Replaying the Classics: Star Wars: The Force Unleashed

“At last, the dark side is your ally. Rise, my apprentice.”

In Replaying the Classics, StarWars.com revisits Star Wars games of yesteryear, examining why we loved them then and why they stand the test of time.

Star Wars: The Force Unleashed is, in many ways, the culmination of the LucasArts era of Star Wars games. Released in 2008 for the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, The Force Unleashed put players in the role of Darth Vader’s secret apprentice, Galen Marek, codenamed “Starkiller” (played by Sam Witwer). As the name suggests, The Force Unleashed was built on the idea to create the ultimate, no-holds-barred Jedi action experience in the realm of blockbuster video games.

The project was spearheaded by Haden Blackman, who got his start with LucasArts when he authored the interactive CD-ROM encyclopedia, Behind the Magic, and went on to pen scripts for countless Star Wars comics. Blackman also spent years as a producer at LucasArts, acting as a liaison between Lucasfilm, Industrial Light & Magic, Lucas Licensing, and their various partners. He developed a reputation — even within the Star Wars camp — for his extensive knowledge of the Legends-era universe. When it came time for the internal development team to pitch a number of potential game projects to George Lucas himself, LucasArts latched on to the notion of Vader having an apprentice of his own prior to A New Hope and plotting to overthrow the Emperor.

Starkiller in Star Wars: The Force Unleashed.

From a technical standpoint, what LucasArts achieved with The Force Unleashed was fairly unprecedented. (It predates Batman: Arkham Asylum, another massively influential licensed game, by a year.) The game offered groundbreaking environmental elements, which the player could destroy or manipulate; a vast array of physics-based Force abilities with which to dispatch stormtroopers; and it boasted state-of-the-art “biomechanical AI,” giving every character realistic movement. In a sense, some of the gameplay concepts, such as the phenomenal lightsaber combat, are clearly elaborated from 2005’s excellent Revenge of the Sith tie-in. But The Force Unleashed was a special project. It benefitted from nearly three and a half years of production, if you include the conceptual stages, and marked the first time that LucasArts and ILM were able to collaborate under the same roof, at the Letterman Digital Arts Center in San Francisco.

The Force Unleashed was treated like a film, essentially, at a time when games didn’t often have that luxury. It shipped with a Skywalker Symphony Orchestra score by Mark Griskey, along with a main theme composed by music supervisor Jesse Harlin. It featured a top-notch cast of actors. The game was even given a full merchandising rollout, with its own toy line, a book adaptation, and a graphic novel by Blackman and artists Brian Ching, Bong Dazo, and Wayne Nichols. Unleashed was a full-flown multimedia event, on a scale not seen since Shadows of the Empire in ’96. (Newer and younger gamers got to experience similar fanfare, with the newly revived Star Wars Battlefront series.)

Darth Vader in Star Wars: The Force Unleashed.

Lucasfilm Animation’s Amy Beth Christenson, who’s currently the art director on Star Wars Resistance, helped nail down the look and feel of the game. And it was her work, coincidentally, that pulled actor Sam Witwer into the franchise’s orbit. According to Witwer, audio lead David W. Collins (who voices the droid Proxy in the game and has served as host at a number of Star Wars Celebration events) saw one of Christenson’s concept paintings of “the Apprentice,” and showed it to an exec at LucasArts who was also familiar with Witwer, from his role on Battlestar Galactica. “And they both agreed, ‘Um… That’s Sam Witwer,’” the actor told fan blog EU Cantina in an interview. “Turns out Amy Beth created a character that looked exactly like me. Absolute coincidence.”

Starkiller encounters a host of interesting characters in his quest to help Darth Vader (Matt Sloan) wipe out the last remaining survivors of Order 66. General Rahm Kota (Cully Fredricksen), like Star Wars Rebels’ Kanan Jarrus, was inspired in part by the Japanese film and TV character Zatoichi, a blind swordsman. In the heat of battle, Kota has a vision, through the Force, of Starkiller leaving Vader’s side. Juno Eclipse (Nathalie Cox), a by-the-books Imperial pilot, also develops a special relationship with Starkiller, which makes them both reconsider their loyalties to the Empire. The game gives players two radically different possible endings — one of which concludes with the birth of the Rebel Alliance. (The Clone Wars’ Catherine Taber plays Leia, while Revenge of the Sith’s Jimmy Smits reprises his role as Bail Organa.)

Starkiller in Star Wars: The Force Unleashed.

The Force Unleashed went on to become the fastest-selling Star Wars game ever made at the time. It won a Writers Guild of America award for Best Video Game Writing, and was particularly well received by longtime fans of the films, who were thrilled to see the saga continue beyond Episode III. And at Celebration 2015, John Boyega spoke for many of us when he turned to the audience and said, “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve played the games of Star Wars on my PS3. Honestly, guys — Force Unleashed I? Force Unleashed II? Come on!”

“Creatively, the project was really rewarding,” Haden Blackman recalled in a 2015 interview. “I’m still very proud of the story and the core mechanics; blasting stormtroopers into TIE fighters never gets old for me.”

Star Wars: The Force Unleashed is available on Xbox One, Steam, GOG.com, and the Humble Store.

Alex Kane is a journalist based in west-central Illinois. He has written for Polygon, the website of Rolling Stone, Syfy Wire, Variety, and other publications. Follow him on Twitter at @alexjkane.

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