Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Hopelessly Outdated Video Game Review - Star Wars: Force Unleashed

As a die-hard fan of the Star Wars Universe, the recent prequels/Clone Wars installments are rather tricky grounds for me. And by tricky, I mean: I hates them. I'll freely admit that way back in 1999 I stood in line not once but twice to see Episode I, and I'll maintain to this day that the Jedi-Jedi-Sith lightsaber threesome at the climax of that movie is one of the best-choreographed pieces of filmed combat in recent history, if not ever. But in general the newer Star Wars related material has ranged from forgettable to downright awful, and I don't have to expound on how sadly George Lucas has let his legacy slip through his fingers.

My feelings towards the new trilogy have surprisingly not left me cold towards anything not related to the original trilogy. I still think Shadows of the Empire has its merits: it's the only one of the six extra-trilogy related novels I've read (five traditional, one graphic) that I can still remember anything about - although that's probably mostly thanks to the revolutionary N64 video game. And I have little to no problem with material whose subject matter falls squarely between the trilogies. Such is the case with Star Wars: Force Unleashed.

I happened upon Force Unleashed purely by accident. I had been unable to locate a necessary piece for my Halloween costume at my local Toys R Us Express, and decided to console myself with a bargain-bin video game. I knew almost nothing about the game at the time of purchase: I hadn't even heard of it, and some quick smartphone research showed that it was only the fastest selling Star Wars video game of all time and that it had won some kind of award for its compelling story. So I scuttled out from the rock under which I had been living for the past 3-5 years, and bought a copy for my Wii.

Despite its loose connection to prequel-related material, the story of Force Unleashed is compelling enough to get lost in. You play as Darth Vader's young apprentice in his quest to search out and destroy the remaining Jedi Knights who have gone into hiding following the Emperor's execution of the dreaded Order Route 66 in Episode III. Right away, it's cool that you get to play as a bad guy. Of course, it's not as cool as giving the players a choice whether to make their character good or bad (Cf. the Knights of the Old Republic series). But it's interesting to get a sense of what it might be like to work for Darth Vader.

Star Wars fans will immediately recognize a what-might-have-been dynamic in the story of the game's protagonist. At the climax of Empire, right after (SPOILER ALERT) Darth Vader reveals that he is Luke Skywalker's father, he proposes that Luke join him so that the pair can "rule the galaxy as father and son." If Luke had accepted this offer, you could imagine his training period under Vader would look pretty similar to the gameplay of Force Unleashed. There's also the matter of the protagonist's codename: Starkiller - the name the films' protagonist almost had, before they settled on Skywalker.

If Luke had opted to train with Vader in the original trilogy, the resulting visuals would likely have eclipsed those portrayed in the game. Although set between the two trilogies, the way your character moves in Force Unleashed adheres to the newer conception of what a Jedi is capable of: a conception that's equal parts flashy and clunky. You can double-jump to obscenely superhuman heights, effortlessly control gargantuan objects with your force-telekinesis, and otherwise flail yourself around like a CGI ragdoll.

And maybe this is unique to the Wii version, but using a Wii remote to simulate a lightsaber is not nearly as fun as it sounds. With something like Aragorn's Quest - basically a kid's game where the direction of the slicing doesn't matter much - the Wiimote-as-sword drawbacks don't present themselves nearly as flagrantly. In Force Unleashed, a space-age, adult-themed platformer complete with combos and special moves and the like, the mechanics are one step away from totally frustrating.

More often than not, upon completion of a level, with its boss that I usually beat completely by accident, I feel relief that it's over rather than a sense of accomplishment that usually comes with advancing through video games. Maybe I just haven't gotten far enough in the story mode for the game to truly suck me in, but what I've played seems rather formulaic. I know, I know, over two years since its release and I still haven't finished it! But once I got past the initial coolness factor, there wasn't much incentive for me to trudge on.

I just thought this would be a good time to mention some of my thoughts on the game, seeing as I just recently saw my first commercial for the sequel (which, quite frankly, looks a little too much like Dragonball Z for my taste... and I even LIKE Dragonball Z). This review is also timely because it comes on the heels of the death of Irvin Kershner, the director of Empire Strikes Back. To honor his memory, I will watch my DVD of the original 1980 non-remastered version of the film that I recently purchased.

Watching the original releases has reminded me what's so great about the Star Wars franchise: it's genuine, it's campy, the themes are far-reaching, and it's focused on people. Becoming a Jedi was never about being able to fly through the air and dual-wield lightsabers. It's about control and serenity and being in tune with all life in the universe. And while those principles don't lend themselves to an exciting platforming game, they sure do make the plot deeper than what we're offered in the new generation of Star Wars fare.

I think I'm going to skip the newest installation of Force Unleashed. As is evident by the timing of this review, I've never much been one who keeps up to date on the latest releases; I play whatever catches my eye. And with only a Wii to my name, I'm sure to miss out on some of the more exciting upcoming titles, such as Fallout: New Vegas, LA Noire, and Batman: Arkham Asylum 2: The Streets. And although I have been known to show fierce brand loyalty, there just wasn't enough under the hood of this one to keep me coming back for more.