I’ve been a “Star Wars” fanboy since I was 5, but I was shocked at how bored I was with “The Force Unleashed,” LucasArts’ new game set in the “Star Wars” universe. And that was after I smacked a stormtrooper in the head with a Tie Fighter.
Available for all major consoles and handhelds, “The Force Unleashed” starts with a bang. In the beginning, you’ll kick butt as Darth Vader, set in the time period between “Revenge of the Sith” and “A New Hope,” a.k.a. episodes three and four.
That’s right, you start out as Vader himself, using the Force and a lightsaber to wade through foes with merciless abandon. It’s a great opening.
Using the Force is an impressive feat, thanks to special physics engines built for the game. On the higher-end consoles, the game looks and sounds just like a “Star Wars” film. If “TFU” had stayed in Vader’s shoes, this game would be a winner. But soon the game slips to the Dark Side.
It happens early on, when you stop being Vader and take the role of Starkiller, Vader’s secret apprentice. It’s like “Enter the Matrix,” when you end up playing as a side character instead of Neo. It doesn’t help that Vader comes off as a compelling, complex character, while Starkiller feels like a bit player. As I played, I realized I’d rather view the game’s plot through Vader’s eyes than those of his secret apprentice.
As Starkiller, you possess powers that dwarf anything we've seen done in the “Star Wars” movies. After you crush, kill and destroy countless foes, the Force loses its wonder and becomes an excuse for Michael Bay-style destruction. The camera turns out to be the game’s greatest villain, swinging around when you least desire it and potentially exposing you to a killer plunge off a nearby ledge.
The sad fact is that much in “TFU” has been done better by the “Jedi Knight” and “Knights of the Old Republic” games. With those titles, there was greater diversity in locations and opponents, as well as better character development and a sense that you mattered in the galaxy. “TFU,” by comparison, sticks you with a main character that doesn’t appear in the original trilogy, so there’s a sense of futility that’s equaled by the game’s mediocre battles.
But the biggest oversight is the lack of online multiplayer for consoles. Did LucasArts really think players wouldn’t want to take their Jedis online for some deathmatch? Let's put it another way: If you love the idea of flinging a stormtrooper off a cliff, can you imagine the joy of tossing some online opponent out a starship hangar?
(The PSP and DS versions will have local Wi-Fi multiplayer, along with other unique gameplay elements.)
About the Wii edition: It’s not the lightsaber game fans have been drooling for, but it comes close enough and offers the most frantic Wiimote waggling since “Super Smash Bros. Brawl.” And it has multiplayer in the offline Duel Mode, where you and a friend can battle as various Star Wars characters. If you do get the Wii version, brace yourself for a startling drop in graphics compared to the other consoles.
In the end, “TFU” feels small despite the attempts at being a rollicking adventure. Despite the graphic wizardry and cool Force powers, it can't really do anything big due to canon constraints. That makes “TFU” feel like a Star Wars footnote rather than an epic tale.