Oct 6, 2008

My Bittersweet Affair with The Force Unleashed: a Spoiler-Free Review

Well, I finally finished The Force Unleashed yesterday (on Xbox 360). Let me first say that yes, I enjoyed the game - as did my son. In retrospect, I think there are two major factors leading to the lukewarm reviews the game has been receiving.

Kickin' Butt Old School

Firstly, in many ways the gameplay is very retro. To quote TFU project lead Haden Blackman, "this game is about kicking ass with the Force." Thing is though, one needs to kick an awful lot of ass to get from point A to point B. Distilled down, TFU most closely resembles a modern and more versatile version of classic arcade beat 'em up games like Double Dragon or Konami's Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

Okay, okay - I can already hear the fanboys screaming (as if millions of nerds suddenly cried out in anger and refused to be silenced.) Bear with me and follow along:

  • You're moving steadily forward along a highly linear path? Check.
  • You are hindered in your progress by hordes of determined, but very similar combatants? Check.
  • Fighting involves a lot of button-mashing, and a few relatively simple combos are available to you? Check.
  • You get to fight a bigger, tougher, more interesting dude at the end of the level? Check.
  • Rinse, repeat? Check.

Now granted, this particular beat 'em up happens to feature some pretty spectacular graphics and sound. And the battlegrounds include cool spaceships, lush alien planets, and sinister space stations. (And it's set in the Star Wars universe too - I almost forgot.)

As I'd mentioned in my preview, the potential exists for the game to come off like a boring button-masher. Don't miss the boat, though - the designers intend for you to wade through your numerous enemies like an orchestral conductor weaving a symphony of dark side destruction. Mix and vary your force powers and attacks, make use of all the interesting combos available to you, and challenge yourself to fling that stormtrooper or punt that jawa just a bit farther than the last time. Because even so, your thumb will probably be sore by the end of your play session - to some extent it's up to you to make it interesting.

You will probably also need to approach the tougher fights like you would those in an old school game. In the end, almost all the bosses and unique sequences require following some kind of pattern or trick. Many of the press reviews complained about such segments of the game, but maybe I'm a little more immune since I'm a crusty old Gen X gamer who cut his teeth on content like this.

Test that boss for weaknesses, watch for patterns, and take advantage of soft spots. Personally, I found the boss battles very interesting and engaging, and once the "trick" was discovered, the difficulty of the fight was much less than at first blush. Don't be too embassased to check GameFaqs either - there are a few spots where the solutions just aren't very evident.

Regarding boss fights, I'm not sure I like the QTE's. That mechanic does allow the designers to involve the player during a cinematic sequence, but I find myself missing most of the action due to focusing on the next button-press prompt. I think my vote is "meh" - I prefer fighting the boss in real time and then watching a cinema after I've beaten them.

One last retro facet is the search for hidden "jedi holocrons" that offer additional experience and power-ups. Some are hidden, and many of the more obvious require a hackle-raising series of jumps and timing to reach. If you really want to max out your character by the end of the game though, make the search for these golden goodies a priority and have fun looking - I did.

Polished, it is Not

The second weakness of the game contributing heavily to the critical raspberries is the lack of general polish and fine-tuning. TFU simply feels a bit rushed to market. Yes, the graphics are beautiful and detailed, the sound and voicework commendable, and the physics modeling excellent. On the other hand, the camera control is often spastic and contrary, the frame rate hitches frequently, and the horizontal tearing is distractingly prominent. Perhaps Lucasarts is simply pushing the 360 to its processing limits, but I'd speculate that further optimization of the graphics engine would have alleviated most of these issues. Topping off the mechanical maladies, the menu system is clunky and annoyingly slow-loading.

The gameplay itself could have benefited from further tuning as well. The timing of many enemies' attacks seemed to coincide exactly to your character's recovery speed, such that even the lowliest EVO trooper is sometimes able to knock you down repeatedly. Hordes of such enemies - common towards the end of the game - find you frequently stun locked and frustrated. Add a sniping Scout Trooper or two to the mix, or maybe several rocket-firing Jump Troopers who hover in silently out of our field of vision, and you're off to the loading screen once more.

It also bothered me that several enemies were only defeatable through spamming a single attack - several force bars worth of the same attack, mind you. Such an arrangement often finds you running in circles, dodging attacks and waiting for your force power to regenerate. Your thumbstick skills will be tested, but such play is a bit one-dimensional.

Now to my final gameplay bitch. I know that the designers were trying to dream up ways to challenge your incredibly-powerful character, but if the Empire really possessed this many Force-immune super-troopers, would the jedi knights have ever posed an actual threat?


Despite all these drawbacks however, I still enjoyed the game. Sure, the gameplay can get a little repetitive, but you're repeatedly trashing stormtroopers with Force-lightning and lightsaber slashes. I'll take such tasks over hopping on mushrooms any day.

Speaking of weird flora, the planets (and starships) featured in the game are beautiful and varied, and your enemies behave convincingly and are well-animated and -voiced. The excellent application of physics effects also aids the player's suspension of disbelief.

In the end, after all of all its temptation towards the dark side of game quality, TFU is thankfully redeemed by its engaging story. Lucasarts has somehow managed to concoct a new and interesting character closely tied with major players from the movies, while successfully shoehorning him into the overarching movie plots in a manner both satisfying and uncontrived. I appreciated how the FU story paints Starkiller as a major influence on the events leading up to A New Hope, but not in a way that might raise the ire of lifelong fans. Bravo to Mr. Blackman and his writing team.

No comments: