The Force Unleashed


What is it about Star Wars? I just don’t know. Despite the disappointing prequels, despite the time passing, despite Kevin J. Anderson, there’s still something very comfortable about hanging around the Star Wars universe. People get a little down on the video games that George Lucas’s own personal empire has spawned, but inamongst the massive quantity, there has been quality. Dark Forces. Knights of the Old Republic. If I were even more old school I’d list TIE Fighter, most likely, but I’m not.

And now we have The Force Unleashed — billed as an opportunity to really go to town with all those awesome force powers that you never quite got to exploit in any of the other games. And exploit you will. You’ll crush AT-STs, you’ll blast Rancors with enough electricity to solve the energy crisis. You’ll do some awesome stuff. However, you’ll do it through the equivalent of a very, very slow game of Guitar Hero. Or to put it another way, I hope you like quick time events.

I have lived in houses where the very mention of such things will start intense argument. They’re divisive mechanics; some have seen them done well (Resident Evil 4, I’m reliably informed), and some have only ever seen their dark side. I have a problem with them — at least in their form in The Force Unleashed — and it is the following:

  • Normally, if you see a progress bar, you’d assume that you need to get it from one side to the other in order to complete the task. However when fighting an AT-ST or somesuch, you’ll find that you actually only have to drop their health by about four fifths, and the rest is miraculously taken care of in the quick time event. This means you can spend precious, precious moments desperately trying to smash some horrible beastie, when if you just let yourself fall to the ground, you’d be able to start the quick time event and kill them. At least, the bar could be a different colour for the bit which you don’t have to do yourself.
  • Any monkey can press random buttons when asked to. There’s no reference between the game and which button you press until after you press it — when the effect is related to that button. But it’s not like you see a Rancor staggering and think “I have to use lightning here, but for the love of god, I don’t want to push him, for that would miraculously heal him and make me repeat all my steps.”
  • I like mini-games. Who doesn’t enjoy the occasional game of Pazaak? But quick time events are mini games that developers couldn’t be bothered making. I can imagine the first time someone came up with them. “Jeez, we want a knife fight here. Who’ll make a knife-fighting mini game? No, wait, hang on, what if we just told them to press the A button to win?” “We can’t do that. That’s lazy.” “OK, what if we told them to press A, then B, then Z?” “That’s ridiculous.” “Alright, I’ve got it. We’ll tell them to press A, B and Z — but in a different order every time!!!!” “You are a genius. I take my hat off to you. Let’s leave early today.”

I’ve got another problem with the game, but before I go into it, let me first provide a disclaimer along the lines of I might just suck. That said — in much of The Force Unleashed, it just takes too damn long for Mr Apprentice to respond to things you do. I realise that its arguably more realistic to not always be able to change what you’re doing mid-action, but for heaven’s sake, I’m supposed to be an awesome Jedi/Sith with lightning coming from my fingertips. It’s… unseemly to be getting knocked to the ground, waiting several seconds to get back up, only to have homing missiles knock me over again. Not to mention, tremendously irritating. Towards the end of the game, there are moments where you’re surrounded by snipers and other associated bastards with homing bullets, so that no matter how nimble and jedi-quick you’re being, no matter what angle you’re running relative to your attackers, you’ll still keep getting knocked over, and most likely immediately killed due to your subsequent prolonged bout of immobility.

But let us not get sidetracked with irritating quibbles. There are two things worth playing this game for, assuming they sound appealing to you. One, is a decent and involving story set before the original Star Wars trilogy which fits in reasonably neatly with the movies.1 It’s surprisingly compelling, though the central relationship feels a bit cliched. Luckily, it’s underplayed as well, so it doesn’t really get up your nose. It might be because I wasn’t expecting much, but the few twists sprinkled throughout the story genuinely surprised me.

The second virtue of The Force Unleashed is, perhaps unsurprisingly, being allowed to unleash the force. Cleverly, the game gives you a good taste of it in the prequel level when you play as Darth Vader with every power known to Sith-kind.2 You can throw people, you can push them, you can zap them, or even a combination of all three. It’s tremendously enjoyable when it works, but unfortunately for me, I found lifting people less and less practical as the game went on, as there were more and more people shooting at me while I did so. The game does provide an incentive for you to endeavour to kill people amusingly though — you’re rewarded for amassing force points at the end of each level.

The game contains your obligatory collectables — in this case holocrons which as well as satisfying your inner obsessive compulsive, also occasionally grant stat boosts and lightsaber crystals. Thus, they’re slightly more exciting and fulfilling than pigeons. The levelling up system works well, though the ‘pick anything you like’ system is ultimately less interesting than the choices one has to make in a skill tree. Close combat is more interesting than you might expect, especially against baddies who parry your lightsaber strikes and force you both to retreat a few metres to regroup; an elegant way to make a dedicated button-basher like yours truly stop and think about what the hell he’s doing.

So: if the idea of wrapping yourself up in a big Star Wars blanket and using the force to decimate your enemies sounds pleasant, you don’t mind a few imperfections and flaws, and you can stand to hear someone who isn’t James Earl Jones trying to recreate Darth Vader’s voice,3 then this game is for you.

