Star Wars: The Force Unleashed Xbox 360, PS3 Review

A long, long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, LucasArts decided to cash in on the Star Wars franchise in any way they could. A slew of shoddy titles followed the cinema release of the Star Wars prequel films, and the only decent Star Wars titles in the last decade (Knight of the Old Republic & Lego Star Wars) are ones that weren’t developed by LucasArts.

The Force Unleashed has been four years in the making and isn’t a movie tie-in or a spinoff, but covers whole new ground spanning the timeframe between Episodes III and IV. Its aim was to give us a whole new outlook on Star Wars Universe using the some of the latest technology such as Havok physics, Digital Molecular Matter destructibility and Euphoria realistic character animation.

In this objective it has been largely successful. The game begins with placing you in the shiny black boots of one of the greatest screen villains ever created. This prologue, set on the Wookie homeworld of Kashyyyk, gives you an excellent idea of what to expect from the rest of the game. As the Sith Lord Vader you’ll be flinging yelping Wookies left and right, Force-choking Stormtroopers that dare to get in your way and watching as the wooden dwellings splinter realistically around you.

At first it’s a fantastically liberating experience of extreme power, but once you realise that you are literally invincible and that no challenge exists whatsoever it sours the fun somewhat. Luckily, once you take on the role of Vader’s secret apprentice and crank the difficulty level up on subsequent levels you’re certainly vulnerable and must hone your combat skills to ensure your survival.

New force powers are unlocked as you progress through the game, and can be upgraded each time you level up. Despite this customisation element, by the finale you’ll have a mere five different abilities, and even with the large number of lightsaber combos possible things start to get a little repetitive. It must be said that the lack of Force-based environmental puzzles that go beyond ‘electrocute this generator, pull this switch, blow open these doors’ is a huge disappointment, as the possibilities of gameplay that actually require some cognitive thought are vast.

Thankfully, the graphically-stunning enemies and locations are varied enough to hold the player’s interest. Even though three of the nine proper levels are revisits to previous locales, these actually work brilliantly as before-and-after shots of the Galactic Empire’s Imperial occupation of those planets. The sunny, fresh leafy-green Kashyyyk of the prologue becomes a bleak wasteland, the air filled with ashes and the natives enslaved to build the Emperor’s war machines.

Although most of The Force Unleashed feels like an authentic part of the Star Wars Galaxy, LucasArts clearly realised they would have to artificially create some challenge so that the player can’t just run through each level holding down the Force Lightening button. This is the cue for Force-Resistant force-fields, characters strangely immune to being electrocuted and metal boots which mean an enemy cannot be thrown with the Force, despite the player being able to lift other extremely heavy objects with no problems. These elements feel discordant, but were a necessity, as the Force powers seen in the game are much more extravagant than those seen in the films.

This is exemplified by a confrontation with a massive Star Destroyer towards the end of the game. But what should have been the defining moment that showcases the apprentice’s burgeoning strength has somehow been turned into the most tedious and frustrating part of the game due to poor on-screen instructions and generally bad game design.

When you best this challenge, the game switches to a CG cut-scene for the dramatic conclusion, thus highlighting another conflict within The Force Unleashed. Gameplay and story are starkly defined and separated here. There will be a cinematic scene at the beginning and end of each mission, and almost no narrative exposition whatsoever during each level.

This is a shame because it doesn’t take long to become clear that The Force Unleashed tells an excellent tale. In fact, it’s arguably better than Phantom Menace, which might not sound like a compliment, but it is. With appearances from new and old characters alike, the game actually provides a surprising amount of insight into the relationship between Vader and The Emperor, and the formation of the Rebel Alliance. Anyone who is a fan of Star Wars will want to experience this story, but it doesn’t change the fact that you could simply watch the cut-scenes on YouTube and not really miss out.

The Force Unleashed is visually and aurally impressive on Xbox 360 and PS3, which certainly helps to immerse you in the fictional galaxy that LucasArts has built. Facial motion-capture, while not quite up to the standards of Heavenly Sword, certainly adds emotion to the generally high-standard voice acting.

The classic John Williams Star Wars theme is present, alongside some original compositions that fit in well with the Redemption theme of the game. And of course, all the wonderful authentic lightsaber and blaster noises are included and never grate.

Star Wars: The Force Unleashed is an essential play for any fan of George Lucas’ creation. Unfortunately, the gameplay feels a tad repetitive, un-ambitious and never quite lives up to the superb storytelling. As Yoda might say, – “Lazy level design is the path to the dark side. Lazy level design leads to irritation. Irritation leads to apathy. Apathy leads to mediocre review score.”

7 out of 10
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