Released: September 2008
Also Available For: iOS, J2ME, N-Gage, Nintendo DS, PlayStation 2, PlayStation 3, PlayStation Portable, Nintendo Wii, PC, and Mac
Before Disney bought the entire Star Wars (Various, 1977 to present) franchise and decided to reboot it with a bunch of questionable sequels, George Lucas was still firmly behind the wheel of his signature series. Development of a new Star Wars videogame began in 2004, around the time that Lucas was finishing up Star Wars: Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (ibid, 2005), and, eventually, the developers decided to work in close collaboration with Lucas in bridging the gap between that film and the seminal Star Wars: Episode IV: A New Hope (ibid, 1977). The decision was made to introduce the idea that Darth Vader had secretly been training an apprentice, known as “Starkiller”, to not only hunt down and destroy any remaining Jedi but also to assist him in overthrowing Emperor Palpatine. In service of this, Vader would use Starkiller to form the fledging Rebel Alliance, thereby effectively creating his own downfall. While these events would later be rendered non-canon after the Disney buyout, for a time they stood as the established origins of the Rebel Alliance. Personally, I haven’t really enjoyed a Star Wars videogame since Star Wars: Rogue Squadron (Factor 5/LucasArts, 1998) and have only dipped in and out of subsequent titles as the franchise has dabbled in almost every conceivably genre. I’d heard, however, that The Force Unleashed was a pretty decent title, if mired by some frustrating controls and gameplay elements. Nevertheless, distrustful of Electronic Arts and their shameless loot crates and being unwilling (read: poor) to shell out for Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order (Respawn Entertainment, 2019) yet having a Star Wars itch, I decided to take the plunge with The Force Unleashed and see if it holds up after all this time.
During his mission to hunt down and destroy the remaining Jedi, Darth Vader stumbles upon the son of a Jedi, whom he takes as a secret apprentice. Trained in the Dark Side of the Force, Vader’s secret assassin, Starkiller, is sent out into the galaxy to purge the Jedi and lay the foundations for Vader’s coup against the Emperor.
Star Wars: The Force Unleashed is, like many Star Wars videogames, a third-person action title in which the player controls Starkiller, a troubled and damaged young man who is strong with the Force and well-trained in the Sith arts. As a result, Starkiller wields a lightsaber and can use the Force in a variety of ways to strike down those before him. Combat is largely built around the execution of combos that string together successful lightsaber strikes with Force abilities. Starkiller can blast foes with Force Lightning, push or toss them (and objects) with Force Push and Force Grip, blast them away with Force Repulse, or envelop himself in a life-sapping Force Shield. As he cuts down Jedi and Stormtroopers alike, he earns experience points which can be used to unlock additional combos and improves his abilities. Luckily, there’s no crafting system and the skill tree is ridiculously easy; you can acquire crystals that will allow you to customise the look and abilities of Starkiller’s lightsaber and can improve the strength of his various attacks or regenerative abilities by spending Force Points.
Speaking of Starkiller’s lightsaber, you know he’s a bad-ass not just because he has a no-nonsense buzzcut or a near-permanent scowl but also because he holds his lightsaber backwards! What a rebel! Holding down L2 will allow Starkiller to block incoming blaster fire and attacks (and pressing it at the right moment will also allow him to parry), though he can also automatically send bolts back to his foes as he runs along. Lightsaber combat is simple and fluid; hitting X at the right moment will initiate a fancy flourish that can be chained with subsequent attacks to deal massive damage, and Starkiller can even hurl his lightsaber like a boomerang to take out ranged foes and charge it with his Force Lightning to electrocute his enemies. It’s not all combat and tossing fools to their death with the Force, though; you’ll have your reaction time tested in more than a few quick-time events (QTEs) and Starkiller generally navigates through a limited number of largely limited, if relatively-well-realised environments, jumping and dashing his way to a series of objectives. There’s some light platforming here that requires the use of a double jump and dash, and a few extremely basic puzzles that pretty much always boil down to using the Force to move something to either cross a gap or open a door (or, sometimes, both!)
