Hands-on with Star Wars: The Force Unleashed (360/PS3)

The other day, the handsome CTZ and I went over to LucasArts studios, located in the Presidio of San Francisco, to go through a comprehensive hands-on with the multiple versions of Star Wars: The Force Unleashed. While Hamza will be providing you impressions of the Wii version in another post, and Dale previously provided you with the impressions he garnered from CES, it’s left to me to handle the hands-on of the Xbox 360 and PS3 versions.

Yes, I am very lucky — I know. Now hit the jump to see if you should consider yourself lucky, too.

First off, I would like to start by saying that I am not a huge Star Wars nerd. By my definition, a huge nerd knows each and every thing about the Star Wars universe to such a degree that they can tell you what shield positions the X-wings used during the first Death Star attack. This person, I am not. (The answer is double-forward, by the way).

Now, that’s not to say I am not a huge Star Wars fan. As a person born in the mid-seventies, I was basically raised on the mythos that the original trilogy created. My first memory of any present ever was that of Luke Skywalker’s Landspeeder. I can still vividly recall watching The Empire Strikes Back at Hinsdale Theater while munching on Oreos. And as a kid, I was always desperately jealous of any friend or schoolmate that had a Millennium Falcon toy at home (I still am, actually).

So I hope that it’s apparent that while I may not be an official nerd, I definitely qualify as a lifelong fan. And as a fan, one of the things I’ve always loved about the first Star Wars (Episode IV) was the introduction scene of Darth Vader.

No matter how you view the complete works of Mr. Lucas, you have to hand it to the guy for his intros. The Empire ships firing, the Ambassador ship rocking from the blasts, the tense moments of uncertainty as the helpless ship gets boarded, all of which led up to the fog-filled entrance of the Sith Lord himself, made for some unforgettable celluloid. When Vader burst through the doorway with his imposing stature and frightening breathing, you knew he meant business, and you got the feeling you were in for an experience.

Believe it or not, I started to get some of that same feeling again during the  beginning of The Force Unleashed. The way I think the designers accomplished this is by starting the game with you in the role of Darth Vader himself, not the game’s eventual main character: The Apprentice.

The game begins with Vader bursting onto the scene (as threatening and as bad-ass as ever) on the Wookiee home world of Kashyyyk in search of a Jedi Knight. While I was certainly excited to finally see the Wookiee planet play a role (Return of the Jedi fans know what I’m talking about), the bittersweet feeling of being Darth Vader was palpable. With you controlling a fully powered Vader, those poor Wookiees didn’t stand a chance.

This only bothered me for a few minutes, though, as the fun of being an incredibly powerful Sith Lord took over and I was easily handing any enemy their proverbial ass. The designers made a wise decision to give the player a taste of what’s to come as their introduction to the game. And as I made my way through the level, Force choking Wookiees and just devastating everything in my way, I was reminded of the feelings I had as a child when seeing Vader come on screen for the first time: Vader meant business, and I was in for an experience.

Does the momentum keep up after the beginning sequence, though? Actually, it does. The Darth Vader sequence ends with an impressive battle, and the introduction of The Apprentice. Afterwards, you rejoin the Apprentice as he is being sent to a TIE fighter factory on a mission to kill a Jedi Knight in hiding. In a nutshell, there you have the beginning of the game.

Not to be left out of the tutorial level fad, the TIE fighter factory is the part where you actually begin learning to play the game. The Vader intro before was just a symphony of destruction, but the Apprentice begins his mission with significantly less Force power and still has a Jedi to kill. It’s through completing the factory level that the gameplay mechanics become apparent.

The combat is the of the 3rd-person variety, with the usual array of combos and jumping that can normally be associated with the genre. It won’t take a player more than five minutes to figure out the lion’s share of the controls, as far as that goes. What may take some time to learn is the mechanic of the Grip System.

The player has the ability to use offensive Force powers, such as Force lightning and Force push, but the Grip System is the means in which you use the Force to levitate objects (or people) and throw them around or move them in any direction.

As you may have seen in the videos, and as Dale has explained before, a large amount of the environment in Force Unleashed can be manipulated with this system. While the title doesn’t allow the player the ability to use the Grip System on absolutely everything, it does give you more than enough to play around with.

Want to pull a girder in front of an oncoming TIE fighter to cause it to crash? No problem. Would you like to pull the TIE fighter itself into a group of soldiers? Also, no problem. The title seems to take into account some of the things that some fans have found lacking in other Star Wars games: Force powers that are actually cool to use and that the Force is actually strong.

Personally, I’ve always held the belief that those that can use “The Force” wouldn’t bother with melee fighting unless they had to. Call me lazy, but it seems it would be easier to throw an exploding container at a group of soldiers with the Force, rather than having to walk all the way over there and kill them with my own two hands. Maybe that’s just the Sith in me talking, but if so, then this game sings to that mentality.

I noticed that using the Force abilities in the game was a far more effective means of dispatching enemies than regular combat. Even with that being said, the game doesn’t devolve into a “throw everything and keep walking” journey. The beginning levels we played were designed in a way to create scenarios where one skill is more advantageous than the other, and in doing so, kept the game from becoming repetitive.

Using the Grip System to manipulate the Force throw did take some getting used to, though. In its basic form, you use both analog sticks in conjunction with the right trigger to hold and aim objects. By releasing the right trigger, you then throw whatever object you’ve been “gripping.” The only thing is that the aiming of the object is a little weird. While the left stick determines the object’s direction when thrown, and the right stick moves your object around to the position that it will be thrown from, the left stick kinda-sorta does too.

Even though I did find that I got better with the mechanic as time went on, it was initially confusing to me as to which stick did what. I mentioned this to the PR gentleman and was assured that the player will eventually be so adept at the controls that they’ll be flinging things like a champ. As we only played the game for about 45 minutes, that may be the case, but I still feel that it could use a little more fine-tuning for my tastes. Then again, it may be due to the fact that the apprentice was just starting out in his Jedi killing career and had yet to power up all of his Force abilities.

As I mentioned before, the Vader sequence is there to impress upon the player the power he will someday have. The Apprentice starts off pretty strong with the Force, but he’s no Vader. Through gameplay, you’ll receive different types of Force experience that you can distribute in various areas of abilities. The player can increase the strength of their lightning attack, or add combo moves to their lightsaber offense, or even add the choking ability to their Force grip (4/5 Siths recommend this one!).

As far as the storyline goes, we only were allowed to take the Apprentice to the end of the factory level, where he battles against a Jedi. Since we were asked not to go into the finer points of what we saw, we won’t. But I can say that most games, if lucky, begin on a high note and then sadly fall into a boring lull.

The Force Unleashed surprised me by not doing this. You would think it would be rather difficult to accomplish this feat after such an impressive Vader intro, but the continuing story introduced new and unique characters, while giving you the impression that the apprentice is a far more complex a person than just Vader’s lackey. Considering that this game is considered to be the recount of the events that occurred between Episode III and Episode IV, a complex and well done storyline is more than welcomed.

Overall, everything looked to be in place for a game that will make fans of the movies happy with the final product. The game still has a few months to go before its September release, but it looks like as if the team in charge is headed in the right direction (maybe?). The game showed that it is trying to deliver on the aspects that fans want from a good Star Wars game, while simultaneously providing more story for the universe some of us grew up on.

Oh, yeah. As you can see from the pics, the game looks very well done. Also, the PS3 and 360 versions looked almost identical in their appearance. Thanks, and good night!