Saturday, October 31, 2009

Star Wars: The Force Unleashed

Hey look, another review that was waiting for me to finish. Since I finally finished the game, I suppose I'll finish the review now.

I'd wager just about everyone knows the story of Star Wars, at least as told in the movies. Episodes I - III tell of a young boy, literally born from the force of good, who is born in poverty and struggles to fight for what's right and good as he grows up; and of a man of evil, who transforms a republic into an empire with himself as the head, brings about war and dominance, and corrupts and twists the young man to become his servant. Episodes IV - VI focus on that formerly good young man's son, who dedicates his life fighting the evil of the emperor and his father, in the end redeeming his father from evil.

There's a time between Episodes III and IV that we don't know a lot about. The way the movies are set, we don't need to know much about them, as we see at the end of Episode III the seeds of the story that will be picked up right where it left off in Episode IV 28 years earlier. (That's right, kids — Episode IV came out first. Oh, and let's just be clear: Greedo never fired a shot.) But it's probably safe to assume Vader didn't sit on his hands for 17 years waiting for his kids to grow up and kill his boss.

The Force Unleashed inserts a story into this time frame. Darth Vader, while on his Jedi genocide mission for his emperor, finds that one of his victims has a son who is strong in the Force. After killing the Jedi, Vader takes the little boy and raises him to be his own apprentice, secretly. His goal is to use this apprentice to overthrow the emperor (it's a Sith thing, it's what they do), and to prepare him for this task, he trains him to be a powerful combatant. Which means, basically, you get to kick butt with the Force.

One of the main selling points in The Force Unleashed is its blending of technologies to create a realistic environment. The Digital Molecular Matter engine is in play so that wood splinters, glass shatters, and metal warps; and the Euphoria engine is working so when you pick up an Imperial trooper and fling him through the air, he will panic and attempt to grab on to anything he can to stop from flying around. The result is a fairly realistic feel to the environment. You know, considering it's in a galaxy far, far away and you're causing Imperial troops to fly through glass and wood with the controlling power of the universe.

The premise of the gameplay is solid. I mean, who wouldn't want to be an awesome, Force-wielding mercenary? Sure, you've seen Yoda use the Force to pick an X-Wing up out of a swamp, but this trailer shows the potential scale LucasArts was going for, where the apprentice is seen pulling an Imperial Star Destroyer out of the sky.

The problem is, they seemed to spend the rest of the game making sure you couldn't just waltz through and kick butt with the Force. Enemies have shields that resist the Force, others have weapons that effectively ignore Force shields and lightsaber blocks, and what should be the most common of enemies wield sticks and staffs that hold their own against a lightsaber. In other words, they nerfed the Force.

Additionally, your character is extra-nerfed, as well. Every hit will knock him off-balance or down enough to leave him vulnerable to a number of other attacks while he sobers up — on the harder difficulty settings, this often means one or two hits (and the combo of follow-up attacks received before you can even block, let alone fight back) are enough to do you in. Enemies will, of course, have little difficulty breaking out of any multi-hit combo you try to inflict on them in return, with their Force-resistant sticks and armor.

Not to mention this poor, tormented soul whines like a farm boy pining for a set of power converters — but I'm starting to accept that as standard fare for a Star Wars story.

The boss fights are an exercise in frustration and patience. Usually, there's a certain move or trick that tends to work better than anything else, but usually it's just a matter of evading or racing one unblockable attack after another until you eventually wear the boss down to a quick-time event to finish him off. Those finishing events do add a nice touch of cinematic flair, plus a little bit of cool-down after an intense fight, but they do leave me wondering, "Why couldn't I have pulled all those kick-butt moves on him during the last 10 minutes of combat?"

The story itself isn't bad. It actually does a pretty decent job of fitting right in with the movies, including what I consider the "default" ending. (You have two choices at the end, resulting in a "light side" and "dark side" ending, and the way the camera is positioned at the time you make the choice, it pretty much has you aimed straight down one path and almost completely hides the other.) For as cheesy as it is in some respects, it's not at all out of character for Star Wars — love it or leave it.

The game play, though, leaves a lot to be desired. It's fairly frustrating, even when you're playing at the easy levels (you don't die so much, but you still spend an unreasonable amount of time getting knocked down and waiting to stand back up). It's hard to shake the feeling that you're fighting with both midichlorians tied behind your back.

Still, I slogged through it, because there were achievements to be had. And it's not like I'm any stranger to frustration.

I did pick up the Jedi Temple mission pack when it went on "sale" as a "Deal of the Week". It was extremely short. I played through the mission in a half hour on the hardest difficulty, and because (maddeningly) the difficulty completion achievements don't stack, I played through three more times on each of the lesser difficulties. By the end of two hours, I had played through it four times and completed all achievements. I haven't had any interest in the $10 Tatooine mission DLC.

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