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.