Sometimes the sentiment attached to certain games truly baffles me. Obviously we all have our own individual opinions and that’s ok, and there’s very little one can say objectively about games when we recount and review our experiences with a given game. And yet, occasionally you get a game in front of you that you simply cannot fathom how people have found a way to enjoy. With that in mind, let’s have a natter about Star Wars: The Force Unleashed, and explore what it does wrong and why some folk still hold a soft spot for it.
Star Wars: The Force Unleashed
(iOS, NDS, PC, PS2, PS3, PSP, Wii, Xbox 360 [reviewed])
Released Sep 2008 | Developed / Published: LucasArts
Genre: Hack-and-slash | HLTB: 8 hours
I think when discussing The Force Unleashed, it’s important to remember the context into which it was released. Obviously there are a veritable glut of Star Wars video games, and an awful lot of them are rubbish. That’s just the way when it comes to strategies based around mass production and release; by its very nature you’re going to get a lot of guff thrown out into the world. The mid-to-late aughts was also an era of gaming during which the paradigm of game development and publishing was in the beginning stages of a metamorphosis as creation and release models were starting to metastasize into forms we might recognize today. 2008 was still in those halcyon days before the rise of the modern AAA publishing model and the proliferation of Ubisoft-style ‘busywork’ games or live service models, but there were still of course plenty of developers cribbing ideas off one another in order to make their games immediately sellable, regardless of the level of overuse of the adapted elements. God of War and Devil May Cry’s reinvention of the hack-and-slash genre into a stylish, slick, and exciting way to build linear single-player experiences was still an influential force in game design, with plenty of releases using, adapting, or sometimes simple clumsily lifting and repurposing game elements from these 2 parent franchises.
So it was into this environment which The Force Unleashed emerged. While we’ve discussed a small handful of great Star Wars games here before, they were still few and far between. A key thing The Force Unleashed offered which helped it stand out here was its accessibility. When we consider the contemporary good Star Wars content, much of it is limited by availability, with many of the best options stuck on the PC or Xbox. In contrast, The Force Unleashed released on practically everything with a screen, and included both older consoles and the then nascent 7th console generation, meaning almost everyone could access it. It also made a point of adopting and using elements of the ever-popular modern hack-and-slash, placing itself amongst the rarified company of God of War and Devil May Cry. When you consider that before it there simply weren’t any other stylish lightsaber fighters then its success and its resonance with fans begins to make a lot of sense. While titles like Knights of the Old Republic and the Jedi Knight franchise did let you play as everyone’s favourite magic space monks, they’re not exactly exhilarating, and as good as the Battlefront duology and Republic Commando are, they eschew any chance to play as a Jedi and you can’t blame anyone who wanted the chance to address that.
The stage was set for The Force Unleashed to be the best Star Wars game in years, so why don’t I like it? The answer is, unfortunately, that it fails in myriad ways. Crucially it delivers neither good gameplay nor a satisfying narrative and as a bonus slap in the face it represents a dreadful discarding of Star Wars lore with no good purpose behind the decision to do so.
It’s probably easiest to start with the gameplay, so let’s begin there. As I mentioned, The Force Unleashed attempts to place itself alongside other, significantly better hack-and-slash games, but the key difference between it and its contemporaries is a lack of both style and substance. The rudiments are in place: by timing your presses of the attack button you can unleashed a range of melee combos, and the attack can also be combined with some of the Force powers our main protagonist, Starkiller (yes, you can indeed cut yourself on the edge here,) can learn during his journey. However, I’d be hard pressed to say LucasArts got the foundations right, and that’s the first damning issue. While other games can get away with a single attack button, the best examples of the hack-and-slash games pack tons of variety to keep the player entertained, such as different weapons. The Force Unleashed however never changes Starkiller’s weapon, so you’re always stuck with the ‘saber and the same basic attacks and combos for the entirety of the game. There are some unlockable extra attacks you can grab as your progress but they’re no more effective than your starting tools so it begs the question of why you would try them. The result is melee combat that falls into a rut.
