All right, so maybe the title should be “I Doubted I’d Ever Play” or “I was Sure I’d Never be Able to Play” as the things that deterred me from playing this game were far less noteworthy than the fact that it was made very, very clear to me that it would never come to PC. Never… then of course of it.
First off I should point out that I’m not a die-hard Star Wars fan. I used to be, and I can still recite ridiculous amounts of pointless information from memory to do with wookiees (two ‘e’s), All Terrain Armoured Transports and a bazillion other things related to most likely the biggest and most popular sci-fi universe EVER, OF ALL TIME. So, yeah, I used to be, but now not so much. For me Star Wars was getting very samey. It became very much about the good guys (jedi) kicking the respective asses of the bad guys (sith, imperials, pirates, whoever) and that’s all well and good but the flavour of these stories became a bit too safe. Sometimes a bold and brave move is needed to make a universe fresh and return to that feeling of wonder and excitement.
So my question to myself is this: Does TFU achieve this? Does TFU reinvent the Star Wars universe and make Star Wars feel fresh again? That’s a hard question to answer, but let’s examine it all the same. TFU follows a new character, a young force sensitive who is “adopted” by Darth Vader and trained in secret with the hope that he will one day aid Vader in defeating the Emperor. Essentially, he’s what Vader wanted Luke to be. That was a pretty compelling idea to me, and it appealed to me in regards to the fact that it quite clearly humbles Vader (and as any good storyteller knows, a villain that knows his limits is a good villain) by saying that he could not kill the Emperor alone. In Star Wars lore, generally speaking the apprentice kills the master, and for Vader to admit he needs help… that’s pretty interesting in itself.
So the kid, nicknamed Starkiller, he’s super-powerful. That’s the whole point of the game after all. It’s not the Force Goes on an Outing, it’s THE FORCE UNLEASHED. Awesome force powers are implied, and true to the title, Starkiller performs some amazing feats over the course of the story. Most notably he pulls a Star Destroyer out of low orbit, something that previously was only accomplished by an entire temple worth of jedi, a few of whom died. Starkiller on the other hand does not die, at least, he’s not killed by the extreme power that he must use to
achieve this. In fact, all things considered (masculine grunting aside) he doesn’t seem too put out by it.
Not only that, but later on he goes on to achieve some pretty ‘amazing’ things that in my personal opinion put some considerable strain on the accepted lore. This is something Lucas has never had a big issue about, see: Clone Wars, but on this occassion in particular it felt very, very wrong. We are introduced to this character, and he’s not the most likable of characters either, whose loyalty is apparently constantly in flux. He’s a Sith, or at the least a Dark Jedi, but he’s not a complete jerk. He will do what must be done, but he’ll happily join the good guys if the going’s good. That to me made little sense. Sith and Dark Jedi do some very unpleasant things to ensure their dark power. So either Darth Vader has been treating him too well, or he’s schizophrenic. Either way, you’re not really treated to that side of the narrative. The best you get is a confusing tale of betrayal, romance, and awesome action sequences.
There are some good and fun parts of the story. The voice acting I have to say was very good, and the overall design of locations and characters is imaginative, though all Imperial levels felt pretty much the same. I particularly enjoyed Starkiller’s droid companion, whom I found to be quite different to C-3PO’s flattery/cowardice approach, or even HK-47’s witty but homicidal charm. I also liked how Vader was portrayed for the most part, and cameos by other characters, even if some were shorter than others, made me very happy.
But ultimately… does TFU reinvent Star Wars, at least, in terms of story? I’d have to say no, but it’s a difficult no, for sure. TFU’s story is darker than a lot of new Star Wars stuff, but the problem is Starkiller never feels like his namesake. He never feels like a Dark Jedi, or a Sith. He never feels evil, or mean for that matter. As a writer I understand that you want your character to appeal, and for people to sympathise with him or her, but I honestly believe I would find that an easier task were he portrayed more like your typical evil-doer, with cracks in his armour that eventually blossomed into something deeper. There’s very little moral ambiguity here, and that I found very disappointing.
Added to that the issues this game has with accepted lore, I have to say I found myself personally refusing to believe that one man could be responsible for so much. Try to write a list of things that Luke Skywalker personally achieves throughout the films. What I mean is, things that he, on his own achieves, without the aid of others. Without that cast of colourful characters, Star Wars tends to fall flat. This is no exception.
