I just had a transcendental moment. After spending a couple of hours trying to puzzle out my ambivalence toward the Star Wars franchise, I realized that the nature of the problem isn’t that I like it or hate it, but that I demand so much from it. George Lucas had a couple of winning years when I was a kid, and every time he fields a new team, I want more of those unbeaten seasons I remember from my youth.
It’s the damnedest thing. I think I understand Vol fans now.
Let’s get one thing straight: I am not a Star Wars fanboy. No way, no how, no thanks. I have no Boba Fett action figures, my DVD shelf contains no Special Editions, and the Yoda shirt I bought 10 years ago I wore only because touting the whole “you must unlearn what you have learned” thing in a Knox County school brought a smirk to my face.
Granted, I did play the hell out of almost every Star Wars game since the SNES era, and I’m pretty sure that if Lucas had been born 20 years later, the series would never have seen the light of day. One-dimensional characters? Beautiful yet underdeveloped settings? An audience willing to suffer through any amount of ham-fisted storytelling just to see a few minutes of action? The Lucasian school of filmmaking translates perfectly for the gaming arena.
Playing a Star Wars game is something of a rote action for me. Going into one, I know that it will be at least on the high side of mediocre. There will be robots and lightsabers and monsters and space magic, and I’ll at least come out of the experience not feeling that I’ve wasted the cost of admission, but it’s been a long time since I’ve really cared.
Star Wars: The Force Unleashed seems tailor-made to disavow me of that blasé attitude, and to its credit it’s the first Star Wars game in a decade that I have genuinely anticipated. Of course, that has little to do with the brand itself. When I’m promised a cinematic hack-and-slasher featuring a telekinetic, lightsaber-wielding wunderkind with few moral inhibitions and a penchant for solving problems through the creative use of electrocution, I don’t care what you call the guy (for the record, they call him “Starkiller,” a name shared with one of Luke Skywalker’s early-draft incarnations).
In this respect, Force Unleashed delivers, giving players the opportunity to go nuts with the Dark Side to their hearts’ content. After so many years of dealing with Jedi Knights, Jedi Outcasts, and Cuddly, Marketable Jedi Ewoks, controlling Vader’s new apprentice as he teaches the galaxy what happens when you fail to establish well-defined boundaries during a child’s development is downright cathartic.
Starkiller’s much-hyped mastery of the Dark Side leaves little to be desired. While Force Unleashed’s powerset isn’t as comprehensive as some of its predecessors, Starkiller’s abilities remain a greatest hits collection of ways to solve the galactic overpopulation problem. Its use of physics is formulaic in a way that allows for endless possibilities; when literally everything in sight is something to be killed, something to kill with, or both, the implementation of all that death simply becomes a matter of switching out variables.
Because bringing these possibilities to bear without overcomplicating gameplay was the main thrust of the game, Force Unleashed more or less succeeds, at least from a mission statement point of view. Unfortunately, the Starkiller we’re sold isn’t exactly the Starkiller we were promised. Like every young sword-wielding console-based superpower of the last year or two, Starkiller inexplicably comes with a double dose of emo. Maybe it’s just me, but a guy who spends half his time pulling Star Destroyers out of orbit and the other half whining because Darth Vader, of all people, didn’t teach him how to talk to girls seems a bit inconsistently written.
He’s inconsistent on the control end, too. Getting in the Starkiller groove is difficult, as Force Unleashed’s targeting system rarely differentiates between a harmless Ugnaught and the dozen enemy soldiers surrounding it. This leads to a few too many instances of our hero getting chain-slammed by a group of stormtroopers on steroids who finally realize that the solution to lousy blaster accuracy lies in the Wrestlemania videos backlogged in the Imperial archives.
If LucasArts had intentionally included quirks like these—perhaps through random bursts of Force abilities or hallucinations that lure Starkiller away from his appointed path—I wouldn’t have a problem with his momentary devolutions into an uncontrollable mess. Playing an uncontrollable wild talent would be fun; having to pretend that my perfectly in-control character’s sudden hamfisted flailings are the result of same is not.
Another tune-up would have worked wonders for Force Unleashed, but it’s far from unplayable as released. Just do the Dark Side thing and go into it with a lack of foresight, revel in the visceral agony it sometimes causes, and you’ll be fine.