Vader Unleashed: Why The Force Unleashed’s first level is an all-time hit
Star Wars: The Force Unleashed, which was originally released in 2008 and remastered for the Switch in 2022, is a bizarre game to look back on. The titular character Starkiller’s edgy power journey feels like a fever dream compared to most EA and Disney productions, let alone his closest counterpart under Disney, Jedi Fallen Order. It’s steeped in the pitfalls of AAA games of its day, but it finally lets players do something they’ve been dying to do since Star Wars video games entered the living room: Force released lets them play as Darth Vader in all his glory, and in doing so cements its prologue as one of the greatest – or at least most memorable – first levels of any video game.
We used to have plenty of evidence of Darth Vader’s methodical on-screen villainy thanks to the likes of A thug and Star Wars: Rebels, his death was relegated to the comics and Expanded Universe novels. With the exception of games that took a toybox approach like Lego Star Wars or the Battlefront games, a game that gave players a chance to collect Vader’s iconic red lightsaber was almost completely unheard of.
Even though the level only lasts a few minutes, the start of Force released isn’t just a hollow opportunity to get behind the Sith Lord’s iconic mask; it’s a power trip within a power trip. Right off the bat, it embellishes Vader’s powerful presence as he smothers an Imperial commander with the Force and effortlessly throws away anyone – or anything – standing between him and the rogue Jedi he hunts. Vader is an unstoppable killer more machine than man, as he cuts through Wookiees like a hot knife through butter. Locked doors are bound to become rubble as the Jedi-seeking cyborg approaches his target.
That’s about 15 minutes of pure bliss for any Star Wars fan, but it goes beyond the bounds of pleasing Galaxy devotees far and wide. Power fantasies are the common currency of video games, and whether you seek it in the balletic brutality of a boomer shooter or in creating the perfect conditions for accessing godhood in a roguelike, today’s gaming landscape helps make being unstoppable rewarding. Force released was a rarity in a sea of games that took away power from the player; he figured out how to make playing as an almighty heavy tank more challenging, rather than dull or sluggish.
Going from tutorial to prologue punctuates this icy movement even more. Starkiller certainly feels nimble and powerful in the tutorial, but switching from Starkiller to Vader makes the protagonist look like a youngster. Vader’s deliberate, overbearing gait doesn’t change for anyone, not even the player. The decision to teach players to run, only to remove that option minutes later would almost always be to the detriment of a game, but here even such an insignificant choice made Force releasedThe interpretation of the authoritative right hand of the Emperor is all the more caring.
It sets the tone for the rest of the story, for better and for worse. Of course, it taps into the same bland, regressive discussions of power and the “cool factor” in Star Wars fandom that have led to such woefully pointless and downright evil creations. like the Lightsaber Duel fan remake of A new hope, but it feels good on Vader here. Fresh off the Emperor’s operating table, he feels lazy on his new legs, but full of rage and despair.
Even the level design for this first level is clearly getting a lot of love. The level design and layout does everything possible to make you feel like you’re not being held back by Vader’s obvious lack of mobility. The walkways above Kashyyk are tight and narrow, but the small walkways create small gaps, meaning you can navigate them relatively quickly compared to some of the larger areas you might find in a level where you play as Starkiller. Lined with objects to throw at Wookiees and Stormtroopers and turrets to pick up and control with The Force, you’re not trapped as Vader; with nowhere for the Wookiees to run, your victims absolutely are.
It goes without saying that without constraints or limitations, games – or any artwork, for that matter – tend to lose all sense of focus; they become bloated and listless, but finding clever ways around these limitations on a small scale can be incredibly powerful. This first level stands out as a rare point in a Star Wars game where the developers broke through the constraints that came with being a video game at the time, making it an interesting narrative framing device for the rest of the game. Game.
At the end of the prologue, Vader finds a Force-sensitive Starkiller and takes him on as an apprentice after killing his father, a rogue Jedi. Every moment serves as a reminder of what happens to Starkiller if he doesn’t do what his master commands throughout the game. He makes his decisions to follow his own path, even in the face of the all-powerful killing machine we control through the first level, all the more impactful.
Nope, Force released is not the best Star Wars game. It never was, but it’s always very interesting to come back to it. His power journey runs dry hours before the grand finale and he’s mired in the trappings of what it meant to be cool 14 years ago, but his first level is a timer that serves as one of the last remnants of a bygone era for the Galaxy far, far away.
Charlie Wacholz is a freelance writer and student. When he’s not playing the latest and greatest indie games, competing in Smash tournaments, or working on a new cocktail recipe, you can find him on Twitter at @chas_mke.