sunnuntai 8. toukokuuta 2011

REVIEW - Star Wars: The Force Unleashed (2008)

GENRE(S): Action
RELEASED: September 2008
DEVELOPER(S): n-Space (DS), Aspyr Media (MAC, PC), Krome Studios (PS2, PSP, Wii), LucasArts (PS3, X360)
PLAYERS: 1-4 (PSP), 1-2 (Wii)

The fastest- and best-selling video game in the Star Wars franchise. Four years in development, the ultimate goal of reviving and rebooting Star Wars as a traditional, straightforward action game. A series of video and demo material that blew some heads off. A game in which you control perhaps the most potential, diverse, powerful and volatile warrior trained in the ways of the Force ever seen in the whole franchise. A 3D playfield allowing you to pull off some amazing combat stunts some of which you couldn't even dream of seeing in the movies. A cinematic atmosphere as close to classic Star Wars as it can possibly get. With all these things going for Star Wars: The Force Unleashed, how can it be that the game is one of the most epic disappointments of the last decade?

You were supposed to bring balance to the Force!

Samuel Witwer : Starkiller / Emperor Palpatine
Nathalie Cox : Captain Juno Eclipse
David W. Collins : PROXY
Cully Fredricksen : General Rahm Kota
Adrienne Wilkinson : Maris Brood
Susan Eisenberg : Shaak Ti
Matt Sloan : Darth Vader
Catherine Taber : Princess Leia Organa
Jimmy Smits : Bail Organa
Tom Kane : Captain Ozzik Sturn / Kento Marek / Lobot / Imperial Officer

Some years after abandoning his past life as Jedi Knight Anakin Skywalker, the Sith Lord Darth Vader is still on the hunt for surviving Jedi. During an invasion of a secret Jedi base on Kashyyyk, he finds a young boy who is amazingly strong in the Force. Vader takes the boy under his wing as a secret apprentice, who he rechristens Starkiller. Vader has Starkiller finish his own work as the obliterator of the Jedi order and plans to use him to assassinate the Emperor and rule the galaxy. However, Starkiller's alignment with the Dark Side of the Force is not quite as strong as Vader thinks.

It's probably good to inform you at this point that the reviewed version is the Ultimate Sith Edition of the game, which includes two extra missions that were previously available only as DLC, and one brand new mission. These extra missions take place in locations seen in the movies and I'll tell you more about them later on in the review. Spoilers are nearly inevitable, so if you're not into them, I suggest you take good care of what and what not to read.

I played the demo when it came out, it was intriguing, and I made a vow to get The Force Unleashed, if I had some extra money at some point. Well, even if I did have some extra money, great games kept coming, critics bashed the full version of The Force Unleashed to the point of calling it the worst game of the year, and although I didn't believe 'em, the game was always at the end of my list of must-buy games - but it WAS on that list, and that's an accomplishment in itself. I couldn't accept the fact that most critics thought there was something very wrong with it. The genre was so close to my heart, not to mention the theme. Well, the fact that they're so close to my heart is the exact reason why on my worst days I nearly downright despise The Force Unleashed (good thing I didn't write this review on one of those days). LucasArts could've achieved so much with this game - instead, they let out a flawed action drivel that relies a bit too much on its cinematic value.

Just one AT? Come on.
I don't think The Force Unleashed is a completely lost cause, it has a good story for example; it's simply such a disappointing gameplay experience in contrast to all of my high expectations, that I can't help unleashing some forceful rage on it. I'm very much reminded of Final Fantasy XIII, in just about every way; here we have a game that looks simply awesome, has features that sound magnificent on paper, and it's part of an epic franchise that sells itself, but as a final product, it falls flat within hours and doesn't really even offer up good excuses for its shortcomings. It feels like the developers just didn't care for some of the most important core aspects - well, let's face it: they could've had Starkiller hunting down a group of Care Bears, and the game would've still sold like milk. Who cares what the gameplay's like? It's all in the numbers for some folk. No wonder so many small game studios rose to absolute prominence during the last decade - they really struggled to make ends meet, and they cared about their games instead of just the commercial value of the franchise and the flashiest promos money could buy.

