What a disappointment.
When THQ Wireless announced plans to release Star Wars: The Force Unleashed for the iPhone along with other gaming platforms, it was vindication for a lot of iPhone and iPod touch users that their systems were every bit as valid a gaming system as an Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3. Unfortunately, this new Star Wars game proved only that shovelware is shovelware, no matter how shiny and new.
The Force Is Not Strong with This One: Gameplay “on rails” and brevity make The Force Unleashed a rather tepid experience.
Star Wars: The Force Unleashed was conceived as a bridge between the events that appeared in Star Wars Episode Three: Revenge of the Sith and Star Wars Episode Four: A New Hope. Anakin Skywalker is now Darth Vader, and like Emperor Palpatine before him, Vader has taken under his wing a secret apprentice. Vader’s ultimate goal: Kill the emperor. But before he can do that, the few remaining Jedi must be destroyed.
The Force Unleashed certainly looks and sounds the part of a Star Wars game, complete with John Williams theme music and laser blast, TIE Fighter and light saber sound effects. Graphics are beautiful for a portable game, albeit prone to polygonal “jaggies.” In order to conserve size, however, there is no spoken dialogue. Instead, characters communicate through line after interminable line of dialogue, cast in an odd-looking, narrow font that’s rather difficult to read.
Gameplay is entirely “on rails,” if you will, similarly to the Don Bluth-animated laser disc arcade games of the 1980s like Space Ace and Dragon’s Lair. You have absolutely no control over where the apprentice goes or with whom he interacts; your job is to simply make sure he reacts appropriately to the given situation.
To that end, the apprentice learns various Force power techniques that you’ve seen demonstrated in the movies and other Star Wars video games—using your light saber to deflect laser blasts, using Force Grip to choke foes, pushing and pulling objects, using lightning bolts as we’ve seen the Emperor do, and more. You have to make your way through scene after scene of troopers and other nasties attacking, culminating in a series of boss battles against Jedi refugees and others.
In order to activate force powers, you must make a gesture using the iPhone’s multi-touch interface—looping, swiping upwards, making a zig-zag—it all depends on the context. Some Force powers work against certain enemies or in certain situations; others require you to use other abilities. Once you’ve mastered all the basics you’ll have to use entire series of gestures in order to defeat your foes.
The gestures work very well, although the concept of scribbling on the screen with your fingertip, rather than using an obvious control mechanism, to make something happen, seems rather alien. It’s also worth pointing out that you can reorient the game in either Landscape or Portrait mode by rotating the iPhone 90 degrees.
The game unfolds in chapters that are automatically saved, which you can replay between sessions. That makes it particularly easy to pick up the game after being distracted with a phone call or other activity. You also gain the ability to replay completed chapters as a sort of never-ending melee, to test your skill against the computer. It adds a bit of replay value to the game but, frankly, gets old quickly.
Compared to its console counterparts, the iPhone/iPod touch version of The Force Unleashed is very watered down. The story is much shorter, the production quality lower (the iPhone’s spectacular abilities notwithstanding, it’s still a portable device that has to do a lot of other things beside play games), and the immersion level a mere fraction of what it is on the big systems.
I really tried hard to like The Force Unleashed, but ultimately came away with it dissatisfied, and more to the point, bored. Star Wars game or not, there just wasn’t enough game here to engage me and keep me interested for any reasonable length of time.
Star Wars: The Force Unleashed is compatible with any iPhone or iPod touch running the iPhone 2.x software update.
[Senior editor Peter Cohen covers games for Macworld’s Game Room.]