by MARTY DEMAREST & r & & r & Star Wars: The Force Unleashed & r & Rated Teen; 360, PS3, Wii & r & 4 Stars & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & T & lt;/span & he good guy is the bad guy in The Force Unleashed. That is to say, the game's hero is Darth Vader's apprentice. "The Secret Apprentice," as he's called, has learned a few tricks from his evil master. Though he seems incapable of executing the Force-choke that Vader employs so well, he can still scoop up doddering droids with the giant, invisible hand of the Force and smash them against the nearest wall. And it's no problem for him to fry a squad of squabbling Jawas with a bolt of Emperor-blue lightning. It's an impressive arsenal of powers that, along with his trusty evil-red lightsaber, enables him to carry out Vader's hunt for the few Jedi who survived George Lucas's last attempt at film direction.
But the bad guy is also the good guy. The Apprentice is a tool for destroying the Emperor. It's rare enough for a game to have a story that's worth the time it takes to tell, but The Force Unleashed actually fills in some spaces between Episode III and Episode IV. The newly created Vader is still consumed by rage, and his hatred finds expression in the game's main quest. The Apprentice's targets are fascinating fringe characters -- stalwart Jedi who avoided the destruction of their order, unbalanced Force-wielding rogues and a few of the sadistic founders of what will become A New Hope's evil Empire. Even Jar Jar's fate is revealed -- hanging on a wall, frozen in a carbonite frieze.
A hero who is both good and evil needs equally ambiguous enemies, and the environment becomes a dispassionate, powerful force with which the Apprentice must reckon. He battles his way across a planet whose surface has been engulfed by a giant Sarlac, and he shatters starship windows, sucking lackeys out into the airless void. On the Empire-overrun Wookiee homeworld of Kashyyyk, he can rescue the furry captives and send them into battle as distractions or keep them confined while he tackles an AT-ST walker one-on-one. Not content to be a mere videogame, The Force Unleashed is pure Star Wars artistry, released into the hands of players to play with as they will.
THE GOOD: The Force Unleashed's sprawling, highly interactive environments transcend the status of mere battlegrounds to become forums for the game's vast Force powers. Hurling spare spaceship engines at enemies and sending blue lighting swarming through squads of stormtroopers while the Apprentice hovers in the air are a few of the spectacular combat effects that become commonplace in The Force Unleashed.
THE BAD: The Force Unleashed's designers neglected to fine-tune their programming. More than once, I battled enemies while standing on thin air hundreds of feet above a void. And for all the game's spaciousness, the computer-controlled opponents lack decent distance perception. From a nearby hillside, I was able to telekinetically stack explosive blocks in the midst of a battalion of stormtroopers, none of them suspecting my presence as the hulking pieces of metal floated down into their midst.
THE BOTTOM LINE: The Force Unleashed is a Star Wars-caliber blend of story and spectacle that's more interactive than most combat games and more entertaining than a few of the series' films.