Written by: Big Ross, CC2K Staff Writer
Great potential this game had, but released too soon it was. Now, matters are worse.
SPOILER ALERT! SPOILER ALERT!!!
I'm going to be discussing details and specifics about this game, so if you have plans to play it yourself and don't want the surprises spoiled, I'd strongly suggest not reading this review, at least beyond the first paragraph.
When I reviewed the demo for this game a couple weeks ago, I think I said something along the lines of, "this could easily be one of the best games of the year, and one of the greatest Star Wars game of all time." Boy was I wrong. Star Wars: The Force Unleashed is a good game. It has some great elements and some awesome moments, but there are far too many things wrong with SW: TFU for me to call it great. Read on for a SPOILER-filled explanation of that judgment.
Before I address the bad, let's talk about the good. First and most obvious are the graphics. Both in game in during the cut-scenes, it is plain to see that a great deal of time and energy were spent on pushing the limits of next-gen consoles to deliver wow-inspiring visuals. Many of the levels are both gargantuan and highly detailed. When you're not engaged in ferocious combat you might find yourself pausing and rotating the camera, drinking in all the eye-candy. The character designs are some of the most life-like I've ever seen, expressive, emotive, and realistic. The voice-acting is superb, with performances that come very close to matching existing and very well-known characters of the Star Wars universe (more on that later). But, to paraphrase a certain green Jedi master, "Graphics alone not make a game great."
But here again, SW: TFU delivers a story that is engaging, exciting, and to put it simply, better than any of the prequels offered up by George Lucas. This is further proof that Lucas should give up the reigns to the Star Wars franchise, or have them forcibly taken if he won't acquiesce quietly. Though the storyline of SW: TFU is set between Episodes III and IV, it could easily have been formed into a far better conclusion to the prequel trilogy than what Lucas came up with. Here we get to see what fans wanted to see, what Lucas cheated us all out of in Revenge of the Sith. Vader hunting down the remaining Jedi, Bail Organa organizing dissidents into a fledgeling Rebel Alliance, the Empirical war machine grinding the galaxy into submission under the bootheels of Stormtroopers. The game begins with a Prologue level that allows you to take the Force for a joyride/test-drive as you assume the role of the Sith Lord Darth Vader as he goes about carving a swath of destruction on the Wookie homeworld of Kashyyk in pursuit of a Jedi. There he discovers a boy who is very strong with the Force. Vader kills the boy's father, the Stormtroopers who are witness to the boy's existence, and takes him on as his Secret Apprentice. This all happens in a cut-scene, and the game flash forwards 15 years or so to the point when the boy is now a young man, his Sith training almost complete. From this point forward you assume control of Vader's Apprentice, initially going out on assassination missions on behalf of Vader to kill the last remaining Jedi. Vader promises that these "hits" will be the final tests for you, and if you survive them you will be ready to stand with Vader against the Emperor and assume control of the galaxy.
But the Emperor has many spies, and little escapes his notice. He confronts you and Vader, forcing Vader to kill you as a sign of fealty to the elder Sith Lord. Vader manages to fake your death, doing a thoroughly adequate job of it with the amount of pain and damage he inflicts upon you, and after rebuilding you sets you on a new and rather interesting path. Now that the Emperor believes you dead, you are free to take bolder action against him. In something of a twist Vader instructs you to gather scattered dissidents such as Bail Organa and organize them into an army. This will draw the attention of the Emperor and his spies away from Vader, and thus distracted the Emperor will be ripe for a bloody coup. You dutifully carry out your part of the bargain, rescuing Bail Organa and the Princess Leia, and organizing a meeting of what will become the leaders of the Rebel Alliance such as Mon Mothma and others. But in another twist Vader again betrays you, revealing his true loyalties to the Emperor and their machinations within machinations, having intended the entire time to use you to draw out the dissenters and bring them together for an all too easy capture, interrogation, and public execution to further suppress the systems under the Empire's control. In the end it is up to you to single-handedly infiltrate a still unfinished Death Star, face your former master, and rescue the Rebel leaders from certain death.
In the climactic finish to the game, you face and defeat Darth Vader, and then you have a choice to make. The Emperor is goading you on to finish Vader, taking his place at the Emperor's side, while General Kota – a pseudo-Obi-Wan Kenobi for your character – uses the opportunity to attack the Sith Lord only to be rebuked with Force Lightning, causing Bail Organa to implore you to save him. If you choose to save Kota, you will battle the Emperor, and upon defeating him trigger the "Light Side" ending, which features your character sacrificing himself and allowing the Rebel leaders to make their escape. Your martyrdom inspires their further resolve to solidify the Alliance and commit themselves to ending the Empire's reign of terror. If instead you choose to give in to hate, you will face a fierce battle with a helmet-less Vader. If you defeat him, you trigger the "Dark Side" ending, in which you actually kill the Sith Lord and rewrite the history of the Star Wars universe. While you were busy dealing with Vader, the Emperor has killed Bail Organa and the other Rebel leaders save for Kota. The Emperor offers him up as a test, you have only to kill him and you're path to Sith Lord and the Emperor's Apprentice will be complete. In a (for lack of a better word) pussy move reminiscent of the infamous "Han shot first" scene in the Special Edition of Episode IV, your character rebels against the Emperor. He makes short work of you, crushing you beneath your just arrived getaway ship, then in a scene reminiscent of Anakin's transformation into Vader, the Emperor rebuilds you into a more-machine-than-man slave/assassin.
