There are very few intellectual properties that have been cannibalised quite like Star Wars. The original trilogy sparked the world’s imagination by telling a classic tale of good and evil, of revelation and redemption, and all without so much as a whimper of vanity.
Small wonder we wanted more. Unfortunately in the years since, whenever Lucas has allowed us to peep behind the curtain of his mythology, we’ve come away disappointed. So disappointed in fact, that today there are as many parodies ridiculing the series’ slipshod canon as there once were memes.
Perhaps familiarity really has bred contempt. Maybe a galaxy far, far away is in reality a lot like Fiji – a fantastic place to visit but nobody wants to live there.
And yet every so often we’re given cause to hope. Certainly there have been more failures than successes when extending the Star Wars license to game developers but titles such as Jedi Knight II and Knights of the Old Republic stand head and shoulders above the dross, reigniting our fascination with Lucas’ vision just as the embers were getting cold enough to handle.
The Force Unleashed showed great promise, too. The game was a hack‘n’slasher with an interesting point of difference: putting the power of the Force in the player’s hands. By and large the game lived up to its billing even if using the Force was often unwieldy and at times plain broken. More problematic was that the game was riddled quick-time events, those dreary cut-scenes that are advanced by pressing buttons as prompts appear on the screen – distracting you from the very thing you’re supposed to be taking in. Their inclusion in the Force Unleashed was absolutely contrary to the game’s primary design objective, stripping the Force from the player and delegating it to the cinematics team at LucasArts.
But The Force Unleashed also contained an unexpected delight, a gripping story of betrayal and hope that any Star Wars fan would be remiss to have overlooked. In it, players controlled Darth Vader’s secret Sith apprentice, codenamed Starkiller, as he struggled to find his own identity. Written by the game’s executive producer, Haden Blackman, the “screenplay” for The Force Unleashed was rightly awarded Best Video Game Writing by the Writers Guild of America.
Even if critics felt that The Force Unleashed failed to live up to its pre-release promise, the game was a financial success and few would argue that there weren’t enough good ideas there to warrant a more polished, more expansive sequel.
Regrettably, The Force Unleashed II hasn’t merely failed to advance the series in any meaningful fashion, it reels backwards and offers an experience that is shorter, shallower and less diverse in almost every sense.
The game hinges on the question of whether the Starkiller we’re controlling is a clone or the real article: A flimsy premise made worse by the game’s wilful disinterest in exploring it. Even more bewilderingly, it suggests we do the same: Approximately half way through the game, Starkiller’s de facto Jedi master, Rahm Kota, dismisses the plot with a casual “I don’t think it matters.” If the game doesn’t care about the story it’s telling, why should we?
Perhaps four hours to five hours in, a secondary narrative finally takes over. But just as it reaches its apex and a fascinating twist appears within grasp – setting the stage for a truly compelling second half – the game defies all reason and quite literally casts this plot device aside, instead pitting Starkiller in a woefully mundane platforming encounter with Darth Vader.
That, sadly, is that: Roll credits.
The cinematics are poorly constructed, clearly missing the necessary detail explaining, for example, how Starkiller has transitioned to his present location. There are also a very limited number of locations in the game - four, precisely. Two of these are visited twice and are largely composed of narrow corridors. The lack of a mini-map, or even a menu-accessed map, can make for occasional confusion and certainly dampens the desire to explore.
Enemy units lack variety and The Force Unleashed II overplays its hand much too soon, revealing most of the enemies you’ll encounter within the first few levels. These can be broken into three essential groups. The first two are the Force resistant and the lightsaber resistant, requiring you to apply the thinnest of strategy. Once you’ve experimented enough to discover any unit's weaknesses, you’ll repeat that same strategy ad nauseam until you've finished the game.
If you’re especially unfortunate, you’ll discover the developers have chosen this unit type for a quick-time takedown. Usually there’s only one takedown per type so don’t expect to be rewarded with diversity. It’s high time this industry found a better way to add cinematic splendour to general gameplay.
The third group is the humble fodder, those nameless Imperial henchmen, the Storm Troopers. Here is this series at its very best: Providing you with weak foes that you’ll take the time to get creative with, dispatching them in cruel and unusual ways, a mix of force powers and lightsaber combos, lopping off limbs and heads as they make ironic one-liners. If only there were more.
Perhaps the greatest irony here is that it’s gamers and the gaming press that set themselves up for disappointment this time out. For all its flaws the original game showed great potential and it’s hard to watch it squandered. Nonetheless there are still details to admire in The Force Unleashed II: The combat is fluid, the chargeable “Force Unleashed” power-up is indulging and in spite of it all, a third roll of the dice for the team at LucasArts is warranted - even if Blackman, perhaps tellingly, left the studio two months ago.
After all, if Star Wars is about anything, it's about securing victory and redemption from impossible odds.