Considered the Dark Ages by most, there hasn’t been much content covering the 19 year time span between Revenge of the Sith and A New Hope, so when LucasArts announced their next multimedia project would fill in some of those blanks, fan excitement went nova. The project was named The Force Unleashed (Dubbed “Episode 3.5”) and its multimedia offerings included a novel, video game, graphic novel, and toys. The Force Unleashed video game released in September of 2008, telling the story of Vader’s secret apprentice, Starkiller. It went on to be one of the fastest selling Star Wars titles of all time. And despite its occasionally frustrating gameplay, The Force Unleashed has an intriguing plot and wonderful sense of Force-wielding empowerment.

The game’s story starts with Vader hunting down a Jedi Knight on Kashyyyk, where he finds out the Knight had a son. Dispatching the father, Vader kidnaps the child and takes him on as an apprentice. This youngling grows up to be the game’s protagonist, Starkiller, a devout servant to Vader, and the dark side. Vader gives him a mission to hunt down a few remaining Jedi, and if successful, he’ll be powerful enough to join Vader and take down the Emperor, ruling the galaxy themselves. This is standard operating procedure for any good Sith Lord, but what follows is so full of romance, deaths, rebirths, betrayals, and an interesting revelation about the ultimate origin of the Rebel Alliance that collectively would even make characters in the Game of Thrones series blush.

If TFU was to be judged on the plot alone, I’d tell you it was a must buy. Unfortunately, its presentation of said story can fall flat. For example, the romance between Starkiller and his female pilot Juno Eclipse, feels forced and unbelievable. One minute, Starkiller’s yelling at Juno not to ask about his mission and the next he’s telling her everything about it…then they start to flirt. Having read the book, the romance actually comes across as genuine, but in the game it just kind of happens. Various characters change allegiances throughout the story, but they get breezed over, especially important ones like Starkiller, Juno, and Maris Brood (Shaak Ti’s apprentice who switches to the dark side after her master’s death by Starkiller’s hands). Also, Jedi Master Kazdan Paratus’ slip into insanity, building a mock Jedi Temple and Council out of junk on Raxus Prime, barely receives a mention in-game (You’ll find most of these glossed over story elements in greater detail in the novelization).

No matter how the story’s presentation is, gameplay truly makes or breaks a video game. TFU is a strictly linear third-person action game, forcing you down various corridors to bring death to all that stands in the way. Starkiller’s weapons include the requisite lightsaber, the Force (unleashed, of course), and the environment around him. The lightsaber and Force can be upgraded in an RPG-style way, where you accrue points for the death and mayhem you cause and from picking up hidden glowing holocrons hidden in the levels. The points eventually cause you to level up, bestowing one point for Force powers, Lightsaber combos, and Force talents (basic upgrades).

Lightsaber upgrades consist of three aspects: Power crystals, which change the blade’s properties, like your attacks have a chance of electrocuting enemies; Color crystals, which simply affect the blade’s color; and a long list of “Force” combos. Though all three are a nice inclusion, you’ll only end up using the first few combos and probably only selecting the power crystal listed above. The reason is simple: after a certain point, you’ll find that button mashing and your Force powers are more than enough to dispatch any enemy type you come across. Later combos look great and are powerful, but when you don’t even need to use them to defeat your enemies, trying to learn them is beside the point (a fact that doesn’t change even on higher difficulty levels).

Given 6 distinct Force powers to upgrade, like lightning, grip, repulse, and push, they’re a blast to use on enemies and the environment around you. And from the first time you electrocute a stormtrooper, to the 30th time you throw a Felucian into a Rancor’s head, using the Force is full of fun factor and easily the most powerful means of attack throughout the game (when it works that is, which will be covered later). Combine the Force with the two physics engines mentioned earlier and some neat and random events happen. The Euphoria engine causes enemies to grab out at passing objects or people as you drag them around the world before throwing them to their screaming deaths and the DMM engine makes glass, wood, and metal break and bend somewhat realistic.

The basic upgrades consist of gaining more health, more Force, and faster Force power regeneration. Combos and Force powers sap away from a blue Force bar underneath the green health bar, but you’ll rarely be out of juice when you need to send your next hapless victim to their doom. Sith holocrons give you instant powers, like invincibility or unlimited power (Palpatine has that copyrighted, I think). These holocrons are handy in several locations and you’ll live or die depending on how wisely you use them.

