Despite occasional lightning blasts and backflips, the Force has largely been portrayed in “Star Wars” movies as a New Age pseudoreligion that enables mind control and visions of the future. In “The Force Unleashed,” LucasArts reimagines the source of the Jedi Knights’ energy as an ass-kicking destructive power that lets players take on every beast and baddie ever seen in a galaxy far, far away. Inconsistent, occasionally maddening level design may turn off hardcore gamers, but this potent mix of vicarious thrills and a compelling drama that bridges the third and fourth films is exactly the videogame “Star Wars” fans have been looking for.
“The Force Unleashed” is hardly the first recent game to promise players the experience of portraying their favorite movie heroes. But while titles such as “John Woo’s Stranglehold” and “The Bourne Conspiracy” have only a handful of familiar cinematic moves, “The Force Unleashed” is overflowing with Jedi powers and techniques, most of which have been seen only fleetingly on film. After giving players a taste of the Force’s full potential by letting them be Darth Vader in a prologue, the game switches to the dark lord’s young protege, who slowly earns abilities like throwing objects with his mind, tossing a lightsaber with deadly accuracy and shooting lightning from his fingers.
At its best, “The Force Unleashed” offers hardcore combat of the sort gamers haven’t seen since “God of War.” Except this time, the hero is using a lightsaber to single-handedly vanquish Storm Troopers, Rancors and AT-ATs in familiar if somewhat underdetailed settings like the Wookiee homeworld and a sarlacc pit. As if that wasn’t enough geek fantasy, there are numerous epic “boss battles” against fellow Jedi Knights in cinematic setpieces that outdo the best hand-to-hand battles seen in the films.
Unfortunately, “The Force Unleashed” has a dark side as well. Too many of the levels, particularly early in the game, feel slapped together as excuses for the players to kill a few hundred grunts before getting to the good stuff. There are severe balance issues, as the game sometimes ramps up in difficulty with no warning or clear indication of how the player can escape the mayhem. Those faults pale in comparison, however, to an atrocious late-game fight against a star destroyer that actually gives the player incorrect instructions.
It’s damning with faint praise to say that “The Force Unleashed” is better written than most videogames and the last three “Star Wars” movies, but the story does a nice job of putting the combat in a compelling context. Players control Darth Vader’s young apprentice, known only by his code name Starkiller, who starts a mission to hunt the last of the Jedi and ends up founding the Rebel Alliance. The characterizations are simple and the twists aren’t too surprising, but the plot is full of details fans will love and infused with a tragic tone due to the knowledge that Darth Vader doesn’t have an apprentice in any of the movies.
It’s only a shame that the story isn’t smoothly integrated into the actual gameplay, which relies on some videogame cliches that don’t mesh well with the “Star Wars” mythos; who knew that Jedis could gain new powers by collecting hidden orbs?
Technical details are topnotch save for a few glitches. The animated cinematics between levels are particularly gorgeous, while the score nicely mixes John Williams’ “Star Wars” themes with inspired new ones. Motion-capture performances provide for more emotional acting than videogame players are used to, though a few of the voiceover impressions, particularly that of Princess Leia, are off the mark.