LucasArts caused a bit of a stir last E3 with a series of innovative tech demos showing off new gaming technology the company was developing for next-generation games based on LucasFilm's most popular properties--properties such as, just maybe, Star Wars. Almost a year later, we've finally gotten an early look at the first Star Wars game for the Xbox 360 and PS3, subtitled The Force Unleashed. The game will make extensive use of those systems LucasArts showed off last year, which will give diehard Star Wars fans a chance to play around with some deliciously over-the-top Force powers in a previously unseen period of the franchise's timeline.
The coolest part of the E3 demo showed off a new system that will give non-player characters a sense of self-preservation and the means to act accordingly based on their situation. For example, a character who is knocked off a ledge could intelligently grab onto the ledge with one or both hands rather than blindly plummet to his doom. This sort of intelligence will greatly benefit the legions of hapless troops you'll face in The Force Unleashed, since you'll have a whole arsenal of telekinetic Force powers (not to mention your trusty lightsaber) to use against them in battle. If you've seen the leaked concept footage that hit the Internet not long ago, you'll have a pretty good idea of the sorts of explosive moves you'll be able to pull off in the final game.
While a game that lets you cut loose with a bunch of nearly unstoppable Force powers might sound like it could sell itself, The Force Unleashed will also explain your access to these powers with a storyline that will fit in with the six movies of the series. The game is set in the time period betweens Episodes III and IV, during which the Empire scoured countless star systems to exterminate the last remaining Jedi and finalize its hold over the galaxy. You'll play as an as-yet-unnamed Force-adept character toiling secretly under the auspices of none other than Darth Vader to seek out and destroy the Jedi stragglers who could threaten the Empire's power.
LucasArts isn't revealing too many specific story details yet, but we gleaned what we could from the presentation we saw. We had to get especially nerdy and ask how Darth Vader could take on an apprentice when he is himself the Sith apprentice to Emperor Palpatine. While your character is plenty evil-looking and wields a red lightsaber, company reps were quick to point out that he isn't a Sith at all. In fact, concept art shows the character wearing a sort of shackle on his wrist that Vader apparently uses to control him, so from the sound of it, there will be some ambiguity regarding your true motivations over the course of the game. You'll even have some control over the appearance of your character, possibly extending to the color of your lightsaber, though again, LucasArts isn't talking hard details about this yet. Reps did confirm the absence of a specific light-side-or-dark-side meter that measures the morality of your actions, a la Knights of the Old Republic.
Star Wars is a character-driven franchise at its core, and The Force Unleashed will give you an assortment of new and old personalities as it spins its yarn. Darth Vader and the Emperor are two confirmed familiar faces that will show up in the game, but we'd expect there will be more in the final product. In fact, we do know of one more: Shaak Ti, the female Jedi who was killed in a Revenge of the Sith scene that ended up on the cutting room floor. Apparently deleted scenes are deleted for a reason, though, as official Star Wars canon states Shaak Ti is alive and will act as one of your marks in the game.
Your Jedi targets will typically serve as the bosses for the respective levels they appear in, and we learned about a couple of new ones during our demo: General Kota, an aging Jedi commander with a samurai-looking white 'do, and Maris, the female Jedi seen in the game's concept art wielding a pair of lightsaber tonfas. Some of the game's new characters will be on your side, though, such as the lithe, blonde Imperial pilot Juno Eclipse seen in previous concept art, and a new unnamed droid who looks more than a little like C-3PO and will act as the comic relief to your character's rather serious mission. Lastly, you could say the ships of Star Wars are characters in themselves, and you'll have a unique new one, the Rogue Shadow, to convey you from one mission to the next. The ship is said to be a bit larger than the Millennium Falcon and will act as a gameplay-relevant home base similar to the ship used in KOTOR--though again, we didn't find out any specifics of what you'll be able to do inside the ship.
Star Wars' diverse and colorful environments have provided almost as much personality to the franchise as its characters, and The Force Unleashed will feature a good mix of those as well. You'll visit locales from the films like Kashyyyk, the wookiee homeworld which you'll see devolve into an Imperial stronghold over the course of the game. Then there's Felucia, the planet with the giant mushrooms featured briefly in Episode III. We saw concept art of the indigenous Felucians, who look like some sort of fungal bipeds with suckers for hands. Another level will be Raxis Prime, a junk planet from the extended universe, and LucasArts says its massive piles of scrap metal will serve as the perfect "Force playground." As you'd expect, some new areas will be designed for the game as well, such as a very Imperial-looking TIE fighter construction facility.
Finally, we got to see some sample gameplay from an extremely early version of the game, set inside the TIE fighter shipyard. This level tasked the player with seeking out and destroying General Kota, who was holed up somewhere in the facility. This involved the player (who was certainly not us) ripping his way through waves of stormtroopers and regular uniformed guards with his red lightsaber and Force powers. We asked why Darth Vader's errand boy would be killing a bunch of Imperial troops in the service of the Empire, and were told that since you're a secret agent, you can't leave anyone behind to talk about what happened. But since the troops were shouting taunts at the player indicating they knew why he was there and that he wouldn't be allowed to reach Kota, we have to wonder what else is going on with the storyline here.
We didn't need to grasp the plot to get a load of the moves being performed onscreen, though. The final game will give you Force powers in four basic categories: grip (which lets you telekinetically pick up objects or enemies), push (which should be self-explanatory), lightning (ditto), and repulse (a 360-degree Force push all around you). You'll start the game with basic versions of these powers in your arsenal, and they'll level up through usage to become more powerful. Of course, you'll also be able to use your trusty lightsaber if you wish, but the LucasArts rep playing through the demo seemed to enjoy the explosive Force powers quite a bit more.
LucasArts' design goal with The Force Unleashed is basically to give you a bunch of Force-driven tools and then allow you to attack a given scenario however you wish. In one instance, the player was taking on a number of troops firing at him from a catwalk, so he used the grip power to pick up a large crate and fling it into the catwalk's supports, causing it to rip from the ceiling and drop the enemies to their doom. If you enjoy the lightsaber, you can use the Force to fling it from afar. We saw one instance where the player sent his saber hurtling at an enemy and impaled him before quickly summoning the blade back to his grasp. Finally, at the end of the demo, we were shown how you could conceivably re-create the last shot of last year's concept footage by flinging a stormtrooper into an incoming TIE fighter.
The Force Unleashed is currently in a very early stage of development, so many of the final visual effects and gameplay systems are still missing right now. Primarily, we were hoping to see the materials simulation system that will, for instance, cause a metal pipe to dent inward or a pane of glass to shatter when you fling an enemy into it. But the other basic components of LucasArts' ambitious design seem to be falling into place, and we're hoping the internal development team can bring them all together to achieve the impressive gameplay we saw in that CG footage last year. The Force Unleashed was originally slated to hit stores this November, but the game's release date was just recently pushed back to early 2008, so it's comforting that the publisher is hopefully giving the team as much time as it needs to get the game right.