was invited by Lucas Arts to a press conference showing off the latest video game for fans of the Star Wars Universe. The Force Unleashed is an amalgam of First Person Shooter and virtual RPG game set in the "dead space" between Episode 3 and 4.. Lucas Arts has been working on this game for several years and the game is just completing Alpha testing and should be ready for sale by Summer 2008. While I suspect that Lucas Arts could push the release date back there is a ton of merchandising pressure building that could force the game to the market at that time - fully ready or not.

Spoiler Alert - The rest of this review covers a wide range of information about the game, game play, marketing and plot points. If you are not interested in learning "secrets" about the game or what could be hidden within the game do not read further. If you do and are upset with the spoilers - don't say we didn't warn you.

Hayden Blackman (Project Lead - Xbox 360 Platform) opened the press conference with list of 5 Questions that "Define the Game".

There are:

1. What is the vision for the force?
2. What is the core game play?
3. When does the game take place?
4. Who are you?
5. What is the theme of the story?

The vision for the game was focusing on force powers. But not like you saw in the movies or in any Star Wars games to date. Force powers that were "amped up", enhanced, out of control - hence the term "Unleashed".

Lucas Arts considers the core game play to be summed up as, "Kicking ass with the force". Also defeating an enemy with the force must be "fun". If the game was engaging and tactically challenging because of the setup, the enemies, and a very interactive environment - then the game will be satisfying to the player. Hayden also mentioned that simulation based game play has become the main focus of Lucas Arts and their game design and The Force Unleashed is the first game with that plan in mind as well as the programming support to make that vision a reality.

As a gamer I found this approach to be exciting, but as a Star Wars movie buff does this change how I feel about the movies and their use of force powers? Does taking a core feature of the Star Wars Universe and pushing it to 11 help or hurt the franchise?

The game is going to take place within the time frame of Episode 3 and 4. During Darth Vader's mop up operations of now rogue Jedi. And he's taken a "Secret Apprentice". You get to play the secret apprentice as he is sent on training missions by Lord Vader and his own personal journey. And has Hayden related this journey is one of redemption, much like the main theme of the 6 movie story arch. "You do not end up who you were when you started," is telling. That and the merchandising leads to a spoiler as to who the final boss is.

Interestingly, both Dan and Hayden mentioned that the first version of the Force Unleashed used existing characters, and during discussions with George Lucas they were encouraged to create a whole new series of characters to support the game story line. Dan Wasson (Project Lead - Wii Platform) mentioned during his talk that the Force Unleashed story line is now official cannon for the Star Wars universe. And that future work could involve these characters or involve these characters in side stories and other appearances within the story's time frame. And since the scripts for the Star Wars Live Action show have yet to be written, it's possible that some of the game's characters could end up making guest appearances in the TV show.

I would suspect if not direct cameo appearances, there will be the verbal or visual Easter Eggs for those paying attention. (Do you remember Dash Rendar's ship in EP 4 - Special Edition?)

Lucas Arts outlined the platforms support: Xbox 360, PS3, Wii, PS3, PSP, and Nintendo DS. There will be no PC version of the game. Both Xbox 360 and PS3 are being developed in house, Chrome Studios is developing on the PS2, PSP and Wii. InSpace (UK) is developing for the Nintendo DS. They stressed that these are not "ports", but full development efforts in order to make the game as good as it could be for each platform. There will be unlockable characters, levels and other goodies specific to each platform - but the base story line and game play will be as consistent as possible between all the platforms.

Of the next gen consoles, currently only the Wii will have "death match" mode. DS (and PSP?) will have a "king of the hill" style game.

OK - so Lucas Arts has the vision thing (and merchandising angles) down, how does that translate to game play? We were privileged to see a late Alpha of the game on the Xbox 360 and Wii platforms. While the rendering was not polished, the game was able to show off it's potential. Hayden kept using the term "epic vision" and how they were trying to translate the movie to the game. One downside to RPGs and FPS games is the "angle of the camera". Do you feel claustrophobic or do you feel that you are really running down a hanger bay that is large enough to have Tie Fighters strafing you? The Force Unleashed is built on the Havok Game Engine which allows the "epic" feel to come through. But Lucas Arts has added two other parts to the game engine that they feel will make the Force Unleashed unique in game play.

The first addition is the Digital Molecular Matter (by Pixelux) sub-engine. With this enhancement Lucas Arts is better able to render and add behaviors to objects in the environment. When objects are destroyed in the Force Unleashed, they will break apart based on their weight, the location of the impact and the strength of the impact. They will not break apart upon predetermined lines, leaving all barrels/boxes/doors looking the same after taking damage. "Glass breaks like glass, wood breaks like wood." One example they should was using an explosive force push to bend open some blast doors. They bent at the force impact and when the character passed through the opening were bent back - although not perfectly back into place which makes sense - to stop anyone from following down that path.

The second addition is Euphoria (by Natural Motion) sub-engine. The addition of Euphoria removes the canned scripted reactions of the enemy, sort of a Biomechanical AI. The same action by you, will not always generate the same reaction in the enemy. They can and will react differently to the same stimulus. As it was described in real game use, the enemies have self preservation built into their logic. This means playing the same level multiple times should be not result in the rote memorization of strafe left- strafe left- strafe right- duck- strafe left- target fuel cell that makes re-playing a game boring.

Over all impressions are that the graphics are going to be very good. The unleashed force powers should be fun. There is a bit of twisted force power use (intended black humor?) within the game - where you can pick up an enemy, charge them up with force lightning and then throw them. When they make contact with another object, they explode. The blood and guts factor is minimal, but still that is a bit "on the dark side". (Not that I'm complaining, I just found that interesting.)

Character customization is going to be minimal for those that like RPGs. You can purchase new powers with your force points earned at each level, taking different routes with the available abilities, but tricking out your character will not be the focus of the game.

More info will be release at the Feb Gamers Convention and since there will be a full court press with all the merchandising tie-ins, novels, comic books, LEGOs, etc. expect the visibility of this game to climb to dizzying heights as we get closer to a release date.

I hope that this does not drive expectations too high for the game. It looks like a fun and challenging game. Plus the technology could prove to be an exceptional platform for creating other immersive environments for today's "next-gen"consoles and begin a steady release of games against the back drop of the Stars Wars Universe. (A re-release of TIE Fighter perhaps? Hint? Hint?)