Star Wars: The Force Unleashed, from Universomo and THQ Wireless, recounts the story of Darth Vader’s ‘secret apprentice’–a mysterious young man who is still new to the ways of the Dark Side, but plays an important role in the Star Wars canon nonetheless (in between the events of Episodes 3 and 4, to be exact). The console version of the game is a button-intensive third-person action game, and Universomo deserves credit for capturing much of the source material’s Force-slinging essence in a playable, and enjoyable, touchscreen design. We’re not so happy about paying a premium price for slightly over an hour’s worth of entertainment, though.
Like any executive, Lord Vader likes to delegate. As his favorite lackey and ‘special project,’ he sends you to hunt down rogue Jedis that are making trouble for the Empire’”at least at the beginning of the story. There are lots of twists and turns from there, as well as encounters with several other familiar characters, all shown in a series of in-engine cinematic cutscenes. These are great the first time through, but there doesn’t seem to be a way to skip them the second time around.
You are no Sith Lord when you start Star Wars: TFU’s Story Mode. You have to gradually earn your full complement of powers’”Force Lightning, Force Drain, Force Push, and all the other fun stuff’”level by level. At the outset, you’ll be doing most of your damage with the basic Force Grip, as well as the ability to reflect blaster shots with your lightsaber (every Jedi and Sith’s favorite party trick). There is plenty of damage to be done, too, since your orders are to kill anyone and anything that crosses your path.
In terms of gameplay, Star Wars: TFU is essentially an on-rails shooter. You run through each level on autopilot, stopping only to annihilate stuff in set-piece battles using the Force. The idea is to quickly select the right power for the occasion, and then execute it by drawing symbols on the touchscreen with your finger. The game tells you what powers you can and can’t use on a particular target by displaying an icon above it. If your currently selected power will work, the icon will be blue; if you’re out of range, it’ll be grayed out; and if you’re trying to use the wrong power, you’ll get a circle. You switch powers by swiping two fingers across the screen in a certain direction, which ‘arms’ the corresponding power and changes all the icons on the screen. Each usage depletes your Force meter a certain amount, and if the meter runs to zero, it takes a moment to recharge, leaving you vulnerable.
Meanwhile, you also need to play defense with your lightsaber. Attackers display a red, four-quadrant icon a second or two before they shoot or hit you. You have to draw a diagonal line matching each quadrant to block, or you’ll take damage. Mooks with blasters usually only produce a single quadrant per attack, so they’re easy to block individually, but they can be dangerous in groups. Bosses tend to have lightsabers and Force powers themselves, and you have to rapidly draw lots of diagonals to stay unscathed.
Star Wars: TFU does a great job of mixing these offensive and defensive challenges, as well as varying the tempo of the levels and the powers you have to use. At its best, it can play almost like an action-packed rhythm game, with shots and icons filling the screen, and your Force powers carving swathes of destruction through your enemies. The game also has a calmer side, thanks to some interesting puzzles that make you think about how to use your Force powers in new ways.
On the minus side, those crazed action sequences can really cause the framerate to plummet. The performance problems don’t usually affect gameplay, but they definitely decrease the quality of the animation, which is already a little on the rough side. In addition, the game includes some ‘defensive’ force powers, like Jedi Mind Trick, Force Shield, and Force Speed, that have their own special symbols, and can be used at any time’”should you ever find a reason to do so. We never really did. We would have preferred one or two more really cool offensive powers instead, like a Lightsaber Throw.
The biggest issue with Star Wars: TFU, however, is that it’s too expensive for what it is. The game’s Story Mode only has six levels’”several of which reuse environments’”and you can play through all of them in an hour and change. You can go back through on hard difficulty, or aim for a high score in Survival Mode, but the meat of the game is in its story and set-piece battles, and these are only new once. The game’s design simply does not lend itself well to replayability.
The developer put a lot of effort into Star Wars: TFU, and it shows. The game’s levels and environments look like they’re straight out of the movies, and all of the music and sound effects fans will expect are there, too. We enjoyed our all-too-brief time as a Sith Lord, and we’d be happy to recommend it to others’¦ at $6 or so. Star Wars fans who don’t mind paying extra for a short game should absolutely download Star Wars: TFU. The indifferent will find more bang for the buck elsewhere.