Review by TNTales
"The Force is.... LOADING..."
I wanted so bad to love this game. I even like Episode 2! I had this game preordered since last year and was destroyed when it was pushed back. It's canon to the franchise (bridges Episode 3 to 4), you get to play on the dark side and you have 3 different engines (havok, euphoria, DMM) that were supposed to revolutionize gameplay! All this and on my PS3 to boot. Sadly, it looks like a year wasn't enough. TFU is retro in every way and that's not a good thing. I'm writing this review to save others the time and frustration this game causes.
I will say this. I have not finished the game and do not plan to. Many people will say that you should finish a game before you review it. If I were a professional this would most likely be true. As I am an amateur, I don't have to bang my head on the wall for 8 hours to know that it hurts. A few good whacks is all I need. I played up to the boss on the second planet and almost broke my controller. This play time is sufficient to address the many issues that plague this game, both in terms of design and execution. It does no good to continue a car race if you are missing a couple of wheels. TFU is missing wheels and a few other key parts.
Read on to see why...
Graphics: 7/10 (Sufficient but Flawed)
In the age of games like Dead Space or perhaps the better example would be Uncharted, next generation systems are supposed to deliver high resolution images and do so at a steady frame rate. TFU accomplishes neither. The textures are pretty good and there is little pop-in but heavy aliasing abounds (just look at a floor grate and how all the lines blur and blend). Doom 3 on the XBOX looked better in places. The faces look great but the only ones you really see are yours and your pilot and the occasional Jedi you fight. Most other foes (Storm Troopers, Rebel Troopers) have masks or helmets on so you really can't tell. It's also difficult to tell some times how to proceed as visual cues don't always work.
For example there is a puzzle that requires me to use force powers to move an object. However, unless I'm right next to the object it may not trigger the glow to let me know what to do. In and of itself this would be forgivable, but other issues creep in as well, some of which we'll discuss later. Finally there is slowdown in large battles (or even medium battles on large areas).
Also in some of the interstitial cutscenes (like landing on a planet) it looks like a matte painting with a 3D object moving through it. If this were the art style throughout the game it would be okay. As it is, it looks cheap and out of place.
In total, the work is good but not that much better than Jedi Academy. It also follows the series idea of the ice planet, the space station, the desert/lava planet, etc. While it makes for some variation it feels a little been there, done that. Speaking of the Dark Forces series, we will now turn to this game's predecessors to further nail the coffin shut.
Gameplay: 5/10 (Has some interesting ideas, poor implementation)
Gameplay was once described to me as the 60 seconds that a gamer repeats through a majority of play. For example, in a platform game like Mario, the game play consists of left or right on the d-pad and the jump or fire buttons. That action you repeat over and over again is the base gameplay. Unfortunately the revolution we were promised in Force Unleashed turned out to be more like the Bay of Pigs (look it up on Wikipedia).
The gameplay isn't appreciably different from the games preceding this one. In both Dark Forces, Jedi Outcast, and Jedi Academy you play as a novice force wielder who does a lot of 3D platforming, using basic force powers for combat and puzzle solving, and hacking with a lightsaber (granted the gifting of said legendary weapon came later in the earlier games and was a point of criticism). The basics are still the same, 3D Platform, Force Puzzle, Combat. Not that it is bad on its face. Rather the devil (or the Sith) is in the details.
The game does a poor job of introducing new powers as you get them. The game starts with a little tutorial on grab and throw (the most complex single power usage) but doesn't really tell you about your other powers. This leads to experimentation that sometimes yields humorous and cool moments (force grenades) or not knowing that a particular chain of powers is required for a specific objective. Did I mention that there is a load screen if you want to see the mission objectives?
The game suffers from significant load times, even after a mandatory install (of about 4 minutes). This makes much of the game an exercise in waiting. Want to check your mission objectives? Press Select and wait. Want to upgrade your force powers? Press select and wait. Accidentally exit the upgrade screen, wait. Go back into the upgrade screen, wait. I think you get the picture.
