Vader Unleashed: Why The Force Unleashed‘s First Level Is an All-Time GreatGames Features Star Wars
Star Wars: The Force Unleashed, which was originally released in 2008 and remastered for the Switch in 2022, is a bizarre game to look back on. The main character Starkiller’s edgy power trip feels like a fever dream compared to most of EA and Disney’s output, let alone its closest counterpart under Disney, Jedi Fallen Order. It’s soaked in the trappings of AAA games from its time, but it also finally lets players do something they’ve been dying to do ever since Star Wars videogames entered the living room: Force Unleashed lets them play as Darth Vader in all his glory, and in doing so, cements its prologue as one of the greatest—or at least most memorable—first levels in any videogame.
Before we had much evidence of Darth Vader’s methodical viciousness on-screen thanks to the likes of Rogue One and Star Wars: Rebels, his deadliness was relegated to comics and novels in the extended universe. With the exception of games that took a toy box approach like Lego Star Wars or the Battlefront games, a game that gave players a chance to pick up Vader’s iconic red lightsaber was almost entirely unheard of.
Even though the level’s only a few minutes long, the beginning of Force Unleashed isn’t just a hollow opportunity to get behind the Sith Lord’s iconic mask; it’s a power trip within a power trip. From go, it embellishes Vader’s powerful presence as he chokes out an Imperial commander with the Force and effortlessly flings anyone—or anything—standing between him and the rogue Jedi he’s hunting. Vader is an unstoppable killing more-machine-than-man, as he cuts through Wookiees like a warm knife through butter. Locked doors are doomed to become rubble as the Jedi-seeking-cyborg nears his target.
It’s about 15 minutes of pure bliss for any Star Wars fan, but it goes beyond the confines of pleasing devotees of the Galaxy far, far away. Power fantasies are the common currency of videogames, and whether you look for it in the balletic brutality of a boomer shooter or in nailing the perfect conditions to ascend to godliness in a roguelike, today’s gaming landscape gets how to make being unstoppable feel rewarding. Force Unleashed was a rarity in a sea of games that took power away from the player; it understood how to make playing as a lumbering, all-powerful tank feel empowering, rather than dull or slow.
Jumping from the tutorial to the prologue punctuates that glacial movement even more. Starkiller certainly feels nimble and powerful in the tutorial, but going from Starkiller to Vader makes the protagonist look like a youngling. Vader’s deliberate, domineering gait changes for no one, not even the player. The decision to teach players how to run, only to take that option away minutes later would almost always be to a game’s detriment, but here, even such an insignificant choice makes Force Unleashed’s take on the Emperor’s authoritative right-hand feel all the more caring.
It sets the tone for the rest of the story, for better and for worse.Sure, it taps into the same regressive, bland discussions about power and “cool factor” in the Star Wars fandom that led to such woefully unnecessary and frankly bad creations like the fan remake of the Lightsaber Duel from A New Hope, but it feels right on Vader here. Fresh off the Emperor’s operating table, he feels sluggish on his new legs, but full of rage and overcome with despair.
Even the level design for this first level clearly has a lot of love put into it. The level design and layout does everything possible to make you feel like you’re not being held back by Vader’s clear lack of mobility. The walkways over Kashyyk are narrow and tight, but small walkways make for small spaces, meaning you can travel them relatively quickly compared to some of the larger areas you might find in a level where you play as Starkiller. Lined with objects to fling at Wookiees and Stormtroopers alike and turrets to pick up and control with The Force, you’re not trapped as Vader; with nowhere for the Wookiees to run, your victims absolutely are.
It goes without saying that without restraints or limitations, games—or any work of art, for that matter—tend lose any sense of focus; they become bloated and listless, but finding clever ways to work around those limitations on a small scale can be incredibly powerful. This first level stands out as a rare point in a Star Wars game where developers broke through the restraints that come with being a videogame at the time, making for an interesting narrative framing device for the rest of the game.
At the end of the prologue, Vader finds a Force-sensitive Starkiller and takes him as his apprentice after killing his father, a rogue Jedi. Every moment serves as a reminder of what happens to Starkiller if he doesn’t do as his master commands throughout the game. It makes his decisions to follow his own path, even when faced with the all-powerful killing machine we control through the first level, all the more impactful.
No, Force Unleashed isn’t the best Star Wars game. It never was, but it’s still deeply interesting to go back to. Its power trip runs dry hours before the big finale and it’s mired in the trappings of what it meant to be cool 14 years ago, but its first level is an all-timer that serves as one of the last remnants of a bygone age for the Galaxy Far, Far Away.
Charlie Wacholz is a freelance writer and college student. When he’s not playing the latest and greatest indie games, competing in Smash tournaments or working on a new cocktail recipe, you can find him on Twitter at @chas_mke.