MORE DISAPPOINTING: If the Force-based stuff weren’t so much fun, the game’s myriad flaws wouldn’t rankle so much.
Many people regard anything produced in the past 15 years or so bearing the Star Wars brand as total garbage, and rightly so — George Lucas has spent that time pissing away whatever good will he earned from the original trilogy of films in a stream of dull, poorly written, family-friendly cinematic goop. But then some gluttons for punishment like myself, emboldened by the occasional fleeting moment of quality in the prequel trilogy, keep talking ourselves into each new SW-related property, thinking that maybe this will be what restores dignity to the franchise. Star Wars: The Force Unleashed, the newest video game to bear the Lucas-ian seal of approval, is closer to a return to form than most, but it still comes up well short. Which winds up being almost more of a disappointment than if it had been a total train wreck.
The story takes place during the chronological gap between Revenge of the Sith and A New Hope, and it’s an official part (as opposed to a spinoff) of the Star Wars canon. You play as Galen Marek, a/k/a “Starkiller,” Darth Vader’s secret apprentice. Vader sends Starkiller out to assassinate the remaining Jedi Masters hiding on various remote planets around the galaxy like Felucia and Raxus Prime. These missions are official Empire business, part of the ongoing Jedi purge. But as will soon become clear, Vader is also testing Starkiller’s loyalty in anticipation of their battle against the real foe: Emperor Palpitene. Yes, at the outset at least, Vader is one of the good guys. It feels at times like weird fan fiction, but it’s not terrible — compared with, say, Attack of the Clones, it induces minimal eye rolling and groaning.
As you’d imagine, the gameplay focuses on Starkiller’s ability to harness the Force. You can use its telekinetic powers to fling debris at enemies, or even levitate and hurl the enemies themselves. You can switch your camera angle to follow whatever baddie you’re flinging about in order to monitor the carnage. A perfectly executed Force attack can be incredibly satisfying — it’s how you imagined Luke felt in tapping into the Force when you saw A New Hope for the first time. (I should mention that I played the Xbox 360 version; I did not try out the Wii version’s motion-sensitive controls.)
The bad news is that those perfectly executed Force attacks are rare. The Force can be used only on something you’re targeting, and that’s something you don’t control. The targeting square appears on its own, indicating that you’ll be able to manipulate that object. So, what causes the target to appear? It doesn’t always correspond to what Starkiller is facing, or even to what’s on screen. You’ll be standing close to an object — or an enemy — that you’re hoping to grab and throw and then find yourself holding something nowhere near you, and facing in the opposite direction to boot, vulnerable to attack. The camera, on the other hand, is player-controlled, and it requires constant adjustment — which can be all the more frustrating during large-scale melee battles. Combine all this with cutscenes that can’t be skipped — even if you’ve watched them before — and interminable load times and you have a game whose shortcomings are hard to overlook.
If the Force-based stuff weren’t so much fun, these myriad flaws wouldn’t rankle so much. Instead, The Force Unleashed is just good enough that you wish it were better. In that regard, it encapsulates everything we’ve seen from Lucas since Greedo shot first.