Before sacking so many of their staff, I genuinely believed The Force Unleashed was going to be the return to the era of good internally-developed games at LucasArts. Like what was promised in that recruitment video, with so many happy, smiling (and now canned) faces. Unfortunately it seems the cynics win the day this time, leaving us optimists scurrying off muttering “maybe Indy could still be okay”.
Shall we start with the good before it slides rapidly downhill?
THE LIGHT SIDE
As all the reviews are reporting, the story is incredibly well told. If they'd shown this in cinemas there wouldn't be any complaints. It easily trounces the entire prequel trilogy and gives us Star Wars fans what we wanted instead of the atrocities George Lucas flung together. Lots of Darth Vader, darkness pervading, an evil yet redeemable and not at all mopey lead character, a love story that doesn't get in the way and doesn't make you cringe, Star Destroyers, TIE Fighters, the birth of the Rebellion… it's like a fan's checklist of everything they wanted but didn't get in Revenge of the Sith.
Most importantly of all, despite knowing how it all ends it still manages to pull off a totally unexpected and really cool twist that puts a new spin on the entire saga. I'd heard mention of this twist and its galaxy-smashing consequences, but couldn't imagine what it could possibly be. LucasArts managed it, and it just keeps on twisting until the very end of the story. Oh, and there IS a Jedi Knight-esque Light Side/Dark Side choice that affects that ending, as hoped for.
The acting is also top-notch as LucasArts always manage to get right, with most actors fitting the roles well or doing some pretty good impressions. Jimmy Smits reprises his role as Bail Organa, Leia's surrogate Dad. Another thing LucasArts also usually gets right is the music, and Republic Commando's Jesse Harlin composes some wonderful new stuff that goes perfectly alongside John Williams' themes.
The game can also be pretty fun, when it's all going right. The physics work very well, and sometimes create some really amazingly cool moments. It's also really addictive.
THE DARK SIDE
Notice how all the good stuff I mentioned there had very little to do with the game itself? Well, there's a reason. The Force Unleashed is a very frustrating game to play. LucasArts had loads of really admirable goals and a cracking story, but all of that will be forgotten after the game 'forgets' to save your place again. Or you fall down a pit because the camera decides to look elsewhere. Or it introduces another cheat to artificially up the difficulty.
Yes, cheating. Not “being difficult” which is an important distinction, but proper cheating. Like your super-powerful Jedi who can bring down a Star Destroyer but can't even lift a slightly taller Stormtrooper. The lightsaber is a perfect example of the game's cheating, with it being the most impotent example of the elegant weapon ever seen. Want to cut through a door? Well you can't, you have to Force Push it, this is The Force Unleashed not The Lightsaber Unleashed after all. When a drop of three metres will kill a Stormtrooper but a devastating strike across chest with an energy blade won't, something's very wrong.
Talking of broken gameplay, the targeting system for Force Throw could not be more arbitrary. Want to throw an object at an enemy of your choice? Tough! Why not throw it at the guy miles away who you can't even see yet, or that totally harmless tower while TIE Fighters gun you down?
Then there's the biggest cheat of all, the one that LucasArts knowingly played to cheaply increase play time – repeating levels. There are 5 environments in the game, and 4 of those get re-used. Kashyyyk and Imperial Station LucasArts get away with, because they are sufficiently different and are justified by the story. Felucia and Raxus Prime on the other hand are barely justified at all. Raxus in particular makes no sense – why would a Jedi be hiding on a world where the Empire has a critical shipyard?
This lazy game design is made all the more galling by the mention of the Jedi Knight world Nar Shaddaa, which simply reminds us how consistently well designed those games were. The closest comparison here is not the Dark Forces series, it's the Revenge of the Sith game. Almost as linear too, and the gameplay is just as repetitive and simplistic.
A lot of reviewers try to say 'if you're a Star Wars fan, you'll enjoy it', but I think Star Wars fans will actually find a lot more to criticise here. For example, where's Mara Jade? If this super-powerful Jedi played such an important role shaping the galaxy, why has he never been mentioned before? What happened to the characters who survived who don't appear ever again? Since when have Royal Guards been Dark Jedi? Most importantly, when in any of the films, games or books have Stormtroopers ever been equipped with Force-repelling shields?
THE AMBIVILENT SIDE
To be fair when the game gets going it can be a lot of fun, in a very side-scrolling beat-em-up kinda way. It can work, so despite all the problems I've given it a slightly higher score than you might expect. The Force Unleashed is by no means as terrible a game as Revenge of the Sith, and the story makes it a must-play game for Star Wars fans (and will surprise 'just' fans of the classic trilogy), but it's just not deep or coherently designed as it needed to be.
It's a bit disappointing that so many people put their all into this game and have it end up as a frustrating mess, but frankly I'm just sad that we're not going to be able to do any more Spaced-based TFU puns on the news anymore.
-- Capel "The Tingler"