Last time LucasArts popped across the Atlantic to chat to us about The Force Unleashed, it had plenty of impressive videos to show, and big promises to make. Now, with only a few short months to go before the launch of the game, the team has returned to make good on those promises.
Within the first minutes of playing through the test code on their Xbox 360 debug units (PS3 code is also running on the day, and looking pretty much identical to the naked eye), the LucasArts developers who have made the trip are already making sure we're aware that "The Force Unleashed" isn't just a nifty title - or a hollow boast. Powerful blasts of Force energy lift huge, heavy gates off their hinges, splintering wood and buckling metal. Enemies are plucked from afar, hoisted into the air, and the impaled with a thrown lightsaber. Entire TIE Fighters are lifted from the ceiling racks of hangar bays and hurled at fleeing troops, Imperial and Rebel alike.
Unleashed? It certainly looks like it. This is top-notch modern game physics wreaking gleeful havoc in the Star Wars universe. It's bold, brash, incredibly action-packed and visually stunning. It may well be one of the best Star Wars games ever made - but strangely, the feeling we get from watching the LucasArts team play is that it might also, inadvertently, be one of the best superhero games ever made.
If you've been following The Force Unleashed at all, you probably know the story already, but a quick recap can't hurt. Set between Episodes III and IV - right in between the two trilogies - it sees Darth Vader secretly raising and training an apprentice, whom he uses to kill the remaining Jedi in the galaxy, all the while plotting darkly against his own master, the Emperor. You play the Apprentice, and get to take part in a nicely twisty storyline which is fully authorised and approved by George Lucas himself, and takes in plenty of elements from both the films and the extended Star Wars universe.
The setting and the character give LucasArts a chance to seriously cut loose within the universe, as the title suggests. From the very outset, this is designed as a wet dream for gamers - thanks to the stunning physics and intense combat - but also for Star Wars fans. It makes its intentions clear right from the outset, when you get to control none other than Vader himself as he steps in to get his hands dirty when a rogue Jedi is discovered during a raid on the Wookiee homeworld.
Black cloak billowing in the wind (the fabric effects in the game are stunning), Vader strolls through the Wookiee village, dispatching defences with a casual flick of Force Push and slaying countless furry favourites with a swipe of his iconic lightsaber or a deft application of Force Choke. It's a delicious - and all too rare - chance to succumb to the Dark Side in the Star Wars games, and a fairly good indicator of the extent to which LucasArts has taken the gloves off in its quest to relaunch Star Wars as a credible gaming franchise.
It's the technological progress, however, which is likely to capture gamers' imaginations most of all. The physics we've mentioned - and it truly is astounding, allowing huge chunks of the world to be manipulated realistically. Metal bends, glass shatters, wood splinters - it all obeys the laws of physics and opens up extensive options in any situation. Even the developers seemed surprised when slamming a struggling Stormtrooper into a metal door with a Force power resulted in the door bending open just enough for the unfortunate trooper to get stuck in the door, flailing and screaming.
Other systems, too, are impressive - especially the AI, which LucasArts is particularly proud of. Rather than scripting everything in the game, enemies react dynamically - and unpredictably - to the things you do. Pick up an enemy, and they'll flail around in the air, trying to get themselves upright; allow them to get within reach of something and they'll grab hold of it, trying to resist your attempts to throw them with the Force. They'll also try to grab onto each other in desperation, and will even fight in mid-air to try to release themselves from their doomed colleagues. It works remarkably well, looks great, and makes every level absolutely brim with darkly comedic potential.
Graphically, you'd expect such a flagship product to impress - and it really doesn't disappoint. The environments are lush and detailed, but it's the characters that really shine - especially the central characters, such as the Apprentice himself, whose facial animations are better than pretty much anything else we've seen in a videogame. Even now, all too many games give us characters with perfect lip-sync and realistic movements, but faces seemingly injected with Botox from forehead to chin. The Force Unleashed is a step in the right direction on this front, and it lends the game's cut-scenes and storytelling a significant new depth.
