Monday, May 2, 2022

Star Wars: The Force Unleashed Ultimate Sith Edition (PS3)

Note: This review contains spoilers for the Star Wars Prequel Trilogy, the Original Trilogy and Star Wars: The Force Unleashed.

A long time ago, before Disney’s acquisition of Lucasfilm, LucasArts existed as a well-known game studio. They not only made a lot of adventure games for multiple platforms, but also, in their later years, plenty of official Star Wars games. One of these was the 2008 game Star Wars: The Force Unleashed, a game that bridged the gap between the Original and Prequel Trilogies while introducing the character Starkiller, who had a good amount of notoriety at the time. A year later, in 2009, the game would also receive a release called Ultimate Sith Edition that collected all of the DLC while also offering additional costumes. Twelve years later, I had the urge to revisit the game, both in part to finally play through the DLC campaigns and see how well it had held up after so many years. While still a fun experience today, it has admittedly started showing its age.

To quote the opening crawl: “The galaxy is on the brink of total darkness. The evil GALACTIC EMPIRE has overthrown the Old Republic and now holds countless worlds in the grip of fear. The Jedi Knights have been all but destroyed. Only a handful have escaped Imperial forces, disappearing into hiding across the galaxy. The Emperor's spies have located a lone Jedi Knight on the Wookiee homeworld of Kashyyyk. The Sith Lord DARTH VADER has been sent to destroy him....”

In an interesting twist, Darth Vader is the first playable character.

After Darth Vader eliminates his target on Kashyyyk, he spares the Jedi’s young son due to his high Force potential and raises him as his secret apprentice. As an adult, this apprentice, Starkiller, is sent on a series of missions by Darth Vader to hunt down survivors of the Great Jedi Purge. In doing so, Starkiller is promised that the two of them could take down Emperor Palpatine and rule the Sith together. During his journey, however, Starkiller gradually feels conflicted over his actions and struggles with his morality.

In a rather groundbreaking move at the time, The Force Unleashed explores the period of time between Revenge of the Sith and the original Star Wars, including the formation of the Rebel Alliance. While this does mean it’s still bound by the canon of the films, it does still allow an impressive amount of freedom in its depiction of the Star Wars universe, introducing a good number of unique characters that help flesh out the world while contributing to Starkiller’s story. These include General Rahm Kota, Juno Eclipse and the droid PROXY, among others.

Most importantly, Starkiller’s story has a surprising amount of narrative complexity that helps it stand out to this day. He starts off obeying Darth Vader out of loyalty, but the missions he’s sent on turn into a journey of self-discovery. Where he would gladly kill Jedi in the name of the Sith, he eventually recognizes the consequences of his actions and how he hadn’t necessarily made the right decisions the first time. His interactions with the rest of the cast fuel his inner conflict, especially towards the end of the game, when even those he had harmed before still trust him to make the right decision.

Starkiller's (left) journey is filled with inner conflict.

Starkiller’s journey eventually culminates in a single decision in the final level, where he must choose between saving a group of Jedi from Palpatine or finish off Vader, his former master. This pivotal choice leads to either the canon Light Side ending or the non-canon Dark Side ending. Although viewing both endings will require replaying the entire final level, it’s worth the effort, since levels don’t typically last very long.

As for the actual gameplay, it plays a lot like God of War, as was the style at the time, but with the addition of Force powers. Using Starkiller’s Force abilities, which gradually expand throughout the story, drains a recharging gauge. Should you overuse Force abilities, the gauge will fill up with a yellow bar that must drain before the player can once again use the Force. Effectively combining the Force with normal lightsaber attacks, however, will not only enhance the feeling of playing as a powerful Sith, but also result in a better score at the end of each mission. Outside of combat, players can still use Force powers to solve environmental puzzles, including overloading batteries with Force Lightning or moving objects with Force Grip. Force Grip is actually the most mechanically complex of the Force abilities, as the player uses both sticks to control the direction in which a gripped object is moved or thrown.

