It’s rare that a game is celebrated for its cutscenes. The vast majority are throwaway distractions from blowing stuff up, featuring the kind of acting normally seen in late-night Hollyoaks. Of course, it doesn’t help that we gamers are a fickle bunch. We moan when there’s not enough story, we moan when there’s too much and we moan loudest when we can’t skip cutscenes. So, it’s testament to not only the visual quality, but also the expert storytelling, in The Force Unleashed’s cutscenes that I was not tempted to skip a single one.
The storyline in The Force Unleashed is designed to fill the considerable gap between the events of Episodes III and IV, and it does a fantastic job. Focusing on Darth Vader’s secret apprentice, Starkiller, we find out what happened between the Jedi Purge and the formation of the Rebel Alliance. What’s most impressive about the narrative is that it doesn’t feel like it’s been shoehorned in; it feels like Star Wars canon. Starkiller himself is an interesting character – there’s a refreshing ambiguity to him that draws you into a tale of surprising depth. You’ll find yourself looking forward to the end of each level for two reasons: 1) so the game can add another piece to the narrative jigsaw and 2) so that you can take a break from the monotonous gameplay.
You see, whilst watching the story unfold in The Force Unleashed is engrossing, taking part in it is not. There is one major problem at the heart of the game – if the Dark Side of the Force is all about power, control and ignoring Yoda’s hippy shit, then why does Starkiller feel so weak? Don’t get me wrong, the first few hours of The Force Unleashed are impressive. The game opens in spectacular fashion and, controlling Vader, you’ll find yourself laughing as you send Wookies flying through the air with your force grip as scenery collapses around you. Despite the slightly imprecise controls, the force moves feel powerful – something that can’t be said for the lightsaber combat.
The close quarters combat in The Force Unleashed just doesn’t feel convincing and this is largely due to the underpowered lightsaber. The chosen weapon of the Jedi and Sith is a fearsome tool, something that is well represented in the films. However, in this latest Star Wars game it’s little more than a fly swatter. Without wanting to sound too serial killer about it, I wanted to see the lightsaber cut through enemies. I wanted the levels to feature more scattered limbs than a prosthetics convention. I wanted Starkiller to be a true Sith badass.However, once you’ve seen a Stormtrooper take several lightsaber blows without dying you start to forget that this is a Star Wars game. LucasArts clearly decided to forego authenticity in order to include a combo system into The Force Unleashed. As you progress through the game you’ll level up, allowing you to unlock and purchase more combo manoeuvres and upgrade your force powers. However, there is a real lack of depth to the combo system, especially when compared to PS3 action titles like Ninja Gaiden SIgma and Devil May Cry 4. It feels like the game is doing all the work for you and this is a theme that runs throughout The Force Unleashed.
Whenever you encounter larger enemies or bosses, you begin to see just how little control the game affords you. Rather than using your own skills to defeat these major foes, once their energy is sufficiently depleted, you are forced into a quick time event. You’ll have to match button presses with on-screen prompts to enable Starkiller to take down the enemy in style. Again, it feels like the game is infringing on your both your freedom to experiment and your enjoyment. What’s worse is that should you fail to match button presses in time, you’ll return to the start of the QTE and do it over and over until you get it right, shattering any sense of immersion in the process. As such, the boss battles soon begin to feel like a chore, something that isn’t helped by the camera system.
For reasons known only to LucasArts, the boss battles involve a fixed-position camera and this often makes you lose track of Starkiller. During one of these encounters, I simply could not see where Vader’s Apprentice was, which made dodging the boss’ attacks somewhat problematic. Annoyingly, the free camera used throughout the rest of the game far from perfect too. Whilst you can rotate the camera with the right stick, all too often the camera zooms in too far meaning that your vision becomes hampered, making some of the platforming sections far more difficult than they ought to be.
The Force Unleashed falls short because it provides the gamer with too little power and too little freedom. Luckily, the storyline is absorbing enough to make you want to p***vere and finish the game, if only to see how this obviously tragic tale (there was no secret apprentice in Episode IV, remember?) is going to conclude. From a technical standpoint, The Force Unleashed is undeniably impressive with Havok and Euphoria combining well to form a solid basis for your force powers. However, by the time the novelty of the force powers has worn off, the stunning but linear levels almost get in the way of the story. And for the first time ever, I found myself wanting to skip a level to get to the cutscene.