The Wii Saber
While much attention will undoubtedly be lavished on the PS3 and Xbox 360 versions of the game, we were also intrigued by the Wii version, which launches on the same date (as do various other platform versions, such as the PS2). Upon picking up the Wiimote to play, we were immediately struck by the fact that while the Wii version does look very weak compared to the PS3/360 versions, the impressive gameplay has been surprisingly well converted.
Certainly, the physics and AI haven't made the transition intact - but the Wii version fakes it remarkably well, replacing complex physics with nicely hand-tuned animations and more simplified interactions. The trade-off, of course, is that you get to wield the Wiimote as a lightsaber, an experience many Wii owners have been crying out for since day one.
Based on our hands-on time with the Wii version, we suspect that some of those people will be a little disappointed. You simply don't get the direct control of the lightsaber that many people crave - certainly, it responds to your movements, but a left swing of the Wiimote simply triggers a pre-programmed left swing attack in the game, rather than mimicking the exact swing you're doing.
On the plus side, however, the game cleverly divides its controls between lightsaber attacks on the Wiimote, and Force powers on the nunchuk - a system which works really nicely. Lifting someone into the air with the nunchuk, before flicking the Wiimote to impale them with a thrown lightsaber, is a natural and enjoyable movement, as is thrusting both controllers downwards to fire off a Force Repulse and push enemies backwards. Although there's a fair bit to learn, the controls do feel accurate and natural - and our disappointment at not getting to directly control a lightsaber faded pretty fast.
The Wii version also ships with a big chunk of exclusive content, including several entire levels which won't appear in the PS3 or 360 versions, and we were pleased to note that even the levels they have in common are significantly different in the Wii version - playing to the strengths of the Wii console and its controller, rather than just lazily porting Xbox 360 content to a platform that isn't designed for it.
Crucially, the Wii also has the only multiplayer mode of any of the versions of The Force Unleashed. A duelling mode pits two players against one another in a free-roaming combat arena, picking up power-ups and hammering one another with Force and lightsaber abilities in a manner that actually reminded us a little bit of classic fighting game Power Stone. There are loads of classic Star Wars characters to choose from, and the whole thing is pretty good fun - we can't see it becoming a staple of the hardcore beat-'em-up fraternity, but it could certainly be a laugh to pull out if you've got Star Wars loving friends about.
Unfortunately, we can't talk in quite as much depth about the PS3 and Xbox 360 versions right now - we'll be bringing you full hands-on impressions of those in the coming months. In the meantime, though, we did manage to corner one of LucasArts' production team, Cameron Suey, to chat to us about how the PS3 and 360 versions are coming along - and to explain one of the most controversial decisions the team has made, the complete lack of any multiplayer options.
Eurogamer: You're going to launch all the different platform versions simultaneously - something that not every developer manages! Has this been tough to pull off?
Cameron Suey: Actually, that's something we believe really strongly in at LucasArts - you've got to give everybody all their options at once, so they're not holding out for another version that doesn't come out. It also makes it feel like this huge event in Star Wars - so it was absolutely necessary for us to have them all come out, all at once.
Eurogamer: Are there any significant differences that we should know about between your two lead platforms, the PS3 and 360?
Cameron Suey: Between the Xbox 360 and the PS3, if we've done our job right, they'll be indistinguishable. We really wanted to make the same sort of polished, high-end next-gen experience on both those versions.
Eurogamer: Something neither platform has, though, is multiplayer. How come you decided to leave that out? Was it a tough decision to make, given how much stock a lot of players set by multiplayer in their games?
Cameron Suey: It's a difficult decision to not do anything - you want to put everything you can into a game. However, it was a pretty easy difficult decision, if that makes any sense. We knew that to really make the fully polished story experience that we wanted to make, we had to focus on that single-player experience. It definitely was a good choice, I think. It's easy to have a game that's just okay, with a multiplayer that's just okay - but we really preferred to have that powerful single-player experience.
Eurogamer: Even saying that, though, you must be tempted to go back - once the game is finished - and use all the technology you've built to create a multiplayer experience.
Cameron Suey: I will not rule anything out, but I would say that's probably more than a temptation! We've just built this whole brand new system, which is really several systems playing together, and we're definitely going to keep exploring its potential. You're going to see more from it.