This extends to deaths which consist of trial and error on puzzle. Accidentally walk off a ledge and wait. These are good 5-10 seconds (10 seconds is longer than you think) and it completely throws the player out of the gameplay. Not to mention the spacing of checkpoints isn't the greatest. It may be that a difficult battle you barely survive is followed by a puzzle or platforming element. However, the checkpoint doesn't trigger until after you complete the platforming/puzzle. This means that not only do you die, wait, then reload, you have to refight the battle every time just because you missed a double jump. This makes for a lot of frustration.
The engines that power the game, Havok (who we all know and love for its ragdolls), DMM (Terrain and object altering), and Euphoria (the intelligent enemy reaction) were supposed to revolutionize gaming. In short, they don't, at least not in any appreciable way. Think of it as putting chrome on a bumper and claiming you have a better car.
Havok works as it always has with some lovely ragdoll animations for tossing storm troopers. DMM you probably won't notice so much. There are only certain things you can rip out of the wall or roof and they feel like pieces (honestly in many sections I was reminded of LEGO Star Wars, which, in my opinion, is a superior game) instead of deforming a ship to rip its guts out and throw them at people.
Euphoria amounts to an occasional enemy jumping out of the way of said tossed object or should you pick him up with the force he might grab a handrail from which no amount of shaking will loosen (I end up just force blasting them off). Many of the DMM moments like breaking glass or deformation of the level have been done in the past in games like Red Faction (fairly crude admittedly) or another LucasArts game, Fracture (which I have not played). You won't see anything that couldn't be handled in scripting or other methods. In short you won't see anything here (gameplay wise) you haven't seen somewhere else and done better.
On another note of gameplay, the targeting system is rather poor. Target selection is not manual but based on line of sight (I.e. point hero at object, activate force power, throw object) and should be relatively simple to use. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Many times I would use Force Push or Lightning and shoot at a wall when I couldn't turn to hit my enemy. Also on numerous occasions I attempted to pick up a person or object close to me only to have the game pick up another object farther away or make a similarly illogical choice (i.e. a stack of crates, I aim at them and the game selects the crate on the bottom).
If the force powers were not required for nearly every encounter that would be okay. As it stands many times you will have a Gatling gun in your face, try to pick the fellow up and toss him, only to grab a crate behind him and throw it at a wall. Or in the face of the mass of enemies behind every door (who obviously load right before you round the corner, making tactical use of powers pointless) The force controls are rather tank like for the force grip.
Grip will be a major power as it is used for most puzzles and a lot of combat, which consists of grabbing objects and throwing them at the enemy, or grabbing an object (or person) and hitting it with lightning to make an electrical grenade, and then throwing them. Sometimes you'll actually have to use your lightsaber but this is less than stellar as you essentially mash buttons. Think Devil May Cry without as much style with force powers on top of it.
Which brings me to the next point. For the Force being a focus of the game a majority of the time you'll be picking up enemies and tossing them, usually over a large drop, to kill them instead of fighting them, which is essentially what I've done in the other games in the series. Say what you want about a lack of imagination but I prefer the path of least resistance in my entertainment.
If you get surrounded by hordes of melee opponents you'll use your force push (which you also use to blast open doors) to give yourself some room. Thus things like lightning are more flavor items than requirements, although force grenades (electrified enemies tossed around) are cool and many of the miniboss encounters require specific powers. For all my criticism I must say that some of the coolest moments in the game came from mashing these powers together and using them.
Also, for a game that has such giant locations there's really not a chance to explore, nor much of a reward for doing so besides XP bonuses you find. Generally though it's very linear and prone to button mashing which, as I have said, was better done and more fun in LEGO Star Wars.
The game is also insistent that certain things must be done a specific way. This makes the game fairly linear and counts on you thinking the same way the developer did when solving a puzzle. It keeps you from doing things that would seem logical in certain situations such as stacking crates to reach a higher objective, this fails as the controls make it hard to stack and the items shift when you jump on them. So you can't just move a series of crates, restack them and then jump on them.
Essentially you only need Force Grip and everything else is just there for show until you hit a set piece or a boss battle, which, again, is the same its always been in the series. The problem with making the force a gameplay element is that it's either too strong or the use of them becomes too complicated.
