Star Wars: The Force Unleashed II
The Force Unleashed didn't leave me gasping for a sequel. Its destructive play was fun, its physics engine impressive if sometimes clumsy, but it ended on bum notes of pernickety missions, uninspiring boss fights, not forgetting - rather big spoiler alert - the closure-inducing demise of hero Starkiller at the hands of Vader.
With seven million copies sold, LucasArts didn't agree. Why not, indeed? Starkiller fit the Star Wars universe seamlessly, while the back-story of the gap between Episodes 3 and 4 compelled. When it was fun, it was very fun; picking up a storm trooper and flinging him face forward into another one never really gets old.
But how do you get around your central character dying? Answer: send in the clone. The game stars with what seems like Starkiller trapped in a tower on Kamino, home to the second movie's cloning facility. He's been training here under Vader, clueless of previous events except for confusing flashes of the first game's love interest, Juno.
Vader visits him, only to lay down the bomb that he's actually a clone of his dead, real self, and that the visions are a side effect of the cloning process, and they'll make them go mad if he doesn't control them. The salt in the wound is Vader's reveal that the Starkiller we see is just one of many clones before him - all of whom have lost the plot. When Starkiller then sees a flashback of him being betrayed by Vader, it's all too much for the confused Jedi. He makes a desperate break for freedom, with only two things on his mind: escape the planet and find the girl.
That's where I get control of Starkiller, flying down past the tower, launching his new twin sabers into unwitting foes, and then crashing through a huge glass roof and into the cloning facility. Dusting himself off after that grand entrance, he's reintroduced to the force grip and throwing powers - which feel less flimsy than before. There appears to be a bit more accommodation for directional error. LucasArts says it's redesigned the force powers from the ground up, and on top of that, you get them much quicker than in the first game. The developer doesn't just want you to just kick ass with the force, but to start kicking some as soon as poss.
As a vicious storm beats down upon the grey walls of the facility, inside Starkiller comes across a hapless battle droid gormlessly still in a long corridor. This is the opportunity to perform one of his new powers: the Jedi mind trick. With a lazy wave of Starkiller's wrist (and a gentle press of Y on the Xbox controller), the droid suddenly turns left and hurls itself out of a glass window, clearly overcome with fervor for disassembly. And even if it's just a robot, it still feels delightfully cruel. David Collins' the game's voice director, admits that he had great fun recording the different dialogue for the droids when controlled by the mind trick.
The mind trick's actual application within combat is more about strategy. Starkiller follows the droid out of the window and into the expanse of the facility's central area - maybe where all those droids lined up in the film. It's time to fight.
LucasArts has actually drastically reduced the number of enemies in The Force Unleashed II, but to compensate the team has introduced more strategy in terms of what powers to use and not use against them. So as I, as Starkiller, take on a sea of oncoming storm troopers, it's clear to me that the force throw is once again rather effective against this simple foe. Up they go. Down they go. But to spice things up, even if it's not exactly believable, pinball-like bumper structures are dotted around the arena, and successfully flinging a trooper onto one sends him spiraling off it like a baby on a trampoline. If you're clever enough - and it so proves that I am - you can throw a trooper onto a bumper and back onto another trooper. Sweet.
Clocking up the kills and the destruction adds to another new feature of The Force Unleashed 2: Force Fury. Its meter fills up through the level, and then a collectable power-up - much like those in the game - takes it all the way to full, ready to be unleashed. Haden Blackman, the executive writer and producer for The Force Unleashed II, described it as jacking the Force "up to 11" in a previous interview, and that's a pretty good summation. Starkiller becomes a flare of energy, and even in my slightly unfamiliar hands he's able to take out a row of 7 jetpack-donning storm troopers with one Force Push, before combining a devastating multiple electrical and throw attack with relative ease. If you're kicking ass with the Force, then you're spanking it silly with Force Fury.
Still, there's a notable undercurrent of the familiar in this opening level, a hint of the linear repetition that undermined The Force Unleashed. Even bumpers and the devastation of Force Fury will lose their novelty over time, so one hopes the same breadth of inventiveness and individuality runs through the whole game. On a side note, while talking of Haden Blackman, his resignation just a fortnight before this piece went up is worrying, even if LucasArts stresses that decision won't affect the quality of the game. But what good story doesn't have a late twist?
As the level approaches its end, with Starkiller crushing TIE fighters before chucking them away like scrunched-up paper balls, I reflect on how, indeed, a good story will be the most crucial factor to The Force Unleashed II's success. The first game's Writers Guild of America award raises expectations, and while familiar faces from that game like Juno Eclipse and Kato return, and while there are cameos from the films' stars like Boba Fett and Yoda, everything now rests on how convincing, intricate, and deep Starkiller's story is. The question of whether he actually is a clone or not is what The Force Unleashed II's story revolves around. His journey, literal and emotional, is the framework that holds the game together. As Collins put it in our interview, "can you clone a Jedi?" - and those five little words will have Star Wars fans more than intrigued.
LucasArts bustled with bravado with The Force Unleashed, but despite great sales and some fun play, it was without doubt a game with flaws, like buggy, easily repetitive combat, drawn out boss fights, and a slow build up of powers. LucasArts is aware of those problems, and The Force Unleashed II could be the tour de force Force Unleashed threatened to be. As you well know, always in motion is the future.