There are a number of thrilling moments lurking in Star Wars: The Force Unleashed--enough of them that you'll likely be disappointed that it drifts so often from the things it excels at. Amazing displays of power and destruction are interspersed with inept, poorly conceived gameplay sequences, making for an inconsistent journey that, fortunately, gets more right than it does wrong. It certainly gives a fantastic first impression, starting with a tutorial level that serves as a great introduction to its complex protagonist. Yet while the initial levels impress, the later ones stumble a bit. Force Unleashed is a very good game that could have been great, had it not taken so many unnecessary detours.
This is the best Star Wars story in years.
A big chord and brass fanfare signal the opening of Force Unleashed--the same intro that sparks excitement in millions of fans the world over every time they hear it. If you're interested in this game because you're looking for familiar science-fiction pageantry and a classic good-versus-evil tale, you'll find it delivers both. In fact, The Force Unleashed represents a real step forward in storytelling for the famed franchise, delivering a story both more intimate and more powerful than the entirety of the second film trilogy. Sure, it offers its share of melodrama, but it's tempered by emotive voice acting and expressive character models, and together they provide the emotional heft long missing from the movies. The drama is further enriched by a vivid art design that breathes life into the franchise's long-sterile visual exterior.
Leading the narrative charge is Galen Marek, aka Starkiller, Darth Vader's secret apprentice. The Clone Wars have ended, and Vader orders you to hunt and destroy the last of the remaining Jedi. The story, as brief as it is (the game ends at around the eight-hour mark), contains multiple twists, features some friendly and not-so-friendly faces, and is both explosive and remarkably intimate. You'll interact with Vader, of course, but Starkiller spends most of his time with an android called PROXY and his female pilot, Juno Eclipse. Sharing the details of the trio's adventures would spoil too much, so suffice to say, you'll grow remarkably fond of Starkiller and his companions, and their moral conflicts carry a lot of weight.
If you're interested in The Force Unleashed for more than its story, you'll find that it's a mixture of pure fun and pure frustration. The fun wins out, mainly because when it runs on all cylinders, you truly feel like a powerful Dark Jedi, using a variety of force powers and lightsaber slashes to rain death upon rebel and imperial foes alike. You can thank the game's robust physics engine for those thrills. You can grab any number of objects and characters using your force grip power, and when combined with other skills like force lightning and force push, you can fling stormtroopers into Wookiees, crush Felucian tribal leaders under boulders, and smash AT-STs with scattered barrels. In open environments, these mechanics deliver--big time. Grabbing a Rodian from a distance, electrocuting it, and flinging it into a crowd of shock troopers; hearing your lightsaber hum and whir after you whip it toward an innocent Wookiee; or just drop-kicking a whining Jawa: These moments may very well cause you to yell with glee. This is a game that will make you grab your friends to show off your potent skills.
When the Force Unleashed rocks, it really rocks. Too bad it doesn't always stick to its strengths.
Unfortunately, developer LucasArts often fails to string these amazing moments together long enough to keep the momentum going. The impressive physics work quite well in huge, open areas like a TIE Fighter facility. The action gets problematic at almost any other time, however, and the hyperactive physics become almost as much of a liability as an asset. This becomes more apparent as Force Unleashed's targeting foibles come more clearly into focus. The targeting is loose, which makes it incredibly easy to grab something other than what you intended, and even easier to throw it at something other than into its actual mark. In the most claustrophobic areas, this might mean flinging an exploding barrel into yourself, throwing it into nothing at all, or targeting a completely immovable item--which then begs the question why the game let you target it with force grip in the first place. And as is the case with many third-person action game cameras, getting in a smaller space means claustrophobic camera angles that cause you to lose perspective of the bigger picture. This is more of a problem here than in most games, though, because Force Unleashed chooses a target not based on the direction the player is facing via the camera, but which direction Starkiller is facing. That's fine in large environments, when there is more camera maneuverability. Otherwise, it becomes a frustrating paradox of ideas: In confined areas, Force Unleashed requires greater player precision, but makes it more difficult to be precise.
Despite these moments of frustration, you'll often find that Force Unleashed is a pleasant challenge, particularly during the best of its boss encounters. The boss battles on your first visits to Felucia and Raxus Prime are the best of the bunch, because they're fun and challenging without being frustrating. These multipart battles are implemented well, letting you restart from that section of the encounter should you die, rather than forcing you to restart at the very beginning. In all of them, you'll need to be constantly active, use a mix of different skills, and pay close attention to patterns. Most of these encounters feature a cinematic camera that may zoom in and out during the action, which makes some of them even more exciting. In others, the camera angles more annoying, since it restricts the viewing area, thereby exacerbating the targeting and physics issues. A battle featuring a bull rancor could have been epic, but it's too easy to get stuck between the rancor's legs, or inside the large skeletons scattered about. The battle is also bugged; in both the Xbox 360 and PS3 versions, the rancor's health bar disappeared, rendering the beast impossible to kill and requiring a restart. In a later boss fight, the camera pulls back and magically appearing invisible walls keep you confined to a limited area, which is odd, given that Force Unleashed avoids invisible walls for the majority of its campaign.