Crispy Gamer

Star Wars: The Force Unleashed

Wise Yoda looks down on the masses at the top of a fountain in front of LucasArts? San Franciso headquarters. Inside the complex?s many buildings, there?s enough memorabilia to make a hardened Star Wars fan drop to his knees and begin weeping: Just on a quick sweep, there?s an R2-D2 model used in the original Star Wars trilogy, an Admiral Ackbar model lovingly encased in a Lucite tomb, full-size Darth Vader and Boba Fett models decorating the lobby, and an in-house coffee shop deliciously named Javva the Hutt.

A place of business should not -- should never -- be this cool.

Today, the LucasArts compound is abuzz. Visitors gather from everywhere for a momentous unveiling. LucasArts is showing off its first truly next-generation Star Wars videogame.

Today, LucasArts is unleashing the Force in the grandest way imaginable.

The Force Unleashed tells the story of Darth Vader?s secret apprentice as he roams across the galaxy, wielding the dark side of the Force, attempting to kill the last of the Jedi Knights. The story takes place between the events of the third and fourth Star Wars films (?Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith? and ?Star Wars: A New Hope,? respectively) and serves as a bridge between the three prequel movies and the original trilogy.

It?s been a long time coming. LucasArts showed off a technology demonstration to select members of the fourth estate at the 2006 Electronic Entertainment Expo, one that featured concepts to be used in The Force Unleashed. There, the company unveiled two licensed technologies featured within the game, and whet collective appetites with a full-motion video featuring pre-rendered footage of an ominous, lightsaber-wielding man and woman who performed evil stunts using the Force. The video showed the male Jedi lifting Stormtroopers into the air with the Force, then torturing them with Force-powered lightning. For the finale, the Jedi used his powers to lift a Stormtrooper, slam him into the ground, pick him up again and, when his foe had grabbed on to an elevated grate, rip the grate from its foundation. It was heady, heady stuff.

These elements and the technology would combine to create the basis for The Force Unleashed. Now, in 2008, some two-plus years after the fact, the game is finally ready to be shown.

This is the first game in the Star Wars universe whose protagonist is a villain, but The Force Unleashed?s Project Lead Hayden Blackman says that all is not as it appears to be. He promises twists and turns and a theme familiar to the Star Wars universe: redemption. ?While you?ll start as Darth Vader?s secret apprentice, that?s not necessarily how you?ll end the game,? he says.

A sea change, so to speak, may be in order for the apprentice. Although originally kept in isolation by the fiendish Darth Vader, the apprentice will have the opportunity to travel the galaxy. In doing so, he?ll begin to interact with other characters, and LucasArts has created two new allies just for the purpose of developing the apprentice as a human being. A robot named Proxy serves as a sidekick and friend to the Apprentice; the female pilot Juno Eclipse may become his love interest.

When Blackman shows off The Force Unleashed, it?s possible to note two distinct technologies at play. First, Digital Molecular Matter (DMM) allows for realistic rendering of materials, which means that glass will shatter when exposed to extreme force; metal will buckle, bend, and finally explode; rubbery items jiggle, sway, bounce and wobble appropriately. It?s what powers the game?s Force-based effects and lets the apprentice, say, smash his way through a giant metal door.

The second technology, Euphoria, provides for realistic character movement and reactions. It?s essentially a central nervous system. Stormtroopers will flail about wildly when picked up, they?ll attempt to grab on to things in order to save their lives, and they?ll attempt to steady themselves when rocked off balance. Put into play within the context of The Force Unleashed, it means no two artificial-intelligence-controlled beings react in the same way to similar stimuli. It also spells the end of pre-scripted and predictable behaviors. While the game is being demonstrated, a soldier is lifted into the air, but not before he reaches out and grabs an ally. Both are pulled up into the air to meet a grim fate.

