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.
Hence, then, the title of the game - The Force Unleashed. For this game, Lucas gave the team permission to go crazy with the powers of the Force, essentially re-imagining one of the most fundamental parts of the Star Wars universe. The Apprentice's powers are completely out of proportion with anything seen before in the films or games. The start of the latest trailer shows him crashing an entire Star Destroyer using the Force, and gameplay segments we've viewed demonstrate an astonishing capacity for flinging enemies about, ripping up environments and generally making an awesome mess.
LucasArts' aim with the game, you see, was essentially to make a superhero game in the Star Wars universe. They considered a number of possible scenarios which would enable that kind of gameplay (at one point, they had a concept involving a wookie warrior - we'll be the first to put our names on the petition to get that one made some day) before settling on the fact that the Jedi are already the superheroes of the universe, and their superpower is the Force. So what if you took that power and re-imagined it in a scaled-up, jacked-up form?
What happens, in essence, is a whole lot of really stunning next-gen physics. The Force Unleashed taps the advanced NaturalMotion physics system, and combines it with new technology created internally at LucasArts. The aim: to accomplish one of the toughest tasks in game design, creating effects which aren't possible in the real world but still seem realistic and solid to players.
From what we've witnessed, the team has done a fine job of this. The first Force power to be updated - the nail-biting trial for whether the game would work at all, the producer confides - was Force Push. In previous games, this has been a relatively sedate wave of the hand which sends foes and objects flying through the air.
In the hands of the team at LucasArts, Force Push becomes an entirely new beast. Enemies pushed backwards by the Apprentice's power react as if they have been hit by an invisible cannonball, hurled backwards in a brutal, bone-wrenching display of power. They smash through pillars, through sheets of glass or piles of objects. LucasArts have done their job well; it looks realistic. Incredible, fantastic, and downright painful, but certainly realistic.
Emboldened, the team tackled other powers. Force Grip, seen in the movies when Vader chokes a recalcitrant Imperial officer, becomes an invisible hand which lifts enemies and hurls them around the room, smashing them into solid objects until such time as they stop moving and twitching. Force Repel is an extraordinary power which pushes a bubble of pure energy outwards from you, hurling enemies and objects backwards, cracking walls and smashing anything remotely fragile in sight.
Other powers are promised - being a dark-side character, The Apprentice will have access to Force Lightning, for example. More interesting, however, is the promise of combo attacks which allow players to string together their various Force powers to great effect. Combining a force attack with the use of the lightsaber is one such combo; combining two Force powers together will also be possible, such as mixing up Lightning and Push to create a deadly, heat-seeking ball of energy.
The game isn't afraid about throwing around its next-gen credentials, either. The NaturalMotion physics have been combined with an advanced materials system created by LucasArts themselves, which ensures that every object or surface in the game breaks, shatters, splinters or bends realistically. An advanced AI system gives your foes a sense of self-preservation which will make them hang on to nearby objects - or each other - to avoid falling to their death or being dragged off by one of your powers. And the whole thing, of course, looks absolutely gorgeous in its PS3 and Xbox 360 iterations.
Fans of the wonderful Jedi Knight series, however, may be a little disappointed to hear that the team has no intention of recreating that game's crowning glory. "It's not a duelling simulator," the producer says firmly. The game is designed to be easy to use; its core attacks are context sensitive, and the team focused on the key idea of the player doing something cool-looking and relevant whenever they pressed a button.
This resolutely mainstream approach carries through into other aspects of the game, too. Since it's designed as a new chapter in the Star Wars saga (and it'll be supported by an enormous range of licensed products which LucasArts normally reserves for its cinematic creations), it's important to the team that everyone should be able to see the story through to its conclusion. As such, the game is reportedly short enough to play through in two or three decent sessions; no 25-hour epics here, then.
A New Hope?
For those looking for a somewhat longer experience, however, the team has confirmed that multiplayer will be a big part of the Force Unleashed experience - with most of its destination platforms set to feature online functionality of some descriptions. Details of the online experience haven't been announced yet, but by the sounds of it it's not just the PS3 and the Xbox 360 which will go online in some form; the handheld and even PS2 versions may also have this functionality.
Yes, that's right - there are versions of the game for handhelds (PSP and DS) and for the PS2, as well as the conventional next-gen platforms. However, there's no sign as yet of a PC version, which the developers say is a possibility, but tricky due to having a game entirely designed around the joypad. As to the Wii... Well, they're not saying anything, but we noticed sneaky grins among the LucasArts team present when Nintendo's platform was mentioned. Perhaps Wiimote based lightsaber action isn't a pipe dream after all.
The Force Unleashed is quite certainly the most interesting development in Star Wars franchise gaming since Knights of the Old Republic - it's got an extraordinary premise, some absolutely brilliant looking game mechanics and the full weight of LucasArts' undeniably vast development might behind it. There's a niggling concern that the whole thing may be a little too simple and easy for some tastes - but if this turns out to be six to eight hours of sheer, storm-trooper hurling, wall-splintering joy, we'll be in no mood to complain.