Star Wars: The Force Unleashed – Xbox 360

Review by Johnus Maximus

Star Wars: The Force Unleashed - Xbox 360 box artThe long anticipated new Star Wars title from LucasArts has finally arrived. Assuming the role of Darth Vaders secret apprentice, this third-person platform/adventure game fills some of the plot gap between the third and fourth films and will see you unleashing the power of the force like never before

Released on September 19th 2008, The Force Unleashed is developed and published by LucasArts, and is also available on PS3, PS2, PSP, Wii and DS. Despite being short, the game is a lot of fun and offers a well presented cinematic experience that no Star Wars fan can afford to miss out on.

This review assumes a basic understanding of the concept of Star Wars and its characters, I apologise in advance if there are some things I don’t explain fully, as Star Wars is quite a large topic it is not possible without compromising the length of this review. If you don’t know your R2 from your A-Wing then you can lookup anything unfamiliar I mention by visiting Wookieepedia.

There have been a lot of Star Wars games over the years, while some invented their own characters and stories, a lot of them were movie related tie-ins, many of which received mixed receptions as to whether they capture the spirit of the original and prequel trilogies. The decision to make a video game that could have been a film, rather than a film that would later be adapted into a video game is a different and bold step, but with the involvement of Star Wars creator George Lucas and effects specialists Industrial Light and Magic it seems to have paid off pretty damn well.

The game begins in the same manner as the films, the words “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…” appear and then you see the scrolling yellow text moving up the screen accompanied by the memorable John Williams score. We find that after the events of the third film there are a few remaining Jedi in hiding, and Darth Vader is on a personal mission to wipe them all out. The introductory sequence shows a shuttle landing on the Wookie home planet, and as the doors open you are given control of Vader.

Instantly being given the most powerful Jedi skills you stride your way through the level cutting through enemies like a hot knife through butter. Although you have an objective to complete, there is no time limit, so you have carte blanche to play around with your abilities and dispatch your hairy enemies as you see fit.

Starkiller - Force Unleashed Xbox 360
Raxus Prime is a galactic junkyard, bring wellies.

Jedi don’t use blasters, so your only physical weapon is a lightsaber, which as well as using offensively Vader uses to easily deflect his enemies blaster shots back onto them. As a master of many Force techniques, Vader can pick up, throw and push pretty much anything using his mind, as well as strangle people telepathically and throw his light saber like a boomerang.

Upon commencement of the first mission you are given plenty of eye candy, Kashyyyk has a lush tropical feel to it, with loads of islands, beaches, mountains and jungle. Everywhere you look the environments are rich with detail, as battles are taking place all around you and the accompanying music really presents a sense of drama and urgency. The characters look very life like and a there is a lot of attention to detail in their mannerisms and movements, which lends credibility to the cut scenes and the story.

As the first mission draws to a close Vader finds a young boy, the child of the Jedi he has slain, and takes him under his wing. You fast forward past those awkward teenage years and find yourself looking at a dark and brooding apprentice that Vader uses as a secret assassin, who you only know as “Starkiller”. As his existence needs to remain a secret, Starkiller has the authorisation to kill anyone and everyone whether they are Imperials, Rebels, Aliens or Droids.

Not alone on his missions, Starkiller has a faithful yet sadistic holodroid called PROXY and is also given a new pilot and potential love interest, Juno Eclipse. Rather than have pre-determined look for the characters and trying to find a suitable voice actor for them, what LucasArts have done is to actually hire actors for the parts and then have their physical appearance translated into the game. Click this link to see a picture of Starkiller and Juno, with Sam Witwer and Nathalie Cox – the actors who play them, and the uncanny resemblance they have.

Force Unleashed lightning attack - Xbox 360
Starkiller unleashes the positively shocking Force Lightning

You now play the rest of the game as Starkiller, you are offered various training routines by PROXY to help you understand the limited force capabilities at your disposal. Over time you will have the opportunity to increase your skills and become as strong as Darth Vader, but the overall progression is slow and a good reliance on the core combat skills will be vital to get through each level without dying. If you do die, you will have to reload from the last checkpoint; these are placed in fairly frequent locations so it’s no great loss if you do die.

