The Good: Cool force powers are fun to wield. Levels are for the most part interesting.
The Bad: Boss battles are more gimmicky than fun
The Ugly: Keyboard is a little unresponsive. Difficult targeting system. Some significant audio stuttering problems.
I’ve got to admit that I was a little nervous when I learned that I was going to be reviewing Star Wars Force Unleashed. A friend of mine with a nitro-burning quad-core dual SLI videocarded glass-packed muffler hot rod gaming machine told me that he was frustrated by low frame rates, so low that the game was essentially unplayable. Meanwhile my somewhat aged machine defines the minimum system specs. What hope did I possibly have of being able to run it at all? Then it showed up in my mailbox, and I figured I might as well give it a crack.
The first thing that I noticed is that SWFU requires 26GB of hard drive space. I haven’t got it. It will probably come as a surprise to no one that I’m a guy who plays a lot of computer games. What might come as a surprise is that I finish very few of them. I seem to hit about the 75% point and then another game to review drops on my desk or something new comes out that I want to try, and I’m off to that other game. I keep all those old games stacked up on my hard drive in the hope that I’ll get back to them someday (which rarely happens, BTW). Subsequently, though I have 500GB of hard drive space, typically only about 10-20GB are free for new games, and to install SWFU something would have to go. If you’re curious, Brothers in Arms and Lego Indiana Jones lost out through a process of elimination involving much soul searching. What do I get for my 26GB of install space? I don’t know, but 8GB of that is video files, a fair chunk of the size of a feature-length HD movie.
It takes a long time to install 26GB and that gives me some time to acquaint myself with the manual. It’s pretty thin, but other than a little backstory (you play as a new apprentice to Darth Vader), and the general layout of the HUD and the keys, there really isn’t much that I need to know. Then the game actually starts and I’m greeted by acceptable frame rates. Oh, I’m not burning up the pixels or anything, but the game is far from unplayable. Over at my friend’s place I’m pretty sure he’s getting frame rates that are LOWER than me. How the heck does that work? I have no idea, and I haven’t talked to him since the update patch came out so I don’t know if that helped him at all. It seems to be something of a crapshoot as to whether or not the game will run for you regardless of your system specs.
If you can get it to run for you, you’re in for an OK Star Wars game. Not great, but pretty good. The force powers, while almost nothing we haven’t seen before, pack a sufficient punch to be fun to use. You get to hurl some Wookies around, electrocute Jawas, and slice and dice droids and rebels with your light saber. The levels, while quite linear, are nonetheless interesting enough with periods of high-adrenaline combat interspersed with little puzzle types of things. You gather experience as you go along which can be used to purchase upgrades to your stats (like how much force energy you store or how fast it recharges), your force powers (grip, push, lightening, etc), and to buy special light saber attack combos. The game for the most part throws lots of low-power enemies at you, trying to overwhelm you. As you become more powerful, these become something of a joke, but you know what? It’s fun playing jedi master, sweeping waves of soldiers aside with a flick of your wrist or using force lightening to kill an entire room the moment you step through the door.
The game missteps in essentially two places (beyond the technical sound problem, that is). The first is that a lot of the porting was done in a sort of slapdash manner. Since Force Unleashed came out for Xbox360 and PS3 about a year ago, I don’t know what they were doing in that time, but optimizing the PC version wasn’t it. You can’t use the mouse during the menu screens - you have to use the keys to navigate them. The keyboard response in general is sluggish, and the targeting with the force powers is finicky. I’ve electrocuted a lot of barrels while aiming for a guy crouched behind them, and flung the harmless Jawa when the guy with the gatling laser cannon next to him is cutting me to pieces. In general throwing objects, and many of the puzzles have you throwing objects at other objects, is dicey and takes a lot of trial and error. The second place the game goes wrong is in the boss battles, which should be more fun than they are but the bosses seem almost unbeatable until you find that combination of attacks against which they seem to have no defense at all at which point they become very easy. Boss battles typically end with a cinematic coup-de-gras which is accomplished through keystrokes which flash on the screen in a sequence. If you miss one, the game makes you try them all over again, which can get tiring. Oh, and if you’ve changed the key mapping, the original assigned keystrokes still flash on the screen. That’s just careless.
The dialog in the game is sharp and well acted. The story, you as an apprentice to Darth Vader (one that he is keeping secret from the Emperor), is well plotted and delivered through both in-game videos and the aforementioned 8GB of movies. The music in the game seems to come up quite short, which is odd because the music is the old rousing Star Wars music that an entire generation has come to recognize. It goes wrong in that the music often seems sort of whimsical during combat, or tense when nothing of any particular tenseness is going on, and sometimes the music just cuts out entirely for a period of time leaving just the game ambient sounds, and there aren’t very many of those. It’s almost as if the music engine is entirely unlinked from the game action. The sound effects are pretty good, but sometimes develop a hard stutter which seems to require that you quit the game and restart to clear it. Patch 1.1 claims to fix this problem in the readme file, but while it may have made it less frequent, it isn’t gone by a long shot.
The graphics to me do not justify the game install size. Batman Arkham Asylum looked better and ran more smoothly. Ditto for Dragon Age Origins. With the force powers there does come a whole boatload of neat physics effects, and those are probably processor intensive, but are they sizeable as well? I guess I’m just perplexed that a game that big doesn’t wow in some way. There are some cool things in SWFU, but little or no wow.
Overall I see SWFU as a sloppy console port of a game that was probably pretty great on the consoles (though I never played it there). Unoptimized, it has some controller issues (it might work better if I had a game pad, and if I didn’t hate game pads) and sound problems. I’ve played worse Star Wars games, way worse, but I’ve also played better ones. This one falls solidly in the middle of the pack. Star Wars fans will probably welcome this little excursion in the canon storyline (and at least one serious break from canon in the Hoth level). Non-Star Wars people and neutral Star Wars people (especially people running short on hard drive space like myself) would be better served looking for their Xmas jollies in one of the other big titles this season.