OK, let's start picking this bastard apart. First up, the audiovisuals, that call for some extremely lengthy loading times (I sincerely hope that's the excuse). It's no secret that the game looks and sounds magnificent. The graphics are top-of-the-heap, what I can't quite stomach though is the enemies' reaction to a hit from a lightsaber. It's supposed to sever limbs, not to work as a club or mace that simply pushes enemies back and off their feet. What's most important is that for the most part, the game looks exactly what a Star Wars game is supposed to look like. The cutscenes have a similar cinematic style to that of the movies, and the few familiar characters move and act in the exact ways they should. Darth Vader's character model in particular is simply amazing, it really feels like we're watching the real deal... until he speaks. The voice acting, throughout the line, is good. No, it's better than good - it's incredible; but, anyone who says Matt Sloan sounds exactly like James Earl Jones needs to check their statement a few times. It's a good impression, I'll give him that, but an impression is all it is; any true Star Wars fan will hear the disturbing difference right away. There is also a small detail that bothers me: even without his helmet, Vader speaks in his cyborg voice. Sam Witwer, who does Starkiller's voice, does an OK additional job as Palpatine. Cat Taber makes the most believable impression as Leia. Jimmy Smits is the only actor to reprise his role from the movies.

The absolutely bombastic soundtrack of the game is partially based on the good old John Williams archive, but the two men that are credited for the whole new music are LucasArts' Jesse Harlin and former LucasArts employee, freelancer Mark Griskey, both of whom have plenty of prior experience in contributing to the Star Wars franchise, including work on games such as Star Wars: Obi-Wan, Star Wars: Racer Revenge, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II - The Sith Lords, Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith and Star Wars: Republic Commando. Like I said, the game looks and sounds magnificent - so magnificent that you can't resist it, no matter what anyone says. Well, the truth ain't kind.

I spent about 20 minutes trying to come up with one word that says it all about The Force Unleashed to impatient readers (I knew this was going to be quite a write-up), and it's a word that I don't use often: lukewarm. It's not total crap, it's definitely not good in comparison to all the great third-person action games of its time - it's caught in the absolute middle. Let's go over the basics first, you'll need them later.

This trooper just said The Phantom Menace is
his favourite Star Wars movie. I've gripped
people for less.
The game is indeed a very typical, modern, straightforward third-person action game in which success is very much based on your character's knowledge of the Force. Sure, there are all kinds of tricks you can do with the lightsaber, but let me just say that there are tons of enemies in this game and you'll spend 95% of the time completely surrounded by them - if you even try to get by with just your saber, you're toast in under 30 seconds in almost any normal situation of the game. In addition to combat, you need to execute different tasks and manipulate the environment all the time using the Force. The array of different talents in this game is very vast and neat, one of the best aspects of the game, as well as the fact that you have Sith skills at your disposal. There's the Force Grip - the stranglehold used by Vader in the movies - which can be used to grab just about anything in the environment to your advantage. There's Palpatine's Force Lightning, a devastating personal space-maker known as Force Repulse, the Force Push and Saber Throw as seen in many games thus far, and finally, a Lightning Shield, which creates a defensive orb around Starkiller and electrifies his melee attacks, making them somewhat stronger.

The game consists of several missions in less intriguing, repetitive levels. These levels aren't too interesting to begin with, and there aren't a lot of them. You actually visit most places twice during the game. This isn't that much of a concern, really, and the game picks up a little tempo after the first couple of levels, which are long and tedious as hell; you don't really have to stick around in the later levels long enough to figure out how repetitive they are. You gain experience constantly in this game through combat. The flashier the moves, the more you get Force Points (EXP), as you might have guessed - and why? 'Cause you've seen it before. There are very few things in The Force Unleashed that you haven't. Except the game having you kill a whole army of Wookiees right in the beginning, and even awarding you a Trophy/Achievement after killing 200 of those furry warriors everyone loves. That's just pure evil.

