Star Wars: The Force Unleashed II
Dual lightsabers, disposable stormtroopers and an ominous overture: welcome to The Force Unleashed II or, the return of Starkiller, Calvin Klein jaw and shorn hair intact. While the developers do their best to justify the existence of this sequel, the narrative never ascends to the heights of its predecessor. Criminally, Starkiller’s new adventure makes passage through the realms of gameplay convention, his every jump, saber swing and lightning shock overlooked by staged level design and uninspired artwork. Though there are moments that astound, The Force Unleashed II amounts to nothing more than a missed opportunity.
“Starkiller’s new adventure makes passage through the realms of gameplay convention”
For those who played the first game, Starkiller is a familiar face. Though once the apprentice of Darth Vader he has since turned his back on the Dark Lord and as the second game begins, we’re informed that Starkiller is now a clone of the original. This is a necessary revelation that bridges the gap between the two games, but while LucasArts does their best to keep the narrative cohesive and consistent, the final product comes off as an all-too-brief romp through the hallways of Star Wars staples. Exposition is light in a tale that sees Starkiller seek both his love interest, Juno Eclipse, and the end of Darth Vader’s reign and though in its final moments you’re presented with a choice that affects the outcome, it’s a narrative device shoehorned into a story too brief to deserve an alternative ending.
If the story is slim, the locations are equally light. Vader’s Kamino provides the game’s opening backdrop but it’s not five hours before you’re back for the final battle. In between, you’ll pay a visit to Cato Neimoidia and traverse the innards of The Starship. There’s also a fleeting visit to the jungle planet of Dagobath, which, in its five minutes of airtime, shows more promise than the rest of the game combined. Both its verisimilitude and atmosphere is worthy of praise and the brief encounter with Yoda, disregard for English grammar intact, scratches that inner nerd within you. Yet, before you’ve had a chance to digest the lush greenery the game whisks you away and forces you down more drab hallways. As you endure the game’s uninspired stretches you’ll wish more of the story revolved around Dagobath.
Not that Starkiller’s tale isn’t presented well. The CGI cutscenes are fantastic, brought to life by expressive facial animations, a note-perfect score and a serviceable script. Unfortunately, there just isn’t enough meat to the story. The Force Unleashed II feels like a stopgap in a trilogy, or, a continuation of a tale that was better left on its own. Good sequels build on the strengths of their predecessor while providing something inherently new, but The Force Unleashed II is nothing more than a repetitive exercise in button-mashing, its third-person combat punctuated by quick-time events that are more at home in a David Cage thriller.
When it comes to combat, The Force Unleashed II feels utterly staged. Yes, this is a game and a certain amount of routine is required, but you’ll soon tire of repeating the same moves over and over again: a feat indeed for a campaign this brief. On Caito Neimoidia, stormtroopers can be dispelled by whatever means necessary and are more a form of comic relief than the Imperial bodyguards purported by Star Wars lore. However, tougher foes such as the acolytes are only susceptible to lightsabers, while others can only be killed using your Force powers. Thus, the game ensures you interchange between your two primary modes of attack. In principle, this is sound, but the game never succeeds in masking the pattern. Onboard The Starship the foes take a turn for the more robotic, but the same gameplay standards apply: mix up the Force powers and the saber attacks depending on the enemy. The lack of transparency is damning; worse still, in-game prompts hold your hand at every turn. In a rare moment of epic scale you do battle with a monstrosity named Gorog, yet your immersion is continually broken as General Kota shouts instructions in your ear. After the first five minutes you know how to proceed, but Kota is intent on making himself heard.
New Force powers include the ability to turn enemies on each other using “mind trick”, a feature squandered in a game so intent on mindless hacking-n-slashing. You can also activate “Force sense” which is a fancy name for a waypoint, but it’s doubtful you’ll ever need its services either, given the linear nature of the campaign. And while there is the odd puzzle to solve and the occasional jump-sequence to perfect, these are moments of reprieve rather than an intelligent assault on your cerebrum.
When the game comes together, it’s during cutscenes and quick-time events. One memorable scene occurs after the encounter with Gorog, as you hurtle through the air avoiding debris and following quick-time prompts. It’s inherently scripted but it looks so delicious that you can’t help but be impressed. Yet, all too quickly you’re back in control of the Force powers and lightsabers, enduring the staged third-person combat, and the game loses its appeal. At times, The Force Unleashed II seems best suited to an interactive story where only minimal participation on the part of the player is required. Perhaps this would work as the Heavy Rain of the Star Wars world (again, David Cage), for it certainly doesn’t master the mechanics of enjoyable third-person combat.
Still, if The Force Unleashed II has any pretensions of narrative significance it does itself no favours. Though the plot is presented beautifully, it never amounts to more than a combination of pretty CGI graphics and impressive voice-work. Big things are hinted at during the story, but they’re ultimately only a taste of what might have transpired, lost in the game’s adherence to insipid and uninspired locales.
At least The Force Unleashed II is technically solid. Load-times are brief and the framerate keeps a steady pace; strangely, the only real slowdown is not really a framerate dip at all, but a stylistic effect that accompanies the use of your lightsaber on a foe. It tends to be jarring and it feels wholly out of place in a game that prides itself on fluid action. Elsewhere, this sequel is coloured by a distinct lack of ambition. The art direction shows promise, but the developers commit the sin of rehashing the same old idea over and over again. The first viewing of a casino on Cato Neimoidia impresses, but not the sixth or seventh time. Its the sort of laziness that underlines the experience; though there’s plenty of talent at the heart of the game, you’re forced to wade through the mire to find these sparks. The CGI cutscenes are great, the quick-time events are solid, but they’re not worth the drudgery it takes to get there.
“in a year beholden to console gaming’s finest offerings, this is impossible to recommend.”
LucasArts, once the forerunners of the industry, has clearly fallen pray to hard times. An unlockable Guybrush Threepkiller costume hints at their rosier past, but even playing The Force Unleashed II amidst fond memories of Monkey Island fails to mask the mediocrity at hand. Ultimately, this is far from a stirring return to Starkiller’s world. If anything it negates the strides made by its predecessor, all too often venturing into the mundane and relying on button-mashing to flesh out its campaign. Though the cutscenes and quick-time events are pleasing, the story simply fails to compel you forward and in a year beholden to console gaming’s finest offerings, this is impossible to recommend. If a drab, uninspired return to Starkiller’s universe is all you need, you’re a more loyal Star Wars fan than I.