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The Game Effect Editorial

After The Hype: Star Wars: The Force Unleashed

A Video Game That Fills The Plot Gap But Leaves Solid Gameplay Behind

By Nick Schneider on 4/14/2012
** Please be advised, this article contains full spoilers for The Force Unleashed **

In 2004 a team of six developers sat down to begin work on a new video game in the Star Wars universe, and after receiving the greenlight from George Lucas to explore the often untrodden time period between Revenge of the Sith and A New Hope,  The Force Unleashed was born. During development the team had plans to make a force-centered game, but to also make it accessible to any gamer who wanted to take a stab at flinging stormtroopers around like ragdolls. When the Force Unleashed released in September 2008 it received mixed reviews, but has since gone on to be one of the best selling Star Wars video games of all time, and sold approximately one million copies in its first month.

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Most positive reviews heralded the look and feel of the game as a Star Wars title, and in turn praised the story as one that fans would be remiss to ignore. While the reviews on the negative side detracted from the score for poor design, and occasionally buggy gameplay. Given the success of the title, Lucas Arts set out to make a sequel, which fared even worse in the eyes of the critics, and fans couldn't get behind some of the canon killing content that the team included in the final build, such as the ability to kill Han Solo and Chewbacca on Endor. The experiences that have been shared between myself and friends also seemed to reflect this tumultuous relationship between critics and fans, and as I sat down with the title I could easily see where the lack of a clear feeling derived.

A Canonical Star Wars Video Game  

 Star Wars: The Force Unleashed has one of the most intriguing aspects for marketing in this overly commercialized and merchandised series, and that was the fact that the story told within sets the stage and bridges the gap between the prequel trilogy, and the more fan friendly trilogy starting with Episode IV. After a terrible install time on the Playstation 3 players are dropped into the shoes of Darth Vader as he is sent to eliminate remaining Jedi per Order 66, after exposing players to the controls of the game and force choking several dozen Kashyyyk residents the game introduces the protagonist for the story to be told. While Starkiller is only a small boy at the time, his abilities in the Force are strong enough that Vader decides to take him on as a secret apprentice. With the intention of assassinating the Emperor, Vader instructs an adult Starkiller to hunt down and eliminate the remaining Jedi council to complete his training.

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Plot-wise the tale of Vader's secret apprentice, his betrayal, and ultimately redemption or his submission to the dark side, is entirely solid. There are a few plot holes, but seeing as how this is a modern day Star Wars tale that is unfortunately expected, and overall the story behind how the rebellion got its legs is worthwhile for fans of the series to witness. If for the very least to see just how the leaders of the alliance managed to find one another along with the courage to combat such a heavily militarized empire. The tale is told through highly linear levels, each followed by a cutscene, save for the final confrontation in which players must make a choice as Starkiller.
After battling Lord Vader in an attempt to rescue the rebels that have been held captive after his betrayal, the young Jedi is asked to choose between the rebels or working under the Emperor. The most canonical ending, as it's the only one that makes sense among the rest of the mythology, involves Starkiller battling the emperor and rescuing the alliance. In this instance the character becomes the ultimate martyr and symbol for the alliance. If players so choose they can kill Vader, and then in another battle become highly disfigured, but not his replacement. In both cases these plot lines are handled in fairly limited terms. Choosing to side with the Empire requires players to purchase further DLC to fully flesh out exactly what that choice included. While siding with the Alliance leaves players a simple cutscene that highlights how the rebellion found the symbol fans will recognize as the Rebel insignia.

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The Force is Strong In This One

There have been several games in the Star Wars line that have provided fans with the feeling of being a Jedi, however very few have made the powers as player friendly as The Force Unleashed. In another wise marketing move, Lucas Arts set out to create a title in which players could easily use the Force to throw around opponents, and fry as many stormtroopers with Force lightning as possible. While these actions are easily done with simple button presses, the gameplay itself seems to have taken a slight step into the background during development. By mixing in some light RPG elements, mostly in the form of experience and skill point allocations, players can customize Starkiller and his abilities to fit most situations at hand. The problems set in when the player soon realizes that most situations can easily be handled with only 2 to 3 common use powers, while the remainder get relegated to extremely situational use.

