I know. This couldn't be more geekier if I was writing it in Klingon or Hobbit.
But hear me out. This was originally intended to be a review of the new Star Wars console game, The Force Unleashed, and in some respects it still is. The topic is deserving, as this is the most anticipated video game release since... whatever the last big video game release was, either Grand Theft Auto 4 or Bubble Bobble 2, whichever. But most people see the words "video game review" and read it as "my trip to the dentist," and I want everyone to enjoy this column. So you don't have to love video games to enjoy this column, you just have to love Star Wars. And if you don't love Star Wars, then go away, we have nothing in common this month. I'll make it up to you in November.
Speaking of dentists, the day I bought The Force Unleashed, I was hopped up on Vicodin from a root canal. So the feeling of buying the game was awesome - like when you were ten and you got the Han Solo in Bespin fatigues action figure which also meant you finally had enough proof-of-purchases to send away for the Hoth Accessory Action Pak. Which was like a backpack and a couple of extra lasers.
But that's the love of the franchise. And the lure that sparks the love is a pretty simple one that Lucas has been milking since A New Hope. I call it: What Happens Next
What Happens Next is what keeps us coming back. In fact, you can point to the unresolved and dark ending of Empire as the penultimate What Happens Next, one that propelled that sequel into lore even though it not only resulted in the subsequent abuse of the cinematic trilogy, but also spawned the very tragic Episode VI: Some Teddy Bears and ANOTHER DEATH STAR.
However, that crime pales in comparison to the What Happens Next brought about by the prequels. See, in the Star Wars universe, there are people at Lucasville in charge of making sure the continuity of this stuff is painstakingly detailed, and there's a lot going on before and after the 4 or so years between the opening credits of IV and the closing credits of VI. You get glimpses of this history in books (Timothy Zahn's Heir to the Empire), games (Knights of the Old Republic, and other media (Marvel's comic series, The Star Wars Christmas Special, etc.). The repository of what is essentially approved fan fiction goes way back thousands of years (that nobody cares about) and way forward dozens of years (which nobody cares about), including the gut-punch premise of Han and Leia's twin Jedi offspring, Zan and Jayna. Or something.
The prequels, however, as contrived as they were, were meant to do one thing, set up Darth Vader. The prequels created their own momentum by cross-referencing the original movies in a way that, unlike the Han and Leia twin thing, has some basis in the original story and isn't stupid. And to me, and a lot of people like me, the best part of any of the prequels was the minute or two after Vader realizes what he has become until the scene where he and a youngish Tarkin are overseeing the construction of the first Death Star.
And then it ends.
Are you kidding me?
As a fan of Star Wars, and a fan of What Happens Next, this is a huge disappointment. The very existence of the prequels, the reason we forgave horrible scenes like Anakin's lamentations on sand or the force shockingly being philosophically reduced to side effects from space bacteria, were the glimpses of the Death Star plans, the design cues in the early Republic ships ("oh, that becomes a Tie Fighter"), and Anakin's encapsulation in that legendary armor.
In effect, Lucas has done something brilliant, as he is known to do, by giving himself a very provocative 18 years to play with, sandwiched between what we know (Ep 1-3) and what we know and love (Ep 4-5 plus the first 1/2 hour of 6). We just hope he doesn't mess it up, as he is prone to do, by filling those 18 years with fuzzy muppets and racially insensitive CGI characters.
Thankfully, the first jump into that 18 years, The Force Unleashed, is a good start.
You begin the game as Darth Vader, which is nice. Usually in these games, you're some kind of new character like Zakk Coolguy or Chazz Awesomebeard and your story is tangentially related to the someone who is related to something that might have been an extra in one of the movies, like you're IG88's mechanic's nephew. And your job, as Darth Vader, is to shred. You're not supposed to duel or intimidate or wonder if Amidala is in space heaven. You land on the wookie planet and you single-handedly dispatch hordes of wookies with extreme prejudice.
I won't lie to you, this is a little unnerving at first. Then, it becomes fun and satisfying in a way that makes me think Lucas wasn't involved at all, or at least the Lucas that approved the miniature "good" Greedo from Phantom Menace. I like to think he was in the walkthrough of that phase of the game screaming "OH MY GOD! WHAT ARE YOU DOING? THIS IS WOOKIE GENOCIDE! IT'S HORRIBLE! MAKE IT STOP!"
