Second impression? Shouldn’t there be a first? Well, truth be told, I played the heck out of the demo when it first came out a year-and-a-week ago. That would have been the best time to make a first impression post. So we’ll move on to the second impression.
Physics: This is one of the game’s high points. You can (and I did) literally spend hours picking people up with the Force and throwing them or dropping them or running them into other people or pulling them close to you and watching them dangle — all just to see how it works. The first time you grab someone and watch him grab for a railing or grab another person, you’ll be hooked. At one point, I accidentally (during fighting) broke a bunch of elevating platforms that led to a power-up. At first, I was going to forget about it or re-load in order to get the power-up, but then I decided to see if I could make a stairway with junk from around the room. And? It worked. I easily manipulated in-game objects using just the left and right analog sticks. That was awesome.
Background Activity: Playing through the first few levels, I’m pretty impressed with how much activity there is. Opponents running around the levels, space ships flying over head, objects to manipulate everywhere you look — it comes across as quite graphically impressive. True, there are some side effects of this, such as…
Pop-In: There’s a lot of pop-in with this game. I remember working on Knights of the Old Republic and the lead designer saying that we should never see enemies pop in. That wasn’t possible, but we did everything we could to minimize it. But in the Force Unleashed, I’ve seen all sorts of things pop in to existence. I’ve also seen a lot of texture pop-in, where — as you get closer to an object — the texture improves in quality. I suppose that’s a hard one to hide and pretty forgivable, but it seems like it could have been minimized a little bit more than it is. Maybe if there were less stuff all around you, the pop-in would be unnecessary.
Jittery Feel: The game has a jittery feel to it, like there are missing animations. You jump from Point A-to-Point B or swing at an opponent and sometimes it’s so fast that it’s hard to control — quite at odds with each of the last two Prince of Persia games I played which felt very smooth and much more easy to control. As well, there’s quite a bit of screen tearing — suggesting at some problems with the frame rate that lend to the jittery feel of the game. And then there was the time when an opponent threw an object at me and I locked on to it with the Force — only to watch the object fly past me forcing the camera to spin wildly. I can’t measure the frame rate on the Xbox 360, but I wonder how far they’re pushing the capabilities of the machine. Again, I would have preferred them pulling the details back a little and making it smoother.
Lock-On: Lock-on is a weakness for this game, which is a shame because it’s the basis for a very impressive Force/physics system over all. And what I mean is that as you travel through levels, you can use the Force to grab or manipulate a huge assortment of objects scattered throughout every level. That’s the perfect building block for fun. But let’s put it this way: if I’m in a room and there’s a bomb on the floor and a rancor running at me, it should be obvious if I’m roughly facing the bomb that I want to fling the bomb at the rancor — and not pick up a nearby rock and throw it straight up. There should have been better weighting of object importance and less objects to distract from your focus.
The Music: I like that they use the familiar Star Wars themes throughout the game, but if I’m walking down a hallway with nothing going on it gets really irritating really quickly if I’m forced to listen to the loudest and most dramatic music for that sequence. How about we save the dramatic music for the boss fights and use some soft ambient melodies for the exploration and grunt-fighting areas?
The Combos: If you’ve read past reviews of mine, you know I’m not a fan of the intricate and complicated combination system. Here’s my deal: if I’m playing a game for 10 hours, I have no interest in memorizing 50+ different attack combinations. It is not worth my effort. So what happens? I more or less spam the controller. I know that all four face buttons can lead to attacks directly or indirectly, so I hit them all and hope it works. Sometimes I stumble across a good combo and remember it (such as [X] followed by two helpings of [Y]), but more often I lean on what I already know or rely on continually hitting the attack button [X]. In a game where there are dozens of ways to swing your lightsaber, plus several ways to use the Force, I wish they would have put some effort into making all those methods accessible to the more casual player. Is that just me? Do others out there love memorizing that [X], [B], [X], [X] is an attack but [X], [Y], [B], [X] is not?
