The force is very strong in this one...
The Force Unleashed is more than just a videogame. Considered by George Lucas to be a integral part of the Star Wars mythos Episode III-and-a-half, if you will the release of this shadowy adventure is being accompanied by the blitzkrieg of merchandise that traditionally heralds a new SW movie, including a range of action figures, spin-off comics and even a licensed Lego set, the first time the Danish blockheads have taken inspiration from a purely digital source.
But while this blurring of the boundaries between gaming and movies is intriguing and shows how the two industries are growing inexorably closer what will charm fanboys most is the pernicious tale woven by the game, and how The Force Unleashed allows players to toy with the powers of the Dark Side.
Set between Episodes III and IV, The Force Unleashed explores the period between the classic trilogy and the modern triptych, a time of unrest as the Galactic Empire hunts down and crushes all resistance from the last remnants of the Old Republic.
Intent on wiping out the last Jedis, Darth Vader sends spies to track down the stragglers, jumping into a Star Destroyer himself to butcher one of his most powerful foes on Kashyyyk. But when ol wheezy comes face-to-face with his quarry he also happens upon the Jedis son and, recognising his Force potential, takes the boy under his wing as his secret apprentice. And thats where you come in.
While Star Wars games to date have stuck with clichéd console conventions, The Force Unleashed offers players a new experience by giving them true mastery of the Force. And while theres still plenty of Lightsaber swashbuckling and platform hopping along the way, what gamers will depend on most is a quartet of Force skills: Force Grip, which allows you to telekinetically pick up enemies or objects; Force Push, which lets players pump out a devastating wave of energy; Force Lightning, which can be used to shock Rebel scum; and Force Repulse, where a bubble of energy blasts out in 360 degrees, flattening any opponents loitering nearby.
To bring these powers to life, LucasArts invested heavily in new technology, ideas that have been heralded by online critics as the future of videogaming. First up is Digital Molecular Materials (DMM), a system that allows materials to react as they would in the real world, with metal bending, wood splintering, and organic materials bending and swaying realistically when hit by a Force Push. LucasArts other bright idea, Euphoria, imbues each AI-controlled character with a sense of self-preservation, creating digital characters that move with purpose, take cover when under fire, and desperately try to catch the edge of a platform when you shove them off.
But while DDM and Euphoria are exciting in theory, in practice they make for seductively creative carnage. Rather than the shallow hacknslash SW platformers of old, players now have the freedom to tackle challenges in a variety of ways, whether it be crushing Stormtroopers with the wing from a TIE Fighter, electrocuting a soldier and using him to shock his comrades, or throwing your Lightsaber to cut the cables holding the bridge the Imperial troops are standing on. And with Euphoria in play, your enemies will try to scramble to safety or grab hold of the nearest object when you magically lift them, making it feel as if youre battling real people and allowing for ridiculously satisfying kills.
New technology aside, The Force Unleashed is also compelling as it perfectly captures the rollicking action that made Star Wars a cross-generational favourite. As well as having the freedom to choreograph your own action using Force powers, set-pieces such as dueling with a rival Jedi as your space station crashes towards the surface of an alien world the floor getting too hot to stand on as your fall through the planets atmosphere capturing the delirious sense of adventure that set Star Wars apart from its po-faced sci-fi rivals.
A word of warning, though. While LucasArts has gone to great pains to develop Euphoria and DDM, The Force Unleashed doesnt quite deliver on its promise of untethered action. Although there are myriad opportunities to manipulate your environment, the game is still plagued by arbitrary laws: invisible walls block your way to certain areas, particularly frustrating when you can see AT-ATs battling Wookies below you on Kashyyyk but you cant get involved; certain environmental objects cant be manipulated, which is irritating when other structures nearby can be chucked around willy-nilly; and while your Lightsaber leaves glowing scars on walls when you slash them, you cant use your blade to cut your way out through locked blast-doors like Qui-Gon Jinn did in The Phantom Menace, again keeping players on a short leash.
Its also worth noting that this review is based on the PS3 and Xbox 360 versions of the game, whereas editions on other consoles dont benefit from DDM and Euphoria and are more linear, decidedly average affairs.
However, on Sony and Microsofts next-gen consoles, this is a quest of blockbuster proportions, a game that takes a darker approach to Lucas virtuous legend, and the first SW adventure to truly capture the feeling of what its like to be a Force-wielding Jedi. And while wed probably have awarded the game four stars were it based on any other licence, this gloriously faithful spin on the Star Wars universe makes The Force Unleashed utterly irresistible.