Friday, February 19, 2010

First Impressions, Part 1: Star Wars, The Force Unleashed

Who wouldn't be distracted by that? Doesn't it look like fun?

For the last 10 days, I have been struggling to write my review for The Saboteur. Short version, I greatly enjoyed it, faults and all. So you might be asking why it is so damn difficult to write that in essay form, genius, if you like it so much?

Believe me, dear readers, I've been asking myself that same question for more than a week. Was it the distraction of attending the UNC C.H.A.T. Festival? Was it all the time that preparing for a new job entails? I couldn't put my finger on it, though, until last night: I've got Star Wars The Forced Unleashed on the brain.

During the d'Adesky Q4 Game Consumption Frenzy of 2009, I grabbed a copy of this game for a few reasons. One, I really like the Star Wars universe. Two, the idea of occasionally playing as "the bad guy," is intriguing. Lastly, I read somewhere this particular game won a Writers Guild of America award for Best Video Game Writing.

Um, was everyone who liked The Force Unleashed playing the same game I am? Or did someone at GameStop decide to swap the game disc for a parody of the game and I'm just being punk'd? Regardless of the answer, I think all of those fans are insane, because this game is just bloody awful.

First Things First: Controls, Menus, and Other Management Stuff

For those of you who didn't play the demo, Force Unleashed is basically a hack-and-slash game with magic Force-wielding elements added for some extra fun. This is one of the few things about the game that I enjoyed, but is definitely far from perfect. Being able to wield lightning, infuse my sword lightsaber with electricity, or knock enemies away with a Force push is hugely satisfying. Force Grip, on the other hand, isn't nearly as much fun as it could have been because of the way they mapped the controls.

The problem is rather than keep things simple, someone on the design team thought it would be great to map one analog stick for horizontal movement and the other stick for vertical movement. This means in order to throw a Stormtrooper off a bridge or throw a truck-sized boulder into a sniper's nest, I have to first hold the R2 button, then navigate the object I'm holding with both hands and let 'er rip, all before my Force meter bleeds dry.

Oh, did I mention you get a finite amount of Force energy in the game? It works like a mana bar, essentially, and depending on what you're trying to do, that meter runs out FAST. Yes, it regenerates, but unless you squeeze a boatload of Force Points in a certain stat slot, that regeneration can be painfully slow.

This also means that if I use a Force-heavy power, such as Force Burst (which knocks back all the enemies in your immediate vicinity) I'm out of juice for several agonizing seconds. In the middle of a fight, this is very, very bad, as the only edge you have on most of the enemies in the game is your ability to use the Force.

Another thing of note about the controls is the targeting. Oh, good grief, the targeting. Sometimes, the best way to deal with a bogey is from distance, either because he's in an unreachable spot (like aforementioned sniper's nest) or because he's big and bad and if he gets too close, he'll squish you into a paste fit only for feeding his pet bantha. This means Force Gripping a heavy object and flinging it at him. As battlefields are rarely static, in the time it takes you to line up the shot, more enemies will close on your position, the autotarget will engage before you even realize it and you let loose your carefully prepared attack on the wrong damn guy.

As if that wasn't bad enough, if you're trying to use the Force to move an object to create a makeshift bridge or something, you have to be at a very precise angle to target said object in the first place, making things very frustrating. This results in more than a few accidental deaths and a flood of profanity.

That, oddly enough, brings me to another point: The File Save System. Very few games, in my opinion, strike the right balance between autosaves and manual saves. Some rely strictly on an autosave function, so you're at the mercy of checkpoints, while others don't autosave nearly often enough. In those situations, you'd better save after every single frakking confrontation, cut scene, and dialogue exchange, or you will be SCREWED when it comes time to reload after a boneheaded mistake.

At first, The Force Unleashed seems to have a workable (if not overly fantastic) balance between the two, by autosaving at pre-determined checkpoints but still allowing you the option to manually save in the menu screen. That seems to be the case, anyway, until you try saving in between those checkpoints and then hit 'resume' after that first trip into a lava flow.

Even if you choose to go back to the main menu to reload instead of choosing 'resume, it puts you right back at your last checkpoint, like you'd never even bothered to save the game in the first place. Here's a tip for game developers: DO NOT GIVE ME THE OPTION TO SAVE MY GAME IF YOU ARE GOING TO IGNORE IT. Why include it at all if you're just going to reload a checkpoint instead? LucasArts, did you guys originally plan to let players manually save their games, but pulled it at the last moment and simply forgot to erase that option from the menu screen? If so, SLOPPY. If not, SCREW YOU.


While discussing this game with my buddy Sam yesterday, number three on my list of biggest pet peeves in video games came up: The Quick-Time Event. For those of you new to video games, the Quick-Time Event (QTE for short) is a game mechanic that allows a developer to include pre-rendered cinematic sequences in a game while allowing the player to maintain a monicum of control over what's happening through on-screen button prompts. The most noteworthy examples of good QTE utilization are Prince of Persia: The Two Thrones and the God of War franchise. Those sequences were so well done that nearly every other instance of the mechanic pales by comparison. That may be setting the bar unfairly high. . .actually, no. No it isn't. You know why?

It isn't an unfair standard because those were games from the last console generation. You cannot convince me that game design cannot improve or at least maintain that level of functionality now that we're midway through the latest hardware cycle. If this is supposed to be "the new revolution in game design," then how can you settle for being outdone by games that were developed for (supposedly) inferior hardware?

Anyway. . .

Why is the inclusion QTEs important to this discussion, you may ask. Well, I'll tell you. When it comes to hack-and-slash games, there is no good reason I should have to resort to a sequence of button presses to take down a monster. Now, while the game does allow you to kill a boss-level character the old fashioned way, the likelihood of you surviving long enough to deliver the killing blow in this game is slim at best, mostly due to sluggish response time from the controls. As such, you're practically required to rely on the quick-time events in order to finish a battle and move on to the next level. To paraphrase a reviewer I admire, "this feels more like a battle of fucking attrition than meaningful gameplay."

To put it less than eloquently, that sort of thing drives me apeshit bananas. I'm a professional game tester, for the love of cute fuzzy puppies. I'm not saying that I'm the best there is, but if I get paid to play games, you better believe that I'm not your average controller jockey. This should NOT be that damn hard for me since I do it almost EVERY. SINGLE. DAY. Granted, after a long day at work, my reaction time is slower than it would be were I well-rested and pumped full of caffeine, but riddle me this, Gilligan: If the professional in the room is having trouble getting through your game, how do you think Jane Q. Gamer is going to fare? Food for thought.

Originally, this was going to be a single post on my first impressions of the game. Seeing how long this post has become, though, I'm going to be nice and divide this rant in half. Stay tuned for Part 2!


Anonymous said...

Love the read, and looking forward to part two! I thought Force Unleashed really lived up to its initials in many ways, yet it was immensely satisfying when it was good. All in all I am in favor of it, but I don't think it was great. I hope they have the controls smoothed for the sequel - and that's not me making an excuse. They should have had it done for the first one.

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