The Force Unleashed

So, being pretty slow to getting around to things relating to games (although not a slowgamer per se, as I found out that someone was already using that handle), it’s taken me a while to have any serious time with a PS3. However, we now have one in the house, and I’m catching up. In a possibly doomed attempt to kickstart the writing part of my brain, I’ll be posting thoughts on a few different titles throughout the week.

So, lets skip over details of the hardware (eh, it’s a bit like a 360, but with dualshocks and an irritatingly pseudo-tasteful menu screen?), and on to, for once, a fairly recent release – Star Wars title The Force Unleashed.

If you want a Star Wars fan’s frothing view on The Force Unleashed, look here, where Minkley will sort you out. If you want to read a review by someone who couldn’t give the slightest shit about Star Wars, read on.

Anyway, TFU follows in the dubious green footsteps of Shadows of the Empire as the centrepiece of a multi-media spin-off that includes a comic adaptation and a (hardback) novelisation. The central idea isn’t a bad one – you’re the bad son Vader adopted, rather than the good biological son he lost, a secret apprentice who runs around with an evil camp robot and a ‘sexy’ Imperial pilot, killing off rogue Jedi for your bad dad. Oh, and as you’re a secret apprentice, you have to kill all the Imperials troops as well as the Jedi and rebel scum, so that the Emperor doesn’t find out that Vader’s been keeping you tucked away at home.

In practice this means you get to take on the Star Wars universe in a properly unrestrained and videogame-y manner, in an amoral free-for-all of force powers, light sabers, and Ralph McQuarrie designed stuff to be killed or blown up. As a toyset, it’s not at all bad – an odd mix of precisely modelled physics and fantastical powers combines to create some nicely freeform carnage, whereby you use the force to zap, lift or shove, and then watch the chain reaction. There’s good fun to be had using the force to pick up an R2 unit and chuck it at the enemy, watching them fly as the droid explodes on impact. TIE fighters fly through a spacestation – at least until you warp a girder into its path, causing it to crash. Jawas can be merrily tossed (steady) about, troopers chucked into forcefields so that they disintegrate, etc etc.

These freedoms are, however, restrained. The level design is simplistic, with straightforward paths to be followed and objectives to be smashed. It’s all pretty linear. Then there are the necessities of content restraints – the lightsaber feels right, all swishy and swift, but it’s only effectively a sword when attacking inanimate objects and droids, which can be politely sliced and diced. When you engage a live enemy, you may wave the saber like a sword, but it impacts like a club – instead of cutting straight through a rebel soldier, you have to bat him a few times in the guts or over the head to get him to die. Disappointing. While no one expects blood and guts in a Star Wars game, couldn’t we have sliced through bad guys and had them tastefully fade away mid-scream or something?

Then again, if you didn’t need to wallop your enemies multiple times with your shiny stick, there’d be even less challenge to the combat than there is – as it stands, button mashing is the order of the day, and even with the camera pulled in tight or pointing in the opposite direction to your enemy you will rarely go wrong by hammering the square button while spinning the left stick around a bit. One of the cool details is the Soul Reaver-like touch of the Apprentice absorbing energy from his fallen victims, vampirically absorbing little globes of life force as they die. In fact, the odd special boost aside, life is entirely replenished by killing, which makes the most dangerous foes the odd distant sniper who chips away at your lifebar while you’re trying to get close enough take him out. It’s an annoying switch, substituting nuisance for actual challenge. At other times, the difficulty is raised by the even less subtle approach of just throwing tons of enemies in at once.

There are other niggles. There are QTE (i.e. Simon Says) finishing sequences for boss battles which reset if you miss a beat, so you have to do the same hammer cross, hammer square, hammer circle routine again and again until you get it right. At least there’s no sudden death, as per Resident Evil 4 or Tomb Raider: Legend, but it’s odd to see the same actions repeat again and again on a loop. It kind of breaks the narrative.

Also, while the deformable scenery and objects are great, there’s plenty that is completely static, and little in-game logic as to what can and can’t be moved or destroyed. For instance, in the introductory Vader level (Darth steers like a tractor, btw), you can cut through the beams of bridges and watch the ceiling fall, but swish your light saber through the long grass and nothing happens. Elsewhere, realistically bouncing canisters slide straight through solid girders, presumably because the alternative is for objects to get stuck causing all manner of buggy consequences.

As a shallow, flashy (the graphics and sound are top notch) lark around in the Star Wars toybox, The Force Unleashed gives the player the chance to tick a lot of boxes – light saber rampages, force powers, all that stuff. Unfortunately, it’s ultimately still just a tie-in game, and like many tie-in games, it’s fun while it’s a painless romp through a familiar franchise, but the moment it gets a bit sticky – either due to an intransigent enemy or other repetitive challenge – the game doesn’t have the underlying value to encourage you to keep going. Instead, it just stops being fun and you toss it to one side.



October 13, 2008. Tags: . Uncategorized.

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