It doesn't take too long before the video game part of the video game settles in and you switch roles to play as Something Something Starkiller, son of some random Jedi that conveniently wasn't in any of the movies, although it was the original name for Luke's character in early drafts of the first movie - and I'll admit that that's where my nerdiness ends, I had to look that last part up. Then you hook up with a hot pilot Shawna Spaceboobs and then go out and hunt down Jedi.
This is neat. The game stays away from the moral creepery that had been a part of the franchise for a long time. You don't really care about good and bad, you're just there to do your job. And the job is fun. There's no sneaking, no annoying bike races, and very little of the mini-puzzles and press-the-correct-button quickly that so often turns my $400 technical marvel of a video game system into a Simon. Not to say that this stuff isn't in the game, it is. But for the most part, you slice, you choke, you throw, and you let your anger guide you. Thinking? That's for dorks and level six elves.
So if the high point of this game is the story immersion and the proximity of this storyline to the original trilogy, the low point is actually some of the technical glitches that take you out of that story. Let's face it, a video game story is nothing like a real story, it's much closer to a made for TV movie story. Thus, it doesn't take much to suck you back into a real life of root canals and Kenner rip-offs. So when little glitches like camera angles and obvious bugs trickle in, they tend to be amplified.
Visually, this game is stunning, and of course the sound is all Star Wars, from lightsaber whoosh to Tie Fighter whine. It's satisfying, albeit in a breakfast cereal from your childhood sort of way.
In an effort to stay Star Wars universe spoiler-free, I'll leave it at that, other than to say that although the reviews are coming up sort of mediocre, the story infused within the game bumps it up a little higher in my mind. This is no Halo 3, but it's certainly one of the best Star Wars games and one of the better XBox games.
My point is there appears to be a little light at the end of the tunnel after the laughable, kid-infused Clone Wars cartoon movie. And maybe the live action series won't be as pedestrian as it first appeared.
What I've heard is that Lucas will use various media to close the gap between III and IV - a video game here, a book here, some parts of the television series there, probably some stuff on the web, so that the universe expands as it contracts. From a marketing perspective, which admittedly has been the downfall of the franchise as much as it has been the propellant, this is a genius move. This means the ability of getting to What Happens Next without having to lean on the bloated, archaic, iceberg-moving Hollywood machine.
And if you know anything about Star Wars, you know that this is how the movie got to be what it was in the first place.
Joe Procopio trades in pop culture and tech culture, allowing him to poke fun at so many things. He's written for a number of online and offline publications from the late, lamented Smug to the fancy-pants Chicago Tribune and also for television. He's a novelist, a shredder, a joker, and a family man. Scoff at joeprocopio.com or follow on Twitter @jproco.
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IF YOU LIKED THIS COLUMN...
10.1.08 @ 12:22p
However, I've been talking a lot about Ewoks lately.
10.1.08 @ 1:39p
Yeah. I'm still trying to figure out how it took them 17 years to build the first Death Star, considering how far along they were at the end of III.
I suppose bureaucratic nonsense would account for some of it. But that would be a really crappy video game. "Press B if you want Governor Fauxbrit to suggest making it more square."
And, for the record, Kenobi, apparently, aged 40 years in that time period. I guess living alone in the desert will do that to you.
Also, Luke and Leia were twins. What's so "gut-punch" about Leia also having twins? "Shape of ... a giant mynock!"
10.2.08 @ 8:36a
Actually, if you read the stuff about Han and Leia's kids, it's pretty badass... in a nerdy Jedi kinda way. I mean... their son becomes the next evil Jedi! Darth Caedus! Mind you, I've only read summaries because I'm pretty sure that there's a level of writing that goes along with Star Wars fan fiction that I won't enjoy (Are you required to use stilted dialogue and the lines "I've got a bad feeling about this." and "Where could they be!?") It's pretty worth flipping through Wikipedia entries, though.
I also just have to say that nothing did more to tear down Darth Vader as a credible villain (who, up until that point was simply one of the best screen villains ever) than Episodes I, II, and III. I have a full hour symposium talk on this subject in my head.
I still think that the Star Wars universe will only be totally satisfying for fans once Lucas stays totally out of it.
But I now totally want this game.
And hey -- thanks for the bump.
10.6.08 @ 1:34p
Actually, I read the first three sequels by Timothy Zahn (or however that's spelled). They're actually fairly badass, as well. Never got beyond them, though.