Thirty years. That's how long it's been since Star Wars first dragged cinema-goers off to a galaxy far, far away. Obviously, this means one very important thing; if you remember the film's original release, you are now really, really old. Sorry.
Really old or otherwise, however, the thirtieth anniversary of Star Wars is an excuse for fans of the franchise to have a good old knees-up in honour of George Lucas' cinematic masterpiece. That's exactly what happened in London's shiny new docklands conference centre, ExCeL, earlier this month. Hordes of Star Wars fans from around the world descended on the Star Wars Celebration, a three-day long Sith souvenirs, Jedi junk and Ewok events.
On the programme, such events as "An Hour With Mark Hamill" - a chance, presumably, to destroy your childhood for once and for all with the crushing discovery that Luke Skywalker now looks like your granddad. Not on the programme, apparently, was personal hygiene; walking past some of the astonishingly long queues for popular events revealed an olfactory phantom menace which would give even the hardiest clone attack second thoughts.
More importantly, though - and worth braving the armpit striking back for - Star Wars Celebration also yielded up a chance to sit down with the creative team behind the next Star Wars game from LucasArts. Called The Force Unleashed, the game wowed us all with some very nifty rendered videos a while back - but can it match the expectations set by those videos?
Hutt on the Table
In recent years, there has always been an elephant on the table whenever we've sat down to discuss a new Star Wars game. Nobody wants to mention it, and it sits in the middle of the room and we all converse awkwardly around it - but its existence is undeniable. The simple fact is that Star Wars games in recent years have been, well, patchy. At best. At worst, they've been really quite terrible, and it certainly feels like the glory days of flight games like X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter or action titles such as Dark Forces or Jedi Knight have been left behind.
To LucasArts' credit, then, the Force Unleashed team mentions the elephant before we're forced to bring up the thorny issue. They're keenly aware of what they describe as the "ups and downs" of the Star Wars games in recent years, and they know they're working under incredible pressure to turn the whole thing around. They're taking this task very seriously, too.
Work on The Force Unleashed began back in summer of 2004, when the team was tasked simply with creating a great next-gen game in the Star Wars universe - and given free reign to play around with what that could mean. Since then, LucasArts' investment in people and technology has been massive - on a scale, in fact, matched only by the team's ambition.
The idea behind The Force Unleashed, you see, isn't just to create a fantastic next-gen action game. Certainly, the team wants to do that - but it also wants to create a bona fide, fully canonical chapter of the Star Wars story. One of the first things you notice about the team is that they talk about George Lucas in first-name terms - and it gradually dawns upon you that they're not just employing American over-familiarity.
Lucas has taken an active involvement in The Force Unleashed right through production, from approving the team's original concept for the game to annotating their scripts and helping them create new characters within the Star Wars canon - or even to decide the fates of existing characters. What has emerged is a game which slots in between Revenge of the Sith and A New Hope. It links together the new trilogy with the original trilogy, and reveals what happens in between Darth Vader's creation and Leia's theft of the Death Star plans.
For Star Wars fans, then, this is the real deal - a brand new, totally canon, Lucas-approved chapter in the continuity, told in the form of a videogame but built around a completely new, movie-style script. For gamers, it's the promise of a title which will employ every trick next-gen affords to bring the powers of The Force to life as never seen before. So then - no pressure, eh guys?
Now he really is the Master
The primary creation of the game, in character terms, is a young chap so far named only as The Apprentice. He's a powerful Force using type who was discovered as a child by Darth Vader and has been raised by him as his personal assassin and warrior. In the game, he is portrayed by actor Sam Witwer (Crashdown from the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica, if that rings any bells), who grins and simply says, "Vader isn't a very nice daddy". You'd better believe it.
The Apprentice is sent around the galaxy by Vader to hunt down and destroy the Jedi and his other foes - although he often ends up in conflict with Imperial troops as well, since Vader is training the boy in secret and doesn't want the Emperor to know about this little experiment. He is shuttled around by an Imperial officer named Juno, a no-nonsense young woman who serves as a love interest - and, we'd hazard a guess, probably ends up setting you up on the Path of Righteousness and All That Nonsense at some point.
The hook to all of this, from a gamer's perspective at least, is that whereas the Jedi Knights we've previously played as in videogames always use the Force sparingly for fear of succumbing to its dark side, The Apprentice has no such qualms. As the game's producer tells us, where Obi-Wan Kenobi might wave his hand to trick a patrol into letting him past, The Apprentice will collapse a nearby building on top of them (and then add insult to injury with a cheesy one-liner about looking for droids, no doubt). That's how he rolls.