There are moments in The Force Unleashed that just feel like pure, gaming heaven. It’s also like someone took the bits out of the Star Wars movies that you’d like to see mixed into a game, and actually made them gel for a brief, fleeting moment. Particularly in the opening mission, where you play a powered-up Darth Vader, it’s utterly brilliant fun. Vader, as you discover, has the full power of the force at his disposal, as well as a fairly brutal lightsaber. But it’s the former where all the fun is, as you liberally use The Force to send enemies hurling off in the other direction, and to move large objects around at will. If all the game’s like this, you may find yourself thinking, then this could just be one of the best things ever.
It doesn’t take long for the bubble to burst. Because this Darth Vader segment is actually a preamble to you becoming an apprentice (more to the point, Darth Vader’s secret apprentice). It’s not a long preamble, but it’s enough to make you feel as if the game has just shown you how great things could be, and then ripped it all away from you. For when you step into the shoes of said apprentice, your powers are substantially less, and need to be built up as you progress through the game.
And so off you trot, walking through graphically strong levels, bumping into locations that you’ll recognise from the films. Interestingly, the game is actually set between the two trilogies, and has a narrative that bothers to glue them together quite well, with one or two surprises as well. None of this inventing a new character in the Star Wars universe so you can go off and tell another story altogether: here, you do feel like something is added to the saga.
The game, however, soon starts to plod, and for a variety of reasons. Firstly, for combat purposes you’ll be relying quite a lot on your lightsaber, but it’s, paradoxically, the bluntest tool you’re given. All it lends itself to is a frenzy of button mashing, with little in the way of skill needed to wave it around convincingly or effectively. So instead, you come to The Force, which is a little fiddly at times, and does take a while to build up. Furthermore, at close distances, it too can be frustrating to use, although when there is a bit of distance between you and your foe, it’s brilliant to use. Finally, there are those sequences on boss battles where you need to press the button it tells you to on screen. Pur-lease. What happened to some good old fashioned combo fighting? What couldn’t we have more of that?
It should be noted too that Star Wars purists aren’t going to take kindly to The Force being blocked in certain places. It works as a mechanic to level out the game for a bit, but it doesn’t feel very Star Wars.
That said, the game does need some levelling, simply because it’s not very hard at all. The level design feels quite basic, and in place of clever little tricks to keep you on your toes, the developers too frequently just fill the space with lots of people to fight. This, it has to be said, is an easy trick, but a very entertaining one. And while you’re always aware that it’s papering over the cracks a little, it’s a fun way to do it. Things too, it should be pointed out, ramp up when you get near the end.Star Wars: The Force Unleashed is ultimately a bit of a frustrating beast, because for all our grumbles, it is a good ‘un to play, and it does capture the feel of Star Wars very well. It’s a pity that the developers got the visuals, audio and physics mechanics in place, and then pulled back a little bit when it came to the game in the midst of all of it. Yet when you’re in the midst of dispensing the finest powers The Force allows, it is hard to get too wound up about it, with the best option instead being to sit back and enjoy a shallow, glossy but regularly entertaining virtual trip into the Star Wars universe. It might be far from perfect, but it sure does entertain.