We picked Force Unleashed as a title to watch in 2008 a while back, and after viewing a demonstration and playing the game today, we're pleased we did.
LucasArts and Activision booked out a conference room at the Auckland Hilton, and invited us to partake in a presentation and hands-on gaming session for their latest Star Wars gaming title.
After being intimidated by the stormtroopers guarding the door outside the hotel, and the rather convincing Darth Vader inside, we were stepped through several scenes with expert guidance from the LucasArts representatives.
If you haven't yet heard of it, Star Wars: The Force Unleashed is a new first-person shooter/slasher developed internally by LucasArts. The story is set between Episode III and IV, the period after Anakin Skywalker becomes Darth Vader but before the Rebellion and the Empire clash.
The Xbox 360 version we saw was only running at 480p due to a technical problem with the projector, so it would be unfair of us to rate the graphics poorly at this point; they looked pretty good considering. Where this title shines however, is the physical interaction with the environment that is so crucial to the gameplay mechanic.
Into one package they've managed to squeeze LucasArt's proprietary Ronin game engine, the Digital Molecular Matter (DMM) engine which allows objects to be broken into realistic pieces, the euphoria behavioural simulation engine which creates natural animation, and the Havok physics engine for character and environmental interaction.
This results in one impressively realistic world, and is key to fulfilling the "unleashed" brief that LucasArts have been emphasising from the start of development. The concept here is to allow the player to use the power of the Force in every way imaginable, and preferably, with as much violence as possible. Or "kicking butt using the Force," as the presenter put it.
The introductory cinematics were everything we've come to expect, and without giving too much away we learn how Vader discovered his apprentice (very cool) and what lengths he'll take to train him. We also learn what Vader is ultimately attempting to achieve, and why it's so important for his apprentice to become perhaps even more powerful than himself. The storyline is completely new, and bridges the gap between Episode III and Episode IV of the feature films.
We saw gameplay involving both Darth Vader and his apprentice. Vader appeared significantly stronger, with a longer range of attack and capable of significantly greater damage when using the Force - for example, he managed to totally destroy a fortified wall structure on the Wookie planet of Kashyyyk without much effort at all, whereas his apprentice took several attempts to breach a smaller door aboard a space vessel. It's unclear how much of the game is spent playing either character, but we suspect it will primarily focus on the apprentice, as there appeared to be a clear levelling-up process involved that imbued you with better combat combinations and increased damage as you progress.
Speaking of which, the combat dynamics are nothing short of extraordinary. We saw massive melee attacks that separated out to combat mini-games, which required you to hammer the controller for supremacy. Pretty much all of the local environment can be harnessed for your own benefit, so grabbing a crate and accelerating it towards your enemy using the Force is but one way of gaining an advantage. We saw some truly immense objects being manipulated, and in one scene, even a Tie-Fighter was picked up and hurled at some storm troopers!
Boss fights appear to be played out in a slightly more scripted manner from conventional combat. The two bosses we saw dispatched were both Jedi, which required us to think outside the square as each of us possessed a roughly equivalent grasp on the Force. Instead, it became necessary again to use whatever we could find lying about and take note of which did the most amount of damage. Hurling a crate seemed to work with one boss, whereas another barely took damage from anything other than a lightning attack. At every significant part of the battle, there is some kind of combat mini-game or cinematic cut scene that heightens your tension and elevates your pulse, culminating in the final death-scene.
Star Wars: The Force Unleashed looks every bit as exciting as we'd hoped, so fans of the series are in for a treat when it's released on September 17th this year. If you're after the full effect and want to see the most realistic graphics, you're going to need the Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3 versions, as only these platforms have the power to support the next-gen engine with Havok, euphoria and DMM - the Wii version we saw was definitely not as pretty. LucasArts has had to develop its own stripped down physics engine for the Wii and PS2 versions, without all the bells and whistles.
Nevertheless, those looking for a slightly more interactive method of control may opt for the Wii platform instead. We saw a brief demonstration of the Wii Remote and Nunchuk being used to great success, with Vader's apprentice ducking and weaving amongst storm troopers. The Wii Remote is used to simulate the ability to wield a lightsaber, while the Nunchuk attachment allows movement and Force power use.
The Wii version also has a few extra levels, so along with the unique controllers it seems like a great package for those casual gamers out there who want a new challenge. There's also a multiplayer duel mode where two players can engage each other in light-saber battles, if you have two Wii Remotes and two Nunchuks - just mind you don't throw them through the TV!
You'll also be able to pick up varying versions of The Force Unleashed on PSP, PS2, Nintendo DS and even Nokia's N-Gage, so if you own anything other than a PC, you'll be set. We're not sure what these versions entail as of yet, but expect them to be quite different from the next-gen examples, as they've been farmed out to other production studios to complete.
One thing is certain, this is one title you won't want to miss!