You hear the big chord and the brass fanfare, and you know what's coming. It's easy to get excited when you hear the rousing Star Wars theme, though the franchise has hardly been known for exceeding expectations in recent years. If you're interested in Star Wars: The Force Unleashed for its story and theme, you won't be disappointed: It supplies a weighty plot with a few stunning surprises. If you're more interested in the action, you'll find that the game is a mixture of fun and frustration that you'll get some enjoyment from, but ultimately fails to live up to its potential.
You're cast as 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. Exploring the universe from this dark perspective is remarkably compelling. The story is brief (expect to finish the campaign in about seven hours), but it 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 it to say that you'll grow remarkably fond of Starkiller and his companions, and their moral conflicts carry a lot of weight.
Unfortunately, the game's limited visual capabilities somewhat soften the story's dramatic impact. The cutscenes are rendered within the game engine, and are undercut by stiff animations and abrupt, jarring transitions in and out of gameplay, as well as some odd-looking character models and occasional glitches, such as blinking geometry. Audio also takes a hit, which is odd, considering that much of the voice-over work is lifted directly from the Xbox 360/PlayStation 3 version of the game. Poor compression is the culprit here, and it makes the dialogue sound as if you're listening to it on an old record player.
That's not to say that Force Unleashed looks and sounds bad, considering the aging hardware pumping these elements out. The moderately sized environments are fairly detailed, and the saber action and powerful-looking Force abilities produce flurries of particles and other special effects. However, there are some brief moments of slowdown not seen in the Wii version, which uses the same graphics engine (and looks essentially the same). John Williams' music and some original tracks, as well as the familiar swooshes of sabers, sound like you'd expect, and they only occasionally suffer from the poor compression to which the voice-over was subjected.
The star of the visual parade is the robust physics engine that powers your most impressive moves. Using Force grip, you can grab and fling any number of objects, including your enemies; with Force push, you can shove items and foes out of your path. These skills and their variants deliver the game's best moments. Whether you're flinging Felucians into each other or offing swarms of rebels with a burst of energy, there are a number of "did you see that?" moments that will have you grabbing your friends to show them your saber-slinging prowess. Nevertheless, it's disappointing that these moves can't be strung together more easily. The controls can be unresponsive and sometimes lack the fluidity of the other versions. At times, you might be mashing on the square button and wondering why you aren't swinging your saber, or tapping X but not making the corresponding jump. Additionally, it's odd that the triangle button does double duty, activating both Force push (if you tap it) and Force grip (if you hold it). The other versions use separate buttons to perform these powers, which is a more logical choice and feels more intuitive.
Although the environments aren't totally cluttered with useful objects, this actually works to the game's advantage, considering that the targeting problems prevalent in the other console versions are diminished as a result. There are still some moments when you'll grab a different object than you intended, but given that there are fewer objects to grab, these moments will provide only the occasional frustration. The annoying camera of the Wii version has been leashed and tamed a bit on the PlayStation 2 thanks to the right analog stick, which gives you the full camera control that you would expect. However, many of the levels are claustrophobic, which makes it difficult to move the camera into helpful positions, especially when you are fending off multiple enemies.
Nevertheless, the game moves along at a relatively quick pace, so between droid encounters and boss battles, you'll always be in the thick of the action. You won't find much challenge here; there are plenty of health drops scattered around, including respawning ones during boss battles. Should you die, you'll restart at the most recent checkpoint with all of the damage you've already done to your enemies still intact. This is probably for the best because it keeps the pace moving. Some variety comes by way of Force Unleashed's God of War-style quick-time events, which result in some terrific, flashy-looking moves, whether you're smashing on an opposing Jedi or defeating a rancor in a series of thrilling acrobatics. And it's a welcome sort of variety, given that you'll be visiting the same exact levels several times over.
Unlockable costumes and other extras won't give you much reason to return, but some extra levels lengthen the playtime over the mostly similar Wii version. So if you're in the mood to slash up Jawas, this is your chance, though The Force Unleashed may not be as raucously entertaining as you may have expected. Nevertheless, if you've got six or seven hours to kill, this is a fair way to spend them, particularly if you're a Star Wars devotee looking to fill in the gaps between Episodes III and IV.