Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Star Wars: The Force Unleashed

Post-Launch Review
Star Wars: The Force Unleashed (PC)
Developer: LucasArts / Aspyr Media (PC version)
Released: September 2008

The Force Unleashed is an action game set in the period between Episodes III and IV, when the newly-formed Empire is building its strength and constructing its war machine. Darth Vader has secretly taken on an apprentice with plans to overthrow the Emperor. You play as the apprentice, called Starkiller. Darth Vader sends Starkiller to prove himself by killing some of the last remaining Jedi Knights.

At Launch
Upon release, The Force Unleashed was the fastest-selling Star Wars game ever. Critical reception was mixed to positive. Critics enjoyed the plot, the Force powers, the graphics, and Samuel Witwer's voice work on Starkiller. The major criticisms were poor targeting, camera issues, and poorly scaled enemies, actually making Starkiller feel weaker as the game progressed.

Post Launch
There are four DLC packs, which are all collected together as the Ultimate Sith Edition. The first is a skins pack which adds a bunch of alternate playable characters, including Obi-Wan, Luke, C-3PO, Jango Fett, Darth Maul, and others. The second is a mission to the Jedi Temple which fits into the story but must be played independently for some reason. The third and fourth DLC packs are “what if” alternate future scenarios, where Starkiller kills Vader and becomes the Emperor's right hand, and is sent to Tatooine to kill Obi-Wan Kenobi, and later Hoth to kill Luke Skywalker.
The Good
The plot of The Force Unleashed is really well written. It assumes you've watched the movies, but really, if you're thinking of playing this game, you probably have. It has an epic scope and some major plot twists, but still grounds itself in the characters. The progression works quite well.
Minor spoilers ahead!
Darth Vader saved Starkiller from a squad of Stormtroopers when he was a kid, so of course Starkiller respects Vader and does what he's told. The first Jedi you're sent after is a terrorist destroying Imperial holdings. As an apprentice of Darth Vader, this is a perfectly good reason to go after him, and in fact it would be irresponsible if you didn't. The second Jedi you're sent after is clearly insane, but wasn't really bothering anyone — that's a little strange. The third one you're sent for has not acted against the Empire in any way and seems like a good person. That's weird, but Darth Vader is still your master, so okay. Things develop from there, and while continuing to work for Darth Vader, Starkiller starts to question what's right.
Starkiller is the real standout. He's well written and seems like as normal and reasonable a person as he could possibly be, working for Darth Vader and all. He has doubts and fears, he gets angry, he gets nervous around women. The writers made a great choice in making him not really a bad guy, despite working for the Emperor's right-hand man — it keeps him sympathetic. He has a strong character arc and develops a lot over the course of the game. Samuel Witwer, the voice actor for Starkiller, did a fantastic job and added a lot of emotion to the character. And as a side note, he also has a variety of neat outfits and holds his lightsaber in a cool position.
The other character that impressed me is Proxy, a combat droid capable of imitating the appearance and fighting style of seemingly anyone. Darth Vader programmed him to be constantly trying to kill the apprentice, and yet, he's a very friendly and helpful droid. There are some very funny moments when Proxy pops out of nowhere and attempts to kill his master, Starkiller beats him, and they have a laugh about how he didn't manage this time but there's always tomorrow.
Graphics and Art Direction
The Force Unleashed definitely looks like Star Wars. The developers did a great job of replicating the visual style of the films. The Imperial architecture is the most faithfully reproduced, with the cold, sterile environments and shiny floors. The facial animation is also pretty well done, doing a good job of conveying emotion. Starkiller is the best-animated and most detailed model. A couple of characters have some slightly fuzzy texture work on their faces, but it's not too big a deal.
Tutorial Mission
Tutorials can sometimes seem really weird. You're very powerful and it's almost impossible to die, but often you accomplish something awesome and heroic and everyone praises you for it, when it's really the easiest thing in the world.
In The Force Unleashed's tutorial, you play as Darth Vader during an Imperial attack on Kashyyyk. That's a perfectly reasonable explanation for being nigh-invulnerable and super-powerful — and it's a really cool one too. It functions as a prologue, explaining how Darth Vader found and took on an apprentice. It shows you an unexpected, almost compassionate side to Vader, hinting at his eventual betrayal of the Emperor for his son Luke in Episode VI.
There isn't a huge amount of variety — the same four planets are repeated a couple of times, with a couple of different areas thrown in — but they're used well. When you return to a planet you've visited before, it's changed substantially. For example, in the tutorial mission, you play as Darth Vader on Kashyyyk, the Wookiee homeworld. It's green and lush, with wooden structures and lots of Wookies fighting the Imperial forces. When you visit Kashyyyk as Starkiller, it's years into the Imperial occupation. Forests have been burned to the ground, the world is dark and covered in ash and flame, and imposing metal structures cling to the cliffs. You visit Felucia on a mission to kill a Jedi Master and witness the crazily colourful natives and giant plant life, and when you return, the planet has been corrupted by the dark side, its inhabitants now sinister and sickly.

