Platform(s): PlayStation 3, PlayStation 2, Wii, Xbox 360
Note: The Xbox 360 version was played for this review. There's also a couple minor spoilers in here.
The Force Unleashed is like Too Human, except good. You may say, "Oh, so it's nothing like Too Human? Nur hur hur!" Well, I think the design goals were similar. Both games set out to create an entertaining action RPG with a gripping science fiction story. However, while Too Human was a clunky, awkward experience that couldn't quite convey its story or setting, Force Unleashed is a smooth cinematic journey through a new chapter in the Star Wars saga.
The phrase "new chapter in Star Wars saga" probably makes most fans shudder these days. However, I'm happy to say that The Force Unleashed doesn't have little kids flying spaceships, "we're obviously here to sell lunch boxes" aliens, or any of the other missteps that marred the prequels. Force Unleashed is a thoroughly "un-cute" game and isn't aimed toward children, unlike the recent animated film Clone Wars. Not that it's gory or lewd - but it's dark and violent enough to be palatable for the people who remember the original Star Wars movies. No mention of midichlorians, either, so that's a plus.
Players control Starkiller, the secret apprentice of Darth Vader, in the time period between Episode III and IV. I was ready to be annoyed by this because the Emperor had his own secret apprentice (Mara Jade) and if everyone has a secret apprentice, it sort of cheapens things. Given how Vader and Palpatine always seemed to be plotting against each other (as is the nature of Sith), though, it works. Starkiller is a well-voiced, well-drawn character who we're rooting for from his first introduction. The first level puts the player in the shoes of Vader as he arrives on a jungle world to kill a Jedi. As he's about to finish the Jedi off, a boy pulls the saber from his grip with telekinesis - it's a young Starkiller. Stormtroopers arrive and are about to shoot the boy when Vader slices them apart. The story then fast forwards to an adult Starkiller, now Vader's apprentice, being sent to kill a Jedi. Given how sugar-coated many Star Wars games and movies were, it's refreshing to be the bad guy and going around slaying Jawas, Wookiees, and Jedi.
I don't want to give any more story spoilers away so I'll just say this about the story: it adds a lot of interesting plot and characters to the Star Wars saga while still having displaying enough "old Star Wars" to please fans of the films. When considering the game's other features, you have to remember that Force Unleashed is first and foremost a cinematic experience. Developers always try to find a balance between creating a linear, tightly-scripted game or an open-ended game with extensive player choice but a looser story - this game strongly leans toward the first option.
There are role-playing game elements but unlike Knights of the Old Republic, you're not really choosing what type of (Dark) Jedi you are. There isn't much in the way of equipment customization either; you'll earn and find new crystals for your lightsaber but half of these merely change the color of the blade rather than enhancing your abilities. Though you'll boost your character's attributes to your liking and increase the effectiveness favorite force powers, every player will have the same six or so Force powers. You'll also purchase "combos" - essentially, special moves that combine your force powers and lightsaber skills to devastating effect - but you'll earn enough points over the course of the game to purchase nearly all of them by the end.
One example of a combo is a lightsaber swing followed quickly by a "Force Push", sending multiple enemies flying. While the combos look spectacular - the one I just described is a sort of home run swing - using them isn't a necessity. I made it through the game using only two or three of them; more often, I just spammed the basic Force powers or swung my lightsaber around. The two or three I used weren't even really necessary, either. I played it on the second of four difficulty levels so maybe the combos are more essential on more difficult settings; still, the potential complexity of the combat system will probably be lost on most players.
The reluctance of the average player to learn all of the complex Force combos is partly a reflection on how powerful and fun the basic Force abilities are. Picking up an enemy and tossing them against a wall or over a cliff just doesn't get old. It's made more fun by enemies' reactions; they'll flail their limbs when thrown or spasm and curl up when shocked by Force lightning. You have a finite supply of "Force energy" to draw from in order to use these powers but you regenerate energy so quickly that you won't be standing around waiting for regenerating. Besides, you'll have always have a lightsaber to swing around.
My biggest beef with the Force powers is the mechanic for Force Grip, the power that lets you pick up and throw objects. You'll essentially target whatever is directly in front of Starkiller and in range, which works fine in a level environment but it's awkward trying to, for example, grab a stormtrooper who is on a balcony above a stack of crates. After picking the object up with right trigger (again, this is the 360 version), you can move the object around with your analog sticks, which works fine. Aiming your throws is awkward but luckily there aren't many instances where you have to throw with any sort of precision.
The majority of the game uses a third-person perspective camera which behaves for most of the time, though it zooms in a bit too close when Starkiller is backed into a corner. During boss fights, the camera pulls out into a wide, fixed position, which is a little jarring at first but it works really well given the crazy powers some of the bosses will whip it on you. At one point, you're facing a Jedi who throws TIE fighters at you and if you were looking at that from a close third-person perspective, you would have had no clue what the hell was hitting you.
Speaking of TIE fighters, there is one end sequence that the fixed-camera doesn't work well with. As you may have seen from concept art, there's a scene where Starkiller has to pull a Star Destroyer from the sky. First, you have to grab TIE Fighters and throw them to the ground before moving on to pull down the capital ship. Grabbing rapidly moving starfighters with Force Grip is hard enough without being unable to tell when they're in range because of the camera. What should have been the most impressive sequence in the game ends up being far too drawn out and frustrating.
Boss fights aren't that different than the normal game itself in that you can rely on basic Force powers to carry you to victory. You'll knock most of the health off the enemy with your lightsaber after he's fallen over. I got a feeling in some of these fights that the boss wasn't working as intended and that it should've actually been more challenging. Anyway, a crucial difference of boss fights, besides the camera, is that they take more fingerwork than the normal game. For example, when you and the boss try to hit each other with Force powers at the same time, you'll have to rock the analog stick back and forth to break through the enemy's defenses.
At the end of boss fights, the game enters into a Quick Timer Event like Bourne Conspiracy or Shenmue where buttons flashes on-screen and the player must quickly press them in order to finish off the boss. If you don't press a button in time in Force Unleashed, you don't die or anything - you just have to repeat the sequence from the beginning. It seems to defeat the purpose of having Quick Timer Events in the first place, but then again, it's more annoying to die at the end of a boss fight just because you didn't press X quickly. Frankly, I just don't understand the point of QTE's at all; they're an attempt to make the player feel like he's participating in a cut scene but they still don't feel like part of a game because they're so far removed from the normal gameplay routine.
There have been many sub-par Star Wars games in the past that simply coasted on the license and happily, The Force Unleashed is a game that deserved to be made. The gameplay is not revolutionary but it's a graceful experience with great visuals, a thrilling score, and only a few hiccups. It has no multiplayer and doesn't have the depth of customization that other action RPG's possess but Force Unleashed does accomplish its goal of creating a story worthy of the Star Wars universe.