IGN Review of Star Wars: The Force Unleashed
It's been a long, long time since we've seen a good action-based Star Wars game hit consoles. Raven did the PC right with a handful of Jedi Knight titles, but console gamers have been left out in the cold on Hoth for many years now. LucasArts hopes to change all that with Star Wars: The Force Unleashed, a game that's been hyped not solely on its license and story, but its technology as well. Featuring such technical buzzwords as Digital Molecular Matter and naturalmotion's Euphoria engine, the game has brought a ton of promise to the table.
Of course, those bits don't actually apply to PS2 and PSP gamers as the systems can't handle the computational load of those technologies, leaving the game's core action design to stand on its own. Does it deliver? Yes and no. It does enough things right, especially with regards to giving players the ability to wield the Force like we've never seen before, to make it a play-worthy effort for Star Wars fans everywhere, but it does so with a number of missteps that won't easily be overlooked.
What's interesting here is that though the game shares the same storyline, Force powers and general structure as the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 titles (which were the versions most often highlighted in the title's push up to now, obviously), Krome handled the PS2, Wii and PSP games while LucasArts simply oversaw the production. So while you visit the same levels as in the other games, the level design itself is completely different, as are a number of other elements of the overall package. However, despite these practically ground-up differences, these versions share many of the same issues that their big brothers have.
The game's story takes place between Episodes III and IV (or the new and old trilogy for you number-phobic readers out there), though much closer in the timeline to A New Hope than Revenge of the Sith. It's hard to talk about exactly why without spoiling anything, but I'll just say that the tale does a very good job of tying the two trilogies together and nicely sets up the current state of everything that you see in A New Hope. Kudos to the team for crafting a story that not only extends the fiction, but in a few small ways even expands upon the existing content.
The Force Unleashed is built around giving players the ability to, as the name perfectly implies, unleash the Force. This is a version of the Force that really hasn't been seen anywhere before, with over-the-top uses of things like Force Push. When you go to push a stormtrooper away from you, he won't just fall over, he'll fly. You can Force Grip soldiers and toss them into oncoming TIE fighters, stab someone with a nicely tossed lightsaber that happens to be electrified for extra coolness, or use a good old bit of Force Repulse to shove a group of soldiers away from you and off the side of a ledge.
When you first take control of Vader's secret apprentice, he's already pretty powerful with pretty much all of the base Force powers in his repertoire. Being able to Force Push one guy off a ledge, electrify the guy next to him, slice down a third trooper and then Force Repulse all of their bodies off your standing within a couple seconds is flat-out awesome. While that's cool, the upgrade arc in the PS2 and PSP games isn't quite as robust as in the PS3 and 360 versions, which is a bit of a shame. You only have access to upgrading your Force powers (not including lightsaber crystals), with things like health bar increases relegated to finding orbs in the levels to do this for you. It's still nice to be able to upgrade your abilities, but it's not as fleshed out as in the other versions, and even just on its own, it doesn't seem quite as robust as it could be.
While the Force powers are great fun to use on the whole, the game's targeting system poses a hindrance at times with things like Force Grip. There are a ton of "usable" objects in the game, ranging from boxes to junk to plants to people, and grabbing just the right one can be tricky. The game will try to target whatever object it thinks you're looking at, which can be fine for things on the ground in relatively empty areas, but there are problems when the ground is littered with objects or if you're trying to target someone a good distance either above or below you. This can be especially problematic when you're in a hangar, surrounded by a ton of enemies, and you need to target a stormtrooper hovering just above you with a jetpack to keep him from lighting you up.
Enemy units in the game aren't the smartest apples in the bunch. You can easily take down an AT-ST by simply standing behind it while swiping at its feet, and then just running around to its back again when it's finally able to turn around. There are a few enemy types in the game, like Imperial guards for instance, that can be impervious to most of your attacks, and the best strategy is often to just throw everything you have at it and see what sticks. When you're only facing one, it'll just sit there and block until you get a hit through, making it a poor, and boring, opponent. But when there are two, three or more, it takes so long to down one of them because of their ability to block so well (read: stubbornly) that the others will gang up on you. This isn't a complaint about there being groups of enemies, but rather than one will just sit there and block you for long stretches of time without even trying to attack, and it just eats up your attention.
Oddly enough, perhaps the best and most fun enemies in the game are the simplest to kill -- the stormtroopers. The game is based around what you can do with your force powers, and the basic troopers, who can be taken down in almost any way you can think of and don't really defend anything at all (though their later variants can and do), serve as perfect fodder for your Force experiments. It's more fun here to take down a ton of easy guys in one battle than one harder guy, even if the challenge is relatively the same.
The game's story takes you to a number of interesting locations, but unfortunately most of them aren't as fleshed out as they could have been. You'll see the same design through most of the levels, and, aside from a few exceptions, you'll find few memorable sections therein. Most areas serve as the next enemy battlegrounds and are more functional than cool to look at or adventure through. Though the levels in the PS3 and 360 versions are pretty much completely different other than location, they too suffer the same issues. It's surprising that two totally different takes on the same scenes could both wind up to be disappointing.
The last bit worth mentioning here is with regards to the presentation. The cutscenes in the PS3 and 360 versions are rendered in realtime and do a great job to tell the tale. Characters have emotion, the pacing and cinematography is great, and everything is just put together quite well. Here, however, it doesn't hold up quite as nicely. The cutscenes are rendered in realtime, and, given the relatively poor processing power of the machine and low available memory, characters aren't animated nearly as well as its counterparts. The secret apprentice often appears stiff and without emotion, which hurts his story arc a fair bit. The game would have done much better to have simply shown the PS3 cutscenes as a rendered cinematic. Note that I'm not putting down the system based on its limited capabilities -- rather, I'm using the PS3 example to illustrate how well the story works when presented in its best form, which in this case should have been pre-rendered cutscenes.
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