Review: Star Wars: The Force Unleashed (DS, PSP)

StarWarsForceUnleashedBox.jpgI had two thoughts as I was playing The Force Unleashed on the PSP over the past week. First, the ‘secret apprentice’ reminded me of Rosh Penin (from Jedi Academy) with a better haircut, less Ritalin and more angst. Second, this might just be the most exciting non-LEGO Star Wars lightsaber-based handheld game ever released.

OK now, don’t get all excited on me, especially in light of the general opinion of the game as ‘mediocre’. I am not making some stunning claim that the PSP game is better than the others, nor am I disputing conventional wisdom. It is more a realization of how many bad or mediocre Star Wars games have been released for handhelds in recent years. Note that I used the words ‘most exciting’, not ‘best’. Before getting into The Force Unleashed, let’s look at some of the ones released in the GBA / DS / PSP era:

  • Jedi Power Battles (GBA) – below average (~2.5 / 5 stars)
  • New Droid Army (GBA) – average (~3.5 / 5 stars)
  • Episode II: Attack of the Clones (GBA) – below average (~2.5 / 5 stars)
  • Flight of the Falcon (GBA) – just plain awful (~1 / 5 stars)
  • Star Wars Trilogy: Apprentice of the Force (GBA) – average (~3.5 / 5 stars)
  • LEGO Star Wars (GBA) – below average (~3 / 5 stars)
  • LEGO Star Wars II: The Original Trilogy (GBA) – just plain awful (~1.5 / 5 stars)
  • LEGO Star Wars II: The Original Trilogy (DS) – fundamentally awful (~1 / 5 stars)
  • LEGO Star Wars II: The Original Trilogy (PSP) – really good, awful load times (~4 / 5 stars)
  • LEGO Star Wars II: The Complete Saga (DS) – very good (~4.5 / 5 stars)
  • Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (GBA) – average (~3.5 / 5 stars)
  • Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (DS) – above average (~4 / 5 stars)
  • Battlefront II (PSP) – average (~3.5 / 5 stars)
  • Battlefront: Renegade Squadron (PSP) – above average (~4 / 5 stars)
  • Lethal Alliance (DS) – average (~3.5 / 5 stars)
  • Lethal Alliance (PSP) – average (~3.5 / 5 stars)

That’s right – 18 games, and I have played and own every … single … one. Now you can add two more, the DS and PSP versions of The Force Unleashed.

Looking across them, you have many mediocre and average games, a pretty solid PSP-exclusive Battlefront game, and LEGO Star Wars. The clunkers outweigh the quality games by a wide margin, and with the exception of two LEGO Star Wars games the entire catalog could be flushed with little hand-wringing.

So The Force Unleashed really didn’t have to try that hard to get to the head of the class, yet it fails in that endeavor on a number of levels. After having played the DS game once and the PSP game twice plus some of the add-on battles and multiplayer, I am ready to detail my experience.

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Let me get the DS version out of the way with a quick evisceration: do NOT buy this game. Even if you love Star Wars and only have a DS don’t do it – there is a Clone Wars game coming in November and it is bound to be better than this. How do I know? Because this is right there with Flight of the Falcon and the DS version of LEGO Star Wars II: The Original Trilogy as perhaps the worst handheld Star Wars game yet. You might look on MetaCritic or GameRankings and see what looks like a mediocre score, but that is due to ‘aggregate reviewing’, where sites don’t really review all versions of a game. The DS game is drastically different – lousy controls, muddy graphics, choppy framerates, and a cut-down story that barely conveys what is going on. The result is the worst sort of ‘me too’ licensed release that I have already complained about enough that my kids won’t even touch the game.

Now on to the PSP version.

First, it feels like the basic design spec read “make a game that will give someone the best 5-minute demo ever so they will go buy the full game”. Having also played some of the PS3 version I can say that is at least as true for the console versions. And WOW did they succeed on that front – jumping into the game with loads of Force powers and lightsaber skills and combos and wiping out wave after wave of Stormtroopers is just tons of fun.

The sad reality is that the fun wears off and all you are left with is … well, a few more hours of the same stuff repeated again and again with different character models and environmental textures.

Technically the game is impressive: movement is fluid and varied, controls are responsive, framerates hold steady even with loads of enemies and explosion effects on screen, and the utilization of the PSP’s hardware capabilities is impressive. The music is all classic Star Wars themes that sound excellent, as do the sound effects for the usual lightsaber and blaster bolts and Wookie yells and Jawa gibberish and all of the other typical stuff. New sound effects for the various Force powers blend in well and add to the drama and excitement as you wreak havoc. The music is not dynamic, which is somewhat surprising at this point: over the past several years it has become pretty common to transition between musical themes or styles for battles or quiet areas. In The Force Unleashed you get ‘area music’ that is the same regardless of whether the place is crawling with enemies or if you are trudging back through after getting spun around in a battle and heading the wrong direction for a while.

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Sadly, all of that cool stuff comes at a price: I had to recharge to complete the game once, then again to beat it a second time, and again to play the extra stuff. This is on a PSP-2000 that usually gets several hours of gaming between charges and that started out freshly charged. For comparison I was also playing Yggdra Union (a strategy-RPG) on my older PSP at the same time and just had to recharge just once despite having at least as many hours of play time. There are some obvious reasons – the noted graphics and physics are definitely chewing up the processor cycles, but more importantly the game spends entirely too much time loading. Not only do you have minute-long loads between areas, cutscenes, and whenever else the game feels like it, you will also see the work ‘loading’ across the screen several times during each mission.

I could live with the battery drain and long load-times – heck, until recently it seemed that *every* PSP game had load-time problems – if the game was solid otherwise. Sadly it isn’t; as I said it feels like the entire design spec was based around a kick-butt demo … and a sketch of a story.

