Science Friction: Release the Force

Get the inside scoop on Star Wars: The Force Unleashed as our weekly "Playing Around" series continues

I am hunter, warrior, slayer of Jedi. I am Darth Vader’s secret apprentice in Star Wars: The Force Unleashed, which hits shelves for the first time today. ($60, PS3/Xbox 360).

Thanks to Euphoria artificial intelligence, which simulates every quaking adversary’s nervous and muscular systems (they convincingly dive and cower when the explosive crates and invisible energy waves start flying), the galaxy trembles before my wrath. Molecular Matter software emulates realistic material breakage, causing metal to warp and wood to splinter along the grain according to the point of impact. Unlike rival games’ predictable battles, each neon-tinted firefight and lightsaber duel promises singular mayhem every time you hoist the controller.

Sadly, however, the hands-on excitement quickly succumbs to the Dark Side. Stunning backdrops from mountains of scrap metal and forests of phosphorescent fungi aside, level design proves disappointingly formulaic. Go here. Eliminate this group of exoskeleton-equipped troopers or blowtorch-wielding Jawas. Disable that shield generator. Dispense with said Jedi council member or AT-ST (robotic walker) boss. Rinse. Repeat. Nothing new there, and many encounters are easily bypassed simply by sprinting through. Finesse isn’t a strong suit, given confusing stage layouts, one’s inability to skip certain movie sequences and an infuriating reliance on repetitive, button-mashing combat encounters.

What the title lacks in gameplay polish, however, it atones for in tactical execution. I can have shootouts with jetpack-sporting snipers and armored guards anywhere. Even better are tussles that allow the strategic freedom of levitating Wookies off cliffs, mentally manipulating lasers into incinerating nearby gunmen or flinging Imperial officers through shattering portholes into space. That’s something special. Variety is truly the spice of death, with prop-laden set pieces doubling as makeshift arsenals. Boulders, crates and TIE fighter parts can all be imbued as lethal projectiles. And what scripted missions lack in innovation, they atone for in spontaneity.

Star Wars Screen Shot 2

Unfortunately, the 20th time you replay the same battle, little touches like flailing airborne stormtroopers that inadvertently hoist allies aloft tend to go unnoticed. But just between us would-be masters of the universe? As compared to, say, Emperor Palpatine’s soul, a little cynicism’s a small price to pay for the ability to instantly turn adversaries into human bowling pins with a wave of your hand.

Get Rich Playing Games_ author and TV/radio host Scott Steinberg has covered technology for 300+ outlets from CNN to Rolling Stone. For more of his insights, visit scottsteinberg.com. Scott brings his gaming prowess to PopSci in his weekly column, “Playing Around.”_