Hands On with The Force Unleashed

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If you've always thought that despite the allure and wonder of previous Star Wars games, you didn't get to blow up enough things or really tap into the dark side of the Force enough to satisfy your darker, destructive urges—stop whining. Sith Lords don't whine.

The Force Unleashed is coming to the Mac. With already six million units sold, this wickedly dark chapter in the Star Wars saga has already made an impression on console users when it was first released in 2008. Now Mac users can truly feel the power of the dark side of the Force with this exciting upcoming action adventure title.

The game takes place in the years between Episode III and Episode IV and follows the adventures of Darth Vader's secret apprentice. Armed with unprecedented Force powers, this young dark Jedi is tasked with hunting down rogue Jedi and anyone else who comes in his path. Because the main character is a secret to the rest of The Empire, he must dispatch anyone who discovers him—this includes not only powerful Jedi but stormtroopers, commandos, and whatever unfortunate alien races stumble into his path.

Force Unleashed
You'll have an array of Force powers to use as secret apprentice to Darth Vader.
During the demo with Aspyr's Eric Duncan and LucasArts' Cameron Suey, I got to see two levels of the PC build of the game. Though its not the Mac version, the games are being built simultaneously and I've been reassured they're supposed to be give the same treatment.

Over the past few months, I've grown more excited about the game and the merits of The Ultimate Sith Edition. Admittedly, when I first learned that The Force Unleashed was only going to come out on home consoles, I was livid (it also came out for the iPhone). Actually, like many computer game critics, I was quietly cheering for it to suck harder than Star Wars: Masters of Teras Kasi so I wouldn't feel like I was missing out on anything. Yes, we gaming critics are true bastions of maturity and objectivity.

While Mac users will have the opportunity to decide for themselves whether the game is as compelling as its potential promises, console gamers and critics have had the opportunity to sound off on the game for about a year now. The Force Unleashed has elicited mixed reviews. Some have derided the title for its hack and slash combat, its unbalanced enemies, and as far as I can tell, for not being Jedi Knight 4 (the sequel to the widely successful and largely critically beloved Dark Forces series). Instead of being a saber-based first/third person action game, The Force Unleashed was gunning for a different vision.

Sitting down for the demo in a darklit room, I began to understand and appreciate that differing vision more fully. The first level we played through occurs early in the game. Set in a TIE Fighter factory, the Secret Apprentice has been charged with tracking down a powerful Jedi Knight hiding out somewhere amongst the moving assembly lines, stormtrooper detachments, and open airways of the base. Obviously, the TIE Factory level enables you to have an awesome opportunity to create some mayhem.

Force Unleashed
Dispatch foes using Force Lightning.
While the level has a linear progression, how you dispatch your foes is completely up to you. You can fry your foes with lightning, throw them into oblivion with Force push, or slice them up using your lightsaber. Or, because the controls are built on a combo system, you can do all of the above in a complicated chain. As you play, you'll level up the Secret Apprentice's potent abilities to fit your fighting style, unlock costumes, and gain life back by defeating foes. When my favorite moments of this factory level was watching the Secret Apprentice pull down a TIE Fighter using Force energy and then throwing it at a group of oncoming stormtroopers. Yep, it's more fun to be evil.

While game critics have fretted over the hack and slash combat of the title, I found that in the hands of someone capable, the combat was smooth and the chain combos artful. Its amazingly fun to rip through a series of stormtroopers and finish the last one with a dramatic saber stab. The Ultimate Sith edition features more levels in classic settings with more costumes and (apparently) better-balanced enemies, only furthering my optimism for the title.

The level features some great open spaces for some epic battles, and the action is well paced and unscripted. To demonstrate the latter element of the game, Eric used the Secret Apprentice's Force push ability to blow open a door. The metal bent and twisted differently each time he performed the maneuver, thanks to the game's use of technology that creates dynamically destructible environments.

According to Cameron Suey, The Force Unleashed was originally a codename used within LucasArts before the game was fully developed. But the Force became such a defining element of the game, influencing how you fought, interacted with the world, and yes, even how you opened doors—the title stuck.

The use of the Force in such a dramatic fashion also renders a previous cliché of gaming obsolete. I remember fondly playing the Dark Forces series back in the day, and I always grew frustrated by the typical first person shooter's reliance on keys. You need to search areas to get keys, open doors, and advance in the area. But in The Force Unleashed, that isn't an issue. “A Jedi never searches for keys,” explains Eric, cryptically. In other words, you make your own door.

In addition to throwing TIE Fighters at your enemies, there are plenty of other darkly rewarding moments for any Sith Lord to enjoy. The enemy AI is particularly adept at trying to survive, and I watched as hapless stormtroopers tried to grab railings to save themselves before the Secret Apprentice flung them off into oblivion. The AI technology generates life-like reactions in the characters.

The other level I witnessed when was one of the three new levels for The Ultimate Sith Edition. The additional levels move the game from official Star Wars canon and into the realm of new possibilities. What if the Secret Apprentice had killed Darth Vader and become the Emperor's new right hand man? Three levels set in iconic Star Wars settings put you in the shoes of the super-powered Secret Apprentice as he tracks down characters from the original trilogy such as Obi-Wan Kenobi and Luke Skywalker.

On Tatooine, I watched as the Secret Apprentice broke into Jabba the Hutt's palace. The desert cliffs, the Jawa sandcrawler, the screeching sand people—everything looked true to the films depictions of Tatooine. Even breaking into the palace itself was straight out of Return of the Jedi: The player uses the Secret Apprentice's Force lightning to short-circuit the eye-ball-esque security droids. The developers took great pains to make Jabba's palace seem like the movie, even including Jabba's pig-like guards and the rancor pit. I don't want to spoil anything for the player here, but let's just say there's more than one way to dispatch the rancor.

The release date for The Forced Unleashed has still not been confirmed. The build I saw looked plenty ready to go, and the graphics resembled the high-end visuals of the PS3 or Xbox 360 version of the game rather than the lower end PS2 and Wii versions. The new costumes and additional levels also promise to provide Mac gamers with a richer gaming experience. Despite my previous reservations, I'm actually enthusiastic about this title. LucasArts still knows how to combine a compelling story with an enchanting world and stunning graphics. But the abilities of the Secret Apprentice— the sheer power you feel while controlling the Jedi— that's what makes The Force Unleashed so compelling, and that's why Mac gamers should be excited for this title's release.

[Editor's note: Updated 9/8/09 at 10am to replace name of enemy confronted on Tatooine level.]

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