The biggest surprise to me was the touted story. Perhaps I have immersed myself in too much of the EU contributions of games and books in addition to the core ‘canon’ films over the past 31 years, but am I the only one who found the entire thing trite and hackneyed? I mean, we have seen 75% of this stuff before in the original trilogy, and pretty much the entire storyline has been told several times in slight variations a number of times in post-RotJ fiction. The whole hook is pretty much what was said from the very beginning – you play as Darth Vader’s secret apprentice. That takes me as far as never having to worry who is standing there when I unleash my Repulse to see what might be hidden behind a wall somewhere … but not much further. Everything else feels tacked on and forced.

But again, lame stories are not exactly rare in action games and can easily be forgiven if there is a solid infrastructure of level design and gameplay underlying it all. Sadly that is not the case with The Force Unleashed.

Certainly the Force powers are cool – you will gain points that allow you to upgrade each of many powers (I lost count after a while) and wreak even more havoc. Some powers are direct – lightsaber throw, choke and lightning – while others are essentially combos that bring together a movement or attack with a Force power in a massive combined attack. You consume Force energy using powers, but it regenerates very quickly; and as you kill enemies they release blue orbs that add points to your Force upgrade pool. As you travel through the world you can also come across hidden items such as new lightsaber hilts, health or energy bonuses, and Holocrons. Holocrons are simply images and other things you can view on the Rogue Shadow (your ship) in between missions. Hilts change the appearance of the lightsaber, amounting to the closest thing to real choice in the game. And you can extend your health and energy bars by collecting the permanent bonuses scattered throughout the missions. The bonuses around far outnumber the possible increases, so there is no reason that every player shouldn’t have fully increased health and energy well before the end of the game. The implications of this hidden stuff – and the rapid replenishment of your energy – is that you will wander around everywhere spamming Repulse every few seconds after wiping out whatever enemies were in an area. And that is every bit as fun and exciting as it sounds.

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The areas and map system are also lacking. The map system shows you where you are and provides some indication of where you need to go, but unless you are close all you get is a green blur that seems to show you the way. But during battles you often end up getting spun around by the camera movement and start going the wrong way. It is only when you reach a familiar area (and for me, one time that was my ship) that you realize you need to turn around and try again. The level design is bland and unimpressive, despite the nice varieties in the visual style for each location. The design isn’t terrible, it just fails to connect you to the story or provide any interest gameplay beyond an excuse to use certain powers.

One thing I was concerned about was the boss battles: once you get an enemy to a certain health level, button-images start appearing on screen. Pressing the correct button in time keys a series of animations that show you comleting a series of finishing moves on the boss. Failing a button-press means that the boss repulses your attack and gains some health back. Some ‘mini-bosses’ will allow you to avoid this DDR-style finishing sequence and simply destroy them directly, but all of the major bosses need to be beaten by playing ‘name that button’. Amusingly, I have always struggled with the correct buttons in these sorts of things – I attribute it to never being a console gamer, and therefore not learning what symbol goes where. I just learn where attack and jump and so on are located and play the game. So I could reduce a boss to near-zero health and then take five tries to DDR them to death. And given the action focus of the game I just found the entire thing annoying and felt it took away from what were otherwise some nice battles.

Going back to my plot concerns, I felt a bit of a conflict between the traditional view that slowly choking or electrocuting someone to death is clearly in the Dark Side domain and Kyle Katarn’s pronunciation in Jedi Academy that ‘power are not inherently light side or dark side, it is how you use them’. Whichever ‘certain point of view’ you take, one thing is clear: while battling light-side Jedi early in the game, they are spamming loads of traditionally dark-side powers. Soon enough it will occur to you – that is because they all use a single basic AI model with minor tweaks and a different set of powers available. This becomes even more evident as you play the added PSP exclusive battles. Whether you are Anakin battling Count Dooku from Revenge of the Sith or Darth Vader battling Luke from Empire Strikes Back, it feels little different than what you do with every other major battle in the main story mode.

The PSP also offers limited multiplayer – basically you find friends also willing to spend $40 on this game, get them in a room together, and lament your purchase while spamming Force powers and attacks until someone dies. Then you go to a different location and repeat until you all wish you really were dead … or at least hadn’t spent so much money on so little game.

As I said in the introduction, The Force Unleashed delivers the excitement … but fails to back it up with a particularly compelling game. It is not a terrible game by any stretch – there is a reasonable story, cool areas to explore, exciting combat, stirring and familiar music, and some nice extras for the PSP. But after that first five minutes it never rises above the level of ‘mediocre’, so that by the time I had completed my second run and some time in the added content I was satisfied to put the game in its’ case and into storage – and for me with a Star Wars game that is a very rare occurrence.

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Pros:
+ Exciting gameplay
+ Mega-powered Force Powers
+ Nice graphical effects

Cons:
– Repetitive
– Long load times
– No Online multiplayer

Game Info:
Platform: Reviewed on PSP, also available for PS2 & DS (other versions too different to compare)
Publisher: LucasArts
Developer: Krome
Release Date: 9/16/08
Genre: Action
ESRB Rating: Teen
Players: 1-4 (local)

(originally published at GamingWithChildren)

About the Author

I have loved technology for as long as I can remember - and have been a computer gamer since the PDP-10! Mobile Technology has played a major role in my life - I have used an electronic companion since the HP95LX more than 20 years ago, and have been a 'Laptop First' person since my Compaq LTE Lite 3/20 and Powerbook 170 back in 1991! As an avid gamer and gadget-junkie I was constantly asked for my opinions on new technology, which led to writing small blurbs ... and eventually becoming a reviewer many years ago. My family is my biggest priority in life, and they alternate between loving and tolerating my gaming and gadget hobbies ... but ultimately benefits from the addition of technology to our lives!