Force Unleashed was an ambitious project. It was excessively promoted over the Internet, thus creating the opposite effect of product awareness, raising expectations up to a point where it didn’t matter how good it was: it was still bound to disappoint a number of people. If that wasn’t enough, some pathetic excuses from the PR team ensued, who actually said with a straight face that current generation PCs aren’t powerful enough to run this game, then the not very inspired demo, and a few million spoilers in a few million trailers.
As an intro, you’re Darth Vader’s secret apprentice (your nickname being Starkiller, apparently), doing his biding right after senator’s Palpatine rise to power and the forming of the Galactic Empire. You’re initially sent on assassination missions, until… something happens and the story actually starts to get interesting. Suffice to say that you’ll meet plenty of well known Star Wars characters, along with locations and events from the movie series, all coming together in an epic story well worth seeing until the end.
The main gameplay element in Force Unleashed is non-stop ass kicking, thoroughly enhanced by an impressive physics engine, responsible for those “Whoa, cool!” moments when you’re throwing a Stormtrooper through the scenery, destroy everything around you and use your special abilities, such as Force Push. The combat is spectacular at times and complex enough to prevent players from becoming bored. It’s also designed in such a way to make you feel overpowered at times (because, as a Sith Lord, you actually are powerful) but also challenging, when fighting equally skilled opponents during the various “boss battles” in the game.
There are also enemies so powerful that you actually have no idea how to defeat them when the battle starts; there are classical boss fights, and then there’s the part where you need to take down a Star Destroyer from space by using the Force, which is impressive, to say the least. It’s actually so impressive that I’ll say it again: in The Force Unleashed you’re going to take down a Star Destroyer by using the Force, in a not very complicated mini game, which manages to capture the absolute power of a character so insanely powerful he can bring down a god damn Imperial Star Destroyer. From space. By clenching his fists. Awesome.
Not everything is that awesome, though. If the special encounters are actually impressive, the road to them is less than stellar. A linear game isn’t a bad thing as long as you’re at least given the illusion of choice. Unfortunately though, the path you need to take in Force Unleashed is so painfully linear it becomes a bit annoying. You’re just going through a “tube” with absolutely no worry that you’re going the wrong way. And that’s it, until you start doing a fair amount of backtracking too, or get confused by the repetitive level design of the “interior” levels.
The “exterior” levels on the other hand feel “organic”; each object is “bent” and filled with “physics” effects. The amount of technology bursting from every leaf of this game is most certainly impressive, but also extremely annoying when it messes up, leaving you stuck in textures, for example. The collision detection system is also on the “meh” side, you need to jump over invisible obstacles and certain surfaces will send you to your death, by sliding you in the ever present chasm present in every level. I had to reload a savegame several times in order to escape these situations, which is most certainly not ok.
The enemy AI isn’t exactly great, either. While seeing an enemy Stormtrooper desperately trying to cling to a crate while you fling him up in the air and smash him in a wall is pretty damn cool, wookies tripping and falling over invisible obstacles, enemies not realizing there’s a huge hole near them and walking in it isn’t all that great. I do realize that the main purpose of the enemies you’re facing is just serving as cannon fodder for cutting, squashing, suffocating, electrocuting or projecting them into walls, but I would have appreciated a minimum amount of “brain” from their part. I mean, if you’re dying, at least do it with a bit of dignity, right?
Along the main campaign (which isn’t exactly long, it took me about 7 hours to beat it on the normal difficulty level) the Apprentice will level up and receive points, used for upgrading Force skills, base attributes or the light saber. After a few hours I started to hate this system, but not because it’s stupid, simple or even complicated. No, the hate goes to the load screen you need to endure each time you access the options menu (and thus the upgrade screen). I want to allocate a point, load. I want to change the brightness, load. I want to mute the music, load. I want to go back from the audio menu and continue playing, load. I don’t care if this game has the most advanced technology in the world, and can only run on the meanest console ever, or the most awesome antimatter powered PC, if I have to sit through a load screen each time I want to change a setting, the system fails. Badly.
Going back to the single-player campaign length, you won’t need too many hours to beat the game. Then again, there is a generous number of difficulty levels present (and there is difference), there are secret objects in each level (help you to level up faster, unlock costumes, etc) and of course, there are Achievements to unlock. You won’t necessarily feel the need to start the game again once you beat it though. Sure, you might want to, for a few extra Achievements and the second ending (there’s 2 of them, but only one considered canon), but overall… there isn’t much incentive to do it. Sure, there are worse games out there from this point of view, but at least those games have a multiplayer mode, and Force Unleashed doesn’t. This is plain stupid, in my opinion, not including multiplayer in a game where you use lightsabers to fight, maim and destroy your enemies for a living, especially when the versions for less powerful platforms (Wii, DS, PSP) have this option! No comment.
After spending some time with this game, I honestly think that a release date closer to Christmas would have really helped iron out some bugs, fix the framerate stuttering and increase the overall polish. Or fix the annoying gameplay->cutscene transition, which is so abrupt I first thought that the cat tripped over the audio cable and my console broke down afterwards.
There are lot of good ideas in this game. It’s spectacular on occasion, it has a nice story and it feels good to play it, but the execution doesn’t quite live up the concept. You’re awe struck by the physics system on one hand, and cast curses of doom over the loading screens between menus on the other. Now you’re impressed by the entire jungle shaking and bending after a maximum level Force Push and 2 seconds later you get stuck in a rock. The game gives, and the game takes in equal measure, and that’s why the score is what it is. A game above 8 doesn’t have so many bugs, it doesn’t force me to reload a savegame because of them, and it most certainly doesn’t last for only 7 hours when the admission pay is 50 euros. Spectacular and cool as it may be.
Although Force Unleashed does deserve your money to a certain extent, be aware that your patience for technical and design issues will be tested. If you can get over these obstacles and the lack of multiplayer doesn’t bother you, add another 6 points to the score and enjoy a good Star Wars game. If not, wait for the Classics version and save some money. There are MUCH worse games out there, but then again, there are far better, too.