You get one of each three FP spheres once you level up: Talent, Power and Combo. Combo explains itself; you may assign these red spheres any way you wish to gain new melee attacks. Power lets you upgrade your basic Force magic; you learn the spells during the storyline. Talent allows you to assign Starkiller's attributes however you wish, from health and strength to vitality and deflecting skills. What's cool is that you can reset your assigned points at any time, if you notice that something vital is missing from your repertoire. These spheres are also gained by taking the time to conquer bonus objectives in each mission, and found in digital containers called Jedi Holocrons. All of the stages have five to 15 of them, either well-hidden or just tucked in some irrelevant corner you won't necessarily even notice if you're just running through the game. You can find all sorts of shit in these Holocrons, such as tons of additional FP, crystals which perk or colour up your lightsaber, and finally, extra costumes... so, they're like boxes of chocolates. You never know what you're gonna get - and sometimes, that ain't such a good thing. An extra costume or a golden hue for your lightsaber don't call for a whole lot of celebration when you're dying for a nice dose of FP.

There are also Sith Holocrons which are usually placed in the fields of the most heated battles. These red pyramid forms give you temporary perks for battle (perhaps a bit too temporary), such as increased damage, invincibility, and unlimited Force energy. My favourite's Health Drain Aura, which lets you drain health from enemies just by passing them by.

A good look at our antihero before...
I pretty much covered all the bases here, so let's move forward to all that is wrong with The Force Unleashed. This time, I made a simple list of ten things that really bother me about the game besides the lackluster level design and extreme loading times. Most of it's about the controls, but there are many specific things I didn't want to leave unmentioned, and if I had just blurted all of them out in succession, I would've probably just confused you. I'm not saying that some of these quirks wouldn't be part of even some of the genre's top games, but I must say I've never seen them manifest and come together quite like they do in The Force Unleashed. At least, not in a long time, not in a current-generation game that is even remotely playable. There's an annoyance rating after each entry, with * being the least annoying nuisance and ***** being something abysmal which you just have to deal with if you want to see this story to an end.

1. You can skip the FMV's, but not the in-game cutscenes or conversations. *
2. The camera turns extremely slowly, and it's always in the wrong place at the wrong time. You're very easily trapped in corners, with no idea how Starkiller's doing back there. *****
3. The Force Grip controls are equally slow, and relatively tough to learn to use in combat - the lock-on system's a total bitch. Double all this with the last entry, and we've got ourselves a whole heap of trouble. *****
4. Starkiller pauses after EACH action, even if he's just scratching his ass, and he doesn't react to quick button presses during this pause at all. Let me paint a picture: you kick someone's ass with a quick combo, and there are shots coming from your back. You turn to deflect them, but you cannot do that before giving Starkiller his little beauty rest. You need to learn the awkward timing, or be able to deal with life as cannon fodder. It's amazing how much valuable momentum you lose in that short time. And by the way, there's a pause after every time Starkiller kips up from the ground, too. *****
5. The double jump simply sucks. You need to do the second jump at one or two absolutely correct time windows, or you'll miss it. How many times have I seen the bottom of a bottomless pit because of this, I wonder...? Luckily Starkiller has an airdash, which might sometimes save you. ****
6. I complain about the existence of invisible walls a lot, and this game is out to prove that you need them. A few miscalculated jumps, a couple of slips from the edge of a cliff (even because of a combo that stretches out a bit too far), and way too fucking many enemies unceremoniously pushing me down to toxic waste (from the back!), later, I'd say this is a problem. Not a very common one, but definitely a problem. ***
7. The tutorials and subtitles magically disappear randomly before you can read half of them. **
8. Stacking stuff or otherwise organizing the environment with the Force Grip, even in total peace, is almost impossible. The debris is sensitive to your touch, even after you've double-checked that you stacked firmly and just right, and very often the awkward control interprets your tense push of the left analog stick so that you want to throw the item as far as you possibly can, instead of wanting to lower it gently to the ground. You don't need to do this very often, and you usually need to consort to this kind of trickery only if you're going for all the Holocrons. ***
9. Simply put, well-placed checkpoints are for sissies. Of course you need to prove your skills in the same five-minute fight even if you passed it already, again and again and again and again! You were just lucky on the past dozen occasions! *****
10. All in all, the game lacks dynamics that are very much expected from a third-person action game in this day and age, and especially one that stars an apprentice of the Force! This is something like: ************!!!

