Editor’s Note: Spoilers ahead for Star Wars: The Force Unleashed.
A Time of Change
Really, it was a perfect storm. LucasArts needed to secure Star Wars‘ future in the video game market, a fight the company began with its restructuring in 2004 and eventually lost in 2012 when Disney bought Lucasfilm and closed LucasArts’ doors for good.
Star Wars: The Force Unleashed faced an uphill battle of Clone Wars proportions at its very inception. The concept for the game was first conceived in 2004, a year before Revenge of the Sith hit theaters to conclude the Prequel Trilogy. It was a time when all of Lucasfilm was mapping out the next step for the franchise. Now that the film saga was complete, how would George Lucas’ company move the brand forward?
Naturally, they would now have to depend on the strong Expanded Universe that countless authors, artists, game developers, and animators had been building around the films all along. While the Dark Nest Trilogy and the Legacy of the Force series kept the prose fiction sector quite healthy, animated projects such as Genndy Tartakovsky’s Clone Wars, Dave Filoni’s The Clone Wars, and Family Guy‘s “Blue Harvest” secured Star Wars‘ immediate future on our screens. This time of transition also saw Dark Horse’s first dive into the Legacy era — 137 years after the Battle of Yavin — that introduced a whole new generation of heroes to comic book fans.
The video game part of the franchise, however, was in deep trouble. In 2004, the VP of Marketing at Lucasfilm, Jim Ward, was named President of LucasArts. Ward had been responsible for The Phantom Menace‘s now-infamous media blitz, which helped the film rake in over $400 million. He wished to do the same at LucasArts, which he considered a mess of a company when he was handed the keys. In 2004, LucasArts had only grossed $100 million, significantly less than its top competitor in the gaming market, Halo 2. And Ward declared himself the Rogue Leader who would put LucasArts on the map.
Of course, numbers don’t always equate to quality. From 2002 to 2004, LucasArts had entered a gaming renaissance. In the span of two years, the publisher released four well-received titles that are to this day oft-regarded as some of the finest Star Wars games ever made: Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast, Knights of the Old Republic, Jedi Knight: Jedi Academy, and Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords. All of these titles were developed by third-party studios. At that point, Raven Software, BioWare, and Obsidian were key players in LucasArts’ success. Perhaps the only big hiccup was Sony Online Entertainment’s Galaxies MMO, which didn’t quite meet the publisher’s expectations.
Ward saw the outsourcing of game development as a problem, and he sought to make the in-house game studio more efficient. He cut out most of the third-party developers and struck down LucasArts’ staff, reducing it from 450 employees to 190. Luckily, Battlefront, Knights of the Old Republic II,and Republic Commando survived the Purge. But dead, for example, were future Rogue Squadron games from Factor 5.
Although the publisher released other third-party games, such as Empire at War, Fracture, Lego Star Wars, and Mercenaries, the developer focused in on Republic Commando and The Force Unleashed. I will revisit Republic Commando in a later entry in this series, so let’s move on to The Force Unleashed.
Unleashing the Force
If for nothing else, I’ll always remember Star Wars: The Force Unleashed as the game that gave Darth Vader a badass secret apprentice and allowed me to pull a freakin’ Star Destroyer out of the sky. But what else could you expect from a game whose unofficial tagline was “kicking someone’s ass with the Force?” The Force Unleashed was nothing if not ambitious. And I will never fault a game for swinging for the fences.
The game’s story bridged the gap between the Prequel and Original Trilogies — something that hadn’t been done in the games at all up to that point (and hasn’t been since). And the bridge was built quite masterfully. Throughout the game, you see a sort of fusion between the art styles of both trilogies. The Force Unleashed was also the origin story of the Rebel Alliance, which is ultimately one of the game’s more controversial aspects. Not that it matters now that all of that canon has been booted for a new one since Disney took over.
Before LucasArts settled on Starkiller’s story, there were a lot of other ideas. (Fun fact: Luke Skywalker’s original name in early drafts of A New Hope was “Annikin Starkiller.”) Game concepts were designed around a Wookie superhero, Darth Maul (this would’ve been his official re-introduction into Star Wars continuity), a bounty hunter (later, the concept of Star Wars 1313), and several other protagonists. The studio even considered making the third entry in the Knights of the Old Republic series…
But they eventually (with Lucas’ approval) decided to follow the path of the dark side and tell Starkiller’s story. Of course, Lucas would come to regret this decision later on. Legend has it that developers weren’t even allowed to mention Starkiller’s name in his presence during the final days of LucasArts.
Before I can really analyze this game, I must mention that The Force Unleashed was designed to not only unleash the Force, but also unleash huge waves of cash into the company’s pocket. The game was to spearhead a multimedia project that also included a tie-in novel, reference book, action figures, comics books, a role-playing game supplement, and a “making of” book. And in 2008, very much due to Ward’s excellent marketing strategy, the project was successful. The Force Unleashed sold 1.5 million copies worldwide in its first week, making it the fastest-selling Star Wars and LucasArts game of all-time, despite the mixed reviews from critics. The Force had definitely been unleashed.
Who’s Scruffy Looking?
From the game’s opening, it’s obvious that no punches were pulled in the making of The Force Unleashed, as you walk around Kashyyyk massacring Wookies as Darth Vader. Although its not exactly stated when the assault on the Wookie homeworld takes place, it is undoubtedly during the Jedi Purge. After all, Vader has arrived to eliminate another Jedi.
It was a great move on LucasArts’ part to introduce the many gameplay mechanics and abilities at your disposal by allowing you to try them out with the all-powerful Dark Lord of the Sith. This first tutorial mission is an appetizer for all the crazy Force powers you will attain as you level up in the game. Everything short of Force Lightning (Vader canonically does not have that ability) is on display here.
Why then is this intro such a drag? It’s probably because Vader is too badass to ever even consider moving faster than a brisk walk. So you spend 10 minutes slowly making your way through the beautiful surroundings, Force pushing Wookies off cliffs. But I’m sure these first few minutes immediately sold the game to many adoring fans.
But when the smooth-operating Starkiller is sent on his first mission, the game design really takes shape. You’re sent to Nar Shaddaa (constantly used in the games) to eliminate Jedi Master Kota, who’s leading an assault on a TIE fighter construction facility. After spending a few minutes in the decidedly Clone Wars design of Kashyyyk, it feels good to step into Imperial dominion. Walking through the large hallways of the facility will immediately remind fans of the Death Star, which I’m sure was a desired effect, especially since the game concludes on the unfinished space station.
Of course, during Starkiller’s hunt for Jedi Masters Kota, Kazdan Paratus, and Shaak Ti, the game’s big flaws begin to show their ugly Sith faces. First and foremost, this is not the game for epic lightsaber duels. With an emphasis on the very cool Force abilities, the sword play comes up very short, as you mash the same button over and over to wipe out hordes of enemies and powerful Jedi Masters alike. Yes, there are combos that you can unlock through the leveling system, but I found that they were never necessary. Learning complicated button combos is insignificant next to the power of the X button. And that dumbs down the experience a bit. It doesn’t help that the camera often doesn’t agree with you.
There was a moment in last-gen game development when quick time events were all the rage, and The Force Unleashed basks in the mechanic’s glory during boss battles. At some point in every single fight, after weakening your enemy, you’re prompted to press buttons in a specific pattern in order to slay your target. This also extends to lightsaber clashes and dodging special attacks. It all becomes quite repetitive after a couple of missions. The Force Unleashed does not find the answer to dynamic lightsaber duels.
Playing the game years later on a gaming PC (I originally played it on a PS3), it’s evident that, even when stretched to the highest quality, the graphics and audio are still quite glitchy. Textures pop in and out, and the sound leveling isn’t quite on par with the games that came before. Speaking of glitches, I got stuck in between rocks and cutscenes several times during my PC playthrough and remember the PS3 experience being about the same.
Actually, The Force Unleashed is kinda scruffy-looking, even to 2008 standards.
Bringing Balance to the Force
So why do I ultimately classify The Force Unleashed as a “great Star Wars game?” The ambition of the storytelling is enough reason to get this game alone. And don’t get me wrong, the game works well enough. The Force abilities are absolutely the best, and the sword play is entertaining if you can look past the repetition. But the game’s biggest strength is undoubtedly the story it weaves in an unexplored era of the Star Wars timeline.
The tragic stories of the remaining Jedi Masters cannot be lauded enough. In a couple snippets of gameplay and cinematics, The Force Unleashed tells a much more emotional tale of loss and suffering than Revenge of the Sith could ever hope. Kota is a defeated man who is broken by the Purge, Shaak Ti’s only goal is to protect her Padawan, Maris Brood, and Kazdan Paratus worships a shrine of the Jedi High Council he built on a junkyard planet.
In fact, Starkiller’s mission to kill the latter Jedi is both the best and worst part of the game. Those Raxus missions (you visit several of the planets twice in the game — a little lazy?) are an absolute boring mess of patchwork and last minute finagling, as you platform through a brown landscape full of garbage that’s about as interesting as Bantha fodder. At least you get to pull down a Star Destroyer with the Force on your second pass through the planet.
But Paratus’ introduction and the boss fight are excellent, as you smash through his makeshift junkyard temple, destroying several of the puppets he’s set up to represent the Jedi Masters. This guy has obviously gone insane. And that’s a balance in character development you don’t quite see during the Jedi Purge. Either the survivors die or fall to the dark side. At last, we see the mental trauma of surviving the extinction of your kind. Yes, perhaps that’s a bit dark for Star Wars, but The Force Unleashed, by design, was made to go to those places.
And even though the paper-thin Starkiller is a little too obviously an anti-Luke Skywalker, you’re still glad to follow him in his redemption, as he forms the Rebel Alliance, even if his ending feels more like a quick resolution to make the game work with the Original Trilogy. You’re glad to be along for this ride through the Empire.
The Force Unleashed could be considered the single greatest piece of Star Wars fan service ever made where the video games are concerned. If you ever wanted to feel like an all-powerful Jedi, look no further. If you ever wanted to fight Wookies as Darth Vader, this is your game. Want to know what it was like for Boba Fett to get stuck in the sarlacc pit? Starkiller dives headfirst into one. Never got the chance to fight the Emperor? He’s the final boss. The only question now is: will you choose the dark side or the light?