Star Wars The Forced Unleashed: Ultimate Sith Edition
To say Star Wars The Forced Unleashed: Ultimate Sith Edition has had a bumpy road to the Mac is a bit of an understatement. It was delayed, then Aspyr had a major staff shakeup, then delayed again, then people who made preorders were informed the game was out when it wasn't, and finally it was released last week with no fanfare. It seems somehow fitting that now that it's here on the Mac, the Ultimate Sith Edition is almost unplayable.
The Ultimate Sith Edition is set in the years between Episode III and Episode IV in the Star Wars canon. Darth Vader has sent you, his secret apprentice, to track down and kill rogue Jedi. It's a remarkably dark and cool twist on the usual Star Wars plot and fosters some geeky moments of nostalgia.
At its core, the Ultimate Sith Edition has a great concept, a terrific story, and beautiful graphics. The famed John Williams soundtrack is back, the environments are varied and destructible, and thanks to the emphasis on force powers, you basically get to play as an unstoppable killing machine. You can throw stormtroopers into oncoming TIE fighters, incinerate enemies with force lightning, and even throw huge blasts of force energy to knock down walls. The physics engine is impressive and how the AI responds to threats is one of the subtle joys of the game-stormtroopers will cry for help and reach for something to grab onto before you fling them to their death. The amount of sadistic fun in the game is rare for a Star Wars title, seemingly more at home in the world of God of War or Devil May Cry.
Unfortunately, the concept is hindered by some strange development choices. The force-based puzzles and platforming sections would be forgiven if it weren't for the checkpoint save system. No one likes defeating a junk titan and then tripping into a bottomless pit and having to repeat the entire fight over again. Save system problems aside, the level design, while providing some great set pieces, leaves something to be desired. The paths are all fairly linear and a minimap helps dictate where you're supposed to go next, but there are several moments in the game where you'll be randomly zapping things or force pushing objects in order to trigger some kind of event.
I imagine that regardless of the platform, there are moments when the inexact force grip controls would be frustrating. On the Mac, these problems are acerbated by the mouse and keyboard setup. It seems to be poor form to kick Aspyr while they're down, but the Ultimate Sith Edition for the Mac is a simply lazy port. You can't alter the graphical settings at all in the game, and on my 2.6GHz Core 2 Duo MacBook Pro there were frequent frame drops and occasional crashes.
The control translation for the Mac is even sadder. Before you launch the game, a window pops up asking you how you'd like to configure the controls. Unless you have a two-button mouse, you'll be selecting "treat command-click as right-click." Unfortunately, one of the force powers' default settings is "Q." Using them in combination will of course exit your game without saving it. Another lazy design choice is reflected in the game prompts during quick time events. The game prompts will not change even if you change the default bindings, meaning you'll have to remember quickly where you reassigned the buttons during the game's quick time events.
Aspyr can't be blamed for all of the glitches in the game, but ignoring one in particular makes the game nearly unplayable. The Star Destroyer boss battle had the promise of being one of the cooler moments in Star Wars-related gaming. The reality was like getting coal for Christmas. You have to dispatch waves of TIE fighters and then align the Star Destroyer (using on screen prompts) to throw it to the ground. Here's the catch: the prompts are sometimes unreliable-if you follow the prompts exactly, you will not beat this mission. I was able to beat the mission finally thanks to some Web research that revealed I have to do the opposite of what the prompts say at a certain point. While this bug has been in the game since the console version, Aspyr deserves criticism for not fixing it. Moreover, when I expressed frustration that this glitch still existed and that the mouse was poorly suited for the prompts (you'll be manipulating your mouse furiously in order to try to beat this)-Aspyr PR told me I might be better served getting a game controller for my Mac.
Simply put, I've never played a worst port and it's been years since I've been more frustrated by a game I enjoyed playing. Unless you know how to navigate the strange quirks of the port, you'll be spending hours on certain sections. Aspyr has put virtually no effort into translating a console game to the Mac platform.
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Yet, it's hard for me to completely write off this game or Aspyr's efforts here. The extra content that comes packaged in the Ultimate Sith Edition includes an extra level that really deserves to be included in the main game. It tasks the apprentice with journeying to the Jedi Temple and learning more about his father. It's not given the weight or cutscene it deserves, but it helps flush out the apprentice's relationship with his father and General Kota, both of which feel rushed in the game. Actually, that's another problem with the game: it's short and every plot twist seems rushed and lacks emotional weight due to its brevity. The characters are moved to and fro, but they never get to breath.
The additional two levels, one on Hoth and the other on Tatooine, are set in an alternative "Infinities" universe where the apprentice killed Darth Vader and became the Emperor's right-hand man. These missions provide opportunities to trek on the well-worn paths of the movie settings and let you interact with some of the movie series' key characters; on Hoth you get to fight and corrupt Luke and on Tatooine kill Obi-Wan Kenobi. They have some nice set pieces, but only really offer more of the same in gameplay.
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You typically hate a game more that disappoints, that fails on its potential, than a game that you never had any expectations for. The Ultimate Sith Edition has deserved a lot of its critical bile because there are so many things here that LucasArts gets right; this is the first game ever to really let you get a sense of what it's like to be a Jedi Knight, one of the cooler creations in the sci-fi universe. The graphics are beautiful, the scale is epic, and the battles are intense and thanks to a smart AI, varied. Your enemies respond to you, they have a self-preservation instinct, and (depending on the difficulty setting you enable) the game can be harder than heck. Even the story, while rushed, is remarkably compelling (especially for a Star Wars game).
But the control issues of the original console game are only acerbated by a terrible port job. Some segments of this game aren't fun, but feel like chores. Moments like the Star Destroyer battle and others featured in the game's trailer (a reason why the game had such expectations) are neutered by Quicktime events. I never thought I'd say this, but if you're going to play this game, your money might be better spent on the Xbox 360 or PS3 version. A myriad of technical issues, glitches, and a complete disregard for the Mac platform makes this hard to recommend over other titles.
[Chris Holt is a Macworld associate editor.]