Say what you will about Star Wars: The Force Unleashed II, but it’s far from the worst Star Wars game ever made. Is it as wretched as the licensed game of Episode III? Not on your nelly. As rotten as The Clone Wars or Super Bombad Racing? How on Earth could it be? It might, however, be the most disappointing. The Force Unleashed had some pretty serious flaws, but despite them it was a great experience for most Star Wars fans. Sure, you had that bit with the Star Destroyer and some dull, repetitive levels, but you could rely on the story, the characterisation and the whole Star Wars atmosphere to pull you through.
On paper, the sequel is a better game. LucasArts has improved the core combat, made your enemies more varied and interesting, ramped up your force powers and made some (note, some) of the levels more exciting. Yet, in the flesh, The Force Unleashed II is a weaker title than its predecessor because, while a perfectly competent action game, it’s lost that all-important Star Wars magic.
Having died at the end of the first game, you return as - apparently - a clone of Darth’s young apprentice, Starkiller, being trained on Camino to embrace the dark side, give in to hate and, well, you probably know the rest. Unfortunately, our hero isn’t keen to follow his master down the path of nastiness. Haunted by visions of his original’s old flame, Juno Eclipse, he does a runner, downs a few tie-fighters, slays a legion of stormtroopers and escapes in the very first level. The rest of the game, we were told back in July, tracks the clone’s search for identity and struggle between good and evil.
Except it doesn’t really. Instead, we get a series of levels and a linear and predictable plot, all tied together with the most perfunctory motivation and exposition. We don’t know if it’s the case or not, but there’s a distinct feeling while playing The Force Unleashed II that cutscenes, sequences and possibly whole levels have been dropped during development. Either that, or the tale just wasn’t that good in the first place. In any case, there’s little in the cinematics, the characterisation or the digitised performances to match what we saw in the first game, and it’s all a bit run of the mill Star Wars video game stuff. The Force Unleashed II has enough of the visual style and the music to give you some of that authentic Star Wars feeling, but we’re talking Episode III, not The Empire Strikes Back.
Some of the gameplay enhancements are definitely for the better. The targeting system is a little more predictable, and the designers have got better at putting together encounters that demand you mix and match lightsaber attacks, force powers and environmental damage in order to get through. Some of the new enemies are distinctive and tough to defeat, and it’s hard to hate any game where you can obliterate so many stormtroopers in so many varied and unpleasant ways. In fact, we’d argue that certain portions of the game - a run through a rebel capital ship under assault from killer droids or parts of an attack on an Imperial pleasure zone - are absolutely brilliant. The problem is that these parts don’t exemplify the game as a whole.
For a start, there are still painful stretches of repetition, with the same sort of enemies, environments and challenges cut and pasted with minimal variation for 10 or 20 minutes at a time. At key points throughout the game, the designers seem to have given up any idea of hitting you with anything interesting, and have decided instead to spam you with large numbers of Sith-like tough-nuts and battle droids. On the harder difficulty levels these can kill you very quickly, and at this point you’ll find that the checkpoints have been so badly placed that you’ll have to do the same 10 minute chunk over and over. Boss battles are over-long, over-complex and practically imagination-free, and we get a worrying number of sequences that rely on pressing the right button when prompted on the screen. This is not the sort of thing we signed up for.
Kudos to LucasArts for trying to rival God of War III with a colossal scale boss battle, but it’s such a terrible repeat-the-same-steps-in-the-same-order effort that you can feel the game trying to drag you through it by the nose - or at least the onscreen prompt. Some of the enemy AI is pitiful. In one mass Imperial attack in a chamber with four hot flame vents, it was easier to leave the dark side to dispense with itself through poor navigation than it was to actually go toe to toe and fight them. And, please, if you must have quicktime events for finishing moves, can we at least have more than one per baddie? I was getting mighty tired of some of the routines by the time the game was halfway over.
Let’s not go overboard. There is fun to be had in The Force Unleashed II, and the more you use your earned experience points to beef up your force powers, and the more you find inventive ways to put those powers to use, the more fun you’ll have. LucasArts has succeeded in making the environments more interactive this time around, and there are plenty of mildly sadistic laughs to be had. Yet, there’s no getting past the fact that, for long stretches, The Force Unleashed II can be mediocre, infuriating or just plain dull.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with the production values. The enhanced engine is capable of creating some stunning scenery, and there are some truly spectacular scenes of mass destruction to behold. Some of the water and lighting effects are fabulous. The music is fantastic - often more emotive than the action deserves - and there are great bits of Star Wars detail everywhere you look. Yet, without the narrative strengths of the first game, it all falls a bit flat.
Worst of all, it’s painfully short. Despite the difficulty spikes and repetition, most of us will easily clock The Force Unleashed II within 5 or 6 hours, leaving us with nothing more than a challenge mode to fall back upon. You don’t actually get that many environments to play through, and replay value is pretty thin on the ground to boot. We’ll take quality over quantity any time (see Vanquish for details), but The Force Unleashed II doesn’t do enough on either count.
If you love Star Wars, loved The Force Unleashed and would be happy just to have another 5 or 6 hours of Star Wars action, then The Force Unleashed II will give it to you. However, with so many great action games out there at the moment, it’s hard to recommend one that’s so short and uninspired. What’s more galling is that, while The Force Unleashed II has improved on the original in some key gameplay areas, it hasn’t kept hold of what made it so special: its storytelling. The best Star Wars game of recent years deserved a better follow-up.