The anticipation that builds around a perennially delayed high profile videogame typically reaches beyond reasonable expectations into a realm of impossibility. Just ask Silicon Knights about their recent critically lambasted franchise seed Too Human. Debate rages on even today, a month after the game’s release, on whether the third-person action-RPG was justly judged by fans and critics alike.
Similarities drawn between LucasArts’ Star Wars: The Force Unleashed and Too Human are eerie to say the least. Like Too Human, TFU has seen its release date pushed back on multiple occasions but managed to temporarily silence critics with a resoundingly successful playable demo on Xbox 360 and Playstation 3. Both games rely on fast and frenetic “button mashing” combat, leveling-up player skills and an impersonal elevated third-person camera.
The Force Unleashed has two things going for it Too Human can only dream of: the draw of the Star Wars license and not one, but two new in-game technologies: Euphoria (Behavioral Simulation Engine) and DMM (Digital Molecular Materials), designed to revolutionize gameplay well into the future. If Too Human’s expectations were elevated, then The Force Unleashed’s are clear through the atmosphere and well into the unknown.
Commanding the Force has been a dream of Star Wars fanboys for over 30 years and The Force Unleashed has been designed to bring players as close to this otherworldly experience as possible. Using a combination of the right and left analog sticks and right trigger, target-able objects can be lifted, manipulated and tossed within a three-dimensional space with Force Grip. The Force can also be used to Repulse, Push and Shield players from enemy attacks, all upgradeable for increased effectiveness. The Force cannot be used for psychological advantages ala controlling characters minds to do a player’s bidding which takes away from unleashing the full compliment of Force powers as seen in the films.
Gripping objects and tossing them around is the game’s highlight and biggest drawback. As the demo proved, it is insanely satisfying to grab a Stormtrooper or other poor sap and toss him around like a rag doll while Euphoria makes the trooper grab onto railings for dear life. It is even more satisfying to throw large objects through a DMM-charged area like the woods of Kashyyyk and watch trees snap with physical realism. Selecting environmental objects like support beams and tearing them out to send debris toppling down onto unsuspecting soldiers below is also not only enjoyable but relies on a touch of creativity to best execute.
These moments of gaming bliss require locking onto to an object and successfully gripping them which is not as easy as it should be. In the heat of battle when there are snipers, Evo-Troopers and AT-STs gunning for you simultaneously, gripping an enemy versus a nearby worthless empty barrel by accident can be a frustrating exercise resulting in an untimely death. Plucking a Tie Fighter out of mid-air in mid-flight is even harder to pull off despite being required repeatedly and in a timely manner during a key sequence in the game’s final act.
As gameplay progresses, it quickly becomes evident gripping and tossing objects is not the most effective means to clear a level, especially after learning Sith Lightning and Repulse fairly early on. Both of these weapons allow inflicting multiple enemies with damage from a distance and quickly become a crutch to defeat at least 90% of the game from the moment they are acquired. Why bother trying to toss rocks at a Felucian Rancor with mixed results when you can back up beyond the invisible line it cannot cross and Lightning zap him to death? Why bother trying to melee battle shield-equipped Felucians with a saber when you can stay in a defensive stance, charge up the Force bar, unleashed a 360-degree Repulse blast and repeat until they are all dead? These tactics are cheap, sure, but shouldn’t have been included if the developers didn’t want players to so easily take advantage of them.
Aside from the opening two levels which are excessively long and redundant, The Force Unleashed offers up a steady variety of Jedi and non-Jedi bosses to confront. In these battles, the camera typically pulls back further to the point where characters look like a blip on the screen. Once a boss is beaten down to near death, a Quick Time Event (QTE) sequence is initiated and replayed until beaten, a beautiful to watch but unfulfilling means of capping off a Force and melee-filled battle.
In a latter alternative take on a “boss” battle, both analog sticks must be wiggled via on-screen cues to use the Force to bring an Imperial Star Destroyer crashing to the ground as seen prevalently in the game’s marketing. A few turns at this finicky control-nightmare will bring about the urge to use the Force to send the controller hurtling at the screen.
The Force Unleashed is a narrow, linear single-player affair that forces players along a lone path with no room for deviation or creativity beyond utilizing DMM and Euphoria in combat. One checkpoint leads to the next, erasing everything before it. Rather than spend time fighting in certain areas, a player can sprint to the next checkpoint without engaging a single enemy. Playing this way can shave a good hour off the already short 8-10 hours of gameplay.
Linear gameplay does allow for an all-new expanded universe Star Wars story to unfold full of new and familiar faces. The main character, a Secret Apprentice of Darth Vader just prior to A New Hope whose youth is told through flashback rather than entire film, is treated with confliction and allegiance uncertainties missing from Anakin in the Prequel movies. Discovering his fate and being surprised by several twists and turns along the way is a great payoff for traversing the complete game.
One would think LucasArts would have paid closer attention to quality control on a game in development for approximately four years. Forgivable are some sparse jitters and lag considering the sheer amount of destruction going on at any given time at the hands of the Force and DMM and how great the game looks – and sounds — in high definition. Unforgivable is the Secret Apprentice wielding a blue lightsaber during multiple cut-scenes yet using a red one in the gameplay segments surrounding those scenes. This error sticks out like a sore thumb on more than one occasion and detracts from otherwise strong CGI animation.
No review by I or anyone else is needed for incentive to take The Force Unleashed and its unique new technologies for a spin. It’s Star Wars: Episode 3.5, after all. You’d want to play it even if Jar Jar’s uncle was the main character wielding a lightsaber with his tongue.
What you should be aware of is after experiencing the thrill of unleashing the Force and quickly plowing through the story, there’s little to no incentive to return without a sorely missing multiplayer component. That’s one area – the only area – where Too Human has the leg up on The Force Unleashed.
Though difficult to adhere to so close to release, the best advice to enjoy The Force Unleashed at its fullest is to temper those out-of-control expectations a bit. Take solace in knowing a strong new narrative chapter of the Star Wars saga is about to unfold, even if it isn’t necessarily the most well-rounded or replay-able Star Wars videogame experience ever released.
– Dan Bradley