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STAR WARS: The Force Unleashed (XB360)

CoverStar Wars has a long, mostly successful history in videogames. Its titles run the quality gamut from instant classics (Shadows of the Empire) and underappreciated gems (Episode I: Racer) to failed crap (Masters of Teräs Käsi). And with a legacy spanning virtually every genre from dogfighter to MMO, it’s interesting to see how one of the franchise’s latest additions sets about carving itself a saber-sharp
niche. STAR WARS: The Force Unleashed doesn't mince words: its marquee appeal is right in the title. TFU is a game built around the idea of letting players wield devastating Force powers—an idea that it gets mostly right. The Force mechanic isn't without its hiccups; but luckily, there's more to the game than the title suggests.

TFU's story (wedged neatly between Episodes III and IV) unfolds during the final days of the Jedi purge as the Empire continues to tighten its grip on the war-torn galaxy. The game drops the player into the formidable boots of Starkiller, an "orphaned" Jedi youngster who is adopted by Darth Vader and raised as his personal Dark Side agent. The Apprentice travels across the galaxy, hunting down the last of the Jedi and eventually going undercover to stir up counterrevolutionary
forces designed to distract the Emperor from Vader's impending betrayal. Fans can expect to see a number of familiar faces (including Bail and Leia Organa) sprinkled in among the newbies. Although most of the new characters are welcome additions to the Universe, Starkiller is the only one afforded any real amount of depth. LucasArts obviously made an effort to create a compelling and conflicted personality in the game’s lead, and they certainly succeeded. It's a shame they didn't lavish as much attention on the rest of the cast. The game's narrative is fairly intriguing overall, wrought with plenty of twists and surprises. A contrite bit of sentimentality in the ending's final moments mars an otherwise engaging story; but it's a small price to pay for a tale that's both
highly relevant to the Expanded Universe and fits so remarkably well into post-Prequel canon.

LucasArts didn't skimp on the game's production values: TFU doesn't have the most impressive graphics engine, but it does feature some massive environments, beautifully rendered planetscapes, and brilliant lighting effects. In-game models move and react believably, if not
entirely realistically. It's cool to watch Force-levitated troops latch onto nearby objects to stay grounded, but it would have been nice to see enemies with guns snap off some defensive shots while hanging in midair. Most of the character models in the game's cutscenes have a stiff, robotic quality—which is great for the droids but a little awkward for humanoids—and lifeless eyes. Some
pre-rendered CG might have cleared up these problems, but they're minor complaints. All the requisite Star Wars sound effects are represented, from the crackle of colliding lightsabers to the rattle and screech of passing TIEs. Somewhat unfortunately, the requisite Star Wars music is included, as well. I've got nothing against the classic Williams score, but after having been rehashed and repurposed for countless games, it's become more than a little cliché. A derivative original title theme does little to differentiate itself from the rest of the soundtrack.

TFU's gameplay consists of combat-intensive action mixed in with some light platforming and puzzle elements. Lightsaber combat is fun and satisfyingly effective. A variety of unlockable combos, flourishes, and midair juggles, combined with a semiautomatic defense system,
mixes up the action; but a lack of any primary ranged weapons means you'll often be caught slowly advancing on groups of enemies equipped with unblockable projectiles. Adding to the frustration is most enemies' ability to interrupt your attack animations and score hits while you're knocked down. This can lead to lots of cheap deaths, especially on the game's higher difficulty settings. But the real stars of TFU are the upgradeable Force Powers, offensive and defensive Force attacks (including lightsaber throws and lighting strikes) used to augment combat and solve basic puzzles. Despite a finicky targeting system (the game often likes to choose attack points for
you), these Powers combine seamlessly with your arsenal of melee attacks, creating opportunities to chain together devastating combos and kill strings. Style points, which are awarded for creative combat and environmental destruction, can be cashed in for upgraded Force abilities and character attributes. Improving yours stats becomes essential later in the game as enemies become more pervasive and attack in larger numbers.

Some rather mindless Quick Time Events (timed button-pressing minigames) are employed to finish off powerful enemies and wrap up boss encounters; but a failsafe system that lets you instantly retry botched QTEs strips these moments of any real challenge. This bit of handholding seems especially odd next to the game’s unforgiving, rage-inducing highest difficulty setting. Swarms of overpowered enemies will quickly surround and overwhelm the player, leading to an endless repetition of unfair deaths; and don't even get me started on the boss fights. Believe me, I enjoy a challenge (and the satisfaction of unlocking an elite Achievement) as much as the next hardcore gamer, but it's tough to feel like a badass Sith apprentice when you're being habitually dispatched by clusters of torch-wielding Jawas. An occasionally unintuitive checkpoint system and inattentive camera round out the game’s major flaws; expect to sit through the
same meandering cutscenes when you repeatedly die just inside of a new area.

In addition to the single-player campaign, TFU offers a series of throw-away training room challenges. This lack of mode variety isn't especially problematic, as the gameplay doesn't exactly lend itself to multiplayer deathmatch. (A two-player, online co-op campaign mode could have been fun, but might easily have unbalanced boss fights.) Dedicated players can redo missions to collect hidden Jedi Holocrons (which unlock special costumes and lightsaber mods) and complete
secondary objectives, max out their attributes, or search the final level for an alternate, non-canon ending. Progressing through the campaign opens up a series of Extras including character and object profiles and a theater to view all of the game’s cutscenes. Promised DLC, already included with the Wii, PS2, and PSP versions of the game, should help extend the title’s lifespan. But for anyone not brave—or masochistic—enough to attempt TFU’s higher difficulties, there may be a disappointing lack of replayability here. These problems probably don’t constitute enough of an argument to dissuade Star Wars fanatics from buying the game, as the story and production values
alone are likely sufficient to satisfy series diehards. But everyone else is better off sticking to a rental.

Score: 3.5/5.0

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