Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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New England Gamer
November 2010

Building a Better Jedi

One of my favorite moments in film comes toward the end of The Empire Strikes Back. Luke Skywalker is making his way through Bespin to save Han and Leia from the Empire. He enters a dimly-lit room and the music falls silent. Over the din of machinery a familiar, iconic sound can be heard: the mechanical breathing of Darth Vader. From the shadows Vader appears, ready for battle. Luke, still young and arrogant at this point in the trilogy, brandishes his own lightsaber to face him. It is fairly clear that young Skywalker is about to get the tar kicked out of him. You just don't mess with Vader. Of course, a villain like that isn't just born ominous. The film makers have spent all of the last two films building him up to be the ultimate face of evil.

As such, I can understand why so many fans of the franchise had such a hard time with the way he was portrayed in the prequels. Inconsistent characters, overblown action scenes, and otherwise just a mangling of classic material; it's for similar reasons that I find myself disliking the Force Unleashed games. Having just wrapped up the second title, I'm left seeing Darth Vader not as an ominous force of darkness, but rather as an incompetent thug. Consider this, for instance. In the first game your character, the unfortunately named Starkiller, defeats Darth Vader in single combat. So what does Vader do in response? He clones himself a second Starkiller in the sequel. And not only does he clone him, he implants him with all the memories of the original Starkiller. Because it wasn't enough for Starkiller to be mentally unhinged due to the cloning process, he had to have a grudge against Vader as well. That's good logic for you. By the time the credits roll (assuming you choose the light side/canon ending) you've defeated Vader once more and actually have him in chains.

It just doesn't make sense to me. In the original films the Rebels were downright terrified of Vader. He was like the bogey man you scare children with. And yet, how are we supposed to believe they could view him with such unadulterated dread when they've seen him beaten not once, but twice? When they've moreover literally taken him prisoner and had him at their mercy? Granted, it's arguable that even with a few losses under his belt Vader is still a fairly imposing foe, but just because someone's powerful doesn't mean they're feared. You don't dread a grizzly bear when you have a rifle and tree stand. You fear a grizzly bear when its charging you and you're helpless. People are wary of danger but they dread the unstoppable. Now maybe this was all part of Vader's plan. Maybe we'll find out in the inevitable third game that he was plotting his own capture all along in some ploy to destroy the Rebel Alliance. The thing is, I don't have faith in George Lucas or his properties to be that smart on their own. And even if they do go that route, it's still going to ring a fair tone of hollow.

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It doesn't stop at Darth Vader. While the prequel films did a fair job of butchering the image of the Jedi, The Force Unleashed II adds another nail to the coffin. Honestly, it was probably to be expected. The very title of the game suggests a less restrictive take on the Jedi and the force. It is the Force Unleashed after all, not the Force Mild Mannered. Now to be fair, Starkiller is never portrayed as really being a Jedi. A reformed Sith perhaps, but he's still a far cry from the wise sci-fi samurai image that typically defines a Jedi knight. Even so, the game's depiction of the force is just frustrating.

In the films, the force is treated like something you really need to work on to master. Even Yoda, one of the most powerful Jedi ever, has to focus to levitate Luke's X-Wing in The Empire Strikes Back. Comparatively, Starkiller, a far lesser practitioner of the Jedi faith, throws his force powers around like he's giving candy to children. Some of this can be forgiven as a concession to gameplay. Things don't always have to add up the same way during play time as they would in whatever reality they're representing. That said, it's not just the gameplay where the inconsistencies lie.

One of the most maligned sequences in the original Force Unleashed involved Starkiller using the force to pull a Star Destroyer from the sky. Now technically it is possible that Yoda could have done this. As he says to Luke at one point, "Size matters not." The thing is though, if he could, why wouldn't he have done so when the opportunity presented itself in any of the many films he was involved in? At the beginning of Revenge of the Sith, a massive space battle rages over the planet of Coruscant where Yoda resides, yet not once does he or any other Jedi pluck a warship out of the heavens. The only logical conclusion is that they either can't do it, or they just like watching thousands of people killed in brutal warfare. As for Starkiller? The only reason he can do it is because it's cool. Can you think of a cooler set piece for a game? The problem is, being cool should never be enough reason to include something unnecessary in a story, especially when it has the potential to screw up previously established canon.

The real shame of it is there are some really good Star Wars games dealing with being a Jedi. The straightforwardly named Jedi Knight titles were excellent action romps based very literally around the fairly common fantasy of finding a lightsaber and embarking on an adventure to fight the Sith and master the force. Bioware's Knights of the Old Republic, one of the most highly regarded RPGs and Star Wars games in recent memory, took an era only hinted at in the films and fleshed it out with interesting characters and moral dilemmas. Both succeeded by recognizing the sense of wonder that made the old Star Wars films so special, and emulating it. The Jedi weren't interesting because they had powers. They were interesting because they were wise, mysterious and above all else, subtle. The Force Unleashed II is almost exactly the opposite of that ideal, taking everything we know about Jedi and dialing it up to eleven. It's a far lesser game because of that.

Read more by Stewart Shearer

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