Video Game Review: The Force Unleashed II
- Spoiler Review -
Despite the protagonist’s death at the end of the first The Force Unleashed, but thanks to its large commercial success, a sequel was quickly announced and put into development. To build the hype train, LucasArts started reassuring gamers they had heeded the criticisms leveled at the first game. Then Haden Blackman, writer and executive producer on both games, said the sequel would tell a more personal story about Starkiller and the early days of the Rebel Alliance. But it was when the developers stated the sequel would be their Empire Strikes Back, several hundred eyebrows raised in either terror or hope. Could a game ever be anything like one of the most revered Star Wars films of all time? On October 26, 2010, with the release of The Force Unleashed II, the answer to that question was finally revealed: Nope. Even though the game looks great, its overly repetitious gameplay and levels, a dismissible story, and short length make for an underwhelming experience.
To begin to understand where the TFU2 went wrong compared to its predecessor, the game’s story needs to be vetted first. Whereas its predecessor had galaxy-spanning drama to cover up its protagonists’ rather cookie-cutter personality, TFU2 doesn’t have that luxury. The game starts with Darth Vader arriving on Kamino, where he is overseeing the training of a “clone” of Starkiller. This “clone” has memories from events in the first game, including his love interest Juno Eclipse. Vader tries convincing Starkiller these are merely memories of dead man implanted to speed-up training, but Starkiller doesn’t bite and escapes the planet. What follows should be an interesting journey to find one’s identity and the issues with trying to choose between the fate of the Rebel Alliance or the fate of Juno, but these potentially strong story beats get passed over without a second thought.
Let’s start with the whole, “is Starkiller a clone or is he not?” Whether one watched a trailer for the game, read the back of the game’s case, or looked at the label of the save game file, the identity crisis storyline was front and center to the game’s marketing. By the end of the game, you never actually get a definitive answer (even though many supplementary materials clearly label Starkiller as a clone). Confusion, and therefore the lack of an answer, stems mostly from the continued insistence from Master Kota, stating several times that he believes Starkiller isn’t a clone. It can be argued the answer doesn’t really matter since Starkiller ended up doing the right thing no matter what.
The romance built in the first game between Galen Marek aka Starkiller and Juno was flimsy at best. Now the entire second game asks you to truly believe in it, so much so that Starkiller might just be willing to risk the entire Rebellion to save his love, who has maybe ten lines in the entire game. I’ve swallowed some tough pills before, but this one is like trying to swallow a whole Hutt. Kota and Starkiller argue over which is more important, but you never actually feel Starkiller’s struggle between the two choices. Sam Witwer, the voice of Starkiller in both games, does an amazing job on the voice work, but the gameplay never really reflects the intensity this decision weighs down on his mind. You’re just funneled down another generic Kamino hallway, with no branching paths or actual choice in the matter. And in the end, it doesn’t really matter, since Starkiller ends up doing the right thing no matter what.
If there are some bright lights in the TFU2, you’ll find them in the graphical improvement and continued reliance on the sound banks at Lucasfilm. The game looks gorgeous. Force lightning looks extremely deadly. The ground buckles from a powerful Force push. Rain flows across every surface on Kamino. You name it, this game makes it look great. And from voice acting—everyone from the first game reprises their roles—to the familiar sounds of screaming stormtroopers and the always epic musical score, this game sounds fantastic. The only issue with sound stems from Kota’s barks throughout boss battles in the game. Barks, for those who don’t know, are simple lines of dialogue that NPC (non-playable characters) say to convey information to the player. In this case, Kota is trying to help you defeat a boss. Unfortunately, his lines pop up too early, too late, or absolutely way too much. My biggest issue isn’t the repetitious nature of the barks, but rather something else entirely: Even though Kota has the Force, and I know it can be powerful, exactly how he knows what to do in every situation even though he is blind and not even near you is a bigger and more interesting mystery than Starkiller’s true identity.
However, LucasArts wasn’t kidding when they said they had listened to the criticisms with TFU’s gameplay. Targeting and throwing objects at enemies is almost flawless, erasing tons of frustration. And unlike the TFU’s big moment, pulling a Star Destroyer out of the sky, TFU2’s own unleashed moment lacks any frustration: using a spaceship as the galaxy’s largest bullet looks, feels, and plays as cool as you’d expect.
But it’s the execution of the entire experience where TFU2 falls short. Mainly, the ‘hammering a nail on your head’ repetitious gameplay and level design. By the second level, about 20 minutes into the game, you’ve already encountered practically every enemy type you’ll ever face. This is not only an issue, but makes the next few hours of lightsaber slashing and Force unleashing rather dull. You can only kill a stormtrooper so many times before even that loses its fun (though the inclusion of dismemberment manages to help, a little). Boss battles are the game’s attempt at variety, but even they are full of their own problems: lack of clear direction, Kota’s barks, and glitchy moments.
Also, you’ll have seen practically every contextual and QTE animation in the game’s repertoire within the first hour. From the grabbing techniques, that are absolutely necessary for defeating a Force adept, to the QTE kills for the Carbonite/Fire War Droids, it’s like playing on a broken record. Since there’s no real variety in enemies (or their death animations), the game answers the question about why none of these enemy types are seen in the Original Trilogy: because Starkiller destroyed them all. And even though it feels like you’re single handedly eradicating the entire Empire, it also feels like trying to wade through carbonite, like a chore.
