Star Wars: The Force Unleashed Perfectly Sums Up the Weird Spot Star Wars Was in 15 Years Ago
On its 15th anniversary, it's still a ridiculous power fantasy of zero consequence.Games Features Star Wars: The Force Unleashed
Like many children at the age of seven, I loved Star Wars. I’d seen all the movies, owned several LEGO sets and owned several tie-in games. Star Wars has always had a bit of an absurd streak, but the most ridiculous Star Wars thing I owned was a Wii game called The Force Unleashed.
The Force Unleashed was a multimedia project consisting of novels, comic books, and a tabletop book, with videogames at the center. I remember picking up the first game in the series at a Blockbuster and spending hours upon hours playing the two-player lightsaber duels with my siblings. At the time I just enjoyed it uncritically, like I did everything Star Wars; today, though, it’s clear that The Force Unleashed is essentially all of pre-Disney Star Wars wrapped up in one neat package.
The Force Unleashed has it all. Explanations for questions that didn’t need answers? Check. Incredible feats of power that blow anything in the movies out of the water? Check. An original new lead character who commands the attention and respect of the most popular and important Star Wars characters? Check. Promotional materials described the story as “set during the largely unexplored era between episode III and IV,” which is a bit ironic now since the Disney+ era seems obsessed with that same time period.
The Force Unleashed, for better or for worse, is a power fantasy. The game sees Darth Vader’s secret apprentice going on a quest to hunt down various Jedi who escaped Order 66. Starkiller (not his real name, thankfully) is a generic action hero protagonist down to the shaved head. He exists to do cool things and make players feel badass doing them. The main setup for the plot is that Darth Vader is supposedly training Starkiller so that they can take out Darth Sideous together, and how that goes is a foregone conclusion. After getting predictably betrayed by Darth Vader, the plot turns to Starkiller reaching out and forming the basis for the Rebel Alliance and ends with either a heroic sacrifice or a horrible downer ending in one of the most baffling moral decisions in a videogame.
The plot claims to be a story about Vader’s secret apprentice, but it exists to reveal why the Rebel Alliance uses the logo it does (it’s his family crest). It’s certainly not the strangest piece of Star Wars lore, but it is wholly unnecessary. It has the same problem the admittedly non-canon Skippy the Jedi Droid story has. That story exists to explain that Luke meeting R2-D2 was a bit of a prophecy set up by a Force-sensitive droid. As supplemental material, it doesn’t recontextualize the movies in a meaningful way. It doesn’t have any real lasting impact aside from seeing the logo in the films and knowing that it’s a family crest. It might be a neat detail to some, but it’s still just a minor detail at best.
The game doesn’t give us any new perspective on existing characters either. Darth Vader is a major player, but his presence amounts to doing mission control and forcing the plot forward. We don’t learn anything more about Vader through his interactions with Starkiller, aside from an off-handed remark that Vader suffers from self-loathing. He always makes for a cool final boss fight, though.
As a kid, I thought Starkiller was the coolest dude in existence. I mean, he pulls down a Star Destroyer with just his Force alone. He goes around hunting down Jedi! Most of all, I felt like a god swinging my Wii remote and nunchuck with reckless abandon as I sent out giant waves of Force energy. It was unwieldy at times, but the catharsis of dragging an enemy and dropping them into a Sarlacc pit with the Force was an unrivaled source of dopamine as a kid.
The gameplay works well in a ludonarrative sense because it lives up to all the ridiculous feats seen in the promotional art and cutscenes. Force Push goes from an invisible push to a giant spherical explosion of Force. Force Lightning wipes out hordes of enemies, and can even be combined with Force Push to create a more devastating combo. The environment responding to your carnage helps sell the illusion as well, with doors crumpling and trees falling as you leave ruin in your wake. It works well within the context of the game but feels very odd when compared to the rest of the universe.
It’s very jarring to see Starkiller unleashing giant Force shockwaves when the most powerful use of the Force in the movies at the time was Palpatine shooting lightning from his fingertips. While most of the lightsaber combat is ground-focused, Starkiller is content to do air combos on enemies after launching them in the air with a shockwave. In many cases, it’s more like watching Kratos with a lightsaber as opposed to a Star Wars protagonist. Even other Star Wars game protagonists don’t get stuff as outlandish as this. The most Kal Kestis gets to do is slow people down.
The Force Unleashed is grand, explosive, and inconsequential, like so much of the Star Wars made throughout the ‘00s. It’s Star Wars dialed up to 11, with a nice mix of late 2000s edginess. Since it’s part of the Star Wars Legends continuity, it most likely won’t be acknowledged again; that’s a shame, but also maybe for the best. It doesn’t add much to the existing universe, nor is its self-contained narrative all that compelling. But it never gets old watching Stormtroopers cower in fear as you Force Choke them and hurl them headlong into a Star Destroyer wall. Today it’s best seen as a microcosm of that weird time between the Star Wars prequels and Disney’s purchase of Lucasfilm, when Star Wars was everywhere and all over the place, embracing the ridiculous more than it ever has in the safe corporate clutches of Disney.
Desmond Leake is a former intern for Paste‘s games section.