There's also this little gem in an Imperial trophy room -- Jar Jar Binks frozen in carbonite.
In a vaguely-RPG kind of way, you can level up your Force powers, unlock passive abilities and bonuses, and a multitude of combat combos. That's neat, but almost expected from Star Wars games now. The more interesting bits are the lightsaber crystals and costumes. There are two kinds of crystal: colour, of which there are all the usuals, but there are 3 variations of each colour: normal, compressed, and unstable. Compressed provides a kind of pulsating effect, and unstable gives a fuzzy, smoky kind of blade. You can also get a black crystal, which looks really cool and is likely a reference to the Darksaber. You can also get power crystals, which add an effect to your saber. Some are simple, like increased damage or decreased cost to use powers; some are more interesting, like a chance to deal lightning damage or damage over time on each swing.
There's also an absolutely massive selection of costumes. A bunch are unlocked just by playing — you get different clothes for each mission as appropriate. A few are unlocked by finding them in-game. A bunch more are DLC, I guess, and include skins for dozens of characters from the franchise — some big-name ones like Obi-Wan, Luke, or Jango Fett; some generic characters like stormtroopers or clone troopers, a bunch of Masters of the Jedi Council and a few more costume changes for Starkiller. There's a lot of selection and they're pretty much all very well done.

Of the three DLC missions, this one is the best. Somehow the developers made the desert planet of Tatooine look like one of the richest landscapes in the game. There's a short but pretty good plot: after killing Darth Vader and becoming the Emperor's new apprentice, Starkiller is sent to find the two droids carrying the plans for the Death Star. He seeks out Jabba the Hutt for his spy network, but is betrayed and fights his way out. As Starkiller escapes the palace, Boba Fett appears, hoping to collect the bounty on the Emperor's assassin. After defeating the bounty hunter, Starkiller makes his way to Mos Eisley, where he finds the Millenium Falcon on the verge of takeoff. To stall for time, Obi-Wan Kenobi challenges Starkiller to single combat. Starkiller destroys Obi-Wan, but the Falcon escapes. There's good variety in terms of environments, and the "what if" story ties in well with the plot of the original film. Nicely done all around.
what is this i dont even
 The Neutral
The Force Unleashed
This game takes Force abilities to unprecedented levels. On the one hand, this is really fun. It's like being a superhero on crack (not that I endorse crack). The action is awesome. Your moves look cool, you have some really neat combos that tie together multiple Force powers, and it's just generally fun.
On the other hand, think of what you've seen Jedi do in the movies. Compare that to The Force Unleashed, where you can fly (sometimes), create massive shockwaves that destroy entire areas, hurl enemies hundreds of feet, rip apart ships and vehicles, and oh yeah, tear an entire Star Destroyer out of the sky.
The major problem I have isn't even with the inconsistency with the rest of the Star Wars universe. If Starkiller can fly when awesomeness demands it in cutscenes and finishing moves, why can't he fly all the time? Why can he fly while shooting lightning or swinging his lightsaber, but not just for fun? If Starkiller can pull a Star Destroyer out of the sky against the force of its engines, why does he even bother swordfighting? Why doesn't he just crush everything with his mind? Why doesn't he just hurl his enemies into space?
 Jedi Temple & Hoth
The other two DLC missions are okay, but not great. They're more samey than Tatooine, offering less diversity. The new environments look great, and clearly a lot of work was put into it. But the gameplay and stories involved are less interesting and complex than in the Tatooine mission.
The Bad