While Starkiller controls very well, what will mess you up is the game’s wonky physics engine, unreliable camera, and janky controls; I struggled endlessly with the Force Grip, which either allowed me to suspend objects uselessly in mid air or sent them careening futilely against a wall and, as many have commented. This becomes a massive source of frustration during what should have been the game’s crowning achievement: pulling a Star Destroyer from the sky. While pulling the ship down wasn’t actually that difficult (though it is frustrating having to angle it into the right position), it’s the wave-upon-wave of TIE Fighters that make this so aggravating. Starkiller can’t deflect TIE Fighter fire and the only way to destroy them is to grab them with the Force and, I swear, it’s damn near impossible to get a grip on them.
Compounding the matter is the fact that Starkiller is actually quite weak; you can upgrade his health and Force meter and the damage he can receive and dish out, but he bounces around the place like a puppet when he’s blasted with heavy weaponry and sometimes takes so long to jump back up that he can get blasted to death with very little effort. As a result, you’ll be constantly jumping and dashing about cutting down the regular Stromtroopers to refill your health and allow you to pummel away at the game’s tougher enemies. While the game is a decent length and tells a pretty engaging story about Starkiller’s eventual redemption and sacrifice, the level variety leaves a lot to be desired. Every environment feels very Star Wars and you’ll battle through a TIE Fighter factory, the woodlands of Kashyyyk, and even through the Death Star itself but the problem is that you basically revisit the same environments twice over. You begin the game as a fully-powered Vader slaughtering Wookies on Kashyyyk and later revisit this planet as Starkiller; Starkiller journeys to Raxus Prime to assassinate a Jedi and later returns there to rescue key figures of the Rebellion. Other environments, like Tatooine and Coruscant, appear as downloadable content (DLC) but it would have really helped to increase the game’s visual variety to have these levels be a part of the main story.
Graphics and Sound:
Graphically, the game is…okay. The computer-generated cutscenes are well-produced but, while the in-game graphics do a serviceable enough job of rendering the game’s handful of levels and environments, they don’t make for very attractive in-game cutscenes. It also seems like the developers were desperate to cram as many different physics engines into the game as possible, from Havok to Euphoria, in order to make the game “state of the art”. However, while the enemies have relatively decent levels of intelligence (Stormtroopers just blast away but the Purge Troopers and Felucian’s systematically attack you with blocks and co-ordinated attacks) and the environments are largely intractable and destructible, the game is riddled with rag-doll physics, glitchy platforms (Starkiller is just as likely to slide off a ledge as he is to land on it), and dodgy graphical elements (the backgrounds are teeming with life and action but then some barriers and trees just disintegrate into dust and fade away).
Yet, the game is filled with familiar Star Wars music and compositions based upon the works of the great John Williams. There’s something incredibly empowering about cutting Wookies down as Darth Vader while the iconic Imperial March plays and the music definitely lends a level of professionalism and quality to the game that is, generally, matched by the game’s recognisable environments.
Enemies and Bosses:
The Force Unleashed is filled with all manner of enemies; while you’ll wade through legions of Stormtroopers who go down with relative ease, you’ll also come up against some of the Empire’s more advanced troops who make use of cloaking technology, gatling guns, blast you with concussive bolts from jetpacks, or erect Force-resistant shields. Then there are the enemies who use energy shields or weapons to block and parry your attacks, the likes of the Purge Troopers who grapple Starkiller and want nothing more than to bash his brains in, or the always-annoying Sniper Troopers who pick you off from a distance. Starkiller will also battle Force-sensitive enemies, like the Felucians, or those like the Emperor’s Royal Guard who wield lightsaber-like staffs and weapons and require you to break through their defences to land a combo.
Sometimes you’ll have to target a specific enemy in order to “demoralise” the other troops; this is essential as, when your enemies are bolstered by these bastards, they can kill you in short order. Starkiller will also frequently come up against AT-STs and Rancors as well; these larger enemies are often flanked by waves of smaller enemies and can whittle your health down to nothing in no time with their powerful attacks so you’ll have to make use of Starkiller’s ranged Force abilities and combos and then win at a QTE to put them down for good.
As for boss battles, these are pretty much all against Jedi, Sith, or similarly-Force-empowered individuals. While each of these encounters is largely the same (block or parry attacks while you wait for an opening, cut down cannon fodder to refill your health, use your Force powers to throw objects at the boss, and win a QTE), each takes place with slightly different environmental and additional hazards. You’ll duel with Shaak Ti beside a Sarlacc pit, for example, have to contend with Maris Brood’s Bull Rancor, and will have to battle simulations of not only the Jedi you’ve defeated before but also a recreation of Darth Maul when facing off with Starkiller’s droid, PROXY.