TFU is fun to play. It’s the kind of dumb action game where you run around and you press buttons that cause over the top things to happen. It’s no-brainer entertainment, and it is done pretty damned well. From the start you are introduced to an array of interesting force powers that you can use, and later on upgrade or unlock new combinations. The force is definitely strong in this game. There’s not much of a learning curve either, which can be good, or can be bad. It really depends on how you like to play. You start off reasonably weak, but your enemies are weak too, so it balances out. Finding secrets will help you to learn new abilities or unlock new lightsaber crystals and outfits, but more on that later. As you continue your journey you will increase greatly in strength, but it’s entirely possible that you will not get everything in one playthrough, thus offering a degree of replayability, and thinking tactically about what upgrades will benefit you most.
Level design is fairly standard for an action game. You start at A, you progress to B. There are no real detours or opportunities to go off the beaten track. The illusion that you are outside of a steel corridor, or if you prefer a rat’s maze, is never really achieved. I enjoyed the appearance of many of the levels, and found the progression to be exciting in places, tedious in others, confusing in some, but for the most part straight forward and simple. This is not really to the game’s fault though as it’s what you might expect from the genre. It never pretends to be GTA or TES: Oblivion. It never once asks you to pretend it’s a game that it clearly isn’t, and in a way that honesty is refreshing.
Combat is largely repetitive, and comprises of cutting down numerous enemies with force powers and of course your trusty lightsaber. Again, this gameplay is a staple of the genre, so it is to be expected, but there were some enemies, particularly on the Felucia levels that I would simply dread to see. These enemies, unlike many fought before, were considerably more tricky to fight and required use of tactics that were sometimes a bit humiliating. It does force you out of your comfort zone, but you’re never really prepared for the plunge.
Bosses in the game were more annoying than enjoyable. Some of the bosses you could figure out quite easily, and once you did became an enjoyable dance. Others, such as one early boss in particular, demanded that you mash buttons in the hope that something sticks. The Star Destroyer fight is one such instance where it is not, in spite of on screen instructinos, immediately obvious what you have to do and is quite a strain once you do realise.
One thing that I particularly enjoyed, and enjoy in almost every game I play, were the secrets and the ability to unlock new items and outfits. There’s something very rewarding about pop-up text telling you that you’ve found a new outfit, or that you’ve found all the secrets on a level. It’s something that is absent from most games nowadays, but to my delight was alive and well in this one. The outfits in particular are fun, though for simplicity’s sake do not show up as such in cutscenes. There’s a lot to choose from and if you’re anything like me you’ll end up having a hard time deciding which one would be the best to use at any given time. Items you can unlock refer solely to lightsaber crystals, but that doesn’t make them any less rewarding as they will offer you passive bonuses or new visual effects and colours, again allowing for a greater degree of customisation.
Ultimately TFU is a game that relies heavily on the strength of its gameplay, perhaps to the exclusion of story. The story is there, and it is not entirely beyond redemption, but it isn’t amazing either. If you’re thinking about playing TFU but you’re undecided, I would strongly recommend that you weigh up what you’re looking for in a game. If you want to play it because you’re a huge Star Wars fan, then you can’t go wrong. If you’re looking for dumb action, but you’re not that into Star Wars, then there are better games out there.
As a port, TFU is mediocre. It isn’t the worst I have played, but it never feels ‘right’. Added to that there are a number of weird bugs, which may or may not have been fixed by now. One of which rendered an entire two levels into complete silence for no reason at all. This made them all but unplayable as I found it impossible to tell where my enemies would attack me from at any given time.
I should point out that at the end of the day this is all my humble opinion, but while KOTOR made me fall in love with Star Wars, TFU did little to rekindle that flame.
At a pinch I’d give the game 3/5. It’s fun, but it’s not memorable.
So why did I swear I’d never play it?
As stated muuuuuuch earlier, it was more a case of falling out of love with Star Wars. By that time my interests had matured, and I found myself prefering a darker, more gritty, more realistic setting. Like Warhammer 40,ooo (cue laughter). Seriously though, there was something about Star Wars that became too safe, and I wanted to find that spark of danger that draws me in. KOTOR understood that desire. There’s a darkness in the KOTOR games that is absent from a lot of other Star Wars products. Compare the depth of Darth Revan, or the sinister nature of Darth Malak, along with a galaxy spanning plot that challenges, but enforces accepted canon… and you have yourself a success story. BioWare at its best.
That aside, the game was never really available to me. TFU was a game I followed fervently from the early moments of development through to release. I was naturally very disappointed at the lack of a PC port. It was like Rogue Squadron all over again. When it did come to the PC, naturally I was pleased, but by that time I didn’t care all that much. I think that may be why we’ll never see Halo 3 on the PC. It’s not that no one ever wanted it there, they did. I know I did, and Halo has always had a big PC following as well… but by the time it would come out, those who were waiting for it would have already moved on.
(Edit: Thank you Michal for spotting the typo! All fix’d now I hope.)