SW:TFU how do I hate thee? Let me count the ways. So many mystifyingly poor design decisions and cock-ups. It’s almost like no-one actually played the finished game before you put it in boxes and sent it to the stores.
First, and most importantly, this game was sold as being about indulging in the power of The Force – unlimited. “Unleashed”. Without any of the restrictions that come from following the rules of the good guys. That’s one of the reasons they told us the central character was Darth Vader’s secret apprentice – so he could use dark side powers and storm through the Star Wars galaxy like an evil Force-powered tornado. Even the videos on the game disc about the development team’s internal meetings talk about how the producer started each meeting by having the staff chant that this game was about one thing – “kicking arse with the Force”.
That being the case, why is The Force in this game so weak? Most of the enemies are immune to it – or at least random parts of it. (Figuring which illogical immunity each enemy has is apparently considered “fun”.) Some enemies are immune to Force Lightning – you know, the lightning that was able to kill Darth Vader who’d been training with the Emperor for twenty years. You can blast them all you like, and it will do no damage. Other enemies are immune to being pushed around with the Force – you know, the power that later in the game allows the apprentice to pull a massive Star Destroyer out of orbit crashing into the ground. (That sequence is an insult to gamers for a different reason, which I’ll get to in a minute.) These aren’t even all enemies who are Force users – there are certain armoured stormtroopers you can’t pick up and throw even after you’ve demonstrated that you can move capital ships with your mind.
There is no excuse for this. Nor for the nerfing of the light saber. You recall the light saber – the coolest weapon in the Star Wars universe. It can cut through anything (except for a particular metal discovered in the expanded universe). Jedi are shown in the movies shoving their lightsabers into solid metal bulkheads and cutting holes in them.
But in this game the lightsaber is just a brightly-coloured shiny stick. It takes repeated blows to kill an ordinary stormtrooper. Let alone the magically overpowered enemies later in the game. There is little more to be said here, but if you’re going to give me a lightsaber and nothing else, then at least let it do its job. Let enemies kill me by shooting me from different directions while I’m concentrating on someone else, not by just standing there and laughing at my comically weak glowing stick.
Let’s also mention here the game’s unfriendly save/checkpoint system, designed to make the game take longer solely by forcing players to repeat large sections of it. Although there is a “save” option, it only lets you save the most recent checkpoint. And those are placed in really stupid places, and are often entirely absent when you need them. They’ll be placed right before a major boss battle, which is fair enough, but then there’ll be none afterwards – so if you die (and there are plenty of cheap deaths – one that springs to mind is your first battle with a Junk Yard Titan, shortly after which the game expects you to go jumping blithely through a canyon, with instant death if you mis-jump while you’re trying to figure out what to do), then you have to refight the boss battle again. And note that whenever the difficulty level suddenly spikes, it will almost always be a long time after the last checkpoint.
There is also a moment in the game at which you make a “choice” between a dark and light side ending (it’s right at the end, before the very last battle – and it’s not obvious which is which, since the “light” ending is where you try to kill the Emperor first, and the “dark” ending is where you try to kill Vader first – how are these significantly morally different?). The game does not automatically create a separate save so you can go back and see the other ending – as it would if it were designed by people who played games, and not Nazi war criminals. So if you didn’t realise you should save there, you have to play the whole game again to get to the alternative ending. (Which reminds me – where is the mission select? It’s a console game, and I can’t see any option to just go to an unlocked level and play it.)
Next, the level design. Although this is 2008 and this is a major studio release, from the same company that has previously given us fairly freeform games in which you get to be a Jedi (namely the Jedi Knight series), The Force Unleashed is a corridor shooter. Say you’re on a spectacular planet of giant flowers and insects and would like to have a look around… sorry. You can only run down one (narrow) path to the end. Invisible walls surround you – not dissimilar to the ones that are mysteriously nerfing your use of the Force, come to think of it. The faulty camera system is not your friend, and will regularly place itself behind an opaque object so you can’t see what’s going on. Hold on, enemy I’m fighting, I can’t deal with you until I sort out this camera. Is that… oh, come on, that was cheap! Hitting a blind man while he’s battling with the camera? You realise that I can just turn the power off and you’ll all instantly die, right?.
Which gets me to the unexpectedly inconsistent AI. Given that it’s one of the two major new technologies boasted about in relation to this release, you’d expect that they’d have tested it properly. But look online and you’ll find plenty of YouTube videos of stormtroopers standing around as the Apprentice throws stuff at them or gives them wedgies. The tutorial itself will give you a fine example of how daft these new AI are. Troopers have the presence of mind to try to grab onto something as they’re falling, but not to, I don’t know, in any way react to a large crate crashing into the guy next to them.
What was that second new technology? Oh yes, “Digital Molecular Matter”. In most games, if you break a dozen windows, they’ll all shatter in exactly the same place, regardless of where you actually hit them. With DMM… they shatter in the right place. And wood splinters. And other materials act realistically. Well – when it’s turned on. Many objects in the game (even those you can damage) simply break in the same way every time just like in any other game. If you’re going to boast about this new technology and how it’s going to increase immersion, then actually implement it throughout the game. It looks like they just ran out of time half way through and took the punt that gamers wouldn’t notice if they left it out of the rest of the game.
