The basic premise of Star Wars: The Force Unleashed is a stroke of brilliance: in the years between Episodes III and IV, Darth Vader takes a secret apprentice and puts him to work mopping up the few remaining Jedi.

Finally we can dispense with all the self-righteous moralizing and embrace the awesome power of the dark side, right? Sort of.

The first of Star Wars: The Force Unleashed level sets Vader himself loose on the lush Wookiee home world of Kashyyyk, and serves as an abrupt and fleeting exposure to the full suite of Dark Side powers.

When you're done slicing through flea-bags, stripping bark from their precious trees, and vanquishing the ineffectual Jedi they're so desperate to protect, you come across a child prodigy who is so powerful that he manages to yank away the Dark Lord of the Sith's lightsaber. Decades of training and abuse later, the now grown Starkiller (yeah, that's not obvious) heads out into the cosmos at his master's behest, delivering swift and silent death wherever he goes.

Now, you would think that someone who grew up being force-fed a diet of the Dark Side would be a seething wreck, muttering insanities and pulling out his hair by the fistful, but Starkiller seems like a surprisingly well-adjusted person, especially considering all the suspicious cuts and bruises that line his face and body.

This might sound like a minor inconsistency, but it's actually a significant narrative problem. How are you to "embrace the dark side" or care about Starkiller's journey of redemption when he starts out feeling so bland? The rest of the story is also problematic - it's painted with such broad strokes that you're unlikely to care what happens to any of the characters when the credits roll.

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The basic premise of Star Wars: The Force Unleashed is a stroke of brilliance: in the years between Episodes III and IV, Darth Vader takes a secret apprentice and puts him to work mopping up the few remaining Jedi.

Breaking stuff

The good news, though, is that Starkiller can kick some serious ass.

Star Wars: The Force Unleashed doles out your powers at a leisurely pace over nine missions, from the gorgeous fungal terrain of Felucia to the vivid metallic graveyard of Raxus Prime, but the coolest are available right from the jump.

Using Force Grip and Force Push, you can pick up and throw or just knock around parts of the environment, from enemies who reach out in mid-air for a handhold to exploding barrels and scrap metal.

Lobbing debris around is enormously entertaining, and as you send crowds of stormtroopers sprawling through glass and chuck exploding orbs into passing Tie Fighters, you can almost forgive the fact that your projectiles don't go where you intend them to at least a third of the time.

Maybe you'll be more jazzed about violent arcs of Force Lightning, or heaving your lightsaber around like a boomerang, but I found that Force Grip and Force Push made the most entertaining use of the clutter in the early missions. One fault I found with Grip and Push, however, was that larger objects like AT-ST laser turrets take a lot of force to lift. That makes sense logistically but standing still in the middle of the firefight to mentally heft a huge piece of debris is less a potent display of power and more an unintentional attempt at suicide.

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The basic premise of Star Wars: The Force Unleashed is a stroke of brilliance: in the years between Episodes III and IV, Darth Vader takes a secret apprentice and puts him to work mopping up the few remaining Jedi.

Under siege

I also didn't like that despite multiple grades to Starkiller's powers, including combo attacks, improved Force Powers, and new tricks like satisfying spherical repulsion blasts, I felt less and less like a preternaturally gifted warrior and more like an overmatched gimp.

It's only natural for a game's challenges to get progressively tougher over time, but Force Unleashed threw me some unfair curveballs like troops who suddenly gain immunities against my attacks and snipers who knocked me on my ass from long-distance. I kept feeling like Starkiller was on a short leash that grew tighter as the game progressed; rather than feel a sense that my powers were culminating in a vicious bloodbath of Dark Side goodness, it felt more like they were being systematically suppressed.

It didn't help that I sometimes had to hit the button for a particular attack multiple times before Starkiller responded, that every single boss battle ultimately devolved into a timed button-pushing exercise, or that finding my way past environmental non-puzzles boiled down to simply keeping an eye out for a conveniently placed throbbing blue glow.

The Force Unleashed marches you through screen after screen of combat that grows increasingly monotonous as your powers decline in effectiveness, and then robs the most memorable moments that follow of their interactivity and logic.

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The basic premise of Star Wars: The Force Unleashed is a stroke of brilliance: in the years between Episodes III and IV, Darth Vader takes a secret apprentice and puts him to work mopping up the few remaining Jedi.

Student driver

The most glaring example of this was when I was given the monumental task of forcing a distant Star Destroyer to crash. But rather than just pull the damn thing down from the sky, I had to carefully orient the massive ship in the sky just so before I could coax it downward inch by inch. What the hell? Am I trying to destroy the damn thing, or learn how to parallel park it? Just crash it already.

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Star Wars: The Force Unleashed: Specs

  • Xbox 360
  • PS3
  • PS2
  • DS
  • PSP
  • Wii
  • Xbox 360
  • PS3
  • PS2
  • DS
  • PSP
  • Wii

OUR VERDICT

Make no mistake: you can have a lot of fun with The Force Unleashed. One of the greatest joys during my time with the game was revisiting the more entertaining early levels with all my new tricks intact. But as I alternated at will between electrocuting goons, uncorking floods of psychokinetic rage, and blasting everything to hell and gone, I couldn't help but wish that the rest of the game underscored that early sense of freedom, instead of slowly collapsing your options and sabotaging the otherwise expansive combat possibilities.

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