The Star Wars franchise is something to not take lightly. A billion dollar investment for creator George Lucas, the series has gone on to spawn dozens of games, most of them incredibly mediocre in terms of gameplay and originality. The small few that were excellent (Knights of the Old Republic, Empire at War) were not developed by Lucasarts themselves. So how exactly does the first "true" Star Wars game from Lucasarts stack up to the highly popular third-party titles? Very well in fact. There are some minor nuisances throughout and the game relies too heavily on repetition, but The Force Unleashed is a fun and brilliant game, and definitely the one that has long been worth the wait.
The Force Unleashed follows the story of Starkiller, a secret apprentice to Darth Vader who is tasked with wiping out the Jedi after the events of Episode III. Since the game bridges the gap between Revenge of the Sith and A New Hope, Lucasarts has done a good job of delivering a riveting story complete with unique characters (PROXY is so charming) and settings. The game's story is very sinister at heart, relying only on the events of the Imperial forces and their intent to control the galaxy and wipe out all known resistance forces. From a Star Wars standpoint, it works very well with the abstract of the series and it is good to know that even the games can further enhance the magic the Star Wars universe has catered to fans for so long. Despite the evil setting, the game also manages to fit in bouts of humor along the way, which helps in advancing the story in a suitable pace.
Before you begin your adventure as Starkiller, however, you take role as Darth Vader during the game's first mission, which acts as a sort of tutorial in learning all of your powers. Vader is loaded with awesome moves, but unfortunately the game only gives you an explanation on how to use one. This first level, upon the Wookiee home world of Kashyyyk, is quite a chore to blaze through. For being such a dominant and powerful badass, Vader moves incredibly slowly. There is no run button and he continues about his business at a walk's pace. Sure, the imagery is used to reflect just how careless he is when killing foes, but this tutorial mission lasted much longer then it should have. After disposing of the boss at the end, the true fun begins.
Starkiller is a lot like Vader, only less powerful. He has a bevy of moves available to him from the start, and depicts a sort of ruthless cynicism about him. Combat is basic enough that it is well-rounded and easily accessible for everyone to manage. You only have access to Force Push and Force Levitate from the start, but after killing enemies and earning experience you can upgrade to more devastating powers such as Force Lightning and Force Shield. Using your force powers is definitely the highlight of the game, hence the title of the game, and mixing up your attacks to kill enemies is as easy as pressing a button. The game strives on its physics engine, which reacts realistically to your surroundings. You can pick up almost anything with your Force Levitation power and chuck it at an enemy. Enemies move together in groups and find cover and run away when you blast down a wall they were standing right in front of. The physics engine is leaps and bounds the forefront of the experience, helping you truly live out your wildest Jedi experiences.
Many enemies will go down without a fight, although the real trouble occurs when you get surrounded by numerous enemies. Fighting hordes of enemies is a challenge for a majority of the game. Enemies seem to have a knack of attacking you from off screen and hitting you while you are down. For a supremely powerful dark apprentice to Darth Vader, these moments made Starkiller seem like nothing but an amateur Padawan (nerding out here). What makes fighting swarms of enemies tough is that all of them seem to attack at the exact same time, meaning you usually take more than double the damage exacted at you at once, making it sometimes hard to regain composure and find cover long enough to regain health. There are lots of times when hiding behind an object is key to survival, and that's not something you expect to do when you think of controlling all the force powers you can think of.
Lightsaber fighting is fun, considering Starkiller jumps around like a spastic monkey when he fights, but relying too heavily on your saber skills without upgrading is never a viable option. Later on in the game, enemies soon begin carrying anti-lightsaber weapons (such as electric-pointed sticks) that totally render your lightsaber useless (It's a wonder why all the enemies don't carry such a powerful tool). Some enemies are also invulnerable to you from force powers by utilizing some rare force-drought mechanism. Whatever the case, knowing the boundaries to take down enemies usually requires trial-and-error and knowing whether to use force powers or your lightsaber to take down foes. It's not a relatively suitable scenario, but then again it would not be logical for you to completely plow through every enemy in the game. While being outnumbered might happen more often than not, countering the effects of getting swarmed by enemies is effective thanks in part to a brilliant upgrade system that lets you customize your attacks, powers, and attributes. There are three nodes on the upgrade menu, allowing you to add points to any specific node you wish to become more powerful. Some offer more power in force attacks, some give you better combos in lightsaber fighting, while others give you specific attribute scenarios, such as gaining more health from fallen enemies and recharging your force meter faster. Besides upgrading your character's skills, you also have the ability to upgrade his look too. Although you can't change his facial appearance, his clothing and lightsaber color can be altered after finding the necessary pieces to do so. The game let's you control Starkiller the way you see fit, and never forces you to pick one preset and stick with throughout the game.
When you manage to get to the last stage of a level, a boss fight usually occurs, where you are pitted one-on-one against another foe. The boss can range from a Jedi to a piece of heavy machinery, such as an AT-ST. Fighting the AT-ST is simple enough, simply electrocute them, throw pieces of debris, and repeat till you activate the QTE sequence. Human bosses are a different story however, as these human bosses tend to have more powers then you can possibly imagine, and Vader seems to think so too (he doesn't expect you to survive your mission. Ever). These battles tend to take some time to complete considering many of these human foes are invulnerable to your force powers and block nearly every single lightsaber attack you swing at them. It's truly irritating to be completely over-matched in a battle where you have literally no control on the outcome, that is until you learn the easy way in which to defeat them.
There are some slight other annoyances at well. It is extremely taxing to have to load the menu screen every time you enter or leave it. For a game that constantly forces constant action, having to pause and wait for the menu to load is downright irritating. The game also suffers through slowdowns during constant bouts of action. These moments are very limited and rarely ever happen, but it is still a pain when the game slows down to a crawl when you are fighting to stay alive. Missions also tend to play out the same throughout, simply enter a new area, destroy a forcefield blocking your path, mow down dozens of enemies and fight a boss at the end. The story manages to help break up the monotony by offering some form of clarity in your endless killings, but a little more diversity in the mission structure would have been welcome to fully exhibit some of the truly lavish level designs.
On the high notes, the game looks great in many instances. The levels are incredibly detailed, especially the jungle-forest world of Felucia, with its bright vibrant colors and leafy terrain that sways as you move through it. Many of the character models look accurately portrayed and the textures are nicely refined. There are also a lot of hidden goodies for you to find if you spend the time searching. During our journeys we managed to find a portrait of series creator George Lucas hanging on the wall, a glimpse of Lando walking in the background, and other various treats that are worth your while to search out. The sound too, naturally, is top notch. Considering the game utilizes the extensive Star Wars audio library, the music in the game perfectly puts you in the mood to ravage your enemies. The voice acting is actually quite good, oftentimes better then some of the movie actors. The voices of Vader and other noticeable icons are spot-on, while the voices of Starkiller and other newcomers are exceptional as well.
Star Wars: The Force Unleashed is an enjoyable game with plenty of action and mementos to keep fans happy for quite some time. While the action never ceases and you are quickly jumped from one planet to the next, the adventure is over quickly (only about eight hours), and with the lack of any multiplayer components there is no reason to head back once you finish. The combat might give you some problems once in a while, but The Force Unleashed is still the best game to arrive in a while branding the Star Wars name and is a true testament to the valor of the Star Wars franchise.