ready to begin taking on the title of Sith, and is dispatched to hunt down three Jedi still at large and execute them as preparation to assist Vader in assassinating the Emperor himself.
Y'know, it kind of sucks that you only play as Vader for one level of the game. After fucking up peoples shit HARD as Vader, playing as the apprentice is actually a disappointment. Oh sure, he's got the pre-requisite double jump, force-shove, force-grab, and lightsaber skills. But he's no Vader. When Vader force-shoved you, you'd be knocked clear into orbit. The apprentice in comparison has substantially weaker powers overall. He's faster and more maneuverable, but Vader didn't have to maneuver. He's so badass no matter what maneuver you pulled on him he'd still fuck you up bad. Playing the game as Vader would have been the penultimate god code. I mean, fuck Kratos, fuck Master Chief, and a very special "fuck you" award goes out to Sephiroth. They aint nothin but youngling beeyotches compared to the ownage Vader unleashes when you play as him. Oh, and the ultimate God code for this game? You gotta ask? Yoda! Back in episode one there was a joke going around about how would you know Mace Windu's lightsaber from the rest of the Jedi Council if they ever got stolen? Easy... Maces would be the one that says bad mother fucker on it (ahem, Pulp Fiction reference for those who haven't seen it). By the time Episode II & III rolled around, that particular lightsaber had been undoubtedly seized by the mightiest of muppets as he talked smack to the emperor and ripped a battalion of Clone Troopers a new poop chute so easily, there's a deleted scene in episode III where Yoda takes on the clones single-handedly while Obi-Wan gets him and Yoda some Neimodian take-out just to make himself feel useful. So yah, I'll be most disappointed if there isn't a hidden code in this game that lets you play as either.
Missah Jedi, yeoh ordah of wonton soup is weady for pick-up - HEY! Don't look at me like that. They actually talk like that.
But all comparisons to godly force users aside, Starkiller is still a helluvalot of fun. Over the course of the game you eventually power him up to do force lightning and chain some very cool combos as well as pull off some hella crazy stunts with the force. Soon into the game you can be leaping into the air, hitting a mid-boss in the face with a barrage of force lightning before nailing him with a lightsaber combo, followed up by an intense force shove and delivering the coup-de-gras by tossing an exploding container or three into him. You can unlock force combo's that mix the three core force powers of lightsaber, lightning, and shove in various amusing ways or unleash other force powered attacks such as a saber throw or using the force to put up a temporary protective barrier around your character. There are just enough combat options at any given time, one of my favorites being the "Lightning Bomb." This is where you force grab an enemy, and while he's in the air hitting him with a burst of force lightning. If you've gotten the proper upgrade, he'll become a living bomb that will explode, taking out anything next to him once you release him. Yet even with awesome moves like that and moments like force grabbing tie fighters out of the air and throwing them into eachother, Starkiller's still no Vader.
Throughout boss fights and while fighting larger enemies like AT-ST's (the "chicken walkers" from Return of the Jedi) or Rancors, after you've reduced the enemies health to a certain point you will enter into a series of Quick Time Events were you will be required to button mash and/or press a series of buttons in order to finish off the enemy. Yeah, these are pretty much the same kind of events God of War stole from eighties arcade games like Dragons Lair. Mess up the sequence on a rancor or AT-ST and you will just lose a bit of life and resume the battle. If you're fighting a boss, you'll just segue back into the moment in the QTE where you had the upper-hand in the duel. I personally appreciate that aspect of the boss battle QTE's since the bosses can be real bastards and restarting a boss fight due to a messed up button press would have been a gaming fopah that only a mediocre and poorly designed game such as... oh I dunno, God of Meh would make. And maybe it's just the fact that I'm an utter Star Wars whore that has read damn near every comic, novel, radio play, and watched every film and spin-off throughout my entire life, but the timed events in this game fricken rock and look awesome in that incredibly visceral way that old school kung-fu films do. Except this game is using the force and lightsabers, which makes it about 9999% cooler.
