The grand Galactic Republic has fallen. Chancellor Palpatine has declared himself Emperor and with his deadly servant, Jedi Knight turned Dark Lord of the Sith, Darth Vader, Palpatine has hurtled the galaxy into darkness, fear and despair. Fast foward nearly two decades, shortly before the birth of the Rebel Alliance. The Empire is flourishing under Palpatine’s rule and Darth Vader has grown ambitious. Vader has trained an apprentice in secret; hidden from the watchful eyes of the Emperor. His goal is to root out and eliminate the enemies of the Empire while at the same time drawing enough power to destroy the Emperor himself. This is the foundation of LucasArt’s The Force Unleashed. While the story is engaging, does the rest of the game rise to the call of delivering a powerful experience set in a virtually unexplored time period in the Star Wars universe? Read on to find out.
The game begins with one of the coolest parts of the entire experience. You take control of Darth Vader himself, shortly after the events of Revenge of the Sith. Your mission: hunt down the Jedi Knight in hiding on the Wookiee homeworld of Kashyyyk. This prologue serves a dual purpose: introduce players to the story of The Force Unleashed and at the same time teach players how to play the game. The first goal is accomplished through a series of highly enjoyable, well-acted and very Star Warsy (to create my own adjective) cutscenes. The second is accomplished as the player makes their way through a Wookiee village choking, chucking and cutting legions of furry Wookiee soldiers. It is difficult to describe in words how fantastic this sequence is for a Star Wars fan. For the first time, we are able to control Darth Vader in a story-driven game. Not only that, but we get to take on the Wookiee race in a ferocious show of strength. This gives players a taste of what is in store for them later in the game.
Unfortunately, giving the player the awesome power of The Force and then taking it away after the prologue mission ends makes the early part of the game a little bit more tedious than it could have been. With minimal force abilities, the player finds themselves grinding through the first half of the game, trying to earn enough “force points” to unlock new powers and increase the effectiveness of existing powers. Thankfully, the tedious gameplay is bolstered by the excellent narrative woven into each level of the game as well as the cutscenes that play in between.
As the player progresses into the later stages of the game, the action intensifies and so does the amount of fun the player has in the game. With seemingly limitless force abilities, players find themselves hurtling stormtroopers by the dozen, blasting officers with a torrential outburst of dark lightning. To demonstrate just how powerful Vader’s apprentice becomes, I will turn to one of the absolute coolest moments in Star Wars history. The player is tasked with giving the hopeful rebels scattered across the galaxy a symbol that will rally them and unify them against the Empire. What better way to accomplish this than by destroying a high profile symbol of the Empire’s power in the galaxy? The player must use the power of the Force to pull an Imperial Star Destroyer out of orbit and send it crashing into the planet below. This is one of the most spectacular cinematic experiences in the game. Unfortunately, like the rest of the game, it does not translate as impressively into gameplay.
This is the essence of The Force Unleashed; a lackluster gameplay experience driven by a great story set in a rich, but vastly under-explored portion of the Star Wars timeline. However, this is not to say all aspects of the gameplay are disappointing. The boss fights are particularly fun. They are a combination of button-mashing lightsaber combat mixed with quick time event sequences. This keeps the player on their toes for the majority of each battle. The back drop and visuals of each boss fight keep them feeling unique and fresh all the way through to the end of the game culminating into a climactic battle with either Darth Vader or Emperor Palpatine, depending on whether you follow the path of the Jedi or embrace the power of the Sith.
The excellent voice cast, including the talents of Jimmy Smitts, who reprises his role as Bail Organa from the films, combined with the game’s wonderful score, make The Force Unleashed a great Star Wars experience- just not a great video game experience. Indeed, if this had been a cinematic presentation rather than a video game, the final score would have been much higher.