  1. I’m not saying it’s seamless, but it’s an improvement on certain prominent recent efforts in that no one dies before meeting characters who will later claim to know them.
  2. Reviews have complained that the come-down to knowing none of them afterwards is no fun. I can’t say I understand this viewpoint and so have no rebuttal to it.
  3. This, for me, is the biggest flaw in the game. I don’t care how much Mr Jones was asking for — if there’s one voice in the world which is utterly inimitable, it’s that one.

5 Responses to “The Force Unleashed”

  1. Quick time events are better when the action is at least vaguely related to the button. There also should be some tension which requires the fast reflexes. Then it’s more a helpful reminder and less like being told how to play the game.

    Most of the game encouraged experimenting with force powers and being creative, except for the boss fights, when most of you powers wouldn’t work, and you just had to follow the prompts.

    Being told when and which button to press gets boring quickly, but it can help make more cinematic moments, because the developers fix the camera and can control the scene.

  2. I disagree with your last paragraph. An even more cinematic moment would be a cinematic. If they want to control it then they should damn well take control; if they don’t then let me play the game.

    I agree with your first point, though.

    There’s something frustrating about being given the power to pick people up and throw them about, but having it not work on the people you’d most like to do it to. I’m not going to whinge about that though as it feels very realistically ironic.

  3. Quick Time Event’s are not mini-games that the developers could not be bothered making. They are a device used to make what would be a cut-scene more interactive. At least, this is how they should be. I do not think a mini-games are suited for completely pre-scripted events. In all games it’s always a trade-off between narrative and interactivity, and if you want a tight narrative or choreographed sequence you have to sacrifice some of the players freedom.

    You may not like them. You may view cut-scenes as a reward and want to relax during them – I understand that. You may disagree with the whole idea of characters being involved in awesomely choreographed fight scenes that aren’t possible using the in game engine (or even if they were, the player almost certainly couldn’t pull off) – I would understand that, but less. Your comments seem unfair. If the developer wants the player to see something cool would you prefer they did not include it? Saying they should always implement it in the engine somehow or not bother seems completely unreasonable. I would also find a new mini-game being introduced before a dramatic sequence would take away from it somewhat.

    For me, having watched countless cut-scenes where I’m just watching myself being cool, occasionally I find the illusion (however weak) that I’m somehow taking part welcome.

    Few would argue that the Quick Time Events in the RE4 ‘knife fight’ in Resident Evil 4 do not add dramatic tension to the scene. It’s a confrontation between the Leon and one of the antagonists. They circle each other having a conversation where they occasionally take swipes at each other. It’s quite tense watching the conversation knowing you might have to dodge a knife every now and then. That kind of reflex action I find a reasonable approximation of how you would feel in real life. It isn’t just action – it also advances the plot. I think that the kind of things we can animate are always going to surpass what we can actually do in a game. There is a fight later on with the same character and it does not nearly look as awesome because I’m actually controlling myself.

    Of course, what you are describing in this game does not sound at all like what I am describing. In this case, it does sound like it is perfectly reasonable to expect this stuff to implemented in the game. You did, however, take a thinly veiled swipe at RE4 a game which you have never played. If I didn’t know better I’d say you were deliberately trolling to provoke a response.

    Anyway I am interested to hear your thoughts on why it is you exactly hate them. From your review I get the impression you get affronted by the idea that the developers are lazy.

  4. I guess on some level I used “knife fight” as my example in a provocative fashion. As there’s only about 5 people reading this site though — maybe 6 — it doesn’t feel like trolling.

    The RE4 knife fight sounds much better, and even more importantly, much more purposeful, than the quick time events in SWTFU. I can picture the perfect quick time event, but to me it would need to have some logical decision making behind the button you push as well as just the flashing button on the screen. Ideally, I’d like them to be so that if you took the flashing button away, you could potentially work out what you’re supposed to do. It sounds like the new Prince of Persia is treading that line a bit.

    An aside — I didn’t realise how unintentionally amusing The Force Unleashed‘s acronym is.

    I feel the developers are lazy — or just too short on time — if they skimp on ideas and just make lame quick time events which amount to an unrelated game of guitar hero going on whilst my character does something awesome. In my snarky example I could have been more charitable and had them go off to work on the physics engine or something.

    Ultimately, there are two choices here I guess. If they’ve made a scene that looks cool, I’d rather get to watch it properly rather than having buttons flash up on it. Perhaps it’s a limitation of my brain/eyes but I find that I suck at quick time events unless I’m focussed on the place where the button will appear to the exclusion of the rest of the screen.

    The second choice is whether looking cool is of a similar importance to feeling cool. Ultimately if a game’s immersive enough, I don’t give a crap what camera angle or perspective I had — if I’ve done something awesome, I know it. Of course, it would be nice if every game had a Halo 3 style replay too, just to prove it.

  5. I understand your dislike of QTEs in SWTFU, Tom. I don’t think the end of a boss fight is a good place to put them. At that point you’ve almost killed the boss, and then you lose some control over your character and don’t get to do the really cool stuff yourself.