Tour de Force for Star Wars

THE lines between the movie and gaming worlds are becoming ever more blurred.

A select group of world media gathered recently at Lucass famous Skywalker Ranch, north of San Francisco, for an exclusive behind-the-scenes look at what is shaping to be one of the biggest gaming releases of the year.

The ranch, where Lucas created most of the Star Wars and Indiana Jones franchises and home to artefacts such as the original light sabre props of Anikin Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi and Sankara Stones, is like hallowed turf to Star Wars fans.

The very sight of Lucass security force (the ranch also has a fire department) with their Millennium Falcon badges, is enough to turn the most jaded of journalist into the giggling geeks we all profess not tobe.

While there have been plenty of Star Wars-based games, Lucas has never been so intimately involved, says project lead Haden Blackman, the man responsible for creating and executing the concept.

Blackman and his team felt the pressure of adding to the much-loved canon and considered more than 100 ideas for the central character from smugglers to Wookiee superheroes to Darth Maul before settling on having gamers play as Darth Vaders secret apprentice, who is on a mission to eliminate the remaining Jedi.

We kept coming back to what the saga is about, Blackman says.

Ultimately it is Darth Vaders story, so if we were going to tell a new chapter in that saga we wanted it to be intimately tied to him.

Theres a couple of big twists and turns in the story. One revelation, in particular, really impacts the rest of the saga as a whole. It goes way beyond filling in gaps. We try to make a bridge on every level.

Once they had settled on that idea, Lucas, who has the Star Wars universe mapped out in his head, proved a goldmine of information with an almost frightening level of detail. Certain rules also had to obeyed with existing characters for continuitys sake and the ongoing theme of redemption needed to be included.

He would tell us what was going on in that period of time, what Darth Vader was doing, what the Emperor was doing, what all the other major characters were doing, the political landscape, the things we should and shouldnt touch on, Blackman says.

That time period had been completely untouched so we had a lot of freedom, but it all stemmed from him telling us what the backdrop was.

All of which is well and good, but TFU is first and foremost a video game and, as such, had to be fun to play and devising the core game-play was even more important that plot considerations.

Casting aside the movies peacenik, airy-fairy, mumbo jumbo about keeping the Force in balance and only using it for peaceful purposes, the brief in TFU is to kick a--- with the Force.

In a dream come true for any child who dreamed of hurling objects or siblings with the power of their mind and running amok with a light sabre, TFU embraces the full gamut of Jedi powers. Gamers use supercharged Force powers to bust through objects, wield a light sabre, blast lighting bolts and fling about foes.

Blackman admits to some trepidation about reinventing something as central to the mythology as the Force, but says Lucas was impressed by an early demonstration.

We showed him a video to show him what we meant by The Force Unleashed with big over-the-top Force pushes and repulses, and picking up guys and throwing them into Tie Fighters, and once he saw that he said, thats perfect for a game go make that game, Blackman says.

THE game also uses two remarkable new technologies governing environmental destruction and artificial intelligence.

Digital Molecular Matter simulates the way different materials behave in the real world based on real world properties: metal will bend like metal and wood will splinter like wood depending on how it is struck.

Euphoria gives the expendable cannon fodder such as Wookiees and the hapless Storm Troopers reflexes and a sense of self-preservation: if you hurl them into the air they will try to grab on to something (or someone) or protect themselves.

Having settled on the story and game play, Blackman needed to find an actor to play the Secret Apprentice as well as filling other new roles created especially for the game, including the obligatory busty blonde sidekick and various rogue Jedi.

The game features more than an hour of cinematics, with the cast acting in front of a blue screen and covered in motion capture dots so their movements could then be digitally translated into the game. No one is any danger of reigniting the Gollum debate of whether digital actors should be eligible for the Oscars, but the performances are a cut above the norm.

Sam Witwer, known to science fiction audiences for his recurring role in Battlestar Galactica, as well as boasting credits in Dexter, CSI and Smallville, says he scored the role through dumb luck.

An artist for LucasArts created a conceptual painting for that character that looked eerily like the actor.

Unbeknownst to her or anyone else, she painted me, Witwer says.

Same haircut, same look. Everything. So a friend of mine, David Collins, who works at LucasArts and was the vocal lead for The Force Unleashed and some other guys there who were Battlestar fans thought, wow, that kind of looks like Sam Witwer.

Fortunately, Witwer had also been a Star Wars nut since birth and was thrilled to be a part of its continuing legacy.

Now that I have been paid and everything, I can tell you I would have done it for free, he says laughing.

Everyone was extremely enthusiastic about this no one didnt want to be there because everyone was in love with the mythology. There was definitely a sense that this was special and different.

Witwers co-star Adrienne Wilkinson, who plays vengeful Jedi Maris Brood, relished the challenge of acting with the technology.

One of the bonuses of filming at the LucasArts base in San Francisco, where all manner of weird beasts and models line the halls from previous movies, is that no one bats an eyelid at an actor covered in make-up and prosthetic horns.

Sometimes it was great and sometimes it was awkward, Wilkinson says.

There were moments every day we were cracking each other up and laughing so hard we were crying because we were trying to have some deep meaningful moment and we were covered in these reflective dots.

And the skimpy, Princess Leia-style space bikini?

My father was a little uncomfortable to see it, but I think most people will love it, she says laughing.

I love her outfit it somehow manages to be very sexy, but also really powerful.

Witwer and Wilkinson are aware what the exposure of TFU could do for their careers.


Halo 3 made more than $370 million in its first week of release last year, a more than respectable figure for any blockbuster movie. Grand Theft Auto 4 eclipsed that figure this May with more than $620 million in its first week.

TFU probably wont reach those giddy heights, but retailers are expecting it to be one of the biggest sellers of the year and Hollywood is watching.

Recently I was called in to meet with a bunch of producers and for about 10 or 15 minutes they were asking me a lot of questions about The Force Unleashed, Witwer says.

And I asked them why they wanted to know and they said, are you aware what is happening with Grand Theft Auto and Halo 3?

These are extremely successful enterprises and Hollywood is trying to figure out how to get their piece of that. Thats why you see all these movies based on video games eventually we will probably see a good one.

Star Wars: the Force Unleashed is released on Wednesday.