'Force': uneven stab at the dark side

The Baltimore Sun

If you thought Star Wars was finally over after Episode III (that's film six for the uninitiated), think again. The force - it seems - will always be with us.

Creator George Lucas has repeatedly denied plans to film yet another blockbuster trilogy, but that hasn't stopped him and his co-conspirators at LucasArts from cultivating adventures from the gaps between the existing films, such as last month's animated feature The Clone Wars.

Released today, Star Wars: The Force Unleashed, a new video game for most major platforms, has the ambitious task of bridging the 20-year gap between the two trilogies. And from a storytelling standpoint, it largely succeeds. But as an actual game, The Force Unleashed can be wildly uneven.

The game follows the ascent of Darth Vader's secret apprentice, a young Jedi named StarKiller. He's charged with hunting down the remaining Jedi Knights with the ultimate goal of clearing the way for Vader's rise to ultimate power. Yes, you get to be the bad guy, dark side and all.

Like most games for the high-powered systems, such as the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, the graphics are top of the line, but The Force Unleashed goes beyond that standard with highly creative set pieces and character designs. The cinematic sequences are slick, and they almost match the quality of Hollywood animated features.

While the game introduces new characters like the droid Proxy and pilot Juno Eclipse, it's also well stocked with familiar faces like Jawas and Wookies, and even Princess Leia makes an appearance.

This being Star Wars, the game isn't the only component. There is a comic book, a novel and a line of action figures. As with many new releases these days, stores stayed open last night past midnight to satisfy hard-core and often costumed fans.

As the title denotes, The Force Unleashed allows players to control the Jedi telekinetic wizardry in novel ways. Players can twist metal to fashion makeshift bridges or shatter starship glass to send hapless storm troopers flying into the vacuum of space. Yet, those ingenious moments are merely brief respites from the bulk of the gameplay - a long slog of dispatching enemies with your trusty lightsaber.

And fighting huge monsters and giant attack vehicles can become tedious because of the convoluted finishing moves that are required. It makes for slick animation, but it's indicative of the linear game play that stifles this promising title.

The Force Unleashed is by no means a bad game, just one released two years too late. In the wake of the engrossing Grand Theft Auto 4, players are becoming accustomed to making their own choices, not following rigid plot lines. It's a competent addition to the beloved franchise but a little more innovation could have gone a long way.

Also out this week

Rock Band 2 for Xbox 360: Guitar Hero's more sophisticated rival returns, promising improved controllers that simulate the playing of the drums and the guitar. This sequel isn't a giant step forward from the original, but it does boast some notable updates like more songs (84 in all) and a "tour mode" that allows for more flexibility when playing with multiple band members.

Star Wars: The Force Unleashed ** 1/2


For most platforms, including Nintendo Wii, Nintendo DS, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 and the iPhone. Rated T for Teen. Retail price: $59.99.

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