Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Star Wars: The Force Unleashed (360, 2008)

I didn't go into The Force Unleashed with a lot of demands - give me shit to wreck, some jedi-on-jedi action, Star Wars music and locales, and I can enjoy myself. I knew that the game wasn't that well received by critics, but from what I could tell, it was supposed to be a flawed, yet fun game. I was prepared to deal with less than desirable mechanics before I even started, and figured that I would be among those enjoying some simple, lightsaber-branded fun.

Well, after a few levels of The Force Unleashed, I can safely say that I never want to pick it up again. I know this may make my opinion seem incomplete, but there are enough serious, fundamental problems that I've come across repeatedly in this short amount of time that I feel justified in my ability to review it. This isn't a completely horrible game - indeed, I can fully understand how some might enjoy it; however, it is most certainly not for me, and I would not recommend it to most serious gamers.

Where to start, hmm. Essentially, this is a game with many small, mostly inconsequential problems that might not bother everyone, but stick out blatantly and pile upon each other like a nest of ants in your cookie jar. Alright, let's look at one of the biggest underlying mechanisms - the physics in the game. I remember seeing Lucasart's tech demo for their new, next-gen engine showing all sorts of fancy reactions and destruction, thinking about how awesome it would be to have that in a Star Wars game. Well, The Force Unleashed put those dreams to rest. Perhaps I'm missing something. Perhaps the Kashyyk trees, when submitted to the forces of gravity after being cut, really do just break and crumble into pieces as they hit the ground. Maybe only some walls in the Star Wars universe can take cosmetic damage in very isolated places, almost as if the damage were scripted instead of actively rendered whatsoever. Certainly, it could be quite realistic for lightsabers to leave the same old superheated colour traces on inorganic materials, yet softly push enemies around. However, my inability to understand the combination of completely unrealistic or often absent physics severely impaired any sense I had of feeling connected to the game world and sapped all the infinite coolness of being a Force-wielding maniac like a ysalamiri biting the flesh in between my toes.

The next important aspect - actual gameplay. The Force Unleashed sports a workable, albeit completely soulless take on hack n slash fighting mixed with a few iconic force powers. There is only one lightsaber attack button, which you either mash alone or mix up with the force to do slightly fancier moves. This is suitable when dealing with basic enemies, as they crumble to pretty much anything that you do, but is it satisfying? Not at all; you really don't feel involved in the effortless killing. There are various reasons for this, but I believe that the underlying issue for myself was the way enemies react to your lightsaber, or should I say, lightstick. Rather than deftly slicing through the poor fools standing in your way, you merely bludgeon them around like hitting pillows with a tennis racket. Sometimes the lightstick even passes through them, but, aside from the stabbing finisher of one combo, these instances have all the heft of objects clipping through the environment. Now, as you might recall, I just finished up Ninja Gaiden II. I am quite likely to be a bit jaded when dealing with sword-based combat right now, but I am not holding The Force Unleashed up to those standards. No no, the lightsaber fighting here is just underwhelming, period. Wait a sec, Unicorn, you said the normal enemies are lame, but what about Jedi battles? Other Jedi provide unique experiences in the form of larger health bars and special abilities that the one of three common enemy types in each level only dream of having. Excitemente! As a thrilling example, I give you the second boss, who, upon being damaged to the flashing red, imminent doom point, begins spamming force push and saber throwing...constantly. Thankfully, my brilliant strategy of letting him pummel me mercilessly until he fell off of his platform and onto his face on the burning hot floor was a success. Wait, I'm getting ahead of myself. First, before I could set up my devious trap, I had to successfully navigate one of the most glorious, time-honoured gaming traditions - a QTE. Now, QTEs have their place - they were quite fun in Shenmue. But that was ten years ago. I no longer enjoy cut scenes that I not only can't watch, but can also fail, and putting them in as crucial boss moments (for every boss figure that I encountered in this game) does not impress me. Quite the opposite, in fact.

There are other aspects of the gameplay that I did enjoy, but even then there were problems. As always, it's good, wholesome fun to pick up objects and/or people in order to send them on their merry way. This was actually the only part that I really liked in the game. Sadly, it was already worn out by the third level, no longer feeling like a novel experience as I did it with the same objects on the same enemies repeatedly. There is also the prospect of exploration in order to find hidden collectibles, which, at one point, had me slotting single tie fighter wings into their transportation slots so that I could platform up to my delicious shiny golden box. I enjoyed that - physics "puzzles" are fun, platforming and exploration is fun, and hell, I even like collectibles. The problem is, every level is extremely linear, and real exploration is strictly limited. I only encountered a couple invisible walls, but it is very common to find Starbeast sliding off of any surface not deemed essential, which even includes large objects right in the middle of the game. This irritates me, because I enjoy manipulating games to explore their limits, but the real problem is that this applies everywhere. At one point - well, make that the last thing that I did before I switched the game off for good - I was stuck fighting some sort of contrived scrap-beast. Twice I died from mis-judging a jump to the bottom area, causing me to land on a slight slope leading down to firey, off-limits death pits, whereupon I slid my way down with no chance to save myself. Taking good care to not expose Starchild to atypical gravity forces, I succeeded in engaging, and passing, the boss QTE, which allowed me to lower a bridge by exploded pre-selected rocks with my electricity. Glad to be done with that nonsense, I jumped down to the bridge, where I promptly slid off and was reset to before the boss. This is a problem that I had throughout, especially fighting enemies near ledges. If I happened to initiate any sort of combo on these poorly-placed arses, it would often end up carrying me a step too far and into the great nothingness. Avoidable? Certainly. Good? Certainly not. Thankfully, this also seemed to affect enemies on their own. I would often be in an empty room, yet receive notifications and bonuses for soldiers falling to their deaths, or, in a particularly fabulous moment, watched an endlessly respawning line of jetpack-equipped wookies jumping onto my bridge, only to fall backwards off the edge and die. Hm, thinking about it, perhaps they weren't wookies at all, but oversized lemmings - some of them would actually land safely, yet run back to join their dying compatriots.

I'm starting to ramble, so I hope by now you've come to understand that this is an average hack n slash romp with many small problems: some mediocre, some irritating. The story seemed surprisingly decent with good voice actors, but the most recent part had introduced the cliche, ridiculously garbed (oh boy, cleavage!) sexy blonde love interest, so I doubt that I'm missing out on much. Even if I was, I'd much rather read a plot summary than actually put the effort into the game for it. It's really just a slightly less than average game wrapped up in modern graphics and a fancy license - if this didn't have the Star Wars name and music, I highly doubt any people would give it the time.

Verdict: Fail



autothrall said...

When will Star Wars fandom and game/film designers realize that the Force is by far the least interesting part of the Star Wars Universe?

There is so much in there to explore, and yet we get another fucking Jedi game.

Fuck the Jedi.

I'm so glad my circle of gamer friends here have put a 'no-Jedi PC' clause whenever we run Star Wars RPGs lately.

is this your life? said...

Maybe they'll finally release a true Jedi Knight sequel, realize it's all the Jedi they'll ever need, and then branch out into raping the rest of the SWU.

They should also realize that shitty hack n slashers are by far the least interesting part of Star Wars games :P

I always find stories from early SWG players really interesting. It seems like they built a lot of good out of the basic setup, before the game got completely changed.