Thursday, January 29, 2009

Star Wars: The Force Unleashed

This was one of the big hype monsters of 2008. Man, was it everywhere. A canon Star Wars game? The dark side? Holy shit! And the thing that got me: physics materials that respond believably to your actions; metal that bends, wood that splinters, glass that shatters--this, they dubbed "DMM" for Digital Molecular Matter. And placed in that environment is you, a Sith god with remarkable and dynamic powers we have yet to see in a Star Wars video game.

I didn't actually hear about this game until a couple weeks before it came out. I'd just finished MGS4 and I was waiting for Fallout 3. I figured, even if it sucked huge hippo nuts, it'd feed the monkey. So, I downloaded the demo and played it.

And then I started over, and played it again. And again. I must have played it twenty five times. The combat was just so damn fun.

In the first-person Dark Forces/Jedi Knight games, your force powers essentially boil down to a couple movement powers (jump, run), a couple of trigger-targets only powers (pull, push), and some powers that were essentially just funny-looking guns (lightning, saber throw). The game was fundamentally a shooter, but you were occasionally obliged to jump extra high or pull some piece of junk out of its socket. And the saber combat, while decent enough, didn't feel like fencing so much as a Japanese katana duel: run at each other, attack, run away, repeat. I loved the whole series, and was involved in the mod scene for a while (COG coding), but I was always a bit disappointed with the FPS combat.

The combat in Force Unleashed is nothing like that. It's based around combos and varied use of force powers. You can pick up a storm trooper, blast him with lightning, throw him at a squad of his friends, slice two others with your saber, force-push someone off a cliff, and leap into the air to attack a flying jump trooper all in the space of a couple seconds. Aggressive play is rewarded as each dead enemy replenishes some health.

I'm having trouble coming up with hyperbole big enough to impress upon you how varied and fun the combat is. There's always a new way to slaughter wave after wave of your enemies. I've played the whole game at least ten times now, and I'm still amused by novel ways of slaying a storm trooper.

On top of the standard high jumping and quick running, you have force lightning, force push, force repulse (like a spherical blast of force push, with you at the epicenter), saber throw, some kind of lightning-based shield that I never used, and force telekinesis.

The telekinesis system is done absolutely awesomely. Target a character (or object), press the shoulder button to lift him, move him on the X-Z plane with the left stick and on the X-Y plane with the right stick. Release the shoulder button while pointing the stick in some direction to fling your hapless victim in that direction. It's awesome, and makes for the the basis of much of your combat.

You can levitate pretty big objects, including TIE fighters (both flying and stationary). However, walkers, rancors, and other enemies of that size cannot be levitated for some reason.

Annoyingly, but maybe necessarily, there are a number of enemies who can block your light saber. They do this with a number of weapons, from weird swords made of bone to the Imperial Guard's power staffs. The ones that include a lightsaber-type blade (like the purge troopers), I understand. The rest of them, I don't. Isn't the whole fucking point of a lightsaber that nothing can block it but another lightsaber?

The designers also chose to litter the later levels with force-immune enemies. For the first three levels, any man-sized baddie was fair game to levitate, push, or repel. By the last five levels, you're frequently facing multiple enemies simultaneously who cannot be moved by your force powers. Against these guys, you just spam lightning until you run out, run away to recharge, and do it again. Because, naturally, they can block your saber. But then you start encountering troopers with some sort of force-nullifying field who can only be hit by your saber.

These various immune enemy types don't feel fun or varied... they feel cheap and unimaginative, since they basically reuse existing models. You spend the whole game maxing out your force badassery only to be confronted with a whole bunch of enemies that render your powers useless. And, of course, none of the Jedi bosses can be affected by any of your powers.

There're quicktime events. I hate them. You might not care. But, they're in there, and all bosses and "big" enemies must be defeated with a quicktime event after appropriately decreasing their life bar. Whatever.

The enemy AI is pretty neat. Levitated enemies will grab onto boxes, railings, and their buddies to keep from being thrown across the room. They seem to fall back and regroup if they're hurt but alive. Some of them will call for reinforcements. It's mostly gimmicks and conditional events, but it's a lot of fun to watch.

The physics are excellent. The elements of the levels simulated in "Digital Molecular Matter" react very convincingly. You can take one of the bendable metal doors in the TIE factory and literally wrap it around around the door jamb. The saber-slicable doors in the junk yard level react appropriately, gaping open and showing through along each of the slash lines. The glass shatters beautifully and differently each time. The metal girders in the catwalk of the TIE factory can be bent to any angle. The metal polls holding up the other catwalk in the TIE factory can be sliced away to let the catwalk fall.

But, then there're the objects that weren't simulated in DMM: everything I didn't mention in the list above. If they're not nailed down, you can pick them up and throw them. But that's about it. Saber attacks will result in glowing decals that fade to black decals that recycle and disappear after only about 6 strokes. They *do* follow the track of the saber precisely, but you can slash on a 10-foot computer display all day and not do it the slightest bit of damage. You can slice the droids in two, but the split is always in the same spot.

