Star Wars: The Force Unleashed: a Shacknews retrospective

There are many quality Star Wars games to be found in the latest Humble Bundle, many of which go back to the series’ gaming prime. One game, in particular, grabbed this writer’s attention. It was a game that promised to live out every fantasy that involved being not just a Sith Lord, but the very apprentice of Darth Vader, the mightiest villain to ever wield the Force.

With the topic of Star Wars fresh in people’s minds, thanks to the recent Humble Bundle, the upcoming Episode VII, and the success of Disney XD’s Star Wars: Rebels television show, Shacknews would like to relive Star Wars: The Force Unleashed and re-evaluate where it was strong with the Force. And of course, we look at where it was not a Jedi yet.

Mastering the Force (and the hype)
Some will describe The Force Unleashed as a game that was overly hyped. Let’s examine how that hype took form. The Force Unleashed was first announced on February 14, 2007, less than a year after George Lucas has concluded his prequel trilogy with Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith. While the ending remains a point of contention for many diehard series fans, there was no denying that there was still a hunger to see Darth Vader as he was meant to be. They didn’t want to see an anguished lover crying out to the heavens. They wanted to see the galaxy’s most ruthless bad guy cutting up his adversaries with a lightsaber and Force Choking them with disdain.

The Force Unleashed promised to continue the story of Vader in a new way, through the perspective of a previously-unknown apprentice. With the sentimental side of Anakin Skywalker a thing of the past, TFU opened up the possibility of putting Vader’s hatred on display, as well as the enticing idea of growing into the role of a Sith Lord.

Never was this more evident than in one of the game’s early trailers that saw apprentice Starkiller grab an Imperial Star Destroyer and bring it crashing down solely through the power of the Force.

It was certainly a good example of how to create positive buzz for a game, because the Force Unleashed demo would hit on August 21, 2008 with over a million people downloading it in just the first three weeks. The full game would arrive in mid-September of that year and completely shatter LucasArts sales records with over 1.5 million copies sold in just the first five days.

So just how did the story fare?

Growing up Sith
The Force Unleashed started off as strong as any Star Wars game could, with players controlling a nearly-invincible Darth Vader and tossing around wookiees like rag dolls. For many Star Wars fans, this opening stage alone was well worth the price of admission.

How about the Sith apprentice himself? Well, Starkiller was cut from the mold of his master in more ways than one. Though he had a supporting cast of his own, Starkiller was basically a blank slate that served Vader without question. He was to eventually become Vader’s greatest weapon in overthrowing Emperor Palpatine. However, as the story progressed, Starkiller started to have doubts about his upbringing, especially as he encountered Jedi Master Rahm Kota, who further taught him how to hone his Force powers. Starkiller would show many of Vader’s former human concepts, like a strong warrior’s heart and a forbidden love that would lead him to fall for pilot Juno Eclipse.

The story would explore the complicated relationship between Vader and the Emperor, who would ultimately wind up using Starkiller as a means to flush out any last vestiges of rebellion against the Empire. It would also neatly tie together some of the main plot points from Episode III and Episode IV, offering The Force Unleash as a sort of bridge between the two films. The game’s climax would offer Starkiller a choice: become the Dark Side assassin he was always raised to become or embrace his humanity by sticking by the friends he had made over the course of his journey.
What was mostly a solid story, unfortunately, wound up getting bogged down by the combat, with Starkiller’s Force-based abilities ending up as a huge letdown. Poor hit detection and balance issues would be this game’s major downfall. The Force Unleashed should have been a highlight of the Sith’s myriad of capabilities, but instead, only the Sith Lightning felt like a consistently good option. The lightsaber combat, in particular, was a major disappointment, which is always sad to see in a Star Wars title.

As for the aforementioned Star Destroyer sequence that wound up driving all the hype? That wound up more of a fight between the player and the camera, as players would spend more time fighting off Stormtrooper reinforcements and wrestling with the camera than actually bringing the Star Destroyer down. For as much hype as the original trailer sequence created, it wound up being a huge dud when the game actually released. Insert your own Star Wars prequel joke here.

The Legacy
The Force Unleashed’s place in Star Wars canon was an interesting debate among long-time fans, especially with the game’s story having some of George Lucas’ fingerprints on it. As mentioned, the story was a neat bridge between the prequels and the main trilogy, a tale that would be explored further in the game’s 2010 sequel. However, last year it all became moot, as the Disney sale officially put an end to the Star Wars Expanded Universe. Starkiller’s place in Star Wars lore was essentially erased.

That’s not to say The Force Unleashed didn’t have its merits. As a collaborative effort between George Lucas and LucasArts, the game wound up having an impressively strong Star Wars narrative. For many, it successfully washed out any lingering bitterness from Episode III and the prequels as a whole, reminding fans of why that universe was so much fun. Satisfying lightsaber combat is still a hard nut to crack and while The Old Republic is doing a decent job of it over on the MMO front, there’s still an itch out there that’s waiting to be scratched.

The latest Star Wars Humble Bundle is a reminder that there’s still a new Star Wars action game just waiting to be made, even if LucasArts is no longer with us. Starkiller’s adventure may not be perfect, but it’s a fine look into an unseen chapter of the Expanded Universe and a good prototype of the type of incredible Star Wars experience that could still one day emerge.

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