Explore the untold story of Darth Vader’s secret apprentice.
PC Release: November 3, 2009
By Ian Coppock
I don’t know what to make of the Star Wars franchise these days. It seems to be floating in a state of limbo, between the acquisition of Lucasfilm by Disney and the plethora of new film, television and games we can expect to see in 2014. My feelings on this are many, and conflicting. On one hand, I’m overjoyed that George Lucas is being kept as far away from Star Wars as possible, after those god-awful prequels. But, giving it to Disney? Hmm. It’s also no big secret that the last few years of Star Wars video games have been shit, so to boost your spirits, I decided to sift through the feces and find the least crappy Star Wars game of recent years. Let’s go!
The Force Unleashed is its own premise; wield ridiculously overcharged Force powers in a game world of impressive destructive potential. The story starts off just after Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, when the Jedi have been wiped out and Emperor Palpatine has ascended to power.
Darth Vader, on a mission to destroy the last of the Jedi, does just that in the game’s prologue. He leads a massive imperial fleet to the Wookie homeworld of Kashyyyk, all in pursuit of one last Jedi.
As expected, Vader delivers this rogue Jedi a thorough ass-beating, and discovers that he has a tiny son, strong in the Force. Vader kidnaps the boy and secrets him away from everyone, to raise him as his own apprentice.
Years on, the apprentice, codenamed Starkiller, has become Darth Vader’s ultimate secret weapon, hunting down and killing Vader’s enemies. Because the Sith code forbids more than two Sith at any time, Starkiller is also hidden from Palpatine, Vader’s unsuspecting master. Vader bears a great deal of anger for essentially being duped into killing his wife and donning that uncomfortable life support suit, and sends Starkiller off on Jedi-hunting missions to prepare him for the day when they can murder the Emperor together.
As Starkiller, you have an impressive repertoire of Force powers and lightsaber moves at your disposal. The game does a good job of making you feel like a badass from the get-go, yet increasing your power substantially as the game goes on. His Force tricks aren’t anything like the movies, though; Starkiller can unleash hurricane-force blasts of energy, fry entire battalions of foes with lightning, and even throw his lightsaber like a boomerang.
As a tool of the dark side, your mission is to hunt down and kill the Jedi who escaped the wrath of the Empire. Starkiller visits a handful of neato worlds and locations in pursuit of his goal. Most times, each of his Jedi targets have raised up their own cadre of baddies for you to fight against, making the game more complicated than a series of lightsaber duels. Starkiller’s missions also bring him into conflict with the Empire, forcing him to kill legions of stormtroopers.
As for the character itself, well, I’m torn once again. Starkiller is not the vehicle of pure hatred and anguish one would expect from being raised by someone like Darth Vader. He’s emo, definitely, but not full dark side. The character is curt, impatient, but not impolite, forming friendships with his servitors instead of treating them like… well… servitors. He’s definitely more angry and ferocious in-game, where you must navigate giant, gorgeous environments to reach your targets and escape before anyone notices.
The supporting cast of characters includes Juno Eclipse, Starkiller’s cold, capable pilot, and PROXY, a darkly humorous war droid that serves as Starkiller’s lightsaber trainer, and who has vowed to kill him when he least expects it.
This weird trio sets off to do Vader’s bidding, off the grid and in the shadows.
The gameplay in The Force Unleashed comprises traveling on strange, hostile worlds, fighting through legions of enemies and then killing your target in an ultimate lightsaber duel. While a repetitive game design feature in and of itself, the variety of levels and enemies was great enough to keep my interest held for the entire game. Starkiller travels from space stations to mushroom forests to massive worldwide junkyards, all the while battling hordes of stormtroopers, droids, alien warriors and other threats.
Though the gameplay and arrangements of enemies get repetitive, this game’s diversity lies primarily in your options for dealing with them. Starkiller can sweep enemies away with a big push, fry them to death with Force lightning, or simply cut everyone to ribbons with his lightsaber. The proliferation of moves and combos can generate starkly different playstyles. My brother Grayson, who is something of a Force Unleashed afficionado, utilizes a refined style of dodging, lightsaber throws and pushing, whereas I, with far less patience, just cut shit.
