Recently I got the chance to speak with Haden Blackman, Executive Producer for The Force Unleashed the upcoming Star Wars game from LucasArts
GVK: What is the background and setting for the game?
HB: The Force Unleashed takes place in between Episodes III and IV. It bridges the gap between the two movie trilogies, and starts fairly soon after the end of Revenge of the Sith. The Emperor has ordered Darth Vader to hunt down and eliminate the remaining Jedi, and you play a big part in that.
GVK: What can you tell us about the A.I. in the game?
HB: We’ve incorporated a technology called euphoria from NaturalMotion, Inc. that gives our NPCs true biomechanical AI. It’s basically a digital nervous system, so they have a sense of balance, natural reflexes, and a will to live. Throw a crate at them and they’ll recognize the incoming projectile and might jump out of the way, duck underneath it, block it with their hands, or get hit by it if they can’t react in time. When you grip them, they’ll flail about and try to grab onto anything nearby, even another character. And they have a true sense of balance, so if you bump them, you’ll see them wobble – sometimes they’ll fall over, but other times they’ll regain their balance and continue attacking you.
GVK: What are some of the locales gamers will see in the game?
HB: We have several locations, which represent a wide range of Star Wars environments that should feel both familiar and new. We haven’t revealed all of them yet, but you’ll visit a TIE Fighter Construction Facility, the fungal world Felucia (see briefly in Episode III), a planet made completely of junk called Raxus Prime, and several other locations throughout the game. You’ll also be able to return to some of the worlds to see how the Empire’s influence – and your actions – have changed them.
GVK: What are some of the weapons we will see?
HB: The Force is your ultimate weapon in the game. We really focused on redefining the Force, and creating new applications for the Force. You’ll have a really powerful Force Push that can be upgraded to take out multiple enemies, and can be used to blast through doors. Force Grip allows you to manipulate nearly anything in the environment, turning things like crates or even enemies into weapons. Force Lightning shocks enemies silly and leaves them stunned. Every Force power can be upgraded over time, giving you a number of options in every combat situation. We also treated the lightsaber as a Force power: it has its own set of combos, and can be upgraded over time with new crystals. You can also combine your lightsaber attacks with Force power use, charging up the blade with lightning for added effect, for example.
GVK: How will vehicles be used in game and what will players be able to ride in?
HB: To traverse environments, we really focused on making the Apprentice feel like a Sith warrior, with agile movements, a rapid dash, and the ability to leap huge distances. Darth Vader does provide the Apprentice with starship called the Rogue Shadow, which he uses to reach the various locations throughout the game.
GVK: What gaming engine will you be using and what will enhancements will it bring to the genre?
HB: Our internal team at LucasArts created a brand new engine from the ground up for The Force Unleashed. We worked closely with our sister company, Industrial Light & Magic, to incorporate technologies and techniques similar to those they use when creating visual effects for movies. On top of that, we’ve licensed several third-party physics technologies, like Havok, Digital Molecular Matter, and euphoria.
GVK: What forms of multiplayer will the game include?
HB: On Wii we’ve included a two-player Duel Mode, so you and a buddy can determine who’s the universe’s most powerful Jedi. And both the PSP and DS have local Wi-Fi four-player multiplayer.
GVK: What sort of enemies will players face?
HB: The game features literally dozens of different enemies types. We spent a huge part of our development designing these enemies to ensure there was enough diversity throughout the game, and that they made you feel both powerful and challenged. Because you’re Darth Vader’s Secret Apprentice, you’re ordered to kill everyone you run across in order to leave no witnesses, so you’ll be able to attack and battle stormtroopers from the very first level. We have a number of stormtrooper variants throughout the game, including shielded troopers, flying jet-troopers, and a version of the fearsome Dark Trooper. You’ll also run across early rebels, Force-wielding aliens and painted rancors on the planet Felucia, junk golems and Rodian scavengers on Raxus Prime, the Emperor’s elite Shadow Guard, Ugnaughts, and even Jawas. And, of course, you’ll battle Jedi and other powerful Force users, including the Jedi Master Shaak Ti. All of the “bosses” have their own unique set of powers, which are themselves “unleashed.” In all, there are over 60 different enemy types in the game.
GVK: Blending action with a detailed plot can always be tricky, how have you attempted to create this element, and will scripted events be a part of the game?
HB: Our goal was to tell a compelling Star Wars story in The Force Unleashed, and scripted sequences play a part in that. There are numerous moments where you stumble across something – perhaps an exchange between two stormtroopers – that help tell the story, provide context, or just give you a bit of comic relief. We also use both in-game cinematics and cutscenes to move the plot forward, and there’s a fair amount of “in your ear” dialogue that not only helps clarify mission objectives but also further develops some of the supporting cast. Finally, we have a robust in-game databank that provides Star Wars fans with nearly one hundred entries providing backstory, factoids, and other information on characters, locations, and hardware found in the game.
GVK: The scope of the game sounds amazing, what are some of the biggest obstacles you see in creating the game, and what are your biggest goals for the game?
HB: Well, the game is done now, but we faced several big challenges in building it. First, we had to build a brand new team and a brand new engine and tools, with brand new technologies that had never shipped in a game before, all for two brand new platforms. At the same time, we wanted to tell a new Star Wars story, re-envision the Force, and create new gameplay mechanics. Assembling the team was the first real challenge: putting a game team together is like casting a moving – experience is really important, but you also really need to find the right chemistry between all the key contributors. Luckily, I think we’ve found some of the best developers in the industry. The next big challenge was getting all of the diverse technologies to work well together. DMM props needed to react when hit by a euphoria-enabled stormtrooper, for example. Our physics simulations are all based on the real-world laws of physics, but Star Wars is a fantasy setting where those laws don’t always apply – and a game sometimes needs to bend the laws of physics in order to ensure the fun factor. Our Force Push hits stormtroopers with the Force of a cannonball, and the simulations initially had trouble coping with the amount of force and stress we were putting on our characters and environments. The team really came together and worked closely with our technology partners to keep the essence of the simulations intact while remaining true to our vision of the Force truly “unleashed.” Finally, getting the game to run on both the PS3 and the Xbox360 was a monumental task, but again the team really came through and, in some ways, did the impossible.
From the outset, we just wanted to create a really fun game all about kicking ass with the Force, coupled with a strong Star Wars story. Despite all the challenges, I’m hopeful that we’ve done what we set out to do. But we’ll no for sure soon!
GVK: It was reported that you will play as an apprentice to Darth Vader which may cause some fans issue with the rule of two, and Vader’s quest for Luke in the film. Is it difficult to create new stories in Star Wars knowing how fanatical the fans are over film cannon, and how have you attempted to solve this for the game?
HB: It is daunting knowing that thousands and thousands of people will be double-checking our work. Fortunately, many of us on the team are huge Star Wars fans. At a certain point, we just decided we had to make a game that we, as fans, would want to play with a story that we’d want to experience. I think that a lot of care and love went into crafting a true Star Wars experience as a result. And of course working closely with George Lucas early on really helped. He gave us a thorough history lesson on the time period between Episodes III and IV; and once we presented him with the idea that Vader has taken an Apprentice, he really provided great feedback on what Vader would want out of that Apprentice and how he would motivate him.