Both of the endings are quite interesting, though of the two this darker ending is more so. It's fun to think what the Star Wars universe would be like in the aftermath of this development. One would suppose that with the Rebel leaders dead, the Alliance never forms. Considering that Princess Leia was among them, there is no message delivered to Obi-Wan via R2-D2. Luke buys two other droids from the Jawas and spends the rest of his days working the farm with Uncle Owen. No new hope. No return of the Jedi. Of course, this game is non-canon, meaning that it, like all of the other video games, comics, and novels in the Expanded Universe don't really count as far as Lucas and the films are concerned. But SW: TFU does have a great sense of history. It features an original plot that blends nicely into the existing Star Wars storyline, and pays homage to other Star Wars properties such as by including Purge Troopers which were first introduced as part of the Empire's Dark Trooper project in the PC game Dark Forces, and giving your character the name Starkiller, which true Star Wars geeks will recognize as the name Lucas gave Luke in an early draft before switching to Skywalker.
I've spent so much time on the story because it's one of the high points of the game (and I wanted to share it with all of you non-gamers). But the real centerpiece of SW: TFU is the gameplay. SW: TFU promises to deliver a command of the Force never before imagined in a video game setting. I've talked a little about the mechanics of this in my review of the demo, so I won't repeat it here. But having played the game all the way thorugh once and most of the way through a second time, I can tell you that the result is mixed. In the early levels Force Grip works beautifully and the result is an amazingly fun experience. The things you are able to do, tossing Tie Fighters like rag dolls, hurling Stormtroopers into the stratosphere, or crushing them beneath power conduits are awesome. But the longer you play the more annoying and frustrating the gameplay becomes. The Force Grip targeting is almost random and woefully bad. Throwing an item that you have in a Force Grip, say a large storage crate at an AT-ST, can induce outbursts of rage as it flies in any and every direction except the one you intended.
The game is in third-person, and the camera has a mind almost all its own that seems to work fine in a big, open environment but becomes erratic and a liability in close quarters. What should be one of the grandest and most awesome moments of the game – facing down a Star Destroyer with nothing more than the Force as your ally – practically becomes an exercise in futility that robs the moment of all the fun that it should have. Further damaging to the overall experience are the glitches and bugs present in the game, things that IMO are inexcusable. As one example, during a boss fight set in the midst of a Sarlaac with tentacles that made those of Jabba's pet look like garden hoses, I got crushed by one such tentacle, and my character disappeared. I wasn't dead, and if I swung my light saber or launched Force Lightning I could see the effects, but of my actual character there was no sign. It's like I was invisible. I had to exit and restart that portion of the level. A friend of mine had a similar experience, getting trapped in some kind of "sub-level" of the game you shouldn't be able to access, forcing him to restart at his last save point. And those are just the big glitches, the ones that disrupt gameplay. I'll say it again, things like this are inexcusable. It would be like King Kong getting its theatrical release and audiences finding that in some of the scenes Kong is nothing more than a wire-frame model. Actually it's worse, because while you spend ~$10 for a movie ticket you shell out $60 for a video game. For that kind of money at the very least I want a game that is glitch-free. And while not a giltch the loading times in SW: TFU are consistently (and in some cases puzzlingly) long. I can understand with the high quality graphics that loading a level might be long, but even navigating between the menus requires loading screens that are long enough to be annoying.
And then there are the boss battles. After taking a boss's life meter down to zero a God of War-style prompted button-mashing sequence is triggered. This is a sort of pseudo-cut scene. These sequences are very cinematic and feature displays of power and mastery over the Force not available during gameplay. The problem is that I had my attention focused more on the bottom center portion of the screen waiting for the next prompt that I only half-saw the action above. Considering that missing a prompt simply resets the sequence and forces you to do it over, these sequences quickly become pointless, and I would have much preferred to just sit back and enjoy the carnage and not worry about hitting the "B" button in the half-second the game gives me to do so when prompted. And speaking of boss battles, while most of these epic battles with other Jedi offer fun challenges, the non-responsiveness of the controls rears its ugly head here as well. Many times the block button doesn't seem to work regardless of how furiously you repeatedly press it, which leaves you open to highly damaging light saber combos from your opponent. Also I found that often your opponent will appear open to attack, but is in fact already committed to executing a move that for some reason renders them temporarily invulnerable. Maddening!
SW: TFU does not have any kind of mulitplayer component, which normally I wouldn't count against a game, but here it seems it could serve as a remedy for another problem. The single player campaign is short, so short you could easily finish it in a matter of hours. I would have loved to see more levels and missions to fill out the story being told in this game. Perhaps more missions involving the recruitment of Rebel leaders, more missions centered on launching early strikes against the Empire and the like could have added a few more (hopefully) fun hours of play time. As it is, with no mulitplayer component, which even if it was just Tekken-style battles against other players on the same console or online could be cool, your only option is to replay the game. And while it can be fun to go back and play the early levels with your advanced Jedi skills, I can't imagine doing this more than once, and considering that there is a mission select option allowing you to skip all of the lackluster levels to jump to the very end to get the alternate ending to the one you choose the first time around, the replay value drops even further.
All in all while Star Wars: The Force Unleashed has some truly astounding things going for it – graphics, story, and a command of the Force like never before – there are too many things wrong, defects that keep the game from realizing its true potential. It seems to me that many of these problems are things that could (and should) have been addressed by the developers if only they were given enough time. I don't think I will ever understand why if given the choice between delaying a game's release date in order to fix problems or releasing it as promised with defects intact that game publishers would ever choose the latter. It's true that no gamer likes it when a game is pushed back from its original release date, but I feel it is safe to say that if the alternative is us paying full price for a game that is not worth it, we'd all take the delay. At least I know would. Star Wars: The Force Unleashed is a good game, but the real shame is that it could have been great. Too bad for us that it's not.