Not cheap as in financially, cheap as in unfair. Towards the end of the game, the enemies and their positioning seem to scale up more quickly than Starkiller's power level, meaning the game gets harder and harder, but not in a good way. Later enemies almost all have some kind of knockdown ability, which in itself wouldn't be so problematic. However, the enemies also have a lot of health, and they'll keep attacking you when you're down. Some areas are really tough to clear because you'll get knocked down, stand up, and immediately get knocked down again. If you're really unlucky, this can happen until you die.
A Little Buggy
Nothing terrible or game-breaking here, just a bit of a nuisance. Occasionally I lost a few frames, which was annoying, but never even caused a death. In the last two missions I also lost part of the audio — I could hear my lightsaber and some music, but other parts of the music, background audio, and enemy fire was silent. Only the last one is really a problem — some weapons need to be heard if they're off-screen so you can dodge them.
Control Issues
Targeting can be difficult and inconsistent. It's hard to tell how the game decides what Starkiller is targeting, so sometimes you'll be looking straight at an enemy and shoot lightning off to the side. The camera is mostly OK, except in boss battles — when you fight a boss the camera has a fixed position and pans a bit when you move around. It actually makes boss battles artificially and arbitrarily more difficult, since it suddenly becomes much harder to accurately track your target. You have to learn one system for normal combat, and another entirely for bosses. It's an absolutely terrible system and makes bosses a lot more frustrating than they need to be.
The camera and targeting issues combine to make one Force power particularly irritating — Grip. Grip is the power you use to pick things up and throw them at other things. But since the targeting and camera can be inconsistent at best and maddening at worst, it's usually very hard to throw something where you mean to.
While the plot of the game is great if taken by itself, my problem is how it fits into Star Wars canon. Spoilers ahead.
In the end it turns out that Starkiller is the true inspiration for the Rebel Alliance. I don't like this. Once again it ties the fate of the entire galaxy down to a couple of Force-users. The galaxy is an absolutely massive place. Couldn't the Rebellion just have been a bunch of people who got tired of an evil, tyrannical regime? Why does it all have to come down to a single Jedi, again?
Even worse, Starkiller actually defeats both Darth Vader and the Emperor in combat. Of course, he can't kill them without negating the original film trilogy, so his Jedi companion tells him he can't kill the Emperor because he'll fall to the dark side. Oh, boo hoo. This all takes place in the Death Star, a space station with the ability to destroy entire planets. Don't you think one Jedi turning to the dark side might have been an acceptable sacrifice to save not only the entire planet Alderaan, but, you know — the galaxy? Apparently the dark side is so incredibly bad and so all-consuming that it's not OK to kill two guys for the sake of the entire galaxy. That's bull. Starkiller should never have beaten his opponents. I would've been (mostly) OK if all you could do was hold them off long enough for the Rebels to escape, but nooooooo, you have to be awesome and beat them, only to have that actually not mean anything at all.
The Verdict
Recommendation: Yes / Maybe.
This verdict is contingent on how strongly you feel about Star Wars. If you're the kind of person who gets really upset at George Lucas' meddling with the original films and reads the expanded universe books, you'll find some stuff to hate. If you're less invested and just enjoy the movies and games, you'll probably have a lot of fun with this one. I can appreciate The Force Unleashed as a game, but I don't like how it handled some aspects of the universe. I did have a lot of fun, though, and to a lot of people that's what's really important. I hear the console versions have a few less problems, so it's probably better to play it there.

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