Difficulty Balancing: Maybe this is another “just me” moment, but the game has some uneven balancing in my opinion. Some levels and bosses I completely mow through like they’re not there — and I’m not doing anything special. Other bosses and levels stymie me to no end — like that awful, skittering little robot Jedi you are sent to fight. Or the time I resorted to retreating back past the point where the opponents would follow me, and then resorted to flinging rocks at them because I had died at their hands a half-dozen times (I later discovered this is also known as “the second half of the game” — that’s some really epic Jedi heroism for ya, hiding and throwing rocks).
AI: Let’s put this comment down to polish. The Force Unleashed could have used some tweaking of theirs. For example, I’m standing on a ledge and an opponent is down on the ground below me. He’s tossing grenades at me but I’m so high up that he can’t hope to hit me. So what does he do? Continues throwing grenades, non-stop, in an arc that lands at the ground well below me. Then there’s the Jedi I just killed by — standing there and watching her walk into lava. Or there was the mech I defeated by watching him walk into a wall of electricity. Or the aforementioned skittering Jedi who used his entire reservoir of Force powers to do a non-stop Force Push attack — even though I was blocking and it was having little effect.
Walkmesh: This follows the comment above. It could have been better. There are times when opponents try to walk to me and walk off the level and die. Or they jump up a small hill to get to me and fall over, dead; I’m not sure what happened to them. Then there are the times where I get stuck on the ground because it’s half-a-foot high and I apparently can’t walk over that — consistently. Or the times when an opponent gets stuck standing on my head or I get stuck on a wall or a hill. If they were having these kinds of problems during the testing phase, you’d think they’d put some better effort into making tighter rails for their levels or, at least, having some QA locate the most troublesome spots. I’m just waiting for the time when I fall out of a level and have to re-load. I’m no longer waiting. It’s happened. Several times.
Level Map Loading: Some levels are larger and require a transition, mid-way. You’d think they would have done this in a peaceful zone or in a more intuitive location so it’s obvious what’s going on — like a doorway. But my experience with the game says this is not the case. I was fighting on one level, surrounded by foes and worried I was going to die. I sprinted down a corridor to funnel the attackers into a row and — the screen goes black. Then it’s the loading screen. Then I’m in an entirely different-looking location with no one around me. That’s the second or third time this has happened.
Puzzles: Puzzles aren’t always clear. There was one stage where it appeared sparks were falling from above. Were they dangerous? I walked forward and died — so I assumed they were dangerous. I discovered I could bend some nearby walls to create an umbrella of sorts. My bending job was so bad that it didn’t appear to block any of the sparks, but I didn’t die this time. Did I solve the puzzle? Did something else kill me the first time? I’m not sure.
Level Lay-Out: The levels aren’t always laid out well. It could be much more clear which direction you need to go. There have been a few times where I get turned around and walk back the way I came. And since new foes spawn in behind you as well, it looks like I’m going the right direction. I like that there’s a mini-map to help you out, but I like having the mini-map as an extra — not needing to rely on it entirely. Regardless, the mini-map doesn’t help for vertical planes. Also, there are occasionally weird glowing effects on walls that look like the holocrons, but they’re nothing at all. Why are they there? They only distract. Speaking of, the lighting system reminds me of Fallout — washing everything in a single color. For example, there’s the gold level where, wielding a gold lightsaber and wearing golden-brown clothes, you trek through a golden-brown desert/junkyard landscape. How about some in-level color variety?
QTEs: A quick comment on the QTEs, I actually think they work well here. Yes, it’s hard to pay attention to the awesome sequence going on because you’re staring at the bottom of the screen so you can see what button you need to press — but I like that you can kill a tough mini-boss with regular gameplay or, if you hurt it enough and get close enough, you can launch a QTE that lets you get a more spectacular finish. I actually think they could have used more QTEs; the aforementioned puzzle (?) would have been a great example of where it could have fit.
That wraps my itemized second impressions on the Force Unleashed. My bottom line so far is that the game has so much potential but it’s missing out on fully reaching it. That’s frustrating and disappointing. I enjoy myself while playing, for the most part, but I also curse a fair bit and am generally of the mind that while I will finish I won’t re-play. So there you go. I’m sure I’ll put together a few smaller posts on the title en route to completion, so stay tuned for those.