Seriously, when you've got a game with this much fail-safe hype behind it, and an intro sequence that'll have your brains dripping out of your ears, how can you not be disappointed in The Force Unleashed? OK, so you like the game - just liking the game is not enough! It was supposed to be GREAT! It was supposed to be THE Star Wars game of all time, and a totally fresh experience as both a Star Wars game and an action game. You can forget about THE Star Wars game of all time when Knights of the Old Republic exists, and it's definitely not that fresh, and it's really flawed. I could use all my fingers on both hands to list better games in the action genre released in the past eight years in 20 seconds; that's just not right, damn it - this game was the Chosen One! I think I've said every negative I can come up with, so let's take a look at the extras that come with the Ultimate Sith Edition, and the challenges of the game, before ending this on a bit higher note out of respect for the franchise, okay?

...And the Ultimate Sith Edition version of after.
The first DLC is Jedi Temple, set in the ruins of the very same Jedi Temple on Coruscant in the prequel trilogy. Starkiller travels there in search of information of his long-dead father in between the events of Act 2 in the game. This is a fair enough mission with a lot of seemingly endless battles, and seven new Trophies. It feels a bit detached from the game, but so do all of the DLC packs, since you cannot even import your stats from the retail - you have most skills from the beginning, which renders the Holocrons useless. Not as useless as in the Infinities duo of DLC, though, in which you are a Sith Lord and have absolutely all talents from the beginning. Still, those Holocrons can be found everywhere. Go figure. The only joy they bring is restoration of health and Force energy.

Warning: a little bit of SPOILERS abound! Despite being a walk in the park thanks to the maximum abilities, and having absolutely no use for the Holocrons, the Infinities DLC is the shite. I really enjoyed the idea behind these two bundles of as much joy as an old-school Star Wars fan can get out of The Force Unleashed after beating the retail. You can forget all about yet another rehash of the old Star Wars storyline, the idea behind Infinities is to provide an alternative storyline and ending to the Star Wars saga. Even the title crawls are similar to those of the movies, but there are notable, very cool changes to their content. In the Infinities version of the canon, Starkiller becomes Palpatine's apprentice in the end of The Force Unleashed, and by the time of Episode IV (renamed "A Fragile Hope"), he has fully taken Darth Vader's place as Palpatine's right-hand man. Since he managed to kill Vader, he is far more powerful than any Jedi or Sith out there; that's why I'm wondering why Palpatine still treats him like shit. If he's so God damn omnipotent with the Force, he should sense that 'Killer could kick his ass from Alderaan to Naboo in two minutes. Well, we all know Palpatine's an arrogant asshole (and I love the way the game brought even more depth into his evil ways!), so let's let him laugh that nasal cackle of his while he has the chance. There are five new Trophies in both Infinities packs: two Bronzes, two Silvers, and one Gold, to further ensure high sales. Both missions take about an hour to complete.

A Fragile Hope begins with R2-D2 and C-3PO crashlanding on Tatooine. Starkiller meets up with Jabba the Hutt and gets the information on the missing droids he seeks, but also a dose of Jabba's well-known hospitality towards visitors. Starkiller travels to Mos Eisley to find that the droids are now in the possession of a local farmer and a legendary Jedi Knight who's been on Starkiller's hitlist for years. OK, so once again, the Holocrons are there for absolutely nothing, so you can simply run through this mission, like the next one, but it'll be a good run if you have any sense for nostalgia. The storyline twists are quite ridiculous, but I couldn't come up with a better way to bring in classic characters, locations and atmosphere than to create an alternative timeline to the whole thing. I also like the way Starkiller's character is written; he's definitely pure evil, rotten to the core, but he still obviously has a very faint glint of goodness in him - possibly his Jedi heritage. However, I don't get the character's audiovisual design; why does he look and sound like Darth Vader, Jr.? Vader needs that cyborg suit and voice box to survive, but why does Starkiller need them? I liked his "naked" mirror version - the Darth Maul-ish look - in the Jedi Temple DLC more, they should've used that. One more peeve is about Obi-Wan Kenobi. Christ alive, that man is easy to kill. After all this time I've looked up to him, he turns out to be a damn pushover. Doesn't feel too good to QT him to a very violent death (TWICE!), either.

