I went to see a play recently called "Contains Violence". In the programme, the writer mused over the choice of name, saying in effect that if you're going to call a play "Contains Violence" it had bloody well better do, or else the audience may decide to invent their own. At your expense. So it is with The Force Unleashed. If you're going to make a promise like that, you'd better come up with the goods. Even more recently, we sat down with the functionally identical Xbox 360 and PS3 builds of LucasArts' latest to see how they do.
The Force Unleashed, of course, has a lot to prove and not just because of its ambitious name. It's also the first outing for LucasArts' much-hyped new engine technology. Moreover, it's arguably the first real attempt to reinvigorate the Star Wars brand in videogames after a series of utterly lacklustre games punctuated only by the fantastic (and non-LucasArts) LEGO Star Wars titles.
It's promising, then, that pretty much the first thing it does is break some of the unspoken and restrictive rules of Star Wars games to date. By way of a prologue and tutorial level, you're given charge of the ultimate Dark Side fantasy - you play Darth Vader, slaughtering countless yowling furry beasts in an all-out assault on the Wookiee homeworld.
The introduction to the game's controls is almost buried under an opening level that's bombastic, graphically stunning and incredibly good fun. Accompanied by the Imperial March, black cloak billowing in the wind, you stalk through the level trying out the various powers at your disposal as the game prompts you. Overhead, Star Destroyer-style ships hum through the atmosphere. Off to either side, troop deployments and AT-ST walkers ravage the forest. It looks very good.
As you progress, the game starts to make good on its Force Unleashed promise. Gone are the wimpy, special-case Force powers of previous games. With you playing as a Dark Side character, The Force in this game is a heavy-duty power - enabled by a comprehensive physics and AI engine that lets enemies and objects alike react realistically to the abilities you're flinging about the place.
The very first problem you encounter is an enormous wood and metal gate, which stands at the entrance to the Wookiee village. No problem - blast it with the Force Push ability, and the gate strains inwards as metal buckles and wood splinters. A few more blasts and it's off its hinges entirely. This is how it works from here on out: Sith Lords don't open doors. Even heavy metal doors aboard ships and space stations can be buckled by the Force. Better again, we discover later on that you can pick up Imperial troopers and hurl them bodily at doors, smashing them open while simultaneously killing the troopers.
As you move through the village, the basic powers - and combinations of powers - that form the basis of your arsenal when you take control of Vader's Apprentice in subsequent levels are revealed. Push will remain a major part of the game the whole way through, we suspect, but it's the Grip power that really lets you cut loose and start ripping up the scenery. Just about any object - even huge things that would be scenery in any other game - can be lifted, moved and thrown around. Powers like Lightning and Repulse (which fires enemies away from you in a wide circle) are fun, but compared to the potential for causing mayhem with Grip, they pale.
Meanwhile, some of the game's more complex moves are created by combining existing powers from your arsenal. One of our favourites is introduced right back in the tutorial level, when you learn how to lift up Wookiees using Force Grip and then fling your lightsaber through the air to impale them as they hang helplessly. It's hard not to cackle when you're doing it.
More powers and combos are, unsurprisingly, unlocked as you progress. Your character, the Apprentice, essentially levels up as he goes along, with each level giving you more points to spend on improving your powers. The interface for these upgrades is fairly heavy-duty, with tons of different abilities made available as you progress, along with power boosts for your starting abilities. There's some tantalising stuff in there, although sadly we didn't have an opportunity to play with any of the really high-level powers you'll be throwing around by the end.
As you progress through the earlier levels in Force Unleashed, the game's graphics remain hugely impressive, and the physics and AI are given an opportunity to play out in increasingly large arenas. The Apprentice's first mission, on board a large space station, sees you fighting off hordes of Rebel and Imperial troops (you are a secret agent, so you need to kill all witnesses - Imperials are as much your enemy as Rebels), and gives a good example of how LucasArts makes the game difficult for a character that's essentially a superhero. Throw enough minions at him and he'll have to find a clever way out or sink under their combined weight.
The biggest problem we see after an hour or so of play is that the developers have been tempted to break the game's own rules in order to create "better" scripted events. One such event, where you fight an AT-ST walker in a narrow space, is hugely frustrating. Despite the range of powers available, the AT-ST is only really susceptible to very specific attacks, and in a game with a physics engine this good that's pretty feeble. As you try to work out what the designers wanted you to do, all you can think is how much more fun it would have been if you could slam the walker's feet out from under it with Force Push, or whatever. Momentarily that freedom has been taken away from you.
The same approach is visible in other places, too, and it could be the game's undoing. That being said, the code we played was unfinished, and the core is already fantastic - the Force powers, physics and AI mesh to create hugely entertaining encounters that adapt to everything you're doing seamlessly. Hopefully the designers can bring balance to the scripting before the game's September release.
Star Wars: The Force Unleashed is due out on PS3, 360, Wii, PS2, DS and PSP on 19th September.