Much like in God of War, larger enemies are defeated through QTE sequences. While these are optional for regular enemies, since you can defeat them just by dealing enough damage, these QTEs are mandatory for defeating bosses, as they trigger semi-scripted sequences. Either way, these sequences can potentially cover several inputs and you must restart the entire sequence if you fail one input, at least against regular enemies. Interestingly, if you have to restart the sequence, the inputs will stay the same on a retry.

Two other gameplay additions include the Jedi and Sith Holocrons. Sith Holocrons more immediately affect gameplay, as they provide a special temporary power boost, like a Health Drain Aura or increased damage. However, players can only have one Sith Holocron active at a time and picking up another one will overwrite the previous effect. Jedi Holocrons, on the other hand, are permanent unlockables, including additional Lightsaber colors and crystals, the latter of which can affect gameplay, or gallery artwork. Finding either type of Holocron during a mission will also affect your completion percentage.

While missions are fairly linear, Starkiller must still complete multiple objectives throughout, some of which are spread across multiple points in an area. Fortunately, the player has a minimap to help with navigating through the environment and locating the targets for each objective. Each mission can also vary in length from about 20 minutes to at least half an hour, depending on the difficulty level, though the presentation allows for play in short bursts if necessary. Missions also provide a lot of variety in their layouts and objectives, with the final mission particularly memorable and well-constructed (running through the Death Star’s laser tube also retroactively reminded me of the Speed Buster fight from No More Heroes).

Starkiller's missions take him across several planets.

As Starkiller dispatches enemies, he’ll also gain EXP until he levels up, at which point he’ll obtain one each of Power, Combo and Talent spheres. These spheres are used on Force Upgrades in one of three categories: Power improves Force Power, Combo unlocks additional combo attacks and Talent increases the capabilities of Starkiller’s abilities. Players can view information about each upgrade before committing the required number of spheres, which helps for planning based on current needs, and can respec an upgrade type at any time at the cost of one of that category’s respective sphere.

As fun as it is tearing through enemies with the full power of the Force, there are some lingering frustrations. Even on the lowest difficulty, certain enemies can easily stunlock you if there’s enough of a crowd. On lower levels, the Purge Troopers were especially prone to this, since Starkiller doesn’t appear to have any invincibility frames when he recovers from an attack. The target lock can also feel dodgy at times, as Starkiller often didn’t necessarily lock onto the enemy I wanted, especially when dealing with larger crowds.

Although the game still looks presentable, with its detailed environments and wealth of customization options in both the costumes and lightsaber colors, the generally realistic art style has noticeably aged. Some other issues cropped up with the graphics that led to equal hilarity and frustration. For one thing, the presence of three physics engines (Havok for rigid body physics, Pixelux Entertainment's "Digital Molecular Matter" for destructible objects and NaturalMotion's Euphoria for enemy AI) on top of the proprietary Ronin engine leads to some odd interactions. Most noticeably, some objects bend or contort in odd ways when struck with a lightsaber or manipulated by the Force. I also ran into some noticeable texture loading and pop-in that didn’t negatively affect the gameplay, but did come off jarring at times.

In certain situations, the camera, which works well and lets you instantly reposition it behind Starkiller with R3, also has issues. Sometimes, killing an enemy will trigger an Action Camera that makes the death more cinematic, but this doesn’t pause the action and timing feels arbitrary. It would have made more sense if it triggered on the last enemy in a group, but I found that that wasn’t always the case. During boss fights, the camera is more zoomed out, which does let the players more easily view the action, but can lead to some dodgy interactions that can make the fight a little more frustrating than intended. The biggest offender, however, was the Bull Rancor fight, where no matter what I did during the fight, I couldn’t see its health and had to just spam attacks until a QTE showed up.

For some reason, the Bull Rancor's health bar never showed up.

Even the audio isn’t safe, as the audio cut off for me at least once during a conversation and the subtitles didn’t 100% match the dialogue. On the upside, the voice actors did a great job with their roles, including Sam Witwer as Starkiller, and the music has the same style one would expect from a Star Wars experience.

