While the success of Star Wars: The Force Unleashed made a sequel inevitable, its storyline made it anything but. The fastest-selling Star Wars game of all time finished with its hero dead, the empire still ascendant and the seeds of the Rebellion sown; an outcome ideal for bridging the gap between Episode III: Revenge of the Sith and Episode IV: A New Hope, but not so ideal when everyone demands a second game. Given this state of affairs, where could the sequel possibly take us?
After a presentation by producer Brett Rector and some hands-on time with the game, we have at least some of the answers. The Force Unleashed II will open on the ocean planet of Kamino - the birthplace of the Republic's clone army in Episode II: Attack of the Clones - where Darth Vader is busy mentoring a clone of Starkiller, the hero of The Force Unleashed. It appears that everyone's favourite Dark Lord is still out to create his ultimate force-powered assassin, but not everything is going swimmingly for ol' wheezy.
While the clone is doing well on the giving in to anger and using hatred fronts, he seems conflicted by memories of a previous life. Left alone by Lord Vader, our boy escapes and embarks on a quest of discovery. Who is this new Starkiller? Where are his old comrades? What will he do when he finds them?
The Force Unleashed II is designed to be a darker, more dramatic tale than its predecessors: we've heard LucasArts describe it as "our Empire Strikes Back". Where the theme of The Force Unleashed was redemption, the theme this time around is identity. It's not just a question of who this clone is, but the kind of man he wants to become.
Gameplay wise, the sequel remains very much a continuation of The Force Unleashed; a story-driven action/adventure with the emphasis on taking the powers of the force and pushing them beyond anything you've seen before. But LucasArts isn't resting on its laurels. The aim here is to take what worked about the first game and amplify it, while trying to fix those areas that many felt brought The Force Unleashed down.
Hopefully that means that we won't have any painful Star Destroyer-wrecking sequences to endure this time around. More definitely, the team promises bigger levels with more room for exploration, more interesting puzzles, an improved targeting system - the first was a bit of a handful - and the kind of pacing that makes every bit of every level entertaining, not just that slightly dull bit you have to work through on the way to the next big story moment.
It also means bigger boss battles. Given that The Force Unleashed bought us fights against multiple Rancor monsters, this might be hard to imagine, but the sequel brings us an arena battle on a casino-themed Imperial pleasure planet against the mighty Gorog - a vast, sprawling beast who makes your average Rancor look like a big-girl's blouse. There's a touch of God of War III about the section of fight we've seen demonstrated, as Starkiller lures the rampaging creature into bringing a Star Wars coliseum down around its titanic ears. The GoW influence is also reflected in the continuing use of quick-time events for finishing moves against the bigger baddies in the game.
Most of all, the team - over 80 per cent of whom worked on the original Force Unleashed - now seems to have a better idea of what players want from their force powers. The basic powers and mechanics remain familiar, and veterans will be using force grip to grab enemies and force push to hurl them just as they did in the original. Force lightning makes a comeback, and there are now new Jedi mind tricks to try out (though a little less gentle than "these aren't the droids we're looking for"). However, the team has really upped the ante on environmental damage, giving players additional experience points for using the environment, and encouraging rampant destruction. After all, Starkiller isn't some meek and mild Jedi Knight, but a giant dark-side wrecking ball who might just use his powers for good. "We want you to break everything you can" says Rector in his presentation.
To help this along, the game now has a gauge which builds up as you battle, allowing you to unleash a new "force fury" mode when filled. This basically pushes your force powers to the max. You can throw more enemies and bigger objects, push faster and further, and disintegrate your foes with the power of the dark side. Giving in to anger has never felt so good.
Our brief hands-on time with the first section of the game gave us some opportunity to put this stuff to the test. After a dramatic opener, where the Starkiller clone plunges from his tower prison into the Imperial base below, dodging balconies and blasting tie-fighters as he falls, the level begins with Starkiller's attempt to escape from Kamino. The action feels familiar, but there's definitely a greater sense of the world as a playground for your powers. For example, some "genius" at the department of Imperial Architecture appears to have decided that giant pinball bumpers are the way forward for base furnishings. Guess what happens when a stormtrooper is propelled into one of those at high velocity? More objects can be grabbed, dropped and tossed around, and there's plenty of metal to be bent and glass to be shattered.
As with The Force Unleashed, the damage is enhanced by the use of Pixelux's Digital Molecular Matter technology, which ensures that materials break up in realistic and distinctive ways rather than through the usual pre-canned animations. NaturalMotion's Euphoria animation system also makes a reappearance, ensuring that Stormtroopers won't just stand still when lifted off the ground, but will flail around desperately or try and grab a squad-mate for anchorage. It all helps the illusion, and an enhanced version of The Force Unleashed's graphics engine should ensure that The Force Unleashed II improves on the dazzling cinematic style of the original. Based on what we've seen, it's exactly what an interactive Star Wars film should look like.
Just as importantly, the team seems to have thought about how to challenge the player in more interesting ways. Out go hordes of identical enemies where sheer numbers make things tough. In come more interesting groups of enemies, designed to make you think about which force powers to use against them, and how to mix and match those powers to lay the smackdown in the most efficient manner possible. In the early levels, combinations of ordinary stormtroopers, lance-wielding sentinels and heavy-duty battle droids keep you working hard, and while there are some rough edges in terms of camera angles and tricky jumps, the game already feels more straightforwardly entertaining than The Force Unleashed.
The Force Unleashed certainly wasn't perfect, but its strong storyline and dramatic high points were enough to make it the best Star Wars game in a decade without the Bioware name on it. All the Force Unleashed II has to do is reach the same level of quality, and maintain it across its entire running time. Until we play final code, it's impossible to say whether LucasArts can achieve that, but if the team can walk the walk as well as it talks the talks, then Star Wars fans have a lot to look forward to. Expect the force to be re-unleashed at the end of October.