Thursday, August 10, 2017

Star Wars: The Force Unleashed Ultimate Sith Edition - 9/20 hours

I've said before that story is not strictly necessary to video games, but nonetheless enhances the experience, making it richer and more satisfying. I think I've found the exception.

Aside from the occasional bullshit boss fight, the numerous QTEs, and the inexplicable sequence where you have to use the Force to pull a Star Destroyer out of orbit, The Force Unleashed is a pretty fun game. You run around throwing enemies hither and yon, blasting them with lightning, and then using your light saber to chop up any that still survive. It's a fast-paced action game that occasionally rewards strategic thinking as well as frantic button mashing.

And it works fine, until you stop to think about what all that action means. The main character is Darth Vader's apprentice, who goes by the name of "Starkiller." Already, we are off to a bad start. Goofy name aside, the idea of a game as starring Darth Vader's apprentice is extremely problematic. I suppose it could be done, but you'd either have to make it a nuanced psychological thriller, or a gleefully amoral and over-the-top comedy. The Force Unleashed's approach of making the main character a sullen and unlikable asshole who doesn't seem to register anything going on around him is an unworkable compromise.

I don't want to get too scathing here, because I know the game's script is the product of someone who really cared about Star Wars and who probably put a lot of love into it (and it apparently won the 2008 Writer's Guild of America award for best video game writing, which, um, okay). However, there were times where I'd be watching a cutscene and literally groaning out loud.

Look, in order to have a character arc, your character has to make decisions, or at least express emotions. And it doesn't count as a romance just because two characters of the opposite sex are in close proximity to one another and then kiss right before the final mission - Starkiller had better chemistry with the robot for crying out loud! And you don't set up established characters to job for the new guy, especially if the new guy is a black hole of charisma and the established characters include one of cinema's most iconic villains!

But I get ahead of myself. Starkiller starts the game out as a flat-out murderer. Darth Vader tells him to murder people and he does, without hesitation or complaint. Why he does this is hard to say, but it appears that he just doesn't care about human life and is in the habit of doing what he's told. The closest he has to a motivation is assisting in Darth Vader's plan to kill the Emperor. Since he was taken from his home as an infant, he might be in it for revenge, but if so, it never comes up.

Then, after killing a few Jedi, Vader takes him to meet the Emperor, but instead of going ahead with the assassination plan, Vader stabs him in the back (literally) and tosses him out an window into the vacuum of space. But he's not dead! Instead, he revives in a hidden medical facility and Vader tells him that he faked his death in order to surprise the Emperor, and that his new mission is gather the Emperor's enemies and form some kind of "rebel alliance" (aghh!).

And then he does that, but only after defying orders and rescuing his lady pilot friend, so they can proceed to barely talk to each other and share no kind of personal connection or sexual tension. I guess in the second half of the game he's some kind of double agent, doing exactly as he's instructed by Vader and gathering the rebels as a distraction, but also secretly hoping that by following his orders to the letter (love interest rescue aside) the fake rebellion will become real. Or maybe he just doesn't have any agency whatsoever and that's why he never informed any of his allies about his secret communications with their deadliest enemy. Though that doesn't explain why, when he was discovered by his lady friend, who had apparently bought into the whole "rebel alliance" (arghh!) thing on account of being unjustly imprisoned for ferrying his ass around on the orders of Darth Vader, they didn't have any sort of serious heart-to-heart where he's forced to explain his apparent betrayal.

Anyway, Starkiller winds up founding the rebel alliance, because why not have the most pivotal moment in the franchise's history be orchestrated by an emotionless dork with no connection to anyone or anything we've previously given two shits about, and then seconds later Darth Vader arrives in order to arrest the rebels. Starkiller feels betrayed because the mission he was pretending(?) to do was not the one he was pretending(?) to accept, but rather Vader was pretending the whole time, and I don't know, there was clearly some goal he had, which was thwarted here, but they never say what it was.

At this point, Starkiller has no choice but to storm the still under construction Death Star and stage a daring rescue of the rebel leaders (because what the hell does "canon" even mean any more). He does so, defeating both Darth Vader and the Emperor in the process (arghh!), and then when he has the Emperor at his mercy, his Jedi mentor warns him not to strike him down in anger . . . despite the fact that the whole goddamned point of the fucking Rebel Alliance that you just formed is to overthrow this exact guy, and what the hell were you even planning on doing with and evil space wizard anyway, and fuck you Starkiller, you cannot steal Luke Skywalker's best scene without ever struggling with your murderous past in any way or doing anything to redeem yourself, and no, feeling "love" for the sexy lady pilot with no discernible personality doesn't count because even sociopaths get boners!


And then the Emperor uses this moment of moral confusion to regain his powers and temporarily incapacitate Starkiller so Darth Vader can kill him, the Rebels somehow escape, and that's the end of the game.

Okay, it looks like I wound up being pretty scathing after all. I guess I liked the shapeshifting robot that was always humorously threatening to kill the main character. It was cool seeing Shaak-ti, one of the distinctive looking background Jedi from the prequels, in action, though some asshole killed her before she could do anything really interesting.

Despite my grumbling here, playing the game was not a non-stop ragefest, however. Mostly I just tuned the story out and focused on the gameplay. In truth, it was more like a groan-worthy fanfiction than anything really upsetting. I still have 11 hours to go with this game, and I'm not terribly worried about having to play it again. Who knows, maybe after seeing the plot a second time, it will come to grow on me.

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