Dissenting Opinion: Star Wars: The Force Unleashed
I absolutely agree with everything Tom Chick had to say in his excellent review of Star Wars: The Force Unleashed: story is great, gameplay is dodgy and uneven, code is ridiculously buggy, etc. If ever a game had "FRY" written all over it, it's this one.
Yet I've been playing The Force Unleashed compulsively for three weeks now. (I'm currently on my second playthrough, this time on the Sith difficulty level.) In fact, not since last year's BioShock has a game gotten this far under my skin. Perhaps I should be ashamed to admit this, and am in danger of having my critic's beanie revoked, but I'm more than a little obsessed with this buggy, frustrating mess of a videogame.
You can't pin my poor judgment on the idea that I'm some kind of Star Wars fanboy. Oh, I was once, before George Lucas took care of that with his so-Anakin-built-C3PO crappy prequels. Since then, hating all things Star Wars has become a part-time hobby of mine. During a demo of the game earlier this year, I told fellow Crispyite Evan Narcisse that The Force Unleashed will be "this year's Stranglehold." While unboxing the game, I had the CG fryer all heated and was well prepared to toss The Force Unleashed into it.
I trudged through the game's early levels, cursing each time I'd hoist some huge object into the air with the Force (cool), and then inadvertently send it sailing off in the wrong direction (uncool). (I eventually got the hang of this, though it's never quite as exact as I would have liked it to be.) Then I found myself in a protracted battle with a Yoda-like Jedi who had metal crutches attached to his limbs. And when I say "protracted," I'm talking about a good hour of tedious experimentation before finally figuring out what I needed to do to send him to Jedi heaven.
Painful? Oh my, yes. For that hour, The Force Unleashed came dangerously close to fulfilling my Stranglehold prophecy and getting permanently shelved.
And that wasn't the last of the game's painful and protracted moments. In order to finish The Force Unleashed, you'll need plenty of patience, a forgiving heart and the willingness to suspend more than a little disbelief. (Confession: I actually beat the game's final boss after he became inexplicably stuck in a wall, allowing me to hack away at him with impunity.)
Through all this, I persevered. I admit, I screamed profanities at my television. I howled at the Star Destroyer that Tom refers to. I came very, very close to rending my garments.
But I kept playing.
Maybe it's the fact that the game's developers do something that few developers have the moxie to do these days: They deliberately frustrated me to the point of pissing me off. And at a time when games are being shortened and sweetened in the name of reaching the largest possible audience, in this age when casual gamers are being wooed and coddled, I found this frustration to be comforting. There's a brand of old-school, sadistic pleasure to be gleaned from these moments.
But beyond that, I think it's the Star Wars magic working its old-time voodoo on me again. I loved the conflicted apprentice, a bad man who just might have a good heart. (Which is the antithesis to Luke Skywalker's good-man-who-might-have-a-bad-heart story in the original films. Vader's stated goal in both the trilogy of original films and in The Force Unleashed is to "destroy the Emperor." And -- minor spoiler ahead -- Vader's ultimate betrayal of the apprentice offers some insight into what might have happened to Luke, should he have taken to the Dark Side.) I found the love story in The Force Unleashed to be far more convincing and nuanced than Anakin and Padme's "love story" in the Star Wars film prequels. In fact, I found the game, bugs and all, to be something of a prequel palette cleanser.
There's a moment during a cut scene early in The Force Unleashed when we see a young, red-beared Obi-Wan Kenobi (circa Ewan McGregor) lying in wait for the apprentice. When I saw this, I thought, "Oh no; here we go again with the same old Star Wars horseshit." When this Obi-Wan turns out to be a fake -- he's an illusion, part of droid Proxy's training program -- I audibly sighed in relief.
Only traces of the film prequels -- like the young Obi-Wan -- are scattered about in The Force Unleashed. Overall, this game is almost entirely connected to the darker, more conflicted spirit of the original films. And that's a very good thing.
Tom's right to invoke the old Dark Forces name, too. I have fond memories of LucasArts' 1995 Doom-meets-Star Wars experiment -- not because the gameplay was especially compelling, but because the game gave me a chance to set foot, via a first-person shooter, in the Star Wars universe. I remember sitting in my grad school dorm, exploring every back alley of the Imperial Detention Center (the game's sixth mission) and every byway in Jabba's Ship (the 10th mission), simply marveling at the architecture and the design elements of the Star Wars world. For someone raised on Star Wars, this was nothing short of a catharsis.
Thirteen years later, I found myself doing the same exact thing in The Force Unleashed: exploring back alleys and byways and marveling at the architecture, curious to see what exactly might be behind that door off to the left.
And to feel curious about a world that I'd given up for dead since 1999's "The Phantom Menace"? In my book, that's a borderline miracle. For that reason, The Force Unleashed, in all of its unholy, imperfect glory, deserves a TRY -- not a FRY.
This review was based on a review copy of the game provided by the publisher.