DMM was very underused. Perhaps it's too computationally expensive to use everywhere; I don't care.. It's jarring to go from seeing glass shatter beautifully just after you smash in a deformable door to seeing a flimsy metal shipping container survive in pristine condition after being slammed into the wall. I don't need everything destructable, but I do need some consistency.

So, the combat and programming are just fucking awesome, with a couple of minor flaws. But the level design is goddamn atrocious, with a couple of major exceptions.

The Imperial levels stand out as fantastic. There's lots of detail, plenty of non-immune enemies, and a whole heap of various junk to throw at your enemies. They use a liberal sprinkling of DMM materials, including corridors completely paneled with DMM metal sheets. I find myself playing the first level over and over again, since it's the best playground for your godlike end-game powers. Your force powers simply work the best in these levels.

Then there's the junkyard world. Rivers of glowing, unidentifiable poison (or is it lava?) that kill if you fall in. Space junk in magnetic beams moving from place to place. About half a dozen saber-slicable DMM doors. Level geometry defined by what appears, even in high def, to be mounds of mac'n'cheese vomit, but is probably supposed to be junk and trash.

There's the obligatory squishy mushroom level. With essentially no objects to throw at anybody, and no interactive DMM objects. Oh, wait, no, the fucking mushrooms wobble if you push or repel them... but, you can't cut them down, you can't knock them over, they just wobble like jelly. There're rancors.

A five-minute mini level in Cloud City.

And then back to the goddamn squishy world, Now With Storm Troopers. And then back to the junkyard world, Now With Storm Troopers. And in the junkyard+Empire level, we find the hypeiest scene in the whole game: you tear a Star Destroyer from the sky with the force.

Except, what you really do is move around a background setpiece as you're blasted by TIEs. It's essentially a quicktime event, not a native use of the physics/force system. You orient the ship until it's pointing at you (while ignoring the lying, lying guidance at the bottom), and then you pull down on both sticks until the TIE fighters blow away most of your health. Deal with the TIEs, and go back to pulling down on the Star Destroyer. When you get the nose close enough to the ground, cue the pre-rendered cutscene.

Yeah, you go to the Death Star. It's the worst of the Imperial levels.

The writing and plot are better than George Lucas has done of late, but still not especially inspired. I did like playing as a Sith, since I could use the cool offensive powers without having to sacrifice the "good" ending. And, hey, look, there's the single, solitary choice you make that determines the good/evil ending. How quaint.

There're a zillion collectibles: costumes and saber crystals, mainly. Some of them look pretty cool. There's seemingly no level cap, so you can eventually max out everything--and you'll have 20+ unused combo points before you amass enough points to max out your powers. There's a bunch of Star Wars art geek bait on the disc that I looked at for about five minutes before getting bored.

The Force Unleashed could have done everything it claimed to. The technology was there; the programmers obviously had their stuff done on time. But, it must have been rushed right the fuck out the door before the level designers had a chance to finish their job. The force might be unleashed, but there's apparently still a fence.


  1. Assuming you're not just fucking with me, Hector...

    A "quicktime event" is the most annoying of recently prevalent game mechanics.

    So, in normal play, your buttons perform various actions. You press X, you jump in the air. You can press X any time you want, and you can jump any time you want.

    A "quicktime event" stops the normal flow of the game and makes you play Simon Says while it plays a predefined animation. A little indicator at the bottom of the screen pops up informing you that you need to hit X. So, you hit it. If you don't hit it in time, some consequence is meted out to you and you (usually) have to start over with the quicktime event. If you hit the wrong button, same thing.

    After you've hit X, the indicator will show some other button. Same deal. You do this until the animation finishes.

    The most famous (but not first) example is God of War, where many enemies can only be killed with special, cinematic quicktime events as you tear their heads off. The most annoying example that I know of is Resident Evil 4, where it'll be playing a cutscene and then all of a sudden says "Press X to Dodge" or whatever. If you can leap over to where you left the controller and press X in time, you're rewarded with the rest of the cutscene. If you're all the way in the kitchen getting another beer, you get to start the cutscene over.

    Force Unleashed actually did it as well as is possible. Chip away at a walker's health until it's only got 5% left, and then do a quicktime "combo". There's no serious penalty for failing it, and (thank god) the sequences don't change randomly (like some games), so there's some chance you'll be able to memorize what's coming.

    My problem with quicktime events is that they're neither cutscenes nor gameplay. You have to mash buttons, but those buttons are just sentinels for whether or not you get to see some more of the animation. Also fucking infuriatingly frustrating is that many developers will throw them in when you don't expect them. Like Resident Evil 4, which has like half a dozen QT events in the entire game... meaning that you can't ever get a beer during a cutscene, since you have no idea if it's going to need you to repeatedly mash A to escape the killer bumblebee or whatever.


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