Eurogamer: The game focuses on simulation and generating responses from AI and physics, rather than on scripted sequences. Why did you go this direction, when so many other developers are making more and more elaborate scripted sequences?
Cameron Suey: Because, for one thing, the moment you see a scripted sequence the second time, you know it's not a real sequence - you know it's been hand-drawn and hand-animated. Now, we do have scripted sequences in the game; there are definitely moments that we wanted to come off exactly the way we had planned, and we had a very specific vision for them. But part of what makes videogames exciting is their interactivity, and the fact that you have so many possibilities with them.
We thought it was really important that, where appropriate, to really have a world that reacted incredibly realistically and felt very real. The moment you see that same Stormtrooper fall over in the same way twice, your brain instantly takes out one level of involvement with it. You get pulled out of that reality because you realise that you've seen this animation twice.
So the more we can keep you feeling like you're really engaged and really immersed in that experience, the better - and simulation technology really does that to a T. It just means that the payoff for everything you do is that much more enjoyable each time, because you know that every time you see something really incredible, you may be the only person who's ever seen it that way.
Eurogamer: Given that the character you play is essentially a superhero in the Star Wars universe, doesn't that make it difficult to make the game challenging? You're never really going to meet anyone you can't just flick into a wall...
Cameron Suey: Absolutely. That was one of the key challenges to the game, originally - the fact that players could waltz through just about any kind of situation. We didn't want to tone down the player's powers, so what we did is create characters and enemies that were sometimes resistant - and we had to make that fictionally appropriate. Why would someone be resistant to a Force power?
So at one point we have these golems, which are made out of all these bits of metal, held together with the Force. They're very resistant to being Force pushed because they're actually built out of the Force. However, because they're also made out of metal, they're very susceptible to lightning. In that sense, we wanted to give players more of a tactical approach to every situation.
The other thing is sheer numbers. If we overwhelm the place with enough Stormtroopers, well, you can only focus and push and lightning and shock and grip so many Stormtroopers at once, before they overwhelm you. Having mixed tactics types - we have ones that stand back and fire, and ones that go directly up for melee combat. We also have some very large and impressive enemies, and it doesn't matter how powerful you are - they're still going to stand their ground.
It was a variety of techniques we used to create a gameplay experience that was still definitely very engaging.
Eurogamer: Your big boss encounters all end in a Quick Time Event - why do that, when you have such an enormous library of moves for the character to use?
Cameron Suey: We wanted those boss moves to feel completely cinematic - and while the character does have some really incredible moves that he does, the Quick Time Events are going to be things that could only be scripted. Things like tossing someone into the maw of a Sarlacc, or grabbing onto the roof, slamming someone repeatedly into it and then thrusting them into the floor. We wanted those things to be really big, cinematic pay-offs.
The other tactic there is that we want you to go from playing the game into these movies where you're just passively observing it. We wanted that to be more of a natural flow - so when you beat the boss, you're now in a totally new style of gameplay where you're just matching buttons, and appreciating this big cinematic finisher, and then you go into the cinematic. It's definitely a much more natural flow.
Eurogamer: Given how much technology you've created for The Force Unleashed, is it fair to say that this is only the first of a range of games you'll be building on this technology?
Cameron Suey: It's absolutely the first product from LucasArts to use this technology. We've previously announced the Indiana Jones game, which is going to use Digital Molecular Matter as well, and we've built this brand new engine, which is incredibly powerful, in conjunction with ILM. We'd be fools not to be using it.
Eurogamer: Do you have any plans to license the technology to other developers?
Cameron Suey: Well, Digital Molecular Matter [a major part of the game's physics] is by PixelArts, and Euphoria [part of the AI system] is by NaturalMotion - those are both outside groups that we have relationships with. Some of the other technology, like the facial capture and the cloth, that's all developed internally at LucasArts.
I think we probably could license that out, but I think it's probably best, for the industry, to have people try to develop their own technologies to create this realism. It's that competition, creating greater and greater realism, that's going to really advance the industry - not just doing the same thing repeated over and over again.
Star Wars: The Force Unleashed is due out on PS3, 360, Wii, PS2, PSP and DS on 19th September.