New Star Wars Game: Darth Vader Wants You!

September 15, 2008

Star Wars: The Force Unleashed had an impressive initial showing with a trailer that piqued the interest of young padawans. You seemingly would be able to manipulate the force with your controller, and enjoy a story worthy of furthering the Star Wars canon. Has all the promise materialized into an amazing romp through the universe or is it lost in space?

Eking out valuable real estate between Episodes III and IV, Unleashed borrows from each trilogy, with some political intrigue dotting a more Joseph Cambell-esque story of a hero’s journey. And that hero is a villain named Starkiller, Darth Vader's secret apprentice. With some plot holes and blatant fan service, the story stays interesting, from the psychology of the surviving Jedi you are sent to wipe out, to the typical droid banter and the binary choice between the light and dark side that's creeping up from the moment you press start. There are definitely some stretches taken with the canon, but it's an enticing ride.

After a rousing tutorial of Wookie genocide as Darth Vader, you jump into the nascent Starkiller, with a limited set of Sith skills, but more than enough of the Force flowing through his veins to lay waste to storm troopers en masse. The levels are varied and thematic, but sometimes overly so. Areas tend to look the same from beginning to end, and it’s easy to get turned in the wrong direction--even with a minimap. Later on, these sites are revisited and remixed, providing little variety across the game's nine missions.

The areas are rarely claustrophobic, giving Starkiller room to show off his style, like sizzling foes with lightning or throwing a hapless soldier to his doom. All of the above nets you a variety reward through a rudimentary leveling system based on Force points culled from dispatching enemies and completing certain objectives. You can buy new combo moves, increase stats, or strengthen force abilities. It’s pretty limited, but it adds a level of accomplishment. Sadly, major abilities are unlocked by plot progression and not leveling.

When there's an occasional lull in combat, proceeding to point B is usually accomplished by using the force on whatever happens to be glowing. The game is incredibly combat heavy, with a near endless amount of troopers and aliens to engage. Despite having all the grandeur of Star Wars at its disposal, the levels can grind on thanks to all the recycled, linear locales and enemies. So maybe its incredibly short length of seven or eight hours is for the best.

With all the force lightning, gripping, pushing, and lightsaber combos, you’d think that the battles would be things of legend, but the combat isn’t really challenging, with all the big enemies being finished off by now-blasé quick time events. The only real power that the masses of troops possess is annoying you with extended lifebars that seem oblivious to half your lightsaber swings.

What’s worse is that later enemies can’t be thrown around like ragdolls--the game’s biggest charm. It’s something we’ve seen in Psi-Ops and Half-Life 2, and here it can feel wonky at times. The occasional swell of opponents creates choke points, and these encounters eventually simmer down to monotony. The enemies aren’t as scared of Starkiller as they should be—instead lining up for the slaughter.

The occasional bit of exploration may net a temporary power up, lightsaber crystal, or some force points, but it’s really a small aside. The boss battles offer some neat effects, but the same spamming of Force abilities will inevitably get you to yet another quick time event. Fighting eventually becomes a chore. There’s a lot of freedom in how you tackle each fray, but there’s really no need to utilize it as the same boring combos always get the job done.

The ambitions of the young Sith sometimes stretch the capabilities of the Ronin engine, using Euphoria for realistic animation and effects, but the engine stutters when you initiate the Force blitzkriegs. There are also numerous crash bugs, clipping issues that will get you stuck on geometry, and glitchy boss battles. It's a physics fun house, but an unpolished one. Sound is the stellar stuff that Lucas is known for, but for all that graphic prowess, some cutscenes hit new nadirs of the uncanny valley, coupled with texture issues. We also had issues with sound cutting out in cinemas, including the ending of the game. All these problems are found in the final retail version of the game.

The secret apprentice has a palatable action game, which for a change, is strengthened by its license and story. It initially delivers on its promise, but it erodes over time due to the monotony and meager difficulty that discourages exploring the combat’s complexity. Long ago in a galaxy far, far away, things like telekinesis and laser swords were enough, but now games need to back up tech with substance. This is where Star Wars: The Force Unleashed turns to the dark side.