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Primarily, most enemies will be handled by simply Force Gripping them and then flinging them into some kind of environmental object. Players could launch them against the wall, but finding ways to combine powers, objects, and other enemies into your attacks will yield higher experience point gains. Generally speaking, the safest and often only real means through an encounter is to grip an enemy, launch a lightning blast at them and then fling them, hopefully, into the direction of other foes. Throughout the course of the campaign there are areas where difficulty takes a huge spike upward, and others where the monotony of the encounters will bore you to tears. This bipolar difficulty is one that feels cheap at points, but at the same time there also rests the question of how do you take on a Jedi with normal Stormtroopers, or other red shirts?
The question of difficulty would not be an issue, except for how weak the player feels in these situations. As Vader's apprentice, and a highly talented Force user, situations where players are tasked to battle a near endless amount of troops becomes infuriating. A simple hit to you while attempting to lift an object to toss at an encamped enemy will yield a quick drop, and another attempt to pick up the object. Tacked onto this frustration is that the environments are fairly large, and seemingly all enemies have some kind of ranged attack. Their ranges are often way out of what you are capable of grabbing or shooting lightning at.

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The obvious solution is to move constantly, the more aggressive a player becomes works in their advantage but also their disadvantage. Many enemies are triggered to attack at certain invisible check points. Crossing their activity threshold will begin their set of AI patterns, and this makes moving forward against already ridiculous odds even more difficult, since you end up taking on more than you can chew. The encounters with normal enemies feel frantic and add a great sense of adrenaline, but Starkiller is entirely too easy to kill in most encounters. This level of difficulty becomes even more intolerable during several boss fights, however in all of those cases it becomes a game of "which attack should I spam to win?"

Battling Jedi Like A Gamer

After the first mission to eliminate General Kota, who has been using his mercenary group to inflict massive amounts of damage on Imperial targets, players will sink into a relative sense of ease as they make their way through the TIE Fighter plant. The encounters in this mission don't feel highly out of control, and the feeling of power coursing through your fingers is incredibly enjoyable. A few minutes later Starkiller is tasked with finding a member of the Jedi Council on a junk planet, and the difficulty takes an incredible turn for the worst. In what would become problematic in almost every single boss encounter afterwards the fight against Paratus in the the mock Jedi Council chamber proves that the game loses much of the fun that initially inspired your first mission.
Paratus is fast, deadly, and blocks nearly every attack you throw at him. I had initially wanted to mix up moves and try to do things in a more contextual sense, but after nearly fifteen reloads it became apparent that I needed to rely on one attack. Using lightning over and over again seemed to be the only way to get this little bug to go down, and that same idea followed through with later encounters. What should have been testaments of skill and wit, instead become exercises in rinse and repeat attack patterns that fail to fill any sense of accomplishment at the end of a battle.

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The Game To Bridge The Gap  

Looking back, The Force Unleashed culminates in a bag of mixed feelings. As a huge fan of the Star Wars mythology and characters, there are fantastic nods such as finding Jar Jar frozen in a slab of carbonite. The sound design and musical score easily strike up that childhood excitement when blasters and lightsabers mix on the battle field alongside John Williams' score. These elements combine to make one of the better cinematic experiences for Star Wars fans, even if it is interactive, and truly Lucas Arts has found a way to make peace for the lackluster prequel trilogy. However, design flaws, frustrating battle design, and terribly linear levels ultimately make this an experience that should truly only be witnessed for the story alone. You just have to wade through the lackluster play to get to those moments. Fans looking for the gap between trilogies to be filled should take note of the game as it is fairly easy to find and won't hurt the wallet too poorly, of course if you want the same story there is also a novelization out there for you to read that can just as easily fill that same gap without the frustration of playing through those grievances. If there was a score to be given in this series the title itself earns a respectful but disappointing 7/10.  
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indiejones on April 18, 2012
I couldn't agree more with this assessment Nick. I enjoyed the story but the gameplay just bored me at some points. It sure was pretty though so that helped.
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