The original Star Wars: The Force Unleashed was the fastest selling Star Wars game of all time, which is kind of a big deal. Offering up a story that filled in the gaps between the trilogies, wildly amplified Force powers, and a dynamic materials system that showed just how destructive these mystical warriors can be, the original game hit many of the high points of gamers’ wish fulfillment, even if the overall experience was less than the sum of its parts. Now LucasArts is back with a sequel that extends the story and offers us another chance to check in with Darth Vader’s secret apprentice, Starkiller. This time around Starkiller is on the run from his former master and trying to figure out just who he is and where his loyalties are supposed to lie. Saying more than that would spoil what little surprises the story holds.
If Star Wars: The Force Unleashed II has one thing going for it, it’s the overall authenticity of the whole experience. LucasArts games, not surprisingly, always feel completely consistent with the Star Wars experience. From the sights to the sounds, every element in this game is a pitch-perfect recreation of what we’ve seen in the films. Whether it’s the warm glow of a lightsaber, the squeal of blaster fire, or the intense moral struggle, everything looks and sounds just like you’d expect a Star Wars game should. LucasArts is so consistently good at this, it almost doesn’t seem worth mentioning, but our natural reaction to this world is so strong that simply having the starfighter engines glow just the right shade of pink is enough to have us fully invested in the world.
The game also understands that locations are a huge part of the Star Wars magic. There’s a golden-tinged elevated city, which is just perfect for flinging Stormtroopers off of ledges. There’s a sprawling iron-grey starship, filled with cramped hallways and massive hangars and some spectacularly large windows through which you can see a massive space battle between two fleets. There’s even a stint on a certain swampy planet where you visit a certain syntactically-challenged puppet. The levels themselves are undeniably repetitive, but they’re still incredibly well designed from an artistic standpoint. You’ll just be confused that in a game where you’re running across the entire galaxy, you only seem to go three places – and one of them is just for a quick cutscene.
Sadly, the story doesn’t do much with the raw material. There’s certainly potential here. Starkiller’s story in the first game was quite good but here it just feels like it’s recycling plot points with no real motivation for connecting them together. Yes, you’re on the run from Vader; yes, you’re questioning your very identity; yes, you’re chasing Boba Fett to rescue your girlfriend. But none of it really engages the player enough to actually care about the outcome. In fact, the game uses three of the series’ most iconic characters, but they never get enough room to be the characters we know from the movie. Okay, maybe Darth Vader is the exception, but even here, he’s supposed to be the central villain and he’s completely absent for most of the game.
The gameplay is almost good enough to make you forgive the inconsistent story. Almost, but not quite. The overall animations, the visual spectacle of the bulkhead-crushing Force powers, and the new dismemberment effects make combat a real treat for the eyes. You can watch this game and know just how much of a badass this Jedi really is. Whether he’s electrocuting flying Stormtroopers, flinging missiles back at AT-STs, or simply chopping arms and heads off of other rival Jedis, Starkiller is a powerful fighter and the game makes that very clear. I could play a whole level where I just threw Stormtroopers off of platforms.
Even within the enemies, the variety leaves a bit to be desired. Despite the cosmetic differences, there are three kinds of enemies in The Force Unleashed II: ones that have to be killed using your lightsaber, ones that have to be killed using The Force, and ones that have to be killed using Quick-Time Events. Once you realize that, getting through each wave of enemies is almost too easy and monotonous. Just spam the same attacks against the appropriate enemies, and you’re golden. Sure, there are some finer points here – like the mind control tricks, or the enemies who have to be stunned with a successful block – but for the most part, combat is about choosing which of two buttons to mash.
The game’s few set piece boss battles are definitely dramatic. The first one, in particular, takes place on an incredibly massive scale. This is truly one of those “Oh, crap!” moments that leaves you amazed at what’s possible in this medium. But while the spectacle is there, the tactics are not. Solutions to the game’s boss fights are heavily scripted and rely so much on Quick-Time Events, that you really don’t feel as if you’re making interesting choices about the way you interact with the game. It’s just finding the one attack that triggers the QTE and then lather-rinse-repeat. In the case of the first boss, this process can take a full ten minutes as you move from one stage of the fight to the next. By the end, things have built to an absolutely insane climax, but in sustaining that level of intensity, the fight actually wears out its welcome and ruins the otherwise astonishing finale.
I played the game on the PC and had quite a few performance problems, even with a rig that met the game’s recommended requirements. You can see from our video supplement the overall quality of the visuals balanced against the framerate. It’s possible to increase the resolution, both of the screen itself and the textures, but there’s noticeable slowdown on the higher settings, and a fair bit of tearing even in the cutscenes. This is particularly strange since the gameplay seems to be capped at 30fps.
Finally, I’m officially sick of double lightsabers. They were cool at the start precisely because they were exceptional, but now everyone and his brother has to have them. It’s just too much. The very ubiquity of it destroys any impact that it might have had back when Darth Maul made them popular. I think it was Don Knotts who once said, if you faint funny one time, next time you’ll have to do it even funnier, and eventually it will just turn into a caricature. Now we’re at a point where every single Jedi has to have two lightsabers just to stay ahead of the curve. I think it’s time we took a stand and forced LucasArts to bring it back down.
Bottom Line: The parts are all in place, but the magic just isn’t there. Repetitive combat and a mediocre story get in the way of the game’s other strengths. Go play Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast instead. It may be eight years old but it’s still better at being what The Force Unleashed is trying to be.
Recommendation: This one is good for a rental at best, but only if you’re so in love with Star Wars that you can see past its faults.[rating=3]
This review is based on the PC version of the game.
Steve Butts has only ever needed one lightsaber.
Game: Star Wars: The Force Unleashed
Release Date: October 26th, 2010
Platform: PC, PS3, Xbox 360, Wii
Available from: Amazon