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Star Wars: The Force Unleashed (PlayStation 3) artwork

Star Wars: The Force Unleashed (PlayStation 3) review

"I have been told it is a known scientific fact that as people grow older, films and games tend to increase in greatness as time passes since the last play- through. So that logically, any criticism of newer Star- Wars titles for being vapid and shameless commercial offerings, just without the charm of the old ones, can be dismissed altogether. Either because the audience has now become mature and is no longer enticed by the simplistic plots that never were very good to begin with. Or because the..."

I have been told it is a known scientific fact that as people grow older, films and games tend to increase in greatness as time passes since the last play- through. So that logically, any criticism of newer Star- Wars titles for being vapid and shameless commercial offerings, just without the charm of the old ones, can be dismissed altogether. Either because the audience has now become mature and is no longer enticed by the simplistic plots that never were very good to begin with. Or because they slaughter what would otherwise be an adequate story, by comparing it to their remembered, but no longer real, experiences of the good old days.

I think it is also a fact that as time passes, each inevitable iteration of a Star- Wars title will feature more voluptous dialogue, even less depth, and more outrageous use of force- powers as the sole narrative driver. So I'll leave the reader to decide which is more true in this case, since I may or may not have lost my sense of balance long ago in disliking this game intensely.

Star Wars: The Force Unleashed is set in a galaxy far, far away, in a time- space between episode three and episode four. That is, for the uninitiated, after the rise of the Galactic Empire, with the fall of the last remaining Jedi - and before the birth of the Rebel Alliance. Naturally, you'd expect merciless slaughter of Jedi, desperately hiding at the Outer Rim for fear of involving themselves and other worlds with the Galactic Empire. And shock- troopers bringing order to entire quadrants by strategic destruction of planets, or troublesome species. As well as the escalation of the more conventional war- effort on the Outer Rim, along with the rise of the Rebel Alliance in response to the Empire's overreach.

Unfortunately, we are in no such luck. The game begins promisingly enough with with the entry of Lord Vader's personal shuttle landing on Kashyyk in the middle of a fierce battle - the Dark Lord strolling out into the open, ignoring the explosions and laser- blasts as he homes in on his prey, the Jedi. No, wait, I tell a lie - it actually starts with what the writers must think is a classical Star Wars comedic relief (presumably warranted after the 20 seconds of downcast scrolling text and uneventful cutscenes), as a stuttering general somehow manages to drop in and talk nonsense before Vader thankfully force- chokes him until he shuts up. But eventually the game begins, as you guide the Dark Lord - strolling through the front lines to reach to reach his victim: the Jedi.

This first stage, as laughable as it is terrifying, functions in some way as a tutorial level, introducing you to all the available force- powers and moves. And in other ways a framing device. Does the Dark Lord wish to pick up a tree by the root, and then bash an oncoming brigade of Wookies with it? Yes, apparently he does. And now he feels the need to unecessarily choke and electrocute every single wookie, and then throw them off cliffs, along with all elements of traditional game balance and progression.

Soon you will reach the target, however - but no more fighting until you are subjected to a string of dialogue that was apparently constructed by taking randomly chosen fighting lines from the movies, and then having them glued together by the necessary conjugation to make the sentences parse gramatically. Somewhere in this atrocious back and forth, Vader exclaims "Ah, a Son" - and that son of the late Jedi is the player, who now will become Vader's secret apprentice... as Vader seems to be training for his later father and son encounter with Luke.

It's not that the dialogue or plot is merely bad - I would not be a Star- Wars fan if I didn't like bad dialogue or questionable plot devices as only George Lucas can provide them. But this Star Wars chapter is simply completely void of content. There is no play, there is not even Space Opera: it is no attempt to maul a simplistic inner confrontation into a galactic struggle, while pretending every platitude carries the weight of the stars, and whatnot. What the writers did was to create a copy of the confrontation between Vader and Luke as a framing device, and then added several "popular" elements from the films and earlier games to it all, shuffling the elements around a bit to make it seem fresh.

Further compounding their mistakes, the writers then decide to borrow (as in lift directly) out of the unofficial arcs as well as the canon. For example from the infinitely more successful Jedi Outcast games, by letting you have another Jan Ors character chatting in the background during the missions. Except you do not get the impression that our hero will damn himself, sever his link to the force, or willingly die for "Starkiller" (when indeed she is captured and tortured by the enemy later on, like Jan). Neither do we have a dark side version of Kyle Katarn who are willing to destroy the galaxy to get Jan back - instead our hero evilly eyes Starkiller's ass, while commanding her around like a vicious little boy would his infinitely understanding mother. And that is the introduction to the main character's love interest.

True to this recipe, the final level is introduced by something picked directly out of Assassin's creed - the costume, the moves, the cinematic, even the pretentious murderous glee that lasts for exactly three seconds into the game after the cutscene. To top it off, the game then features a humourous murdering assassin droid who despises humans - and I swear to you I'm not making this up - who copies legendary characters from the Star- Wars universe and lets you fight them, one after another.

