Star Wars: The Force Unleashed (PSP)
One thing you can say about Star Wars: The Force Unleashed on the PlayStation Portable is that it lives up to its bigger console cousins. Like those games, it makes an attempt to tell an impressive story, but the gameplay betrays it. Luckily, there are a few additional ways to play this stripped-down port of the PlayStation 2 and Wii versions that keeps it from being a total loss.
The basic plot involves a young boy raised by Vader as his secret apprentice. Once he's grown up, Vader sends him out to hunt down fugitive Jedi, but he also seems to be doing a little inter-Empire subterfuge on Vader's behalf. Hence the opportunity to slaughter Stormtroopers left and right. But behind these machinations, you'll find some strong characterization of the different players, including the apprentice, his droid sidekick, his pilot/love interest and even Vader himself. The genius of the Force Unleashed storyline is that it taps into the things that made Star Wars good back when it was good: shame, betrayal, redemption, family, love, destiny and the storytelling insight to realize that Galactic politics, spaceships and aliens were just a backdrop.
Unfortunately, a lot of the narrative is squeezed out of this smaller handheld version of the game. It's telling that the main menu lists "Force Unleashed" at the top, and then "Story Mode" underneath, as if it was an afterthought. In fact, given the way it's stripped down, that seems to be the case.
For instance, when you storm the junk world of Raxus Prime to kill a renegade Jedi who's constructed a temple out of junk, you can't tell that the final battle was supposed to take place in a replica of the Jedi Council's chambers, with little scrap metal effigies of the Council. None of that is in the game. Maybe before playing the mission, you managed to single out the appropriate databank entries stuck on an extras menu underneath the unlockable concept art. Because otherwise, when the dying Jedi apologizes to thin air for "failing you again", you'd have no idea he thinks he's talking to the Jedi Council.
This barebones Cliff Notes approach works a little better in the "Force Unleashed" mode at the top of the main menu. This is a collection of set pieces Star Wars fans will already know, so they won't have to read databank entries to appreciate them. You play through these scenarios to unlock more characters and more scenarios. There are historical missions set in places like the Dune Sea where Jabba the Hutt's barges are arrayed around the Sarlacc pit, or in the arena on Geonosis, or in the carbonite chamber where Luke and Vader dueled. Then there's the Order 66 mode, which lets you select a Jedi to play through waves of Stormtroopers and bosses. And, of course, there are duels where you can engage in one-on-one boss battles, playable as ad hoc multiplayer games if you have friends with their own copies of the game.
These "Force Unleashed" scenarios are actually pretty entertaining, partly because they're familiar, but also because they're easy enough to play through once you figure out where the healing potions are. Unlike the next-generation versions of The Force Unleashed, this one relies on healing potions. Even in the difficult boss battles during the Story mode, you simply have to bide your time between healing potion respawns.
As an action game, The Force Unleashed on the PSP doesn't hold up well compared to, say, God of War on the PSP. But it does play well enough as a lightsaber-themed hack-and-slash with passable graphics. The biggest obstacle is the camera, which swings around willy-nilly, but too seldom in the place you want it, and often straight through walls. The textures are coarse, but the animation gets the job done, and there are plenty of sparkly effects and lightsaber swooshes. Unfortunately, the frame rate hitches frequently while the PSP thrashes the UMD in the drive. This is a very load-intensive port.
The Force Unleashed isn't one of the better action games for the PSP, and if you're just interested in Star Wars-themed battles, you'd probably be better off with the PSP version of Star Wars: Battlefront. For all its foibles, it's a more flexible and generous way to get your PSP Star Wars on. But as a stripped-down story and a handful of historical scenarios, this plucky little The Force Unleashed port is a decent enough diversion.
This review was based on a review copy of the game provided by the publisher.