Star Wars: The Force Unleashed Reader Review
The Force Unleashed is an extremely frustrating game. I feel it is important to say that first, because it might make everything else I'm going to say make more sense. Let's start at the beginning. I put the disc in my 360 and start the game up. Ooh look, a LucasArts animation. Unskippable. Ho hum.
Eventually the title screen comes up. Press Start, it says, in an ugly font in a not-particularly-readable light blue on not-so-light blue. What's the point? I've never understood why a video game needs a title screen with the one option on it. This one's even more pointless. I press start, and the 360's UI asks me to select a storage device. One thing that's probably not Force Unleashed's fault is that it never tells you what that's actually for. I figured it out, of course, but some people might find it rather worrying.
Still, this is not a review of the 360 itself. I select my one and only storage device, wondering why it needs me to tell it to use the only option available, and it delivers me a menu screen. Surprise! It's the same screen as the title screen, only now it has menu options arrayed horizontally underneath it. Continue Game is quite useful after you've played for a bit, dropping you in at your last autosave point - often just before an irritatingly-unskippable cutscene (fine the first time round, irritating the second, infuriating the third) that precedes an unsatisfying boss fight.
I'm getting ahead of myself.
I start a game. It presents me with a dialogue box with difficult-to-read text in it. Squinting, I see that it's telling me that there's a symbol it'll show when I'm not supposed to turn off my console. Because I make a habit of turning off the power at random moments. Hmm. When saving to the hard drive, this symbol flashes up so briefly it's barely ever visible.
Odd, then, that a game which can autosave so quickly is so slow to load. The loading screen, which presents snippets of advice in light blue on a mottled blue background and therefore forces me to use the entirety of my brain to decode what it's trying to say, is possibly the ugliest loading screen ever, although it's as nothing next to the in-game menus. Which are also difficult to read. There's a theme here. Text throughout the game is tricky, low-contrast or too horizontally compressed or both. Once you get into the Force power customisation screens, you have to endure several seconds of loading time between each and every screen. You also have to squint at it, and reading the descriptions of the things you can spend your hard-earned spheres on is another exercise in squinting, as they're rendered in a font that's so small it's clearly too small even for the space allowed. That makes it particularly frustrating, as there is room to have a much more readable one. Here's a hint to the game designers out there: condensed fonts are not very readable on screen. Especially in all caps. Don't use them.
But the gameplay, the gameplay, what's the gameplay like? It starts out fairly promising. You play as Darth Vader (hang on, I think, I thought I was supposed to be his apprentice), slaughtering my way through wave after wave of very stupid Wookies (aren't Wookies supposed to be smart - oh no, everyone in this game is as dumb as a broken pencil), until I reach a Jedi Master who I then have to kill. Vader has the full array of Force powers, and you only just start enjoying yourself having figured out how to use them when it stops, and the apprentice is revealed. As has been mentioned by other reviewers, not having all those powers for the second level feels like something of a letdown.
Now I say playing as Vader is enjoyable, a bit of a romp. It is, it's easy and makes you feel good. Except for the targetting.
The targetting system is probably the most frustrating thing in the entire game. It tries to guess which object or enemy you want to interact with at any given moment. There is no way to override it. Frequently you think you're set up, but with enemies moving, you moving to dodge their fire (it takes ages before Starkiller gets proficient enough to actually deflect blaster bolts, something I always thought was a fundamental Force-user skill), when you press that Force Lightning button you end up incinerating a harmless barrel instead.
Everyone in the Star Wars universe, apparently, just loves leaving barrels of high explosive lying around.
So now, I'm coping with the targetting system, I haven't even got Force Lightning yet anyway, and I come to the next problem. My lightsaber doesn't cut anything. Hands up who remembers the part in the very first Star Wars film ever made, where Obi-Wan gives Anakin's old lightsaber to Luke, and warns him that it can cut through anything?
Anything, it seems, except Wookies, Imperial Stormtroopers and, well, everything else. It leaves nice hot glowing trails in the floor and the walls which fade in a satisfying manner, but swipe it across the throat of a stormtrooper and his head stays firmly attached to his shoulders. He might not even die straight away. Lovely.
Lightsabers cut through anything. Not in this game. They just reduce health bars. Some of them, anyway - some enemies appear to be immune to lightsabers.
