Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Star Wars: The Force Unleashed PS3 review

Well it's Star Wars isn't it so no matter what I say slavering fan-boys will lap it up, even more so as it provides an authorised canonised description of the events between films 3 and 4. The basic plot is that the archetypal heavy breather himself is not happy being the Emperor's monkey boy and thus secretly takes on an apprentice so that together they can topple him and take over blah, blah, blah. If you want a story read a book; speaking of which not one to miss out on the opportunity to make more money here you go.

The game itself is a standard third person affair with movement and camera controlled by the left and right sticks respectively and actions and powers controlled by the buttons and triggers, yep that's right 'powers'. You get some for free; you can jump and double jump, you can get a small directional boost and of course you can use a lightsaber. Things like Force Grab, Push etc. cost a portion of your 'force' bar which replenishes over time.

It's the use of these powers that supposedly drive the game, you don't tackle that group of Stormtroopers you pick up that rock and throw it at them, except it actually gets kind of weary after a bit in no small part due to the dodgy camera and autolock on.

Ah yes the camera and autolock-on all part of the same annoying package. It should be easy - the object or person you can manipulate is the one that the camera is directed at, should you wish to move around and stay focussed on the same thing you can manually lock on using R1. Seasoned veterans should instantly spot the problem - there's no way to change your focus except by moving the camera. When you're not moving this isn't too much of a problem, but I've lost count of the number of times I've jumped into the air to reach an enemy and electrocuted the rock they were standing next to.

Again not too much of a problem if the camera didn't at time decide to move around by itself, of course you should be locked onto the enemy if you're moving, but the point is that you should be able to run a ring around them, grab up that explosive device and fling it at them. Instead you let go of your lock and the camera swings around so you're not looking at that explosive device you were set to grab.

[Update: My error the initial targeting is based on the direction your character is facing which is just as bad]

To compensate the game features an intelligent targeting system in that if you pick up something and fling it in roughly the right direction the game will assume that you're aiming at the enemy. This causes two problems, the first is that it now becomes possible to stand well out of range of the clueless enemy and kill them at a distance; the other is that the 'intelligence' can be a bit frustrating at times aiming your flung object not at the looming AT-ST or Tie Fighter, but at the trooper far behind them you didn't even see or at an innocuous tower that's not even anywhere near the direction you were aiming for.

Then we get the inconsistent ground. Yes it makes sense that objects get in the way and impede your progress, but that's no help when the camera's zoomed out so far you can barely see where you are let alone what's in your way. I've got stuck on rocks, I've been caught in an (almost) infinite fall loop between a vine and wall, I've been frustrated jumping to something that looks flat but is in fact a slippery slope, I've been forced back by invisible walls; it's not fun.

Another source of frustration are knock-down's. Due to the poor camera I've been trapped against a wall with a Rancor, he stomps, I fall down, I pick myself up just in time to get swiped by his claws and fall down again, repeat until dead. In fact I got knocked down during a cut-scene when I had no control over my character - I kill the last bad-guy and the camera runs off and I find myself arbitrarily moved to watch a big door open and a horde of enemies come out two of whom instantly shoot at me. Camera and control is returned just in time for me to be hit and knocked off my perch.

All this means that at times you can feel you're playing against the game and not with it, it breaks the immersion and even more so when you factor in Quick Time Events.

Once certain enemies reach a low point in their health up pops the QTE press these keys as they appear to do something spectacular. Okay I'll make my position clear QTEs are the work of the devil, they can be done reasonably well in games such as God of War but for the most part you don't get to see the spectacular moves you're pulling off because you're focussed on watching the screen for timed cues. Someone should send every game designer considering QTEs the paper on the basketball match and the gorilla.

What pulls the game up is the quality of the graphics, well it should except for the glitches. I've found myself floating 6 inches above the ground, I've had my feet embedded in the ground. Texture pop-up is almost as bad as Half-Life 2 with pipes that suddenly sprout nodules as you approach and entire Imperial forts can vanish if you stand in the wrong place. At least everything is consistent in that if you change your costume all the cut-scenes feature it,well except for all the important pre-rendered ones of course where you've obviously nipped off to get changed back.

At least the AI is good, you don't get enemies mindlessly firing away at the wall you're hiding behind, or if they do it's to provide covering fire for their colleagues who are flanking you and not simply standing still as soon as they spot you to fire. You don't get enemies blowing themselves or their comrades up with grenades, you don't see enemies getting stuck on railings or shooting at such when they're standing in front of them. You don't see smaller enemies stuck behind larger ones, you don't see enemies confined to a room which you can freely enter and exit. You don't see enemies commit suicide by stepping off tall ledges, and when facing two mutually hostile groups they don't instantly break off hostilities to gang up on you.

Oh wait I'm talking about SW:TFU yes you do see everything I've described above; quite a number of times.

Okay for all that, for all it's glitches and frustrations the game itself is fun to play, there's enough hidden objects for completists and the powers allow you to play sections in entirely different ways and therein lies the sad part of it; the core of the game is fun, but it's just not finished. The best way for me to describe the entire game is to use an in-game example - the bonus mission in "Take down the Star Destroyer" is "Default Text"; sums it up perfectly.

[Additional - It appears the "Default Text" is a major bug which results in that mission's and all subsequent missions failing to record your score. You still get the rewards for completing the tasks, you just don't what the tasks are or your progression. For XBox360 owners this means they can't get the Achievements that come from completion. The cause of the bug is unknown, but my money is on changing costumes]