Blunt "Force"

Gamer: "Star Wars: The Force Unleashed" offers fascinating but flawed revelations
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Star Wars: The Force Unleashed

(Lucasarts; XBOX360, PS3, PS2, PSP, Wii, Nintendo DS)

GAMER Star Wars stories should start with yellow-lettered title crawls. This summer's animated movie Star Wars: The Clone Wars thought it could do without, and it sucked. Star Wars: The Force Unleashed has a title crawl, which is good, because in addition to being a mega-hyped, third-person 3-D action game, it also contains some fascinating revelations about the history of the galaxy far, far away. The game is set between episodes III (Revenge of the Sith) and IV (A New Hope), and you play as Galen Marek, code name "Starkiller," who is Darth Vader's secret Sith apprentice. Vader rescues Marek as an infant during the Great Jedi Purge; this affecting act of compassion concludes the game's inspired intro level, which lets players control Vader as he lays waste to the Wookiee planet of Kashyyyk.

Starkiller soon grows into a powerful dark jedi. True to the title, the gameplay focuses on the numerous ways that the force can be unleashed to wreak destruction on anyone standing in his way. The game's Havoc physics engine and Digital Molecular Matter animation system realize a world in which almost everything can bend, break, shatter, or be tossed across the room with the wave of a midichlorian-rich finger. Like any good jedi, Starkiller is a one-person army, and dispatching waves of enemies with lightsaber, lightning, and the power of "force grip" can be immensely entertaining.

When it's firing on all cylinders, the game is a joy, but it is frequently marred by reprehensible design decisions. Targeting with force grip is infuriatingly finicky, and the boss fights tend to culminate in cheesy "press the correct button when it flashes on the screen" mechanics. Action set pieces, like wrangling a crashing Star Destroyer using the force, might have sounded great on paper, but they end up as exercises in frustration. In contrast to Half-Life 2 and Portal, which gave gamers intuitive tools to transform the game environment before letting their creativity run wild, The Force Unleashed relies on boring, familiar force puzzles.

While most video games shoehorn lackluster plots around top-quality gameplay, The Force Unleashed is the rare game that does the opposite. The story, by project lead Haden Blackman — see our interview with him on the Pixel Vision blog — is engrossing, with cleverly developed characters and real pathos, and Battlestar Galactica vet Sam Witwer brings Starkiller to life with bar-raising motion-capture chops. Unfortunately, playing The Force Unleashed will be an experience familiar to all modern Star Wars fans: one that involves taking the good with the bad.

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