Like many of you, Rogue One has me at maximum Star Wars excitement levels, so I wanted to play a Star Wars game I had never played before. I grabbed myself a copy of Star Wars: The Force Unleashed Ultimate Sith Edition and sat down to ruin some Stormtroopers’ day.
Being a Badass Force Wielder
TFU opens strong, with you playing as a fully powered-up Darth Vader on a mission to the Wookiee homeworld of Kashyyyk. The game essentially drops you in and says kill everything that moves. At your disposal is a lightsaber and a ton of classic force powers like Grip, Push, and Lightning. It’s a great way to immediately capture players and teach them how to play the game in a way that doesn’t feel like hand-holding.
Gameplay switches to the less powerful Galen Marek/Starkiller for the remainder of the game but the gameplay itself remains largely similar. Levels are straightforward but with plenty of secret alcoves that contain bonus points, costumes, lightsaber crystals, etc. Enemies are varied and you level up as you defeat them, unlocking new combos and growing in power. All of this makes for a game with a rock solid core gameplay loop and lots of replayability.
Aiding in the fun is the sheer destruction that you can cause, thanks to the use of physics engines like Havok and Euphoria. The combination of ragdoll physics, destructible environments, and telekinetic powers are the perfect combination for an action game and the result in an experience that often feels more like a superhero game than a Star Wars game. TFU fulfills the Force-wielder power fantasy better than Star Wars game before or after it has ever done. Something that makes you feel completely badass is almost guaranteed to happen every encounter. Maybe you Force Push a stormtrooper, launching him at his comrade and sending both of them crashing through a stained glass window and falling thousands of feet to their death. Maybe you levitate a soldier, throw your lightsaber into his chest, hit him with lightning, and then send him rocketing into a group of his friends where he explodes and electrocute everyone around him.
The core gameplay of TFU really is great and if that’s all the game was, I’d have nothing but positive things to say about it. Unfortunately...
For everything that TFU does right, it seems to excel at doing an equal number of things wrong. Right after the great Vader introduction level, the game forces you to play through a standard boring tutorial in a training room where you practice your Force powers. After the game trusted you to figure it out on your own, it now wants to show you how to play in excruciating detail.
Also a negative is the constant quick-time events. They aren’t particularly challenging and there usually isn’t any consequence to failing them. They exist only as a way to rob direct control from the players and instead show them a cutscene while giving them the illusion of control by playing a shallow rhythm game. QTEs show up every time you finish off a boss or large enemy, which cheapens every hard-earned victory. QTEs were pretty common back in 2008 when TFU came out, so I’m not too surprised by their presence, but it is a disappointment.
None of this is as big of an issue as just how bad boss fights are though. Rather than feeling like a duel between Jedi and Sith masters, these fights are cumbersome, awkward, and unfun. Bosses can block most of your attacks and Force powers, so the only way to beat them is to figure out the few moves that actually work on them and then just spamming those attacks over and over. It feels like the only way to win these fights on normal difficulty is to use exploits and cheap tricks. It’s completely unsatisfying and feels especially disappointing after how right the Jedi Knight games got lightsaber duels.
One particular boss encounter near the end of the game involves a Star Destroyer and is possibly the most frustrating thing I’ve ever encountered in a video game. It requires lightning speed and precision, repeating the same actions over and over again, and gives you inaccurate instructions. It’s bad in every conceivable way. After a dozen attempts to beat it, I was ready to snap my disc in two. I ultimately got through it with some advice I found on various forums, but there is no excuse for putting something so completely unfun in a game.
The Sights and Sounds
For an 8 year old game, TFU still looks pretty good. While texture resolution could be improved, the animations, lighting, and various effects all look great. The varied locals and enemies are also distinctive and well crafted. Because of the heavy use of physics engines, everything around you feels very real and kinetic. The art direction combines elements of the original and prequel films, leading to an aesthetic that feels 100% Star Wars.
Sound, as well, is about what you’d expect, with music and, probably, sound effects borrowed from the films. The voice acting is solid for the most part, though with Emperor Palpatine sticking out as a particularly bad and grating impression.
A Star Wars Story
TFU was an important multimedia event for Lucasfilm and its story holds an essential place in the pre-Disney Star Wars Expanded Universe. It’s also hot garbage that makes me glad that Disney decided to redefine the canon of Star Wars. It is a story that will only make sense to people who have seen all the films but, at the same time, is filled with so many logical lapses, asinine twists, and inconsistencies that I’m not sure how a Star Wars fan could actually enjoy it.
The first problem is with the protagonist, a generic late 2000's shaved-head white male brooding hero named Galen Marek.
Despite having no origin other than that his dad was a generic Jedi, Galen is the most absurdly powerful Force user in the galaxy, capable of besting both Darth Vader and the Emperor and performing feats that make everything we see in the films look like amateur hour. I guess that all that stuff about Anakin being the Chosen One and his line being the strongest in the Force was wrong.
The other problem with Galen is that, despite seemingly being raised for most of his life in secret isolation by Darth Vader himself and a droid intent on killing him, Galen is a totally normal dude and not the pure evil brainwashed psycho anyone raised under those conditions would be. He’s chummy with his droid, who I will state again is literally programmed to murder him, and develops an instant crush on his pilot (ostensibly, a sexy space Nazi). He makes jokes, shows empathy, and has basically every characteristic you would not expect from someone raised by a Sith lord. All of this while mass murdering and assassinating people. As Galen turns to the light side over the course of the game, there’s a complete disconnect between the brutal killings he continues to dish out in-game and his kindhearted characterization in cutscenes.
Outside of the protagonist, the plot just doesn’t add up and a lot of it is left vague. Did Vader actually want to overthrow the Emperor or not? Did the Emperor know about Galen? Darth Vader and the Emperor intentionally started the Rebellion themselves? Why did they need Galen for that? Why did Vader have to pretend to kill him? What the hell is going on? I’m sure everything is explained more in the novelization but if you have to read a book for a game’s story to make sense, it’s still a shitty plot.
Surprisingly, I found the story of the DLC missions, which take place outside of even the old EU canon, much more entertaining. These missions run parallel to A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back in an alternate universe where Galen takes over the role of Darth Vader and does a much more effective job of fighting the rebellion. The self-awareness and often sheer goofiness (fighting a superpowered Alec Guinness, for example) are a refreshing change from the serious but tone deaf main story.
TFU is a game with fantastic highs and painful lows. The game spends equal amounts of time empowering you and taking away your control of the action. For every adrenaline pumping fight, it puts you through an equally slow and frustrating one. While it nails the look of Star Wars, it fails to find the right tone in story and characterization. It often feels like what I imagine a Zack Snyder-directed Star Wars film would be like. Every female character shows ample cleavage, the power and destruction are cranked up to 11, and the story tells you that things are supposed to be emotional without actually earning it. It’s hard for me to truly recommend TFU. If you can tolerate the frustrations, most of the game is really an enjoyable romp, but don’t expect it to be a smooth experience.