- The Washington Times - Monday, September 15, 2008

Superhero and cartoon characters have become integral parts of the electronic entertainment industry. With this in mind, I salute the meld of pop-culture character and video game with a look at some … Comics plugged in.

New secrets about Darth Vader‘s past come to light in the video game extravaganza Star Wars, The Force Unleashed (for PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, rated T for teen, $59.99). In a story as compelling as the innovative, third-person action, a single player takes control of the Sith Lord’s apprentice Galen Marek and tears a swath of destruction across the famed galaxy far, far away.

What’s the Story: Paraphrased from the game’s opening crawl - The galaxy is on the brink of total darkness. The evil Galactic Empire has overthrown the old Republic and has all but destroyed the Jedi Knights as it now holds countless worlds in the grip of fear.

The Emperor’s spies have located a lone Jedi Knight named Kento Marek on the Wookiee home world of Kashyyyk. The Sith Lord Darth Vader has been sent to destroy him, but also finds a child strong with the Force.

Control your destiny: Commanding the secret apprentice, the player masters his skills with a light saber and the powers of the Force at the expense of a whole bunch of Stormtroopers, Ugnaughts, Jawas, Wookiees, Felucians and Rodians.

Eventually armed with the ability to push and grab objects and enemies from afar, shoot deadly lightning from his fingertips, throw a light saber, and create electrical bombs and shields, the young Marek is nearly an unstoppable entity.

Missions take him across the galaxy to familiar locations such Kashyyyk, the junk world of Raxus Prime, Felucia, the Cloud City, and a T.I.E. Fighter construction facility, all with the objective to hunt down the remaining Jedi and obey any of Darth Vader’s commands.

Get to the action: The player chooses from four difficulty levels to start a game. He then begins to learn the destructive powers of the Force by taking control of Darth Vader on Kashyyyk. The Sith Lord can quickly slaughter and torture the population as he seeks out his prey. I found it quite the empowering experience, but was pretty uncomfortable killing those lovable fuzz balls.

Next, it’s on to work with the apprentice in action that has a god of war feel, complete with button sequences to execute spectacular kills. Hack and slash or combination combat styles are equally effective as the player faces armies of troops and a final boss to continue each chapter in the story.

Star power: The intriguing story covers events between movie episodes three and four, after the Emperor makes Darth Vader his full-time stooge.

It features appearances by Bail Organa (actor Jimmy Smits reprises his role vocally), Princess Leia, R2-D2 and new characters such as the apprentice’s helpers, the female pilot of the Rogue Shadow, Juno Eclipse and PROXY, a prototype holodroid that Vader occasional uses to communicate with his apprentice.

Impressive challengers to the anti-hero include Jedi Council member Shaak Ti, Maris Brood (a creepy female Sith in the making), the crazed Jedi Kazdan Paratus, General Kota and Darth Maul (that’s right, bantha breath).

Another star of this production is the orchestral score that weaves in the best passages of composer John Williams’ Academy Award-winning “Star Wars” music.

Memorable moments: “Star Wars” fans will appreciate the battles with rancors, the Sarlacc’s digestive system and a wrestling match with a Star Destroyer (I kid you not).

Also, I loved bending a piece of large metal framing in the way of a passing T.I.E. Fighter and watching it explode, and splitting an AT-ST in half with a light saber.

Pixel-popping scale: Eight out of 10. I give major kudos to the LucasArts design team for the gorgeous environments and realistic character presentations.

Most impressive, as Vader might retort, are the game’s technological enhancements. The manipulation and reaction of materials such as shattering glass, bending metal, a shaking human body and splintering tree bark is pretty amazing.

Also, nonplayable characters realistically react to their Force-induced predicaments (like living rag dolls with an attitude) through a behavior-simulation engine, and it is pretty scary to watch.

Violent encounters: Verging on the sadistic, the game practically demands I use that slick selection of Force powers to run physics experiments on some helpless minions. About the fifth time I Force-grabbed a trooper, levitated him (as he groaned and twisted in pain), and flung him through a window into outer space, I really started to feel guilty. Although fallen enemies just dissolve into oblivion, it was a bit too realistic for my tastes.

Extras and unlockables: The player eventually can use an assortment of light saber crystals (to change his blade’s color and power) and costumes, view artwork, practice techniques in a training room or read an ever-expanding encyclopedic database as he progresses in the story.

Also, as the apprentice succeeds with primary and secondary mission objectives (I got to free a Sarlacc, giddy moment) and finds Jedi and Sith Holocrons, he is awarded with Force spheres to upgrade powers and combination moves.

Read all about it: “Star Wars” sequential-art scribe and project leader for the game Haden Blackman wrote a comic book adaptation of The Force Unleashed ($15.95) for Dark Horse Comics. It slightly expounds on the story and should be read only after finishing the game.

The bad news: The game’s linear play style along with the lack of any multiplayer element almost dooms it to rental status - once a player enjoys the story, he has little reason to go back and revisit the experience.

What’s it worth: The acting and plot are better than the last three “Star Wars” movies and, best of all, I get to take part in the fun. Fans of the Skywalker saga will not want to miss this dynamic game. However, if it were not for the technological novelties, this would be a pretty routine exercise in beating up bad guys.

Visit Zadzooks at the blog section of The Washington Times’ Community pages ( www.washingtontimes.com/communities/zadzooks) for a review of Star Wars: The Force Unleashed for the Wii.

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