A Hero’s Journey
At long last the wait is over. After much hype and many months in development, Star Wars fans can finally unleash their inner Sith. The Force Unleashed has released across almost every current gaming platform, and we’re here to give you the lowdown on the PS2 version. Will it satiate your taste for the Dark Side, or is Unleashed destined to leave Star Wars fans ultimately unsatisfied?
When it comes to picking a console version of the Force Unleashed, it’s hard to say which one takes the lead. All versions feature basically the same storyline and gameplay progression, with the major differences lying solely in the gameplay mechanics of the Wii version and the technological perks of both the PS3 and Xbox 360 iterations. For PS2 owners, it really comes to whether or not you’ve yet made your way into the next generation of gaming. For those folks still riding shotgun with the last generation, it’s nice to know LucasArts hasn’t forgotten about you.
The story of the Force Unleashed begins sometime after the events told in Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, and you play as Darth Vader for the first portions of the game. Vader has come to Kashyyyk – home of the Wookiee – and while hunting down a renegade Jedi, Vader comes upon a small boy. As you might suspect, this is no ordinary boy – the Force is quite strong with this one – and Vader takes him to be his Sith apprentice.
The cutscenes in Unleashed are brief and to the point. The main attractions here are Force powers and role-playing as a Jedi (Sith, actually), and the game dishes out plenty of both. During the first half of the game, however, you might wonder why LucasArts didn’t simply call the game “Jedi Hunter,” since the first four hours of gameplay consist of merely hunting down Jedi for Vader. Without giving away too much, though, let’s just say that eventually the story does arc in a slightly different direction. But the writing relies wholly on Star Wars prose of movies past, and though there are some major plot twists that lead into Episode IV, the story makes too many broad strokes, leaving out many connections that tie the characters together. The dialogue is weak, and only the “big picture” gets the attention it deserves. Overall, the story lacks steady pacing, emotional cadences, and anything remotely new in terms of edging the Star Wars universe beyond its well-trodden niche.
Which leaves us with the gameplay…
There are a lot of really great ideas and gameplay elements contained within Unleashed, many borrowed from the likes of God of War and Ninja Gaiden, but the game never comes together as a compelling gameplay experience. Once Starkiller, the young apprentice, is ready to fulfill his destiny, Vader unleashes him upon the galaxy. Your character can walk or run, based on how far you push on the left analog stick; he can jump or double jump, use his lightsaber to slice through hordes of enemies, and, of course, he can use Force powers. In actuality, there are only two Force powers in the game – Push and Lightning – but there are a ton of variations built upon each. As a matter of fact, the game gives you too many to play with, considering the Force is rarely used in ways that help to progress the story or gameplay. The Force powers, ultimately, end up being more like toys to tinker with as you make your way through a given level, though almost any power will do (in conjunction with your lightsaber) to take out foes that stand in your way. There are a handful of lightsaber combos, but gameplay still comes down to button mashing or spamming whatever Force power you happen to take a shine to. It can be fun in small spurts, but gameplay grows tiring quickly.
Starkiller seems to mimic the auto-lock-on behavior of Ryu Hayabusa from Ninja Gaiden, but in reality, the apprentice is merely flailing around the battle field when initiating multiple attacks. That’s a shame, really, since the camera is almost as unwieldy as the one in Gaiden, and auto-attacking the nearest enemy would have made practical sense. Instead, the Apprentice will all too often end up with his back toward enemies, wide open for a pummeling. There is an option to lock on to nearby enemies, but it’s really only useful on bosses, since again, you’ll leave yourself wide open to attacks from behind by other enemies.
The levels are linear in the extreme, and though that isn’t necessarily a minus for any game, Unleashed tasks you with doing pretty much the same things the entire way through, regardless of the webs the story might weave. Additionally, you’ll be making your way back to many of the same areas repeatedly, and if the combat doesn’t cause you to grow weary, the backtracking likely will. There are almost no puzzles in the game – nothing more than merely holding down the Triangle button in order to burst through a blocked area – and the boss battles are, for the most part, straight-on, button-mashing fests. One or two of the game’s later bosses are actually pretty interesting, but there’s a good likelihood most players will tire of Unleashed long before this space opera wraps up.
Criticisms aside – and there are many – there is fun to be had here. It’s pretty cool to experiment with the many possibilities the Force affords you. Force powers are animated very nicely, and long-time Star Wars fans will surely experience some glee as they role-play as a Sith badass. It’s also a blast (no pun intended) to see the ways in which objects fly around the screen when colliding with one another. Though the 360 and PS3 versions are the obvious big boys when it comes to the physics prowess in Unleashed, the PS2 version is no slouch, either. Force pushing objects into each other results in some seriously impressive rag-doll dynamics, and in this sense alone, it’s perhaps the best action the PS2 has ever seen.
From a graphics standpoint, the game looks pretty good on the system. At this stage in the game, players will have to readjust their expectations and remember this is a PS2 game. Character models look good with plenty of detail, and though the environments are small with little variety, the art design fits the Star Wars universe to a tee. Again, the physics engine is really stellar, and if you’ve yet to experience next-gen goodness, it will be hard not to be impressed by Unleashed in this regard. There are a ton of destructible objects as you journey through levels and minimal slowdown. The only time the graphics actually look bad is during cutscenes. Whereas during gameplay, the character models are obviously driven by excellent motion capture, the character models during cutscenes move like robots. It’s truly jarring in the sense of remaining captured by the story, and it’s one huge reminder that you’re playing a game.
The audio of any Star Wars-related product is usually light years ahead of the competition, but that’s not necessarily the case here. Unleashed contains all the themes you’ve come to know and love, but that’s it – nothing new – no unique melody and cadence for Starkiller, at least nothing that stands out. Additionally, the incredible dynamics normally associated with Star Wars are absent from this affair, as there is no discernable stereo separation for the sound effects and music. Boss battles usually end with some context-sensitive, button-pressing mini game (ala God of War), but there are no cool sound effects to accompany button presses, and the mini-games end up coming off as flat and extraneous gameplay.
In the end, Force Unleashed on PS2 feels like a tech demo. Though there are a ton of really cool gameplay elements to experience, not enough of them come together to make for a truly fun adventure. Players can squeeze enjoyable moments out of the game, but Unleashed is a missed opportunity in most respects. The story might satisfy fans desperate for anything Star Wars related, but it adds nothing of great value to the canon. There are, however, a ton of unlockables, including images, costumes, Force powers, and light-saber crystals (which change the glow of your saber). For diehards, Unleashed is probably worth a rental. Experience the story, check out the cool Force powers, and then be done with the game. For those seeking a really entertaining, action-adventure game on PS2, you should probably check elsewhere.
RATING OUT OF 5 RATING DESCRIPTION 4.0 Graphics
Some environments are pretty plain, and the cutscenes are stiff and unattractive. Character models, however, look good and animate nicely, and the physics engine is cutting edge, even on PS2. 2.9 Control
In many respects, the controls make sense. However, a couple of the more commonly used actions are mapped to the L2 and R2 buttons, making gameplay clumsy. Additionally, the lock-on feature is almost useless outside of boss encounters, and Starkiller ends up with his back toward enemies far too often. 3.5 Music / Sound FX / Voice Acting
John Williams’ famous opus is intact, but the audio lacks a discernable stereo separation. There’s also nothing noticeably new, and there is a conspicuous lack of visceral sound effects during context-sensitive events. 3.2 Play Value
Though there are plenty of collectables to be found, the overall experience is quite lackluster. There are glimpses of greatness, but the promise is never fulfilled. 3.1 Overall Rating – Fair
Not an average. See Rating legend above for a final score breakdown.