It's quite sad that the last action game that made us feel like a Force-wielding super being was Midway's Psi-ops - and that's getting on a bit these days. With a huge amount of technical wizardry and a healthy "for the good of the game" delay we had high hopes for LucasArts' Star Wars: The Force Unleashed. Would this finally be the action game Star Wars fans have been waiting for or yet another game to feel the dark side of our reviewing stick?
The Force Unleashed takes place between Episodes III and IV and is cannon to the series. This isn't a hastily put together cash-in, but a fully thought out story that ties in to what you already know about the Star Wars saga. Vader finds a young boy on the Wookie home world of Kashyyyk who shows incredible promise with the Force. After killing his father Vader takes the young boy under his wing and grooms him as his apprentice. When he's old enough the apprentice is given a mission of his own - to round up a Rebel army with the pretence of taking on the Empire. It's fairly typical Star Wars stuff if we're being honest, but it's told well, acted commendably, features the odd twist, and doesn't reveal all its cards until the end. But a video game is only ever as good as the underlying gameplay.
Over the course of a fairly brief seven to eight hour campaign you'll play as the apprentice, slicing up storm troopers and various home world creatures with your lightsaber and using your Force powers to throw them about or fry them with electricity. It feels like a fairly basic God of War-like hack and slash combined with the ability to use the Force. Not a bad combo at all, but LucasArts hasn't quite managed to develop a game that's on par with the best of the genre.
After an opening level in which you play as an incredibly powerful Vader you're powers are suddenly rather limited as the apprentice. You have a basic saber slash attack, Force push and Force Grip. This is enough to go on small rampages, pushing storm troopers off ledges and throwing them into the air, but soon enough you'll gain a whole heap of new powers and attack combos.
Once you've got Force Lightning you can combine it with lightsaber attacks for deadly combos, and the Force Repulse, which sees the apprentice unleash a wave of energy all around him, is one of our favourite moves in a video game ever. When you're levelled up in terms of upgrades the game is incredibly fun to play... most of the time. Sadly, there are moments in The Force Unleashed that will test your patience and question if the game was ready to be released.
Snipers are a pain in most games, but in a game where long range attacks aren't especially long range they're an even bigger head ache. Once they appear in the game your enjoyment takes a nose dive. We ended up prioritising them in every encounter, but from time to time you wont be able to get to them quickly enough, and towards the end of the game there are so many that you'll want to Force choke the bloody controller. One section towards the very end that we won't spoil even goes down the route of cramming every annoying mini-boss into the room at once. It's not good game design and left a rather bitter taste in our mouth.
It seems that for every brilliant moment LucasArts wanted to bring you back down to Earth. We lost count of the times a fairly lightweight blaster shot knocked our guy into a chasm for an instant death, and some of the checkpoints are appallingly placed. During one stage we managed to accidentally walk into an invisible wall which sent us sliding down a hill to an unfortunate death. When it works The Force Unleashed is an incredible amount of fun and highly satisfying to play, but it too often feels like it needed a few more months of testing. The haphazard targeting system is another area of concern and something that will cause you no end of bother once you're dealing with more powerful enemies.
The use of physics here is worthy of a special mention as you'll see things that you simply can't do in other games. Charge up a Force Push, let rip across a bridge full of storm troopers and watch in awe as the bridge ripples and the helpless enemies go flying, limbs swinging about all over the place. We found ourselves hunting down areas with lots of glass, jumping into the air and performing Force Repels just to see how things smash. We're less convinced by the way doors seemingly have a mind of their own when it comes to bending them open, but it's something we can let go given the quality of physics on display elsewhere.
Large open rooms are where most fun is to be had, enabling you to zip about, Force pushing and repelling Empire scum until there's no more juicy green health orbs to absorb. There's the odd moment where you seem trapped by a series of enemy attacks that'll leave you cursing the game's cheap tactics, but we got so engrossed at one stage that we'd forgotten we'd pulled a hood over our head and gone slightly pale. But again, just as things are going well you'll encounter something that should have been far better.
Boss fights are essential in a game like this and there could have been some great battles here. Sadly they're let down by a lack of originality in the way you need to wear them down (performing standard moves is enough) and a reliance on Quick Time Events to finish them off. We've made no secret about our dislike of QTEs in the past and here they're particularly disappointing. For one you don't get to see what's happening in the choreographed scenes as you're so focussed on hitting the right buttons as they flash onto the screen, and secondly a series of button presses isn't what we call next-gen gameplay.
It's fair to say that The Force Unleashed features some of the most impressive visuals we've seen on Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, with certain levels being packed full of detail that stretches far into the background. You'll see fighters zooming around in the background, space junk floating in the sky and buildings dominating the skyline. Combined with the incredible physics you have something that makes you stop and stare. But as with all aspects of the game, the visuals aren't consistent. One level pretty early on seems barren in terms of detail, with the ground textures and object detail strangely dated compared to the rest of the game. We also encountered numerous moments of slowdown during sections with excessive dynamic lights, and a fair bit of screen tearing in the Xbox 360 version.
Being Darth Vader's apprentice isn't an easy job and neither is making one of the most hyped Star Wars games of recent memory. On the whole LucasArts has done an admirable job and succeeded in making a highly entertaining action romp that gamers (Star Wars fans or not) will enjoy. It's far from the finished article though, with too many niggles and flaws to compete with the best the genre has to offer. If you like the idea of messing with some storm troopers to the extent that it verges on Force-fuelled torture we recommend you give The Force Unleashed a look.