As you travel across the galaxy to complete your mission you will be placed in some amazing looking levels, some familiar like Bespin and the Death Star, some unfamiliar like Felucia and Raxus Prime. They all have a distinct visual flavour and to better suit the different environments Starkiller has a selection of outfits you can unlock and equip him with. As well as this you can find power and colour crystals for your lightsaber, so it can be modified to your preferred visual and combat style. Also as you commence a new mission you are awarded a new power, which the game explains instantly how to use, but if you prefer you can visit PROXY to get some training for this new skill.

I really liked the fact that the game does not force this training onto you, if you are having fun with the story the last thing you want to do is sit in a training room and bash mindless targets. Also, the levelling up feature is extremely simple, with hardly any RPG-based element to it at all, no matter which skill you choose to increase you should still be able to cope with everything the levels throw at you. This includes the assortment of end of level bosses – which include Jedi Masters, Imperial Walkers and giant Rancor.

Fighting the end of level bosses involves going through a fair bit of trial and error until you find the best power, technique or combo to use against them, each one has their own magic bullet that will take them down, everything else is pretty useless. Once they are almost dead you initiate a quick time event. When this popped up the first time I got really worried and had memories of Spiderman 3 (almost broke a controller on that one). Luckily these events require a minimal number of button presses, so you can concentrate more on the dramatic choreography of the final moments of the fight.

Force Unleashed - Force Grip Xbox 360
The Force Grip lets you turn strong soldiers into floppy dolls

It doesn’t take very long to get through the story mode, it’s about 10 hours if you just follow it straight. Where you’ll get some replay value is that there is a huge range of hidden objects in the game which will help power up your Force abilities and your lightsaber, there are two different conclusions to the final level to see, and a wide array of achievements for killing a large number of enemies with each of the Force abilities.

If you look behind the impressive visual effects, the beautifully drawn levels and well designed characters, the real key to what makes the mystical aspect of the Star Wars mythos come to life is the physics and AI engine – a combined effort using technology from LucasArts, Havok, euphoria, and Digital Molecular Matter.

Everything you pick up gives a realistic sense of weight and motion, watching the ragdoll effect on enemies you pick up and spin around is truly marvellous, throwing objects about with the extra momentum of the Force causes some excellent collisions and these all work together to create an impression that you really are “kicking peoples ass with the force”.

Not everything about the game is wonderful though, as players of the demo will attest there is a certain amount of camera manipulation required to ensure you’re always seeing things properly. If you get knocked over by an explosion or pushed into something solid, like a wall, sometimes the camera can get really close up and obscure your view of what’s happening.

Rancor fight, Force Unleashed - Xbox 360
This Rancor is about to get a face full of lightsaber

If you spend a bit of time at the start of the game optimising the axis inversion and sensitivity settings you can pretty much eliminate most of the problems, but it’s still a little bit of a pain. Also the way that your health is replenished as you kill enemies is a little bit childish and not in fitting with the darker tone of this game (it’s a bit like when you collect Lego studs in the Lego Star Wars game).

Other than that I get the sense that you’ll probably get no more than two play throughs of this game before replayablility becomes a chore, and some slight jerkiness between the action and the loading screens and an unnattractive sound as you scroll the menus and are the only other negative things I found when playing. While there is no multiplayer mode available, adding a multiplayer mode to a game this heavily driven by the campaign story really would have felt like an unnecesary afterthought.

Those issues don’t really affect my overall viewpoint of the game though, it really is excellent. If you’re looking for a game that is very easy to pick up and put down that will provide you with the grandiosity of a special effects laden summer blockbuster then The Force Unleashed is just the ticket for you. And as I said previously, if you are a Star Wars fan then this game is an essential purchase.

Star Wars: The Force Unleashed scores 4 and a half Jawa’s out of five.

Four and a half stars out of five