I would still wish to say that the game is good for what it is, but it is not. Admittedly there are several elements of the game that are done well, and which is entertaining. Such as the force- throwing mechanism, and the way you can sometimes use the force- grip to pull open doorways, or create platforms by tearing out parts of the hull plating on a ship. But unfortunately the dynamic element of this is non- existant - there is no depth to how the force- throws can be used. And the tearing off hull- plates is only available in specially scripted and designed areas - where platforms are marked in shimmering blue so you will not miss the opportunity.

In much the same way, your character is able to perform incredible displays of force - but only in particularly scripted events and sequences. The combo- system is of course the same - the fighting moves are all laughably powerful - but only if you push the right sequence of buttons without getting interrupted by, say, a random laser- rifle blast or undodgeable shockwave - that invariably will be triggered in the delay before your combo kicks off. It may seem ridiculous to mention such a thing, but you also have to hit your enemies - which is not necessarily very easy when trying to dodge invisible walls, or spots where you, in spite of your incredible aptitude for using force- powers, will mysteriously slide down and fall to your death, unable to force- jump, force- dash or skip away or even walk to safety. And let's not get too deep into the entire: "I want to throw this rock in the direction of the thumb- stick, onto that Storm- trooper, but unfortunately the game locks on to the infinitely better animated, but non- threatening, plant on the cliff to the right".

In this sense, the game plays like a demonstration of the use of force- powers through the Havok- engine, that happens to be set in a Star Wars like game- world. With a completely fractured and shamefully unoriginal plot padded on to function, occasionally, as a bridge between the different demo- areas. Demo- areas which are intended to be played through half- way several times before you die - as your experience earned from completing the levels one after another is not enough to survive the later levels. Something that certainly does not help with the game's otherwise fantastic repetitiveness. In other words, you will be able to complete the game eventually, no matter what. But you will also die multiple times, even if you are superhumanly skilled with the controller. Something that ensures a feeling of game- balance or progression only occurs by accident throughout the game, and then in short moments.

For all the game's inept leveraging of other original content, it does however bring something new on it's own. In this universe, the Emperor is fully aware of having, in Palpatine's own words, "unwittingly created" the seed of the rebellion against the Empire through their cartoonish evilness. But they nevertheless will continue in the same manner for quite a number of years.

I am not certain if the intention of the script- writers was to make a point of this or if it was merely incidental. But there is a single thematic parallel to be observed in the writing. At one point, you will fight the apprentice whose master you slew earlier in the game. And this one you proclaim will "not escape" or be given mercy, but carry on the memories of her evil deeds after you let her leave. Which it is suggested will help her avoid falling to the dark side later on. This is also the function, it seems, of your role towards Vader, definitively the most expressionable character in the entire tale. That in your making explicit the horrors of your fate, Vader, the symbol of evil oppression, will suffer through the darkness and eventually be motivated to redeem himself.

Could this also be extended to the birth of the rebellion, an organisation which seems flimsier and more parodic in this chapter than even in episode four? That the rebellion is not a reaction to the Empire, and a symbol for the larger struggle against oppression - but that the Empire itself, and it's power to directly shape the future, is what eventually allows the new leaders of the federation to create peace? I seem to recall a different tone with slightly less apocalyptic cynicism in the original story- arc. (Although I of course could be mistaken).

Between this and the violence in the game, the game's audience seems intended to be adolescents over eighteen. And for people who find it furiously comical to throw Storm- Troopers around like rag- dolls - but who can do this non- stop for the eight- ten or so hours the game lasts without getting bored to tears. True, there are conceptual bright spots in this game, such as the single (there is only one single) puzzle where you use the force- grab to pick up debris and create a platform to reach an entirely optional holo- sphere. And the area where you bend hull- parts. As well as the instance where you pull down a Star Destroyer from orbit with your now utterly abused and exhausted force- powers.

But even then, the completion of the sequences are unfinished and ultimately unsatisfying. The reward from the puzzle is non- existent (the challenge is finding it), and succeeding in pulling down the Star Destroyer is dependent on your ability to find the short /off- screen/ instant your cursor locks on to the endless wave of pseudo 3d Tie- Fighters, that only attack you from the front of the camera. And so in the end, as the cinematic tears away from the static and mood- less in- game screens - where the game repeats just like the eventually grating sameness of the 18 seconds long Generic Star Wars Action Music(tm) - the Star Destroyer spins out of control and nearly crushes you.

I will admit that if the choice was between seeing my nephew play this game, and between letting him pull the legs off spiders for entertainment, I would have a hard time making a choice. But rather than meddle in such false and completely unrewarding philosophical problems, I think avoiding this game altogether might be an entirely valid option.

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Community review by fleinn (April 17, 2009)

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