Of course, you do get to switch it up a bit with Force powers. The Force Unleashed equips our grumpy boy protagonist with a relatively cookie-cutter collection of arcane casts. The ever-trusty classic Force push is a starting ability, but along the journey Starkiller also learns to throw his lightsaber, and to do the old Palpatine special by firing bolts of lightning from his fingertips. These, along with ‘Impulse’, a kind of 360° push, form the bulk of your options as far as the infinite power of the Force goes. The problem that arises for them is strikingly similar to that of the game’s melee combat; namely, that they’re quite boring and impactless. They, like the ‘saber swinging, are marred by poor input lag, with Starkiller sometimes taking a solid second to register what you’re trying to do which is not great when you’re being swarmed by a bunch of enemies. Any discussion of The Force Unleashed’s Force powers would be incomplete without a mention of the game’s signature Grip power, which allows Starkiller to pick up both enemies and many bits of scenery and move them around freely in 3D space. It’s an impressive addition to be sure but it belies the true nature of The Force Unleashed as basically being a glorified tech demo to show off its physics engine. Sometimes the game expects you to use this to solve puzzles, but it’s finicky and imprecise, with the solution often feeling fragile and subject to the whim of the engine.
These powers (and your lightsaber) can be upgraded to more effective forms though – or at least, they can in theory. The Force Unleashed evidently contains some sort of experience point system because at points the game likes to tell you you’ve leveled up and it chucks some upgrade points at you. However, for some reason as yet unfathomable to me, the game seems to hide everything about this because you don’t see (or I couldn’t find) any evidence of the experience you’re apparently gaining, and nor does it communicate the thresholds you must pass to level up. As far as decisions go this is absolutely baffling but it’s not terribly important. Regardless, at random intervals you get upgrade points to beef up your Force powers, unlock new attacks, and improve your passive stats. Still, I’m not convinced any of it actually matters; it seemed to me that despite diligently using up my upgrade points, enemies were still soaking up hits and begging my progression down. That is, until I discovered Force Lightning basically breaks the game.
Here’s the thing, right? The lightsaber in this game full on sucks. I know replicating the actual power of the ‘saber would make a game like this pointless as you carve effortlessly through everything thrown at you, but The Force Unleashed goes too far in the other direction. I don’t mind some stuff but when a guy holding a sword made of bone can block you like he’s a Jedi Grandmaster it’s hard not to roll one’s eyes. Taking thugs on up close is fraught with other issues, though. The game’s lock-on is horrific, requiring you to lock your hand in some ghastly crab-claw to use it and also play the game, but if you neglect it Starkiller will focus on slapping anything but what you want to hit or grab and you end up flailing like a loon. While you’re doing this the odds are good you’ll get hit by an explosive or an electrifying blast and get locked into a cycle of being knocked down, recovering, and getting hit again. The solution was, I found, mostly to spam lightning as it stuns most stuff long enough to get at least one combo in. Once you’ve mastered this incredibly difficult and ancient secret Sith art you’ll find that the remaining few enemies which don’t crumple to it are mostly beatable by bonking them with your Jedi wiffle bat.
You’re possibly getting the impression that The Force Unleashed isn’t very fun to play. You’re right about that, but combat isn’t all it has to offer. Really invested players can scour the levels for the hidden holocron collectibles which contain a variety of rewards. Some give you extra upgrade points, while the most appealing give you some neat cosmetic changes to your lightsaber. Occasionally you’ll find some that let you customize the attack properties of it, such as making your powers cheaper or draining health on hit, which are neat but minor alterations. It’s hard to get excited by them though when the majority contain ‘Force Points’ which, as far as I can tell, have no utility whatsoever.