Wrath of the Empire - standing in for Episode V - wraps up Infinities, which means there is no alternative for Return of the Jedi. Some people have criticized this, but keep in mind: Return of the Jedi centers around Luke Skywalker's final confrontation with his father, which would never have happened if Starkiller had indeed killed Darth Vader. "Heureka"...? After the murder of Obi-Wan Kenobi, Starkiller has become Luke Skywalker's target, and vice versa. The final battle between Starkiller and Luke takes place during the battle of Hoth and your mission is to track Luke's movements, meaning you'll be coming face to face with a pack of angry wampas in their home caves and raising some hell in Echo Base. This is my favourite mission out of all the additional content, perhaps even the whole game - no surprise there, since I've always wanted to take Luke to school and the mission draws inspiration from my favourite Star Wars movie. The only thing wrong with it is that it calls for a conclusion, perhaps not anything remotely resembling Return of the Jedi, but something.

Showing the bastard son of Skywalker how to
properly unleash the Force.
The DLC is easy, and the game isn't that hard on Sith Warrior (Medium) difficulty either. Of course, the Trophies that were patched in when the Ultimate Sith Edition came along call for some grit in the form of Trophies awarded for beating the game on the higher difficulty levels. Most of the other Trophies scream out "The Whores Unleashed", as they are based on quantity rather than quality. "Kill xxx enemies with x", et cetera. Beating the game once takes about 11 hours, and there are two different endings, one of which is in conjunction with the DLC and one which paves the way to the actual sequel - since there's no karmic system, it's not like Knights of the Old Republic in which every decision counted, it's just that one single decision you need to make in the end of the game which counts. In addition to beating the game and unleashing the Force in all the ways you can, you need to find all the Holocrons and conquer the increasingly tough Training Room in given time to reach the Platinum. There is much to do in the retail if you're interested. On a sad note, you need to beat Jedi Temple on all difficulties to get all of the Trophies from that pack; beating it on Sith Warrior won't award you the Trophy for Apprentice (Easy) - as the retail does, for example! That's just horseshit, a waste of the players' time.

I'm interested enough to beat the game with both endings, but it doesn't have enough steam to summon me to a Platinum run. The conclusive rating might be a little provocative to some; after all, Star Wars: The Force Unleashed is a decent game. However, it would've been better if it was released years before it actually was. In this sense, it reminds me a lot of the first Assassin's Creed game. It's one of the more decent Star Wars games, too, but bearing all the high expectations and today's competition in mind, it's flat level design and flaws in gameplay flash bloodred before my eyes. It's a must-have for Star Wars fans, but mostly those who aren't otherwise too familiar with third-person action.

SOUND : 9.2


GameRankings: 59.56% (DS), 61.00% (PC), 68.80% (PS2), 72.69% (PS3), 72.50% (PS3 U.S.E.), 69.44% (PSP), 73.88% (X360), 74.17% (X360 U.S.E.), 73.56% (Wii)

Ultimate Sith Edition was first released on the PC, as the first and only port on the platform.

Actors Sam Witwer, Nathalie Cox, Cully Fredricksen and Adrienne Wilkinson lent their likenesses to the characters of Starkiller, Juno Eclipse, Rahm Kota and Maris Brood.

Matt Sloan produces a series of viral videos entitled Chad Vader, which runs on YouTube, and in which he portrays Darth Vader's younger brother that runs a store. Another actor named Matt Sloan plays Jedi Master Plo Koon in Episodes II and III, and he was also an animatronics technician for the droids in those two movies.

Starkiller's Sith name is derived from Annakin Starkiller, who was the main protagonist in George Lucas' early draft for Episode IV. As all Star Wars fans know, the name "Annakin" resurfaced in Episode VI as "Anakin", Darth Vader's given name.

Shaak Ti was killed in the original script of Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith by General Grievous, but since the scene was cut from the final footage, she could be used as a boss in The Force Unleashed.

While aboard Vader's research ship, Starkiller is referred to as "Subject 1138". George Lucas' directorial debut was a science fiction movie named THX 1138, which has been referenced in almost every Lucasfilm/LucasArts product.

Jar Jar Binks is frozen in carbonite in Ozzik Sturn's trophy room.

Contributor of "I have a bad feeling about this.": Juno Eclipse.

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