We'll use the Grip for our example. If you can use it like Vader can you can just rip out a chunk of spaceship and kill everyone in the room. As a gameplay element, it would be broken. The challenge would have to be artificial (which happens in this game, and I'll get to) like have his force powers muffled by some force-muffling device.
So, if we do keep Grip at strength but still want a challenge we could have the character level up his/her Grip and can only lift/manipulate objects of a certain weight. But that gets over complicated as the player has to know the weight of a crate or other throwable and would make individual enemies tougher to fight it one had a bigger gun.
Rather than make the game more complicated, or broken, most powers are nerfed. This means they aren't as powerful as they would be in real life. So lightning does small damage, as does push and you are left with the simple but powerful Grip tool. Thus it will be your go to tool all the time and when the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.
I'll end the gameplay section with a note on boss fights. It is in boss fights that you finally use your other powers, or combinations thereof to beat a boss. In boss encounters the camera is terrible and the difficulty artificially inflated (even if it is canon).
In a boss fight, which is usually in a well-done dramatic set-piece, the camera becomes more broad and cinematic. Thus the character can look small if he's far from the boss. This is not bad, except that it makes a difficult control system worse (which I'll cover in the next section). Also, a major gripe with the series is that boss battles generally require a specific solution and you can't use your force powers as the more powerful enemies "block" them.
What this amounts too is that the boss can use powers you can't. So he'll force pulse, electrocute and toss you around while he conveniently blocks the use of your powers, unlike any other enemy in the game. Most of the time you can't hack them to death with your saber either as this does negligible damage. Thus you are required to perform some esoteric or set-piece based attack (like push guy towards laser, grab laser to hit guy) until you trigger a timed button-press finish.
So the game gives you all sorts of cool toys and takes most of them away when it counts. The solution to keep you from just grabbing the guy and tossing him off a ledge is to make it impossible (or extremely hard) to grab. And to boot, if you throw him over the ledge (as is the case with one boss in particular) he just climbs back up the side. Too bad you can't do the same, eh?
Finally from a gameplay perspective even though you play as the bad guy there isn't any sense of that as you fight faceless republic enemies and storm troopers. Thus while there is more variety to enemy skins, the changes are for the most part cosmetic (with some story exceptions).
CONTROLS: 5/10 (Innovative concepts poorly implemented)
Eee-gad is this bad. So much about this game feels retro in a bad way. First off basic movement controls. These are not analog so pushing slightly on the stick is the same as full tilt run. This makes jumping puzzles frustrating as you want to edge close to something only to have our hero run past it. This leads to the largest and most unforgivable frustration - The WALKS OFF A LEDGE problem.
Yes, WOAL ©. We thought we had banished that horror years ago with Tomb Raider and Prince of Persia having grip animations for ledges, other games having the character stop at the edge and go wooha and not fall over unless you pushed him over. However, in Force Unleashed get ready for a lot of walking off ledges, cliffs, overhangs, platforms, even relatively safe areas that are very wide. This last happens most often when you miss with your force grip. If you miss and try to use the analog sticks to move the object you move yourself off a ledge. We'll be nice and not mention deaths caused by enemies using unbreakable combos in the second level. After this you will be rewarded with a nice long load time. So, you spend a lot of the time falling or missing a jump, reloading, and trying again. This was cutting edge in 1993. Now it's embarrassing.
We've spoken about the targeting system. As it is currently, you turn the hero to face an enemy or object, that person or thing is highlighted, and you may manipulate it accordingly. In principle. The game has no manual targeting or a means of cycling through targets. This amounts to a lot of trial and error, mostly error.
In a game where so many things can be force gripped, many times I found myself gripping things I did not want to, such as a lifting a crate when I was trying to throw away a guy with a big weapon hitting me over the head. Also, the controls for manipulating objects that are force gripped are spotty. Left stick moves toward and away, left and right, while the right stick moves up and down.
The throw, again in principle, allows you to pick up an enemy, move them to a useful position and then throw them using analog sticks (move the direction you want to throw, release grip). This allows you to wield massive objects like TIE fighters which gives you a real sense of power. However, when it comes to manipulating smaller objects the controls break down.