The first big enemy after Vader's boss fight - which is kind of frustrating in itself but I'm already rambling quite enough - is an AT-ST walker. Sounds fun, until you remember that your lightsaber isn't going to scratch the thing. You just have to leap madly into the air near it, do in-air hovering blade swinging combos (can't stay near the feet or it'll stamp on you) and watch the health bar go down. There's no chopping a hole in the roof and killing the people inside in this game, no chopping off a foot and watching it fall over.
Instead you get a Quick Time Event. Instantly, the game destroys any sense you had of being immersed in the Star Wars universe and being completely and absoloutely evil. Instead you get the scripted, overblown, overdone way to destroy the AT-ST. Chances are, the first time it happens you'll miss one of the button presses required, and you'll have to do it all over again. And again. And again. There is no other way to kill it. The scene unfolds the same way every time. There are, it seems, two different AT-ST killing QTEs, which are selected randomly each time, but they get old fast.
So do the ones for killing rancors, and the ones for killing Jedi Masters, and...
Get the picture? Everywhere the game could've used its remarkably impressive physics system to best advantage, it has a scripted sequence instead. Have they ever watched the films? Read the books? Jedi die when you stick a lightsaber through their heart, they don't need to be flung around and smashed to death between Sarlacc tentacles in a scripted sequence.
Perhaps it's a problem because if you had a real lightsaber, a lot of the enemies in the game wouldn't be very difficult to defeat. AT-STs would go from being major events to being amusing distractions, just having to dodge their powerful weaponry long enough to slice open the cockpit and blast the crew with lightning, or cut off its feet and let it fall over.
Hey wait a minute, wouldn't that be fun? Wouldn't that be feeling like you were a bad Force user with their powers unfettered?
Yes, it would be. What a shame.
Don't even get me started on one of the planets, where every single enemy is a low-level Force user. Playing on the normal difficulty level, I died and died and died and died and died. Starkiller may be the worst Force-using acrobat ever. Thanks to the targetting system, I kept wasting lightning and blasts of Force Push off in the middle of nowhere because my cursor's moved when I wasn't expecting it to. Sure, there's target lock, but that tends to make you ignore things around you, and those things around you then kill you.
Something better is desperately required, but this is the finished game. This is the thing that's got through playtesting, that the developers are, presumably, happy with.
This is, actually, the game which at least one guide author refers to as 'easy'.
What kind of people are these people?
Let me come now to what should be a major triumph for the game - the scene we've all seen in trailers. Bringing down a Star Destroyer using only the Force to pull it out of the sky. Woo. Yeah. Should be good.
First you have to destroy a wave of TIE fighters. Because of the way the level's set up, the targetting system's weakness is at its worst here. Once you figure out where to stand and face and the right timing to get your lightning blasts to actually hit the TIE fighters, or to grip them and fling them into the scenery (or the other TIE fighters), you're okay, although you do have to try to avoid being frustrated when the game instead targets a bit of junk tumbling bizarrely across the front of the very limited arena you have in which to operate.
Once the TIE fighters are down, you have to grab the Star Destroyer itself with Force Grip and pull it out of the sky. The game behaves completely differently here to anywhere else. It shows a representation of the right and left thumbsticks, and expects you to copy the positions it displays to get the Star Destroyer oriented correctly to pull it down. Firstly, why does the orientation matter? Down is down. Secondly, without any reference as to what the neutral stick position is, how do I know if I'm doing it right? I figured out eventually what you have to do and what the stick positions mean, but it took a lot of tries.
Oh and you don't get much time, because another wave of TIE fighters arrives. If you don't defeat them quickly, the Star Destroyer is back to where it started and it takes ages before you can pull it down some more. But you can't defeat them quickly, because it's very hard to target them properly. Thus what was going to be a total triumph and the high point of the game ends up being a complete and abject disaster.
Once I finally managed it, the haze of my frustration clouded over me, and I barely noticed the prerendered cutscene depicting the demise of the Star Destroyer. During which, suddenly, Starkiller seems able to move it around quite easily and quickly. Immersion? They might have heard of it but we already know they don't care.
After that the game just gets even harder. I have yet to figure out how to survive a room with two purge troopers (what is a purge trooper anyway?), an AT-ST, some snipers, some jetpack troopers, a bunch of blaster turrets and oh look, more purge troopers. It's almost like playing Doom on Nightmare.
Maybe I'm just a useless gamer. Maybe not, but I don't expect normal difficulty to be so frustrating. Even beside the difficulty level, the flaws in the gameplay are so huge I still wouldn't give this game a very high score.
The only bit that's actually satisfying is the story. I'm enjoying the story, but I can't help thinking maybe I should have just bought the book.
4 / 10