Now – gameplay. Apart from the mystifyingly crippled way they’ve implemented the Force, the designers have committed numerous sins against good game play. For one thing, they’ve implemented the always craptacular quicktime events. If you’re not familiar with these – and I envy you – a QTE is where, during a boss fight (for example), the game will flash up on the screen the name of a button, and you have to press it quickly or fail, be injured and have to start the sequence again. Yes, where decent games try to make you feel that you have choices in a battle, and that you’re choosing how to fight the enemy, QTEs take over and turn it into a primitive pattern-matching task. They were stupid in God of War (which The Force Unleashed is transparently trying to ape), and they’re stupid here. If I’m trying to take down an AT-ST walker by slicing it vertically in half with my lightsaber, make the success of that attack dependent on my pushing up in the right place at the right time and the challenge that the walker is trying to kill me with laser blasts before I can execute the manoeuvre. THAT would make me feel like I was in the moment and actually battling an ATST, and allow me to forget momentarily that it’s a videogame. If you make it dependent on my pressing “X” when you flash it up on the screen, then you’re (a) reminding me that it’s a game in the most primitive, clumsy fashion possible, and (b) taking away any sense of control or choice I may otherwise have had which would make it actually fun.
Likewise quick repetitive button pressing, which is a subset of QTEs which is becoming disturbingly more prominent. TFU is not the only game guilty of this sin – but it’s a prominent example. QRBP events are where the game pops up a key on the screen and forces you to press it repeatedly very quickly in order to win a duel or open a door or whatever. If you don’t press it quickly enough, you fail and can’t proceed. If you get RSI or your controller buttons break because you’ve been hitting them too fast, then stiff – this is fun, dammit, and you will learn to like it.
Finally, there is a signature moment in the game where the gulf between the awesomeness of what was promised and the awfulness of what was delivered is demonstrated more profoundly than you can possibly imagine. It is the sequence in which you use the power of the Force to bring a Star Destroyer crashing to the ground. In previews, in artwork, in videos, this looked like one of the most amazing Star Wars moments ever. Its like had never before been seen – either in the movies, or in any game. The magnificent scale! The enormous power! It… anyway, you get the idea. Not much point harping on about how great it could have been, because it’s quite the opposite.
The first problem is that the game designers, as usual, completely cripple the Force powers in question at the outset. You cannot just pull the Star Destroyer down from space: you have to turn it around to an arbitrary angle in the sky before you can move it anywhere. Uh, why? If the Force is pulling it down to the ground, why does it matter what exact angle it’s on? Provided that its engines aren’t facing towards me so it requires more force to drag down, what on Coruscant is the thinking behind it having to face slightly right and down before you can make it move? That in and of itself breaks the sequence.
Secondly, the controls that appear on screen to tell you what to push (the game has to keep doing this, because it keeps changing the rules on you) are actually wrong. If you follow the prompts you will never get the Star Destroyer down at all. How this got through testing, I have no idea.
But I suppose this failure to understand just what is supposed to be fun about videogames is actually the only thing that is consistent about The Force Unleashed. The QTEs and QRBPs and ridiculous Star Destroyer sequence fit in with the arbitrarily Force-immune enemies: this is a game that’s all about dragging you out of the moment and reminding you that you are a mouse in the designer’s little maze, and you will perform the tasks exactly as required or you will never see the cheese. What you’re supposed to do is never intuitive, and it never feels like you are able to anticipate an appropriate response – it’s always trial and error and what you learned last time is never applicable to the new stumbling block. You never feel like the Force is becoming your ally (or that it is a powerful ally as Yoda promised).
While we’re there, I’ll also point out that, often, the targeting system doesn’t work. If you’re trying to pick something up to throw it, it will select something that you (stupidly) can’t. If you’re trying to hit an enemy with lightning, it will target a rock instead. I have played games with similar “powers” before – Psi Ops springs to mind – and they managed it. Why can’t LucasArts?
And finally – they’ve even got the menus wrong. A central part of the game is the upgrading of Force Powers (and lightsaber stones), and this you have to do from a menu. Only you can’t just select it from in-game – you have to go back to the main menu, and then select the force power menu, and then wait while it (mystifyingly slowly) loads it. Why this couldn’t have been a quick menu selection from in-game, I don’t know – well, unless it really is true that the LucasArts designers are Nazi war criminals who really were out to cause as much frustration and annoyance as possible.
In summary – please don’t reward LucasArts by buying this game. If you have the patience of a saint and must see the cutscenes (the only plus of the game is that it fills in some plot developments between the two movie trilogies), then maybe rent it – but I’d suggest you just look at the scenes on YouTube and save yourself the suffering.
The Force Unleashed – a game designer’s “How Not To” manual in a box.