A game can give you as many cool powers they want, different enemies, and challenges but there has to be a fun factor. With TFU, the fun factor hinges on your life to death ratio and there are enough issues to stack the favor into death’s scaly hands, making for a varyingly frustrating experience. As mentioned earlier, the Force is great to use, but it seems to have trouble working at times. Pick up an explosive barrel, using Grip, to fling at a stormtrooper in front of you and it’ll more likely hit the wall on the opposite side of the room. You can aim your projectiles, but the aiming is literally hit or miss. There’ll be minutes worth of perfect aiming followed by a random object sent hurtling to the ceiling at a critical moment. And the biggest downside to the Grip power is that Starkiller moors himself to the ground like a ship’s anchor, leaving him vulnerable to attack. If he’s so powerful, why can’t he move while picking things up?

While your aiming might be off, stormtroopers, Felucians, or anyone else you’re trying to kill, all have better aiming than you. These aren’t the stormtroopers from the Original Trilogy who couldn’t hit the broad side of a Hutt, these guys are bulls-eyeing womp rats in their T-16s. As powerful as you are, your deflection skills are almost no match for your opponents, especially later troop variations like the electricity powered shock troops or the creepy and large Purge Troopers. This forces you to never stop moving, always zipping around the battlefield, approaching enemies from new angles, making the anchoring aspect of Grip feel that much more out of place. It’s not a complaint per se, but their aim suddenly turns your power trip as Starkiller to a screeching halt with frequent deaths and an unforgiving checkpoint system, especially in later sections of the game.

Another issue is the option to lock-on to enemies. Want to target the large AT-ST in the middle of a group of enemies? You’ll lock-on a random object in the foreground before you ever lock the AT-ST in your sight. Then when you try to use Force lightning on it, even when you’re facing it, you have a 1 in 5 chance of hitting it. Issues like that rear their ugly heads most noticeably the fights with Jedi and in one of the game’s biggest moments: tearing a Star Destroyer out of the sky. As awesome as that sounds, the moment is ruined by several aspects: continuously have to pointing the tip of the Destroyer at the middle of the screen, for no apparent reason, and the confusing button prompts that try to help you do so; TIE squadrons that never stop coming; and the difficulty grabbing the moving TIE fighters. You’ll tear hair off your head before you bring the Star Destroyer down, but the cutscene really makes it look as great as it sounds.

Other small things (good and bad): Getting knocked down or knocking enemies down is extremely hard for either side to recover from, but one lightsaber strike on ANY enemy laying on the ground deals more damage than any other attack in the game; QTE are set up so failure is basically not even option, keeping the game fun but a little easy; From standing still in front of you, not shooting, to flanking you with buddies, enemy AI can range from ingenious to Three Stooges in a second; The musical score is full of many familiar and great tracks from the movie trilogies; Sounds in the games are great, as Rodians yell in Rodese, Jawas scream like you’d expect them too when you electrocute them, and TIE fighters have their distinctive whine; having to loading basic menus, including the upgrades section, is unacceptable.

Though each issue presents its own problems, they aren’t total deal-breakers. The planet hopping story (you’ll visit and see 9 different locations), variety of different enemy types, and empowering Force powers actually adds up to a rather entertaining package. Before writing this review, I had already obtained the platinum trophy, so despite the issues I’ve listed, I’ve found myself returning several times to TFU. In fact, giving the game a second go is required to experience the non-canonical, but intriguing Dark Side ending.

When you consider picking up the game, aim for the Ultimate Sith Edition. It includes the DLC level packs (which are expensive bought alone) that came out after the game’s initial release. Two of the DLC levels continue the story of the Dark Side ending, sending you to Tatooine and Hoth to dispatch a few fan favorite characters in a fun what-if scenario. In the end, even though you’ll experience frustration, there’s more than enough good left in the The Force Unleashed for it be an experience any Star Wars and/or video game fan shouldn’t pass up.

This review is based on the PS3 version (the 360 is the same) developed by LucasArts, which is different in numerous ways from the PS2/PSP/Wii/DS/Mobile/NGage (developed separately) versions.

- Ryan