Not long after launch, The Force Unleashed received DLC in the form of new playable missions, all of which are included on the Ultimate Sith Edition disc. Players must start a New Game to access each mission individually, though the game fortunately has enough Save slots to enable using a separate save for each mission.

The first DLC mission, Jedi Temple, takes place during the main campaign and sees Starkiller trying to learn more about his father. Upon reaching the temple, he must undergo the Jedi trials and confront a powerful Sith.

The story does a great job adding to the overall themes of Starkiller’s inner conflict as his abilities are tested until he ultimately faces his own darkness. While he doesn’t end up learning what he wanted about his past, he does grow stronger as a person and gets a glimpse of what he could be if he goes down the path of the Dark Side.

As for the gameplay, it’s largely the same as the base game, your stats even transfer over, but is more puzzle-oriented. Combat encounters lead to Starkiller manipulating pieces of a statue so he can cross a bridge and the Jedi trials test the player’s timing and mastery of Force Grip. Due to the scale of the encounters, this mission is best played when the player is sufficiently strong as opposed to the proper slot in the storyline. Apart from that, the issues from the base game were either downplayed or nonexistent.

As with the base game, the Tatooine mission begins with an opening crawl: “It is a period of civil war. Rebel spaceships, striking from a hidden base, have won their first victory against the evil Galactic Empire. During the battle, Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire's ultimate weapon, the DEATH STAR, an armored space station with enough power to destroy an entire planet. Tracking the plans to Tatooine, the Emperor dispatches Starkiller, the Sith assassin who destroyed Darth Vader, to retrieve them before the Rebel Alliance can restore freedom to the galaxy....”

This mission, as implied by the opening crawl, takes place during the events of the original Star Wars and firmly establishes an alternate continuity following the non-canon Dark Side ending of the base game. Here, Starkiller searches for R2D2 and C-3PO in an attempt to stop the Rebel Alliance from obtaining the plans to the Death Star. During this quest, he comes across and fights familiar characters in familiar environments, not only changing the course of events from the Original Trilogy, but also providing some neat fanservice for fans of the films.

Unlike the Jedi Temple DLC, however, I did come across some noticeable performance issues, including some chugging in certain situations. During the final fight, the boss lost their remaining health to an environmental trap, which prevented the crucial ending QTE from triggering, so I had to reload my save and restart the second phase of the fight to get past it. There were also points where the audio during a conversation cut out or even played later, as well as an issue where the subtitles went by a bit too fast for the audio. On the upside, all of the player’s stats are maxed out, mirroring Starkiller’s status as a Sith Lord.

The Hoth DLC mission continues from where the Tatooine mission left off and begins with an opening crawl: “It is a dark time for the rebellion. Although the Death Star has been destroyed, Imperial troops have driven the rebels from their hidden base and pursued them across the galaxy. Evading the dreaded Imperial Starfleet, a group of freedom fighters, led by Luke Skywalker has established a new secret base on the ice world of Hoth. Guided by the spirit of Obi-Wan Kenobi, SKYWALKER struggles to master the skills of a Jedi and prepare for a final confrontation with the Emperor's Sith assassin, Starkiller....”

As indicated by the opening crawl, this mission takes place during the events of The Empire Strikes Back. Like the Tatooine mission, there isn’t much in terms of story, but it does provide an interesting glimpse into an alternate “What if?” future by the end of the final fight. Of course, players also get a further look into what would have happened to Starkiller if he had replaced Darth Vader in the events of the Original Trilogy.

Much like the Tatooine campaign, Starkiller begins with all of his stats maxed out, meaning he can still earn some useless spheres. However, I didn’t run into as many issues as the previous mission, only suffering some noticeable framerate drops during one specific section.

In spite of its age, The Force Unleashed still proves itself as a fun Star Wars game. Starkiller’s story is handled better than one might expect and the gameplay, while it has some issues, has a good Star Wars-flavored spin on the formula popularized by God of War while providing some unique and memorable set pieces. Since the HD version of this game doesn’t have a modern rerelease, unlike the Switch port of the Wii version, I’d suggest getting this game while you still can and before aftermarket prices get out of hand.

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