There are a number of thrilling moments lurking in Star Wars: The Force Unleashed--enough of them that you'll likely be disappointed that it drifts so often from the things it excels at. Amazing displays of power and destruction are interspersed with inept, poorly conceived gameplay sequences, making for an inconsistent journey that, fortunately, gets more right than it does wrong. It certainly gives a fantastic first impression, starting with a tutorial level that serves as a great introduction to its complex protagonist. Yet while the initial levels impress, the later ones stumble a bit. Force Unleashed is a very good game that could have been great, had it not taken so many unnecessary detours.
A big chord and brass fanfare signal the opening of Force Unleashed--the same intro that sparks excitement in millions of fans the world over every time they hear it. If you're interested in this game because you're looking for familiar science-fiction pageantry and a classic good-versus-evil tale, you'll find it delivers both. In fact, The Force Unleashed represents a real step forward in storytelling for the famed franchise, delivering a story both more intimate and more powerful than the entirety of the second film trilogy. Sure, it offers its share of melodrama, but it's tempered by emotive voice acting and expressive character models, and together they provide the emotional heft long missing from the movies. The drama is further enriched by a vivid art design that breathes life into the franchise's long-sterile visual exterior.
Leading the narrative charge is Galen Marek, aka Starkiller, Darth Vader's secret apprentice. The Clone Wars have ended, and Vader orders you to hunt and destroy the last of the remaining Jedi. The story, as brief as it is (the game ends at around the eight-hour mark), contains multiple twists, features some friendly and not-so-friendly faces, and is both explosive and remarkably intimate. You'll interact with Vader, of course, but Starkiller spends most of his time with an android called PROXY and his female pilot, Juno Eclipse. Sharing the details of the trio's adventures would spoil too much, so suffice to say, you'll grow remarkably fond of Starkiller and his companions, and their moral conflicts carry a lot of weight.
If you're interested in The Force Unleashed for more than its story, you'll find that it's a mixture of pure fun and pure frustration. The fun wins out, mainly because when it runs on all cylinders, you truly feel like a powerful Dark Jedi, using a variety of force powers and lightsaber slashes to rain death upon rebel and imperial foes alike. You can thank the game's robust physics engine for those thrills. You can grab any number of objects and characters using your force grip power, and when combined with other skills like force lightning and force push, you can fling stormtroopers into Wookiees, crush Felucian tribal leaders under boulders, and smash AT-STs with scattered barrels. In open environments, these mechanics deliver--big time. Grabbing a Rodian from a distance, electrocuting it, and flinging it into a crowd of shock troopers; hearing your lightsaber hum and whir after you whip it toward an innocent Wookiee; or just drop-kicking a whining Jawa: These moments may very well cause you to yell with glee. This is a game that will make you grab your friends to show off your potent skills.
Unfortunately, developer LucasArts often fails to string these amazing moments together long enough to keep the momentum going. The impressive physics work quite well in huge, open areas like a TIE Fighter facility. The action gets problematic at almost any other time, however, and the hyperactive physics become almost as much of a liability as an asset. This becomes more apparent as Force Unleashed's targeting foibles come more clearly into focus. The targeting is loose, which makes it incredibly easy to grab something other than what you intended, and even easier to throw it at something other than into its actual mark. In the most claustrophobic areas, this might mean flinging an exploding barrel into yourself, throwing it into nothing at all, or targeting a completely immovable item--which then begs the question why the game let you target it with force grip in the first place. And as is the case with many third-person action game cameras, getting in a smaller space means claustrophobic camera angles that cause you to lose perspective of the bigger picture. This is more of a problem here than in most games, though, because Force Unleashed chooses a target not based on the direction the player is facing via the camera, but which direction Starkiller is facing. That's fine in large environments, when there is more camera maneuverability. Otherwise, it becomes a frustrating paradox of ideas: In confined areas, Force Unleashed requires greater player precision, but makes it more difficult to be precise.