I can’t believe I’ve come this far and not yet touched on the story. As mentioned, we follow the preposterously named teenage edgelord “Starkiller” (yes, I’m aware that it’s a reference to the original name for Luke Skywalker, but Lucas dropped that name for a reason. The reason is that it’s fucking stupid.) Starkiller has been raised by the galaxy’s best dad, Darth Vader, to be a Jedi hunter and assassin, and as the game begins he is dispatched across the galaxy to track down and murder survivors of Order 66. While I’m going to have to say some unkind things about the narrative, I don’t want to let a good idea go unpraised. The whole Jedi hunting shtick is a really good premise; indeed, it’s one that the old Expanded Universe made grand use of with characters like Mara Jade, imagining an Empire that required a covert Inquisition to root out survivors of their Purge. It’s even a notion that Disney have adopted into their new canon, such as in Jedi: Fallen Order. So, as a concept, The Force Unleashed has a cool idea, but the execution leaves a lot to be desired.
The thing that specifically hurts it is that it’s a deeply bland game. It’s hard to muster any excitement when the characters don’t bother to either. Everyone mumbles and grumbles their way through the torrid, stereotypical dialogue with nary a flicker of emotion. The plot moves along predictable lines – I’m aware criticizing Star Wars of all things for being predictable is a little gauche – and it’s not well-told to boot. The game is desperate to be seen as A New Hope but edgier. Starkiller is a darker Luke, a reflection of Vader’s plan for his son but more disposable. He’s accompanied by a simpering, foppish droid called PROXY, an obvious analogue to C3P0 but he’s programmed to try and kill his master in a crap recall of HK47’s murderous glee, and even Starkiller’s love interest, Juno Eclipse, is a cardboard Han Solo / Leia blend of their two primary traits of’pilot’ and ‘woman’ respectively.
I also – and this is hideously nerdy and I pre-apologize for anyone who feels compelled to read this – think it properly fucks up Star Wars lore. This is one of the most niche complaints I’ve ever made, but I love Star Wars and I especially have a strong connection to a lot of the Expanded Universe material that dominated much of my childhood reading. The game is set in the 19-year gap between the end of Revenge of the Sith and the beginning of A New Hope, which I feel like is an area of the Empire’s domination ripe for the telling of stories. This makes it all the more of a shame that The Force Unleashed neglects it and is set instead right at the end, where it has to naturally risk clashing with the immutable canon of the films. The game’s plot eventually concerns itself with the formation of the Rebel Alliance, which apparently sprung into existence fully-formed and mere weeks out from the opening crawl of A New Hope, and it of course places its characters at the dead centre of developments. Starkiller rubs shoulders with every major character involved in the Rebellion and that soon gives way to a staggering level of Mary Sue writing. The lengths the game goes to try and explain the origins of everything to do with the Rebellion alongside forcing Starkiller’s presence into it all is honestly pathetic.
In general, Starkiller’s Mary Sue tendencies know no bounds. The centrepiece of the game is also its absolute nadir. It comes late on when our erstwhile protagonist uses the Force to pull a Star Destroyer, the Empire’s capital-class ship, out of orbit and crash it down onto a planet. This was presumably done with the intention of looking cool, but it casts Starkiller as basically one of the strongest Force users ever, and begs the question of how he doesn’t single-handedly stop the Empire. I understand he needs to be strong because it makes for a more fun, cinematic game, but when it also exists within an extant narrative framework and in turn shatters that canon, one has to simply sigh and disengage.
Star Wars has always been irrevocably fused to its original trilogy. The characters here are a great example of it, with their slavish devotion to preserving a shell of A New Hope’s cast but with a paper-thin veneer of being darker and grittier to claim some imagined sense of uniqueness. While many pieces of Star Wars content position themselves in the shadow of the original trilogy, I think The Force Unleashed manages to do so with an impressive level of missing the point. It simply sucks. There’s just no way around it. I know some people might harbor some nostalgia for it, but I refuse to pretend that playing it again was anything other than tedious and painful. Its flaws are deeper than simply having aged poorly. The Force Unleashed was always bad, and we’re better off now it’s been discarded by Disney; may they never bring it back.
2/7 – POOR.
A disappointment. Best not to bother with this unless you’re desperate for a naff time.