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This is not the game you’re looking for. Yes, it’s a massive shame. We’ve been salivating over The Force Unleashed for two years, as have most of you, but the end product just doesn’t live up to the massive expectations it built up. Well, as a game anyway.
LucasArts has billed The Force Unleashed as the link between the rather bloated Episode III, Revenge of the Sith, and the excellent original film, Episode IV, A New Hope. As a story, this game hits the spot. In fact, we’d go as far as to say that this is one of the best pieces of storytelling you’ll find on current-gen. No wonder George Lucas gave it his official thumbs up. It doesn’t try to cram in anachronistic cameos, or shoehorn in clever little nods to the original films to try and make itself cool: it just weaves a magical story that’ll keep driving you to the end, no matter how irritated you might get with some of the game’s clumsy flaws.
The beautiful visuals certainly help The Force Unleashed to get its plot and emotions across with maximum impact. Pre-rendered cut-scenes are incredible – perhaps the best you’ve seen this gen – as each of the characters looks genuinely alive, and the in-game business doesn’t look too shabby either. Coupled with that, the beautiful Star Wars score echoes throughout every moment, giving the experience that stirring, authentic feel.
The fact that the game is so perfectly pitched and presented toward Star Wars aficionados is its greatest asset, but for you, it’ll be the biggest problem. You see, as a game The Force Unleashed is not money well spent. It’s a fairly standard, fairly short action game with too few frills and too many problems. Oh, and no multiplayer whatsoever. Clocking in at around six to eight hours, depending on how talented you are with a lightsaber, or how willing you are to wander each level looking for every bonus item, this isn’t great value for money. Once the story is finished, you’re unlikely to go back for another play-through.
The problem is that games like Devil May Cry 4 and Ninja Gaiden 2 have come along in 2008 and rather embarrassed The Force Unleashed. While they offered slick combat that switched effortlessly between close and ranged combat, this game feels clunky and unrefined by comparison. The opening level of the game, where you play as Vader, is particularly slow and tedious. Picking up Wookiees and lobbing them into the abyss may seem like a laugh, but after around 50 or 60 times performing the same move, it can get a bit tedious.
It’s a relief, then, to take control of the Secret Apprentice in the second stage. He feels quicker, more responsive and has a better range of moves and combos (which can be expanded and upgraded as you collect cubes or level up). However, the action still feels linear and repetitive. You’ll quickly realize that each of the game’s fancy-pants locations are nothing more than corridors with attractive furniture (you know, to make them seem less like boring, old corridors). Boss fights, too, have a certain air of predictability to them and most can be beaten using the same combo over and over.
Breaking up the familiar, however, is the game’s advanced physics engine. There are plenty of objects to pick up and fling around, and the game’s subtle but effective auto-targeting system means you’ll usually hit what you’re aiming at. Things smash and break up in a realistic way, and yes, bodies flail about and distort when you lob them into walls. Sadly, the corpses disappear once they’re dead, which sends you back down to earth with a bump from any kind of reverie you might have built up by lobbing things around.
However, the main problem with the physics is that there’s just too much clutter on screen at once, and this makes selecting targets awkward. Allow us to explain. Say there’s a stormtrooper shooting you and you want to pick him up, electrocute him, and lob his corpse at another enemy (a lightning grenade!). Chances are that when you activate the Force to pick him up, you’ll grab hold of a useless hunk of garbage and throw that instead. You’ll try again. And again. Then by the time you’ve selected your foe, all your Force energy will be spent. Then you’ll die. Then you’ll be cross.
Later in the game it becomes a real issue, as foes get tougher and tougher to kill. So, instead of trying to get creative with the world around you, you’ll fall back on the trusty technique of slamming your enemy with a lightning bolt and wading in with a lightsaber combo just to survive the tougher battles. All of a sudden the dynamic, combo-based action game that The Force Unleashed was supposed to be just ends up as a button-basher. The fact is that in the more hectic battles, where lasers are hitting you from all sides, you don’t have time to get fancy and that saps the fun out of the game. Try a nifty move and you’ll end up on the floor, losing half your energy bar as the Apprentice casually gets back to his feet.
The other major bugbear we have with the game is the dodgy camera. Yeah, it’s a common complaint for third-person action games, and no, we’re not just going to shut up and get used to it. Although not as bad as many other cameras, this one will obscure the odd character (especially during boss battles) and it makes all platforming sections thoroughly miserable. In fact, there isn’t much of anything to break up the repetitive flow of the game. The Force Unleashed even has the cheek to recycle most of its levels, so expect to visit locations more than once. Even the extras, which see you learning new moves and tinkering with your lightsaber, are blander than a bowl of branflakes with no milk. Leveling up is a bit of a non-event, and we wonder if it might have been better to give the player everything from the start so they can work out how to mix up their moves as they go along. Elsewhere, lightsaber colour crystals (which you have to scour each level for) are little more than gaming fluff and power crystals are similarly uninspiring.
So, The Force Unleashed is more of a highly impressive tech demo with a great narrative tagged on, with any actual game present inserted only as an afterthought. Do you buy it? Well, that depends on how much you love Star Wars. The story is fantastic, and there’s a certain satisfaction to be had from hurling Tie-Fighters at Jawas… but the game still feels like a wasted opportunity.
Sep 16, 2008