Something as simple as gripping a storm trooper and using him as a body shield is incredibly hard. It's like our hero lacks fine motor skills in some cases. Also the force controls suffer just like the movement controls. It's very hard to move something precisely as there's not really an analogue sense of movement so there's a lot of move this way, back the other way, no this way, making it very difficult in combat, wasting a lot of force power.
If our hero was this bad in reality, he wouldn't be Darth Vader's maid, much less apprentice.
The game also lacks any sense of mass or weight to the objects. Am I lifting a 50 gallon drum or a plastic chair? Even a little animation and a grunt would give an idea. As it is you're never sure if you're throwing something deadly or just pitching pennies.
General rule is throw it far enough and it will kill/die. The same strategies that helped you beat the other games in the series work well here and there really isn't enough encouragement to do otherwise. Grip, toss, repeat.
Lightsaber combat feels like button mashing, even though there is a combo system that can do some interesting things if one wishes to invest time (and menu loading) to read and learn them. My understanding from playing the game is this if you're using your lightsaber, you're playing it wrong. So the lightsaber is a last ditch weapon for when your force bar runs low.
In boss fights these problems are compounded. As mentioned boss fights have a different camera, exploding out to cover the cool set-piece. Sadly, with all the jumping around and cool time-sensitive button events, I spent a lot of time with my back to the enemy. Not because he got behind me, but because I jumped behind him and had to turn around. Even executing air attacks would sometimes have me shooting random objects or grabbing something on the other side of the screen. Rarely was I able to consistently grab objects and throw them at enemies and sometimes our hero would miss entirely when there was only one giant enemy on the screen.
The controls are not broken but many deaths can be attributed to bad controls and bad design. There are more cheap deaths and 5-10 second load times than any game I've played in 5 years (and I played Kane and Lynch). A game like this requires solid controls, especially with the force powers which are your primary tool. It would be like having Killzone and having a character that routinely turned a 180 before he shot. A lot of bullets in the wall, controllers in the TV, and blood pressure pills.
Finally, the most impressive moments are handled via interactive button press sequences (popularized by Resident Evil 4 and the God of War series and now done to death). While it allows for some impressive moves (such as crushing an AT-ST into a little scrap cube) it isn't particularly inventive. It is nice to say that these controls actually work.
SOUND: 8/10 (Above average, with some minor flaws)
The voice work is excellent, from our hero down to the innocent jawas he slays (that never gets old). The soundtrack is the same John Williams score LucasArts has been using for the past 10 years and while it doesn't innovate, it's so part of the Star Wars Experience, that it would be disappointing if it wasn't there. The only thing to criticize is some of the foley work (foley are sound effects like shoes on gravel). In several places my character was walking on a metal floor and the walking sounded like I was stomping with big boots instead of being the lithe character he's supposed to be. It's one of those things that, if done correctly, you won't notice it. In short, nothing new, but for once in this game that's a good thing.
STORY: ?/10 (Not Rated)
As I didn't complete the game it would be unfair to slam the game on it. What I saw of it was interesting and the best part of the game, which is fine if the other parts actually function.
Replay Value: 4/10 (You might finish the game, but won't play it again)
If it's such a pain to make it through on the default difficult setting why would I want to go back through a second time on a harder difficulty level? I really did try to like this game and to complete it. But the frustration level was so high in the first 3 hours of gameplay that I couldn't see spending anymore time on it. It may be bad form to review a game you haven't finished it, but in this case, not finishing it is as devastating a review as anything.
OVERALL: 6/10 (really 5.5)
If you are a die hard fan, this might be worth buying, everybody else I suggest renting, and only after you've played all those other games you were thinking about playing. This game gets a 6 because for all of my complaints there are some awesome moments where you feel like the galaxy's most potent badass and have the world at your command. You are the unstoppable assassin, apprentice to Darth Vader himself! No one can defeat you, except that ledge there. Oops. LOADING....
There's not enough here to warrant a buy for casual fans, and barely enough for a rent. If you can deal with the frustration levels, TFU has some great moments. Unfortunately all the time was spent working on the great moments and the average moments just aren't good enough.
Reviewer's Rating: 3.0 - Fair
Originally Posted: 11/03/08
Game Release: Star Wars: The Force Unleashed (US, 09/16/08)
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