There are a lot of reviews out there giving the game a lower score than it deserves... Gamerankings is giving it a 73% overall average with the pricks at G4 doing a bukkake in gamers faces with a 40%. Other pretentious wanna-be video game sites out there like Gamespy, IGN and 1UP; sites that would have given BMX XXX a high score if Acclaim had paid enough for it or if it had Sephiroth or Master Chief making a cameo in it, aren't scoring it much better. Too linear and too hard and too simple are the complaints lauded at the game. With some comments being asinine as to suggest that the control scheme from God of War or Ninja Gaiden would have functioned better. Hoooooooleeeee shitflakes! These are the sort of asinine bastards I wish would just give up pretending to enjoy gaming altogether. I don't give a shit if the game is short, or linear, or you can't chain gajillion hits together. I got a fucking life to live here so chaining hits into infinity or playing games that never seem to end isn't important to me, and I don't give a crap if the game is a linear affair or difficult. Have we gotten to the point in the gaming industry where just simply being fun and awesome to play is now considered immaterial? Do game+ modes, 100 hit combo's and branching pathways matter more than simple, unadulterated fun game play? Fuck man, critics bitch at the Star Wars franchise when it's not being fun (see Episode 1 for an example) and than they bitch at it when it is being fun. No wonder Lucas doesn't give a hooping funt about the critics anymore.
I'm sorry, I just gotta say it. I got a BAD feeling about this.
So yeah, the game is hard at times. Enemies will gang up on you, hit you when you're down or when you're busy with one of their friends, spam you with blaster fire and/or grenades and basically use every damn cheap ass technique they can to make you dead pronto. Some bosses have unblockable distance attacks that will knock you to the floor stunning you momentarily, and those kinds of attacks they will spam the hell out of. Basically enemies in this game are designed and programmed to think and play like your typical mainstream online Halo combatant. Especially the felucians. I fucking hated them in the same way I hate a good contra boss, except these guys are like regular enemies. Felucians like to attack from behind A LOT! Every so often you will find about ten of them, all of them invincible unless you can take time out from taking hits from all over the screen and sort out which one is the leader, then kill him which makes the others not-invincible. Sure, the game SEEMED easy when you were playing as Vader. But you see, Vader is a badass MOFO that takes no shit from nobody, and the game designers knew it and made him a god among men. You're just the errand boy so yeah... you'd BETTER have a harder time of it. Dammit, what happened to the days when challenge was cool? Even with those cheap-ass felucian bastards I still had fun with this game, and isn't that why we all play video games?
Now let me discuss this one particular sequence in the game that is catching A LOT of flak from gamers and critics alike. The point in the game where the apprentice has to pull down a star destroyer from orbit to crash it into the planet using the force. Many are calling this level, tedious, boring, and frustrating. You have to tilt the analog sticks according to on screen prompts in order to position the star destroyer with it's nose towards you, then pull it downwards by pulling back on both analogue sticks. During the level you will be interrupted by tie fighter attacks and will have to destroy the fighters in order to continue. Now, the most obvious way to do this is to grab floating space junk that passes by and slam it into the fighters, but this is definitely the slow and tedious way to do it. Those not exactly savvy to experimentation will find this approach vexing and frustrating as I did, before I tried to grab a tie fighter out of the air and slam it into another fighter, and it worked. Using this method it took less than 30 seconds to dispatch the attacking ties, the sequence took less than five minutes to complete, and I felt like an absolute jedi badass when I completed it. The fact that people are complaining that it took them 30 minutes to finish it... well that would be because they fucking SUCK! For all those pointing to this moment and saying it is the defining moment of all that is wrong with the game, I'll fucking give you the $20.00 necessary to pick up a game guide to hold your hand if you just shut up and quit blaming the game for your gaming ineptitude!
Okay, I digress, lets continue. The game is a short, linear affair, no doubt. But there are little optional goals during levels like Jedi and Sith Holocrons to find (okay, for the non Star Wars geeks out there... Holocrons are like little video recorders/players that use the force to capture the personality of the person they belong to and record their teachings. Thus, they are able to interact on a personal level with those that listen to them, even though the person that recorded the teachings are likely dead and gone for centuries) and optional goals to accomplish. Frankly I thought the quest to find these optional items and goals were pretty awesome, as in one level I had a blast using the force to create a series of platforms to leap from just to get a few more power-ups. The game is linear enough that you will always be shunted to your next goal, but open enough that there are all sorts of alternate paths to power-ups and cool action bits. As for the length... a few levels longer would have made the game just right, but even as short as it is, I still love this game and am on my second play through right now and am loving it just as much as the first play through.
Trust me. levetating an enemy over a precipice and letting em drop NEVER gets old
So to recap. Legitimate flaws as far as the critics are concerned are; it's short. It's hard. It's linear. And it's simple in the sense that the highest number of hits you will land on an enemy is seven. When the fuck did this crap become game breaking issues? I suppose being short, easy, and linear like God of War or long, linear, and hard like Ninja Gaiden would have boosted the games score by at least 1/3? I've also heard critics mention the game having game freezing bugs and control glitches, I got the X-Box 360 version and the game plays awesome with no glitches or freezing whatsoever.