Despite these moments of frustration, you'll often find that Force Unleashed is a pleasant challenge, particularly during the best of its boss encounters. The boss battles on your first visits to Felucia and Raxus Prime are the best of the bunch, because they're fun and challenging without being frustrating. These multipart battles are implemented well, letting you restart from that section of the encounter should you die, rather than forcing you to restart at the very beginning. In all of them, you'll need to be constantly active, use a mix of different skills, and pay close attention to patterns. Most of these encounters feature a cinematic camera that may zoom in and out during the action, which makes some of them even more exciting. In others, the camera angles more annoying, since it restricts the viewing area, thereby exacerbating the targeting and physics issues. A battle featuring a bull rancor could have been epic, but it's too easy to get stuck between the rancor's legs, or inside the large skeletons scattered about. The battle is also bugged; in both the Xbox 360 and PS3 versions, the rancor's health bar disappeared, rendering the beast impossible to kill and requiring a restart. In a later boss fight, the camera pulls back and magically appearing invisible walls keep you confined to a limited area, which is odd, given that Force Unleashed avoids invisible walls for the majority of its campaign.
Other attempts at variety arrive with mixed results. Boss encounters and battles against larger enemies, such as rancors and AT-STs, initiate God of War-style quick-time events, and while the initial button prompts can sometimes take you by surprise, most of these sequences are larger than life, featuring all of the acrobatics and pain-inducing attacks you'd expect from a Dark Jedi. You'll also find a few light but sensible puzzles that require you to pull platforms upward or bend metal slabs downward. Other sequences are simply terrible. The most egregious of these involves pulling a destroyer from out of the sky while simultaneously taking on a group of TIE fighters firing at you from their fancy figure-eight pattern. This could have been a game-defining set piece, but due to a broken feedback system--which purports to show you how to maneuver the analog sticks but does nothing of the sort--it's reduced to a malodorous misstep best forgotten. In another misbegotten sequence, you must fight the sensitive targeting system to get rotating rings to stay in place, then fight the camera while you ride an elevator and dash across a walkway--while under the pressure of a time limit. And you have to do it twice. That bit, along with another one that requires you to float upward on blue lasers, brings what should have been Force Unleashed's most exhilarating level to a grinding halt, and the gameplay never fully recovers.
As you progress from level to level, you earn (and find) upgrade crystals, and in turn you learn new combos and can upgrade your force powers to make them more effective. It's a nice touch, because it gives you the impression that Starkiller indeed grows more powerful as the game hurdles forward. It also provides some light character customization, but there are only three development trees, so by the time you reach Force Unleashed's conclusion, you may very well have maxed out most of your abilities. As your move set deepens, you'll encounter increasingly mighty foes, many of which are immune to one force power or another. This approach is a double-edged sword, requiring you to abandon your favorite combinations in favor of other, potentially less enjoyable moves.
Force Unleashed's art direction sparkles and glows, injecting brooding, rich color into every environment--even corridors and control rooms. The junkyards of Raxus Prime are most notable in this regard, but other locales, both familiar and new, are beautifully lit and feature lightly stylized textures and other subtle touches. It's Star Wars, all right, but like the story, the art direction surpasses franchise standards. The graphics engine renders this artistic vision (along with the game's overactive physics) well enough, but it often struggles to keep up. Visual bugs, momentary pauses, and frame rate drops are relatively common, and somewhat more prevalent in the PlayStation 3 version. We encountered instances of blinking textures, incomplete geometry, and on the PS3, multiple occasions when enemy character models would immediately disappear upon defeat. It's certainly beautiful to look at, but throw in weirdly long load times just to pull up menus and jarring cutscene transitions, and you start to see the corners that were cut.
If you know your Star Wars, you probably already have an idea of what Force Unleashed sounds like--and you'd be right on the money. The sound design is of generally high quality, filling your speakers with the swooshes of sabers and the strains of John Williams' famous musical score (along with some new and appropriate compositions). So it sounds expectedly great, but like with the visuals, you may come across some bugs. While we played the PS3 version, the voice track would occasionally fade away, making it essentially impossible to hear dialogue over the music. In the Xbox 360 version, the voice track became desynched from character lip movements several times. It's too bad, because the game's audio is almost as well conceived as its art.
Once you've completed the game and are the all-powerful Dark Jedi you've always wanted to be, it's remarkably fulfilling to return to Force Unleashed's earlier, better levels to try out the powers and combos you didn't possess on your first play-through of them. Or perhaps you want to experience the second of the game's two endings (a reasonable goal, since one of them is bound to get fans talking) while wearing one of the unlockable costumes. But most players will find that aside from a return to the better areas, once is enough. When the game caters to its strengths, it soars; when it deviates, it flounders. Regardless, it's still a more than worthy entry in a long line of licensed Star Wars games, and a good action game in its own right.