Ah, Star Wars… Perhaps one of the biggest codifiers of epic adventure for the average nerd (and, presumably, many readers on this site), it has kept our attention for a perplexing long time. It would not be be a stretch to say that finding a gamer among us that has not experienced at least one piece of the franchise’s games or watched one selection from the series’ titles would be an anomaly. But fans of Star Wars (the author of this article included) have faced a dry spell of enjoyable media from the franchise for some time, and desired a new and enjoyable experience free of annoying CGI-animated sidekicks and kid-friendly merchandising fodder.
It was finally in late 2008 that Star Wars: The Force Unleashed was released, and was a new hope (sorry) for a game sufficient enough to satisfy an eager fanbase. Set between the stories of Episode III and IV, TFU tells the story of Darth Vader’s secret apprentice, whose name is given only as “Starkiller”. Extremely strong in the Force, Starkiller is sent on missions by Vader to eliminate his enemies (i.e. those darn Jedi troublemakers) in order to complete his training, with the intent to eventually take on and overthrow the Emperor himself. Over time, he realizes that his master cannot be entirely trusted, and begins to question his loyalties as he meets new allies. TFU is very well written, and the plot is well executed given the gap it is expected to fill in the canon. The cast is expertly voice-acted and the main and supporting characters (even the bad guys) are interesting and fun. The narrative even plays similarly to typical Star Wars film, with the classic tropes of redemption, choice, emotional bond, and betrayal playing out in ways that rarely seem cliched or rushed. Additionally, the game does not focus heavily on the moral choices the player makes when playing as Starkiller in-game, leaving the narrative to develop Starkiller’s personality and the game to focus on its mechanics.
The game setting itself looks fantastic. Starkiller’s journey takes him to a number of exotic worlds: from the cold and unwelcoming exteriors of space stations and starships, to the lush and exotic landscapes of alien fungal forests, to dirty brown junkyard worlds, the appearance of the game is decidedly pretty and detailed. This is good, since the majority of the game’s progression takes player through most of these terrain types multiple times. Level design in each mission is simplistic, but sufficiently developed enough to keep players’ attention when Force Powers are needed to bypass obstacles. The only thing more fun than taking in the environment is destroying it with the Force. The Havok engine makes its obligatory appearance here for the game’s physics engine, but it is complimented well with the implementation of Pixelux Entertainment’s Digital Molecular Matter engine for objects. Hurling Stromtroopers and such through shattering monitors and windows is immensely satisfying and rarely grows tiresome.
Gameplay itself is fairly standard for its genre. The player relies on their trusty lightsaber to string combos, and Force powers to bludgeon, toss, and shock enemies, as well the ability to combine both aspects into attacks. As the player defeats enemies, they can level up to gain Force Points that can be spent to increase power in combat and Force powers, as well as unlock combos. Force points can also be attained via Holocrons hidden throughout levels, though Holocrons can also unlock new costumes, lightsaber crystals, bonus Force Points, and temporary power-ups. Combat itself is fairly simplistic, but as players begin to encounter new enemies in various situations, strategies must be taken for the player to survive. Defeating especially tough enemies allows the player to execute a stylish insta-kill move via a quicktime event. These flashy finishes are entertaining to watch, but the enemies that trigger them have only a few varieties of these animations and they can become tiresome as you execute the same one over and over again on a group of enemies. Boss battles in the game are difficult, but tedious. Bosses tend to have a single strategy that they are weak against, which subtracts from the feeling that would be expected from an intense, visceral lightsaber duel. Nonetheless, these battles are still enjoyable and fun to play.
So after all of that, is The Force Unleashed worth playing? Aside from minor gameplay annoyances and some repetition, TFU is a solid game worth trying out. Even if the player in question has no real interest in the Star Wars universe, the game plays as a solid hack ‘n’ slash adventure suitable for gamers who enjoy God of War and similar titles. It is a great buy for owners of an Xbox 360, PS3 or Wii, or at the very least, a great game to rent.