Version tested: Xbox 360
Well, they weren't lying: the events of The Force Unleashed will change your understanding of the original Star Wars trilogy. The game has, of course, been relentlessly hawked to fans as much for its narrative promise as its gameplay. And the team can be forgiven for a little over-zealousness: the title's Episodes III and IV-bridging plot is fully Lucas-authorised and canon. It fills in the blanks between Palpatine's formation of the Galactic Empire and the fall of Anakin Skywalker, and the creation of a Rebel Alliance to strike back at the newly operational Death Star.
Moreover, we have been promised that the story of Darth Vader's secret apprentice would shed new light on the final three cinematic chapters of the saga. And while it was never going to be an "I am your father" moment, The Force Unleashed pulls this off with lan through a darkly ironic twist at its climax.
LucasArts' other grand promise for the game has been emancipation from the restrictive, wishy-washy moral code of the Jedi order with an experience that is indiscriminate in its application of the mantra, "Kicking ass with the Force." You can't argue with the sales pitch, and if you've been paying attention to our earlier previews and the trailers, you should already have an inkling that the studio has made good on that, too.
The concern has always been whether stunning looks and spectacular physics would translate into a great game. And, despite moments of riotous, blissfully creative carnage, The Force Unleashed ultimately falls short of its lofty ambitions - despite a concerted effort to Jedi mind-trick you into acquiescence.
It all gets off to a cracking start. We've already enthused in detail about the opening mission, but it merits a restating. In search of a rogue Jedi on the Wookiee homeworld of Kashyyyk, you guide a striding, imperious Darth Vader through what amounts to a Force-wielder's adventure playground, with scores of Chewy's brethren offering themselves up for your murderous amusement.
As a statement of intent it's pitch-perfect. You can fling Wookiees hundreds of yards at the press of a button, impale them on a hurled lightsaber, lift, aim and throw huge rocks with ease, and smash through massive barricades with the Force. Debate all you like whether the dark side is stronger: it's indisputably cooler, and this feels like a watershed moment in the franchise's videogame history.
The downside to this bravura introduction is that when you take control of the apprentice and the adventure proper begins, you suddenly find yourself stripped of many of the powers you have just been applying with sick glee.
This is narratively consistent - you are, after all, just a student layabout - but it is nevertheless something of a comedown after the initial superheroics. The other reason for this is that The Force Unleashed's combat system is progressive, allowing you to upgrade Force and melee techniques as you earn more points.
Each time you level up you earn currency to spend on upgrades to Force powers, combos and talents. The system is flexible and broad enough to suggest a range of different strategies depending on how you prefer to play: do you max out your health bar first? Speed up your recovery of Force energy (there's a meter that drains every time you use special powers)? Stick to the hands-off approach and pour resources into super-charging Force Grip?
Tantalising you with this here's-what-you-could-win glimpse of the dark side is certainly effective. But given the length of the experience (more on that later), this drip-feeding of powers feels a little odd in a game supposed to be about the Force being unleashed.
The game is at its best when there's an opportunity for you to wield your powers creatively. The much-heralded Digital Molecular Matter physics system underpinning the experience does not disappoint, and you can interact with the environment in many satisfying ways.
With Force Grip, your projectiles can range from small crates, rocks and droids to huge boulders, large structures, and great chunks of vegetation. But there are few things as pleasing as grabbing a Wookiee or a Stormtrooper and swishing them around in mid-air as their limbs flail wildly, before either shooting them skywards, into each other, or frying them with Force lightning before smashing them into the ground. And there is something indescribably wonderful about plucking a soaring TIE Fighter out of the sky and dragging it to its destruction.
The controls are mostly slick: you grab on to a locked-on item using the right trigger on 360 (the version reviewed here). Then it's the left stick to move the object backwards and forwards, and the right stick for up and down. You can either set it down gently by releasing the trigger, or point in the desired direction and release to fling it. While it works most of the time, this latter option proved frustratingly hit and miss on occasion - with objects flying off in anything but the direction intended, seemingly locked-on to an enemy elsewhere in the area.
What works at a distance, does start to go a bit wrong up close. Trying to use Force Grip in the heat of battle in a confined space can become an irritating exercise in chance thanks to a temperamental auto-locking mechanic. And the illogically fixed camera angles used during several boss fights only exacerbate the problem. Still, overall, the moments of Force-flinging delight outweigh these gripes.
Lightsaber combat is less rewarding and rarely rises above mindless button-bashing. It's initially satisfying (what's not to like about cutting down hordes of walking carpets with your laser sword?) but ultimately shallow.
LucasArts' solution is to provide numerous moves to learn via the upgrade system, accessed via button-combos. But while some of these look cool, there's little strategic depth: it's still button-bashing, however you dress it up. At this point it will boil down to how you choose to play: you may want to unlock absolutely everything and use a different attack on every enemy you encounter. No doubt you'll glean enjoyment from that, but it won't materially facilitate your progress through the game.
I hate Quick Time Events. You may not, but in any case you should know The Force Unleashed is riddled with them. Every boss battle ends with a small series of tediously unchallenging button sequences to match, so your foe can be despatched with a scripted flourish. I understand the dramatic purpose behind QTEs, but as a gameplay substitute they stink. When you're too busy focusing on the symbols to watch large chunks of the directed sequences, what exactly is the point?
More disappointing, though, is the reliance on QTEs for some of your more challenging foes in general gameplay (of which there are many). What is a dramatically acceptable way of tying up a major game moment becomes an annoying distraction mid-level. This is a game that gives you incredible powers with which to manipulate your environment in ever more creative ways, and then repeatedly snaps you out of the action to idly stab at a few buttons so it can show the sequence where you chop the AT-ST in half again.