What really made TFU fun and interesting was its planet hopping, where you saw 9 separate locations. In the TFU2, you only see 4 locations. 4! To compound this, each level looks like someone fell asleep on the copy and paste button. You zip across Cato Neimoidia’s walkways, but each one looks exactly alike. You run down corridors on the Rebel frigate The Salvation, but each one looks exactly alike. You hop around Kamino, but both visits lack any real variety in the location. And Dagobah? Don’t even get me started on that subject, as it shouldn’t actually be considered a level. When Star Wars is such a rich universe, how could it all look so bland and uninspired, even after the overhaul with the high-quality graphics? TFU2 basically tells you that a galaxy far, far away is full of really uninspired and overpaid architects.
But you’re looking to play a game and have fun, not critique alien architects, right? So in light of the all the issues listed above, the TFU2 can still be fun to play…from time to time. Lightsaber crystals, this time out, imbue your blade with extra abilities (and color changes), like your Force power bar immediately refills after defeating an enemy. All the Force powers return: Repulse, Throw, Push, Grip, and Lightning. However, they give you a new skill: Mind Trick. This new skill is a hundred times more useful than TFU’s Lightning Shield and can make you laugh…the first few times you use it. Mind Trick will cause weak enemies to jump off nearby cliffs/edges and others to attack friendlies, but the effect and its effectiveness quickly diminishes until it’s just another afterthought. Each power can be leveled up using points you gain from defeating foes and destroying property.
The powers and crystals make you a one man galaxy cleaner and my first playthrough on Medium resulted in only one death. The game is rather easy, as I only died three times on Hard, and the brand new Force Fury is just one of the many reasons the game is so easy. Force Fury is a special meter that fills up as you deal death to the denizens of the Empire, and once activated, quite literally unleashes all your attacks. Your lightsaber blades circle outwards from you, one hit killing any enemy in their path. You can completely atomize dozens of enemies with a single Repulse. Want to get rid of those pesky AT-STs or War Droids? Grip them, crush them, and hurl them at whatever else is still standing in your way. For a game that already doesn’t cause too much of a challenge, this almost feels like overkill. But, it sure as heck is the coolest power available in TFU2. There’s nothing like saving it for the right moment, suddenly decimating an entire roomful in mere seconds, to make you feel like the most powerful Force user ever.
Which brings me this game’s biggest issue: The final fight with Darth Vader. Throughout the fight, he calls Starkiller a “failed experiment,” but I really think he’s talking about the battle the two of you are having. As you hop across the clone vat platforms seen in Attack of the Clones, Vader calls in demented/failed clones of the original Starkiller. These clones are repeats of early enemy types dressed up in Starkiller’s skin. Defeating them is paramount, as not doing so results in lack of damage dealt to Vader. And Vader takes a whole lot of damage as the battle could be the longest part of the entire game thanks to his ridiculously long health bar. And after using Force Fury or using a spaceship like a plaything, it’s jarring when you barely damage the walking machine that is Vader. The fight is basically a broken record until you defeat him: battle your clones, get in saber locks with Vader where he repeats several lines, and hopefully do damage to Vader. I can easily imagine being digested by the Sarlacc Pit for a thousand years and it would be a more enjoyable experience. The second half of the fight is hit or miss and before you know it, it’s over.
And when I say it’s over suddenly, I’m not kidding. Clocking in at just a little over 5 hours, this game is terribly short. This length only highlights the repetitious nature of the gameplay and locations, as every experience is jam packed into a short little burst. And then for the cameos by Boba Fett and Yoda? They’re exactly that, cameos, both being completely underutilized. It’s hard not to wonder how rushed they must have been for the game to end up like it did.
The Light Side ending of the game is the only reason I’d like there to be a sequel, even if it came out as just a book, graphic novel, or even point-and-click adventure title. It sets up an interesting series of events that involve a Rebel base on Dantoonie and a certain major film character captured. The Dark Side ending is anticlimactic, just like the boss battle, but it gets continued in one DLC level: Endor. If you even consider playing TFU2, whether you rent it, borrow it from a buddy, or buy it, you owe it to yourself to download the Endor mission pack. At $.99 , it’s not a hard sell, and will easily be the most fun you’ll have with the game. You get to punt Ewoks, kill Han and Chewie (okay, maybe that’s not too fun), and duel a powerful Jedi named Leia. All for .99 cents!
In the end, what could’ve been a great sequel to a good game ends up falling flat. Whether it’s the cut and paste environments, shoe-horned story, or repeated gameplay, the game has an identity crisis of its own. It doesn’t know if it wants to be fun or a pain in the rear. I do have a few simple reasons you might still get the game: 1. You liked the first and want to play the second; 2. If you noticed my use of repeated phrases and words, that was just me trying to emulate the game’s repetitious nature. If you weren’t annoyed by it, then you might get the game; 3. There are much worse games out there, and looking at the Star Wars games as a whole, this one isn’t all that bad.
The following review is based on the PS3 (Xbox 360, PC) version of the game. It differs from the DS, iOS, and Wii (which has exclusive multiplayer) versions.
Video Game Review: The Force Unleashed