I’m pushing 40 years old these days and its still hard to believe that I was 7 years old when Star Wars came out and 13 when the original trilogy came full circle with Return of the Jedi. For most men my age, Star Wars was a massive part of our childhoods. It was with this in mind, a sense of palpable excitement that most of us approached the second trilogy. Unfortunately, it became clear all to quickly – about 20 minutes into The Phantom Menace – that what was a treasured part of our childhoods had been turned into what can only be described as throw-away entertainment.
From then on, through the following two sequels, Attack of the Clones, and Revenge of the Sith, I’ve approached anything with the Lucas brand attached to it with trepidation, and an expectation not of badness, but even worse, blandness.
So how does this new videogame fair? Actually, in many ways it reaches the excellence that was missing from the entire second trilogy.
It has the most interesting narrative since Return of the Jedi, and some of the qualities that actually make the first films so fun are present in the game in a sincere way, rather than in the forced, rote way these characteristics come through in the 2nd trilogy.
For example, the easy-going fun and playful closeness of the gang that was Chewie/Han Solo/Luke and Lea comes through in the comradery of the new characters. This is in direct contrast to the unnatural, awkward, and downright poor imitation of friendship Lucas tried for between Anakin and Obi Wan – which he is still pounding into the ground in his God-awful Clone War series. I suppose it has never occurred to Lucas that since everyone knows Anakin eventually turns into Darth Vader, no matter how cutesy you make him, he will never become a Luke or Han Solo. His dismal future in evil, by definition, prevents too much adulation. (The absolute miscasting and horrible acting of one Hayden Christianson shall go unanalyzed so that we can hurry this along.)
The game takes place directly before the events in the first Star Wars, and Princess Lea and her father play a direct role in the events. Jimmy Smits reprises his role from the new films, and I suppose that its worth mentioning that Lea, NOT voiced by Carrie Fisher, does not have the donuts on the side of her head this time out, but instead has the coolio braids from the Hoth sequences of The Empire Strikes Back. Evidently the bagel hair-do was just a phase. Besides Lea, many of the characters and scenery of the first trilogy make their way into the game. I confess that I was thrilled to come across two-legged At-At’s, several Rancors – wild ones with all sorts of different colors! Even the sterile environs of the Death Star hallways gave me pause and reminded me of what made the Star Wars universe so cool to begin with – took me back to the wonder with which I watched the movies as a child, rather than the jaded adult who watched the legacy trashed by an even more jaded and robotic-emotioned George Lucas who somehow managed to make a mockery out of his original creation.
Okay, that was a little rough on Lucas, but seriously, the vibe I get is that somewhere along the way, perhaps during the making of The Phantom Menace, Lucas went from seeing the Star Wars universe less as a project of passion, and more as a commodity, a project of profit. This videogame, as part of the Star Wars canon, has more passion in it than anything since the original trilogy ended. Unfortunately, as a videogame, its rather average.
With all that said, I’ve only played a few of them, but Star Wars games always seemed to me just a tad behind the times. Like, if they had released the game a year earlier people would have freaked. Although this is the only Star Wars game I’ve ever played through to the end I’ve also spent time with The Clone Wars (weak), Revenge of the Sith (a movie game, what else is there to say), and Bounty Hunter (actually a very strong and playable game.) All of these games stand far below the best games of their times and genres. This game, though it has impressive next-gen graphics, is missing small details that other games incorporate without being asked. For example, in the Wookie village, you can stand on the edge of a cliff and look out over the expanse and what you see looks sorta like a vague cloudy painting with some mountains. This is in opposition to say, Resident Evil, where you look out of the desert and you see more detailed desert, maybe some jagged mountains, and possible even a little sand tornado. Details. These things are missing from The Forced Unleashed. (The cinematics, however, are exempt from this criticism and are excellently animated and directed and are the main reason this game is such a success as a worthy edition of the Star Wars universe.)
As far as the gameplay, at times the game turns into a boring button-masher, with scores of easily defeated Stormtroopers and so on. It feels like a waste of time. At other times the game seems determined to force the player to figure out what to do, not so much as a challenging puzzle, but to extend the play time and make the game seem to have more content than it actually has. Some of the controls don’t actually work all too well. You try to grab things with the force and you just don’t. At one point, I actually got stuck and had my kid help me out. As he destroyed Tie-Fighters with ease that I’d had to spend several minutes destroying, I watched his fingers. All he was doing was clicking the force button randomly and every once in a while it would grab a fighter and swing it into a post. There was no skill involved, and certainly none of the force skill that the beginning of the game had forced you to train through in which a force grab involved not just the trigger button, but also both control sticks.
As a videogame The Force Unleashed is a rather average affair. For someone who’s not a Star Wars fan, there’s really not going to be much for them. On the flip side of that, as a chapter in the unending Star Wars canon, Star Wars fans, even one’s that aren’t gamers are going to find a lot to love. And those, like myself, that are jaded interlopers in the Star Wars universe who can say “I remember when…” now have something that acts as a bridge not just from the old trilogy to the new trilogy, but from mediocrity back to the excellence that once was. A new hope, so to speak.
Lastly, I will mention that in late 2008 we had downloaded the 360 demo for this game and I was significantly impressed enough that I was looking quite forward to its release. When it was released, the kids had decided that maybe the Wii version would be the one to get due to possible motion-oriented light-saber action. I watched them play the Wii version and quickly lost interest. Even after a few levels the kids lost interest and we eventually returned the game to the Gamestop for credit. Getting the Xbox 360 version on a whim, the kids confirmed upon playing it themselves that it was a completely different game than the Wii version. The very first level in the Wookie village on the Xbox version takes place in bright daylight, however, the Wii version has these things take place in the dark of night, most probably to hide the graphical weaknesses of the Wii. So, I suppose that is a long way of saying, do NOT buy the Wii version of this particular game – or, if you have and were underwhelmed, try give the Xbox 360 or PS3 version a day in court.
That being said, unlike Shia LeDouche, I am not anti-Wii and in fact, have stolen the kid’s Wii in order to play a couple of games on it that I have been curious about. So, my next couple of videogame related posts will probably be Wii games.
Here’s a pretty funny fan-film featuring an injured Stormtrooper:
And here’s Vader being a smart ass.