Doubtless there are balancing reasons behind this but, given the technology driving the game, it seems a shame the designers couldn't come up with a workable way for our apprentice to, say, pull apart an AT-ST in real-time.
Balance is probably the main issue with The Force Unleashed. As highlighted in the opening mission, your kick-ass powers can devastate scores of enemies with little effort. So to create challenge, the developer seeks to overwhelm the player with numbers; in the game's larger spaces you will routinely be faced with enemies attacking you from all sides.
For example, in an Imperial hangar you might have around 20 Stormtroopers gunning for you - some energy-shielded and packing deadly rapid-fire weapons. Meanwhile there's an AT-ST stomping around, using a gravity gun to chuck metal crates in your direction, while snipers on a higher level take potshots with laser-guided rifles. The only way out is to use your Force powers on a door lock and, as it stands, you can't stand still for more than a couple of seconds.
At times like this, The Force Unleashed is magic: the sheer volume and variety of enemies clashes with your own explosive dark powers to produce some wonderfully intense, memorable encounters. If only more of the game played out at this level. And it's during the outdoor stages that you begin to realise how much trickery is involved.
When you have room to manoeuvre, the game's generally low difficulty is all too apparent. The scale and detail of the environments are regularly stunning; the flipside is that you can see groups of enemies and target them from afar with projectiles before they even remember they're holding guns, allowing you to clear the way ahead without breaking sweat.
Enemy AI is laughably bad at times. It's cute to watch Stormtroopers desperately grabbing onto each other to avoid being blown away by your Force powers, but apart from that their primary directive seems to be to stand still and fire. LucasArts clearly hopes you won't really notice this when facing down a small army, but doesn't always get away with it.
One particularly dumb moment sticks in the mind: faced with a marauding Rancor, I quickly ran away and turned back to attack from a distance. The beast had stopped dead in its tracks, but was still perfectly in range for my lightsaber throw. I just repeated the move until it collapsed without argument. It's on occasions like this that the mask begins to slip.
The Force Unleashed's best levels are, unsurprisingly, those set in locations instantly familiar to Star Wars fans, and it's here the unalloyed thrill of authenticity enables you to overlook some of the game's flaws. They are brought into sharp relief, however, when it comes to the unfamiliar. Felucia is a case in point: infinitely less iconic both in landscape and inhabitants when compared with other areas in the game, and if it wasn't for the lightsaber in your character's hand and the clever physics, this could be any old third-person action title from recent years.
You also realise how uninspired and linear much of the basic level design is: again, without the tingle of familiarity the game is regularly revealed as a succession of large rooms and corridors, filled with grunts to clear. My issues with the weak AI were compounded when, weary of the slog across the bland mushroom planet, I decided to leg it ahead. I discovered I could make it through vast areas without so much as a scratch, and without anyone bothering to follow me.
LucasArts would probably argue this misses the point of the experience entirely, but I would counter by saying the conceit can only work if the gameplay is consistently thrilling and engaging. It isn't. The other thing you miss by taking the lazy coward's option is currency with which to upgrade your powers (gained by slaying enemies as well as sniffing out concealed pick-ups). But, playing on the default difficulty setting (the second of four), this did not impact my ability to sail through the game with very little trouble.
The Force Unleashed is not a difficult game (and the challenge added on the higher settings is artificial rather than a case of smartening up the stupid enemies), and it's also not an especially long one. I completed it the first time around in a couple of evenings, the end arriving rather abruptly. But notice that I said the first time.
Linear and relatively straightforward the game may be, but the indisputable joy of applying Force powers to the world was enough to draw me back in for a second pop. Commendable details reveal themselves the more you take your time: smash a crate through a window on a space station, for instance, and the subsequent vacuum will suck nearby stormtroopers out before a metal shutter quickly slams down and regulates the atmosphere. Playfulness is rewarded in spades.
And herein lies the biggest problem: for all the rich possibilities thrown up by a muscular game engine, taking advantage is all too often inessential to progress and so many will coast through the game without noticing the finer points. And the painful lack of multiplayer only serves to underline this.
Technical prowess, however impressive, is not an adequate substitute for engaging game design. Playing through The Force Unleashed for a second time, I was reminded of Dan Whitehead's neat summary of Assassin's Creed on PC as "a 6/10 experience wrapped up in a 9/10 game engine". Ubisoft Montreal made the dangerous assumption that people would savour the game as the developer believed it ought to be experienced, and that's also true of LucasArts' effort.
But this is a Star Wars game and, in narrative terms, the most significant ever released. The stunning quality of the cinematics is everything you'd expect from a developer that shares office space with LucasFilm and Industrial Light & Magic, and the story is told with compelling vigour and convincing flair. The denouement is also fantastic, and it's worth noting that there is a second, non-canon ending on offer, depending on a decision you make in the final stage.
The introduction of memorable new characters like Proxy, the apprentice's beleaguered holodroid, and the smart and deliciously surprising deployment of familiar faces is expertly handled. And, for longtime fans of the fiction, the cathartic delight of slaughtering helpless Ugnaughts, Jawas and Wookiees cannot be overstated.
It gets an extra point, then, from this Star Wars obsessive for the story and the mostly magnificent recreation of the universe. As a fan you will want to experience what The Force Unleashed has to offer. It's just a shame that while there are occasional moments of brilliance when everything falls into place, they're not quite enough to back up the game's delusions of grandeur.
7 / 10