Enemies in the game world are more intelligent than your standard baddies, but far less than LucasArts promised. While they do have an impressive sense of self-preservation, dodging your moves and even running away when injured, they still make the same ol’ reliable AI mistakes we all know and love, like sprinting into walls and off of cliffs. As you might imagine, this makes the game very exploitable.
Most of the game’s levels end with a boss fight, and most of those are lightsaber duels. To the game’s credit, these are epic; the two foes face off in an arena-like setting, and you’ll have to dance with some serious shit if you want to make it out of the tougher fights alive. One Jedi, a rather insane one, will summon giant Force-powered droids to pummel you to death, while another can turn invisible and stab you from behind when you least expect it. So level up.
There is quite a bit more to Starkiller’s journey than killing Jedi. I can’t spoil, but the game does, as promised, do a pretty good job of linking the two trilogies together. This game is also the origin story of the Rebel Alliance seen in the original movies, believe it or not, and it’s compelling fare. More so than most other critics seemed to believe. Maybe my Star Wars expectations were watered down by Hayden Christensen’s so-called “acting”, but I think this game is good. Very good. Certainly the best game LucasArts produced in its twilight years. The characters evolve, the context changes, and there are a couple of shocking plot twists that drive the ante up further.
From what I understand, the biggest sticking point critics had with this game was that Starkiller couldn’t block enough laser bolts with his lightsaber. Fortunately, there’s this magical menu called “upgrades” where you can (gasp) make Starkiller block more laser bolts! Knock yourself out, son!
The game’s level design is decent, though short of excellent. Environments are either blandly straightforward or packed with so many twists and empty hallways that you’ll lose all hope of getting where you need to go.
The game is, though, very pretty, and so did a good job of mitigating my frustration with the level design. Every planet and area you visit, from the half-built Cloud City to the mushroom jungles of Felucia, packs impressive color and detail. Your eyes will not get bored, I can wager you that.
The game does get lazy with giving you new places to visit. More than once I found myself visiting the same planet after [SPOILER REDACTED] and while the circumstances may have changed, the basic level and area had not. I don’t expect everything to be completely different but this game only has nine levels.
Overall, Star Wars fans and destructo-maniacs could do a lot worse than The Force Unleashed. I play this game every couple years or so and still enjoy it about as much. It has a good story; not spectacular, but worth your time, and it ties together the two sets of movies well. I’m not sure where the future of Star Wars games lies, but I do know that this game was a pretty epic swan song for LucasArts. The Steam version of the game contains a few bonus levels extending Starkiller’s hunt for the Jedi. They’re not great, but they’re there, and they amp up his dark force powers even more.
Now; having said that this game is reasonably fun and has a better story than I’d expected, I have to temper my praise with a few strong provisos. The PC port of this game is less than stellar. It’s locked at 30 frames per second, and I had it crash on me more than once. Whoever ported this thing also did an absolute shit job at binding the keys, and you cannot change the bindings. It takes some getting used to, so I’d recommend a gamepad if you have one.
The legacy of The Force Unleashed has also been tarnished by its sequel, The Force Unleashed II. Released in the fall of 2010, The Force Unleashed II is one of the worst games LucasArts has ever made. The game could be completed in about four hours and felt desperately unfinished throughout the production. It contained a dopey, embryonic plot that was as gratuitous as it was brief. The game looked beautiful in its day, but its formulaic gameplay and critically short length left visuals its sole redeeming quality.
Luckily, this is not a world where original games are judged by their sequels, or one where gamepads are not an option for PC gamers. Fans who enjoy Star Wars narratives, hack’n’slash gameplay, and overcharged Force powers are in for a treat with The Force Unleashed. It’s on sale frequently, and everyone should taste the staying power of LucasArts’ last good game.
You can buy Star Wars: The Force Unleashed – Ultimate Sith Edition here.
Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.