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.
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.
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 suspended bridge (which will also result in the bridge buckling from the blast).
When you first take control of Vader's secret apprentice, he's already pretty powerful with Force Push and Force Grip in his repertoire. But by the time you reach the end of the game, he's incredibly powerful. Stormtroopers that previously took a few swipes of a lightsaber to down now hit the floor in one swoop, and your Force powers will recharge quickly for repeated use. 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.
Much of what helps this progression is the leveling system in place in the game. For every person you dispense of (read: slaughter), you'll earn a handful of experience points, and when you've earned enough, you'll gain a level. Each level will reward you with one each of three upgrade points to assign, one for Force powers, one for combos, and one for "overall" stuff, like health or defensive abilities. Each level has a number of hidden Jedi Holocrons to find as well, some of which will give you a nice package of experience points, while others cut to the chase and give you a full point to spend on one of your abilities.
The cool thing here is that though I had found a good number of the hidden Holocrons in the game (I'd wager a guess that I snatched about 80% of them), I wasn't even close to maxing out all of my character's skills. So, while I spent most of my overall skill points on lightsaber damage and health attributes (like lowering the damage I took and increasing the amount of health I'd get from fallen enemies), other players may choose to decrease the amount of time that it takes for their Force meter to recharge, or lessen the cost of using a Force power. I'm a big fan of games that allow me to customize my play experience to what I like, and The Force Unleashed helped do that a fair bit. One downside to the implementation of this system is that the game kicks to a loading pause whenever you want to go to the upgrade screen, or even just the general options, which meant that I usually waited a while to rack up lots of upgrade points out of impatience before actually purchasing any upgrades.
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 and 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.
The Force Unleashed has long been a showpiece for LucasArts' tech combination of Pixelux's Digital Molecular Matter (DMM) and naturalmotion's Euphoria. DMM essentially gives objects real-world properties. So if a thin plank is made of wood, it'll be as heavy as wood would actually be and bend, break and splinter like its real-life counterpart. Euphoria infuses AI with self-realization abilities, so they'll attempt to grab onto objects when lifted and stabilize themselves when tripped or if the ground shakes or moves.
The core functionalities of these two technologies work really well, but neither live up to the initial hype or promises in the context of the game. The Euphoria stuff works as promised, though much of what you'll see is the ragdoll effect of dead enemies. It's cool stuff, but as destructive as you are, the tech doesn't get to spread its wings as much as we saw in something like Grand Theft Auto IV.
DMM, on the other hand, works well when utilized, but it's apparent that the processing cost was too high to use it very often. Some objects, like thin trees, will bend, but they won't break and can't be cut down. Others, like a conspicuously-placed lone tree stump near the end of the first level, don't have the tech applied to them at all, which somewhat breaks the immersion and interactivity level of the game. Generally speaking, plentiful objects like scattered boxes will have "plain" Havok applied to them, while things like doorways that you need to pass through will be bendable, but not breakable. The game does benefit to some degree from DMM's inclusion, but much of what we see could have been "faked" with predefined object states and the end result would have been roughly the same. Perhaps the next generation of systems will allow for full and unhindered use of this tech...
Going back to the enemy units in the game, including bosses -- this is probably my biggest gripe with the experience. A good number of the stronger enemy units in the game can be rather tedious to fight, and oftentimes won't let you use many of your powers against them. In the case of something like an AT-ST, you simply electrocute it, attack a couple times, retreat and then repeat a bunch more times. Large, lumbering but powerful stormtrooper variants in the second half of the game require the same technique, and it gets old quickly.
Boss fights are especially bad about this. In my experience, many of them will require some sort of trick to beat them, and in a number of the cases, the trick felt kind of cheap. The last couple fights were fortunately the most rewarding in the game, which are set up more along the classic lines of waiting for the correct moment to attack and defending when necessary. Had they all been like the last two, the other battles would have been more rewarding.
You'll also find that enemies tend to hit you when you're down, which is obviously quite annoying. Some groups will surround you and basically cause you to become stuck in their midst, and you'll find yourself just mashing the jump button to get away and reset. A couple enemies in the game have attack timings that seem to perfectly correspond to your standing up timing. So, they'll hit you and knock you down, and right as you stand up again, they'll knock you right back down.
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. Right when you enter a level, things look great. The art direction is fantastic and everything looks quite promising. Unfortunately though, the actual level design of most areas winds up being rather boring and uninteresting. 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.
There are a handful of puzzle elements in the game, though most of them boil down to trial and error over which of your Force powers to use. Something will be glowing blue, telling you that you need to use it in some fashion, and it's just a matter of figuring out whether you need to throw something at it, use Force Push on it, electrify it with Force Lightning or simply use Force Grab to bend it. Once or twice you'll find cool setups where you can use Force Grab to pick up objects and build platforms for you to use to reach a secret area, but inventive uses like this are generally relegated to secrets and not to actual level progression, unfortunately.
The last bit worth mentioning here is that though the presentation is generally quite good, the voice work for returning characters not voiced by the original actors sounds out of place. Without ruining any of the returning guests, I'll just say that after seeing the movies three million times and then hearing someone else voice some of these characters is a little jarring. Fortunately, they're all used very well, and the original characters, especially the apprentice, are voiced (and acted) fantastically.
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