If there is one real "damn I wish they'd have fixed this issue" flaw to the game play of Force Unleashed, it's the targeting system. Sometimes you are going to want to grab something in a hurry to grab and throw it with the force, like say at a rancor or a boss, but the cursor will keep cycling between the wrong stuff thats next to the object or inexplicably break the target lock altogether. Cheap deaths and damage can result, or the flow of the game play can be broken because of this. Oh, and the camera is truly of the dark side, but I've gotten used to that in 3-D platforming games and can deal with that.
Now, presentation wise... this game fawking (man I hope my literature professor never reads this) rawks! The character designs and animations are all fluid, detailed, and epic in that Star Wars way. The cut-scenes are awesome with spectacular emotion depicted from the in-game models and fluid art direction throughout. The levels have an insane amount of detail and interactivity to them. There is some awesome fucking programming going on when levels have this unprecedented kind of interactivity. Stranglehold and Black have let you demolish the environment, but never have you actually been able to use and manipulate the environment to this degree. On kashyyk (wookie home world FYI) when vader slams a wookie into a wroshyyr tree, wood splinters in a realistic fashion and when he demolishes a barrier, the wood and supports give out in a way that seems very believeable.
At one point I wanted to test out the highly touted Euphoria and brand spanking new DDM engines, and see if it was literally everything it was cracked up to be since Lucasarts was touting DDM as being able to manipulate particle physics in real-time during game play. And well, it succeeded. On my second play through I took the time to reloaded the game at a certain point and shattered glass walls by charging the force shove to various degrees, and every time certain portions of the glass would shatter and some would be left in direct relation to the amount of force used. It sounds like a little asinine thing to do, but I had the time and wanted to see if the engine could live up to it's promises. That instead of breakable objects breaking in predetermined ways or sparks or particle effects all happening in a preprogrammed fashioned, shit would break apart based on how you attacked it, and how powerful the attack was. It's a little thing, but it does a great deal to pull you deeper into the game. I'd also like to mention that this sort of attention to detail in the programming shows how hard the team worked on the game, and the focus on immersing the character in the force through the graphic and game play engine is incredible. The graphics are even more awesome if you're a Star Wars fanboy, like myself, cuz they really do feel like they were taken straight out of the films. Oh, And what was that you said? You want lighting effects? The lighting effects in this game are insane. At one point you're running to get off of a ship thats about to go into a sun, and when you pass by a viewport the lighting, shadows, and reflections are absolutely incredible. If you want a graphics showcase to let you know just why you shelled out the coin for your next gen system, you should pretty much buy this game now drool over the eye candy.
Nope, that's not a cutscene. Thats an in-game shot.
Aurally, you got nothing to complain about either. The voice actor for Vader does an awesomely spot-on James Earl Jones impression, and everyone else delivers flawless performances all around. The actor for Starkiller especially manages a wide range of emotions at all times and convinces us that the apprentice is a complex character filled with conflicting thoughts and characteristics. As for sound effects, well Lightsabers make that distinctive "vmmmmmm" sound when waved and ignite with that "pfshhhhh" effect that they did in the movies and audio dramatizations. Blasters do that wickedly distinctive star wars "pew pew pew" noise." Explosions all go "Ka-Boom" and Tie Fighters do that onimonopiaticly impossible scream that you know and love. And if I need to say anything else about the music other than "John Williams" for you to realize how awesome the score is; than frankly, fuck bringing balance to the force. I'll use my boot to bring balance to the space between your ass cheeks instead.
The Force Unleashed brings the force and brings it hard. You got a great story that is canon and filled with fan service. The game play is awesomely varied and interesting at all times. And the presentation values, visually and aurally, are second to none. No expense was spared in the making of this game and it deserves every bit of hype it's gotten. It's THE most intense and awesome Star Wars game ever released for a console. Non Star Wars nuts probably won't dig it as much as I did, but they should still have a fun time with the numerous options the game gives you to fiddle around with during game time. It's just plain fun to play, which is something so few games manage to accomplish these days. A game that is truly fun and creative is very rare these days as developers are now focusing on following the examples of Final Fantasy, Ninja Gaiden, God of War, Devil May Cry, Halo ect. This has lead to a certain stagnation in the industry where games aren't so much fun anymore as they are divided into various camps marketed to certain targets. And the REALLY fun games nobody cares about since developers and gaming media are no longer about the fun as they are about the money. And should a game come out that is legitimately, die repeatedly until you get better at the game , difficult... well thats just unacceptable in this day and age. So my recommendation is that you say "fuck you" to the critics and get this game.