The finale of the game obviously sees you butting heads with Starkiller’s former master, Darth Vader; this is a three (or four, depending on your choice) stage fight that begins in a narrow hallway, progresses to a room where the floor is (almost literally) lava, and ends in the Emperor’s observation deck. Ironically, I found Vader to be less challenging than some of the game’s other bosses as, while he has a powerful Force blast and will choke you out of the air, it’s not actually too difficult to weather his attacks and wail on him with your best combos. After besting Vader, you’re presented with a choice to finish him off in a battle to the death (thus earning the Dark Side ending) or going one-on-one with the Emperor to achieve the Light Side ending. Rather than attacking with a lightsaber, Palpatine uses his Force Lightning to roast you alive, shields himself from your attacks, and throws lightning-charged objects at you (that also explode). This battle is more annoying than difficult as, with careful timing, you can bounce Palpatine’s lightning back at him and whittle him away with your combos as long as you can avoid or block his other attacks.
Power-Ups and Bonuses:
As mentioned, you can acquire, upgrade, and purchase new combos and abilities as you play through the game and level up; by the time you confront the Emperor, you can take quite a bit of punishment, your Force meter will refill faster, and your attacks will dish out far more damage thanks not just to being upgraded but also to the new combos available to you.
As you explore your environment, you can also pick up Jedi Holocrons, which will refill your health and Force meter, award Jedi points, and yield other awards (like new lightsaber crystals). With the right lightsaber crystal, your lightsaber can deal more damage or suck health from your opponents, and you’ll also unlock additional artwork, costumes, and other bonuses by finding all of the Holocrons. Starkiller can also increase his odds with one-time buffs by picking up Sith Holocrons; these will grant you with limited invincibility, refill your meters, bestow you with an aura that will drain the health from enemies, or give you an unlimited Force meter for a brief time. Against some of the game’s tougher enemies and mini bosses, these can be essential so make the effort to pick them up and take out the more annoying enemies.
As mentioned, you can unlock a bunch of concept art and data files by playing the game and collecting Jedi Holocrons. There are also a large number of additional costumes available for use; none of these offer any benefit beyond being cosmetic changes but they do allow you to play as other Star Wars characters, including Obi-Wan Kenobi and even C-3PO! There are three DLC missions you can also play if you bought the extra content (or the Ultimate Sith Edition); one sees Starkiller undergo a series of trials in the Jedi Temple on Coruscant while the other two take place on Tatooine and Hoth and present an alternative scenario where Starkiller replaced Vader as the Emperor’s assassin and battles some familiar faces. As standard, there are a number of Achievements to unlock; most of these are earned through regular play, while other require you to kill a certain number of enemies in different ways or play on higher difficulty settings.
Star Wars: The Force Unleashed is, ultimately, an average experience; the combat is fast and frenetic and it’s fun to fry Stormtroopers with Force Lightning or cut AT-STs in half but the game quickly runs out of depth and steam and it isn’t long before you’ve experienced everything it has to offer. Starkiller was an interesting protagonist but the story of his redemption is, honestly, nothing we’ve never seen before in Star Wars movies or other media. It doesn’t help that he has to constantly travel through the same environments, fighting variations of the same enemies, and battling against some really dodgy physics and a camera that just loves to get stuck behind objects or jitter about the place at crucial moments. The game’s more frustrating elements really hamper the thrill of fighting through the Death Star laser cannon; battling Jedi and the iconic Sith duo is fun but also a laborious experience that generally comes down to dodging an attack and just mashing away at X like a madman until you win. Despite the fact that the game carries a large degree of sensory fidelity to the Star Wars movies and offers perhaps the best lightsaber combat I’ve experienced so far, it seems to be lacking a real polish to bring together is disparate elements into a cohesive and consistently engaging experience.
Could Be Better
What were your thoughts on Star Wars: The Force Unleashed? Did you also struggle with the game’s wonky physics, camera, and controls or do you consider it to not actually be that bad? What is your favourite Star Wars videogame (or movie, or show, or book, or whatever), if any? Either way, leave a comment below and let me know.