Both these technologies combine to power what Blackman calls a reimagining of the Force. ?The Force came to mind as a great tool for driving simulation-based gameplay,? Blackman says. ?It?s something you can use to manipulate anything in the environment, it can set off chain reactions, it can start simulations going.

?We knew we wanted to focus on the Force,? he says. ?We came up with this concept of the Force Unleashed. It?s the Force, amped-up, out-of-control.

?Defeating an enemy with the Force has to be fun from the very first time you do it -- the very first time you hit that [Force] push button or that [Force] lightning button -- to the last time you do it,? Blackman says. ?We do that through constantly allowing you to rank up your powers, to become more powerful, giving you more engaging and tactically challenging setups and enemies, and more interactive environments.?

Cue the destruction. Blackman, with the aid of his game-playing assistants, takes the Secret Apprentice to a TIE-fighter production plant where wholesale slaughter is the order of the day. Darth Vader has instructed that no one be left alive, meaning the apprentice has free rein to, put mildly, tear Stormtroopers a whole new one.

It?s here that DMM, Euphoria and Force powers combine with creative design in some intriguing ways. A soldier is lifted up into the air and the apprentice hurls his lightsaber at the hapless target, impaling him. The soldier?s last act is to futilely grab at the lightsaber stuck in his chest. During another killing spree, our dark hero charges his lightsaber with Force lightning, causing impressive harm on enemies struck with it -- and woe be to the Stormtrooper who?s held aloft and hurled into an oncoming TIE-fighter.

On the yellow and brown junk planet Raxus Prime, debris flies overhead in what Blackman calls ?mag lanes.? This junk is more fuel for the fire. ?Pretty much everything in this environment is a weapon,? he says.

The apprentice yanks a superconductor from the mag lanes, charges it with lightning, and fries nearby enemies with it. The superconductor, of course, is super at conducting electricity. A turbine, similarly powered up with Force lightning, becomes an explosive rocket. Hurled, say, at a tower of junk hiding a series of Rodian snipers, it?s powerful enough to collapse the whole shebang in a rain of fire and jagged metal.

It?s here on Raxus Prime the apprentice must slay the alien Kasdan, a Jedi whose mind has perhaps taken its leave. To keep himself occupied, Kasdan creates golems out of junk. Better still, his secret lair is a garbage-dump replica of the Jedi council meeting room, complete with scrap-metal recreations of Yoda and his Force-wielding companions.

On the rubbery, mushroom-laden world Felucia, giant Rancor beasts must be slain before the main event: a battle with Shaak Ti, the female Jedi shown briefly in ?Star Wars: The Clone Wars? and ?Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith.? Oddly enough, Shaak Ti was killed off in two separate deleted scenes for ?Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith,? but neither is considered canon. She lives to fight again in The Force Unleashed.

At the game?s start, the apprentice is a looming, skulking figure. He carries a red-bladed lightsaber; when not swinging it, he holds it contemptuously behind his back.

As the apprentice moves through the game, he?ll have ample opportunity to learn new Force powers, improve his basic skills, toughen up, and even alter the color and characteristics of his lightsaber. When asked about how the apprentice turns out at the game?s conclusion, Blackman will only hint that this, too, is malleable. ?The player has some agency in that matter,? he notes cryptically.

For all intents and purposes, there are three different versions of The Force Unleashed, Blackman says, with each telling the same basic story in somewhat different ways. The PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 versions are being done by LucasArts and contain the DMM and Euphoria technology. The Wii, PlayStation 2 and PSP versions are being done by Krome Studios, and platform-specific content is being created for each. The Wii version makes use of motion-sensitive controls, and features a two-player duel mode where players can opt to pit Jedi and Sith from a host of Star Wars films against one another in a deathmatch, and the PSP features historical missions. The Force Unleashed for the DS, done by Florida developer n-Space, features stylus controls to create attacks for the protagonist.

LucasArts will unleash its new version of the Force this summer.

This preview is based on a publisher-driven demo of the game. The game is tentatively scheduled for release in April.