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Darth Vader trains an evil apprentice in 'Star Wars: The Force Unleashed'

Justin Hoeger
McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

STAR WARS: THE FORCE UNLEASHED

2 ½ stars

PUBLISHER: LucasArts

SYSTEM: Microsoft Xbox 360; also for Sony PlayStation 3,

PlayStation 2, PlayStation Portable, Nintendo Wii, DS

PRICE: $59.99 ($34.99 to $59.99 for other versions)

AGE RATING: Teen

There's a part in the most recent Harry Potter film where Dumbledore and Voldemort face off. All the fabulous powers of magic that have been hinted at in the previous four movies come to bear at once as the two wizards manipulate fire and ice and wind and water in a titanic duel.

It's a dazzling segment in a film series that has mostly seen student-level magic up to this point, aside from a few high noon-style duels.

The best moments of "Star Wars: The Force Unleashed" are like that scene. Pity that the game isn't made entirely of "best moments." As the story goes, while Darth Vader was out hunting Jedi in the woods one day, he found a child strong in the Force. After a blast of a first level in which the player controls a nearly unstoppable Vader as he rampages through a Wookiee settlement in search of his prey, the Sith Lord finds and kills the boy's father before taking the kid under his wing and training him in the arts of the Dark Side in hopes of eventually overthrowing his own master, the Emperor.

After years of training, Vader starts sending his secret apprentice, dubbed Starkiller (George Lucas' original name for the Skywalkers), out to assassinate Jedi who escaped the Empire's purge. And that's where the player comes in, controlling Starkiller on his missions for Vader.

Starkiller has his own ship and an unstable droid buddy, PROXY, who can imitate other beings and who is programmed to kill the apprentice as a perpetual training exercise.

He also has a formidable array of powers, from Force blasts and lightning bolts to powerful lightsaber attacks and an all-purpose Force grip that lets him pick up, manipulate and throw enemies and objects alike.

His powers start out a bit weak, but he'll gain experience points of a sort as he fights, and he'll find skill orbs that allow him to upgrade his powers and learn new ones once they're available.

The "Star Wars" movies hinted at some of the amazing things wielders of the Force could do, but they seemed to hold back in actually showing them, for the most part. Yeah, Yoda could lift an X-Wing and Vader could choke a guy from across the room, but if the Force is so dang powerful, why didn't the Republic-era Jedi just throw a Separatist fleet into a star or something? Too "Dark Side" for the Jedi? Guess so.

Well, "The Force Unleashed" brings impressive acts of Force to the fore, though without giving players full control over them. While Starkiller's standard moves are pretty cool, his greater mastery of his power is played out through timed button-pressing exercises and some non-interactive scenes at set points in the game. They look cool, but it's a bit disappointing to only have full control of relatively minor uses of the Force.

Likewise, it's not long before Starkiller starts running into enemies that can drain his Force energy or resist certain powers.

It's obvious why this was done from a game-play perspective; the game would get old quickly if Starkiller could just power through anything in his way. But it's frustrating to be limited so much in a game whose own title suggests no limits.

It's also frustrating that the camera is a hassle and the controls aren't nearly as tight as they should be for this sort of game. One of these issues is bad enough, but having both seriously starts to cut into the fun. A game camera that zooms in too close or gets hung up on background objects, combined with controls that make it easy to tumble off a cliff by mistake but difficult to target a specific enemy in a crowd, is a recipe for irritation.

Jedi duels should be better - there's only one opponent, after all - but even then, targeting is a hassle. It's far too easy to rush in for an attack and hit nothing but air.

On the other hand, the story is interesting, and the ostensibly evil main character is rather likable. The game fills in crucial events leading up to the formation of the Rebel Alliance and details Vader's penchant for treachery against his master.

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