Monday, September 2, 2013

Star Wars: The Force Unleashed is better than you'd expect

The game's marketing pushed the physics engine, and how enemy characters react to being tossed around.

** Contains Some Minor Spoilers **

Star Wars: the Force Unleashed is a fairly old game, having originally been released for the XBox 360 in 2008 and the PC in 2009. I had heard mixed things about it, so I never bothered picking it up until this past Star Wars Day (May the Fourth be with you), when all the Star Wars games on Steam were on sale. It was only a few dollars, so I grabbed it. I was pleasantly surprised by what I found: the gameplay was quite fun, and the narrative, while not great, at least made an effort to tell a new, interesting story.

And you thought your boss in real life was bad

In The Force Unleashed, you play as Starkiller, the son of a Jedi knight who was killed by Darth Vader. When Vader finds the young boy, he spares his life and takes him in as his secret apprentice. Starkiller has to remain in the shadows because Sith are only supposed to be two, a master and an apprentice, not that that's ever stopped any Sith in the EU from getting around or ignoring that rule.

The game is a third-person hack-and-slash, and for better or worse, that's what the game does best. Starkiller has an assortment of abilities: he has his lightsaber, Force lightning, Force push, and he can lift things and throw them around with the Force. He can combine these powers, like covering his lightsaber in lightning to do extra damage or lifting an enemy, blasting him with lightning, and hurling him into a group of foes. The powers and combinations are lots of fun to use, which is great, because you're going to be using them a lot.

Because Starkiller's existence is meant to be kept secret, you're going to be fighting a lot of stormtroopers. Stormtroopers are the orcs of the Star Wars universe. As long as a Star Wars game takes place in the Empire/Rebellion era, you're going to be fighting stormtroopers. The game tries to mix things up a bit by introducing specialized stormtroopers. It's still going to feel quite repetitive to slash through them, but at least it's always satisfying to blast them off ledges or hurl them at each other.

In addition to stormtroopers, the player will also face Rebel troops and Rodian thugs, who don't feel much different from stormtroopers, junkheap droids, and Felucians, who are a primitive race of Force-sensitive sentients. It's nice of the game to try to include a variety of enemy types, but the majority of the time you're going to be up against stormtroopers.

This image was all over the commercials for the game, so it's not a major spoiler

The game also features bosses and mini-bosses. Each of these has to have their health bar whittled down using regular attacks, and then can be finished off in a quicktime event. While quicktime events are usually sneered at by gamers, the quicktime events in The Force Unleashed look really cool. For instance, you can Force-throw your lightsaber into a rancor's eye, then blast it with a giant wave of Force lightning. Or, you can slice an AT-ST in half vertically, then use a Force blast to throw the two halves away from each other. These finishes are cinematic and satisfying, but they probably would have felt just as cool if the player didn't have to push buttons periodically to keep them going.

Because the character can do so much, and the game features a complex physics system, there are going to occasionally be weird situations that seem like glitches. One of my biggest gripes was that there are several bad guys whose powers will knock you off your feet, and these attacks always seemed to be timed perfectly to keep hitting you just as you're getting up and knock you down again. There's also the usual camera problems that tend to crop up in games like this, where scenery gets in the way so you can't see anything, often at the worst possible time.

The story follows Starkiller's journey of hunting down some of the last surviving Jedi while coming across bits of his own past. He soon learns that things aren't quite the way Darth Vader has presented them, and there are a few twists along the way that show that the writers were making an effort to keep things interesting. There are some interesting characters and things move along at a good speed. That said, I sometimes had trouble understanding the characters' motivations. I think the problem was that the writers wanted to allow the player to focus either on Starkiller's redemption or his role as a Sith badass. For this reason, it can be hard to tell if he's really considering joining the good guys or if he's trying to deceive them. Like many Star Wars games, The Force Unleashed allows the player to choose the light side or the dark side, but there is only one choice and it comes at the very end. Essentially it boils down to who you fight as the final boss, and which cutscene plays at the end.

I enjoyed the story, despite its flaws. Starkiller makes for a pretty interesting protagonist, and Sam Witwer's voice acting tends to be low-key, lending credibility to the character. There were some thought-provoking scenes, like where we see a formerly proud Jedi knight fallen to drink and despair. One particularly poignant moment came when Starkiller confronted the Jedi hiding on the droid planet, but I won't give too much of that away. I liked Starkiller's pilot, Juno Eclipse. Even though she's an Imperial, we sense that she's not really evil, but she takes pride in her skills and believes she is serving the galaxy's legitimate government. While there are inevitable romantic feelings between Starkiller and Eclipse, the story doesn't focus on those feelings and instead focuses on Starkiller's journey toward his destiny.

While the Force Unleashed isn't a perfect Star Wars game, it's fun to play and has a decent story. Given that you can pick it up cheap whenever it goes on sale, I recommend checking it out if you're a fan of Star Wars and hack-and-slash games.

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