Version tested: Xbox 360
Say this for Star Wars: The Force Unleashed II: there is no pull-the-Star-Destroyer-out-of-the-sky moment. The original game got a bum rap because of that Sisyphean boss fight and other missteps like it, not to mention an abundance of small technical glitches. The sequel was supposed to learn from those mistakes. And it does, somewhat.
Sadly, this follow-up fails to learn from the things that made its predecessor great in spite of the flaws. Star Wars has been called both a space western and a space opera, and in The Force Unleashed, writer/producer Haden Blackman managed to capture both sensibilities in one crackling game. Starkiller was the ultimate gunslinger, riding into town and taking names (even the ones unpronounceable by human tongues). Yet he also played the central part in an epic tale of Wagnerian proportions, one that brought depth to the pre-Luke portion of the Star Wars timeline – more so than George Lucas' prequels did.
The Force Unleashed II maintains some of the crazy cowboy mentality. It's still fun to wade into a posse of stormtroopers and unleash every Force stunt in Starkiller's repertoire: slamming the bad guys against the wall, flinging them into oblivion, stunning them with lightning, and of course, decapitation-by-lightsaber. The game is at its best in prosaic moments, when the screen isn't filled with some titanic mega-boss but rather with an array of smaller challenges to dispatch one by one.
The epic scale is gone, though, at least in terms of storytelling. The game zips from beginning to end with practically no fanfare – the second act, such as it is, consists of a five-minute trip to Dagobah. (Allows for the obligatory backward-talking Yoda monologue, it does.) The Force Unleashed II is about half as long as the original, but it's not that the game is short – I'll take a crisp, energetic five hours over a 20-hour slog – the trouble is that not much takes place in that time. Dude escapes Empire, dude retrieves Jedi master, dude fights Empire. Fin.
The central conflict is supposed to be the mystery of whether this Starkiller is the authentic article or just one of many clones that Vader brewed up in his backyard lab. Yet the game minces about this question without advancing toward a meaningful answer, like it's bored with its own premise. Starkiller yells "You lie!" at Vader once or twice or a thousand times, and that's about it.
As far as combat is concerned, while there's nothing that approaches the tedium of the Star Destroyer fight, the handful of boss showdowns don't exactly sparkle with excitement. The Force Unleashed II subscribes to the notion that boss fights need only to be long and noisy.
There is no cleverness required, or even allowed, to battle these monsters. A relentless series of tips pops up on screen throughout the game to guide you to the next step, lest you figure it out for yourself. Likewise, General Kota, the world's bitchiest Jedi Master, is on the comm channel to coach you at every turn. When this ill-tempered lout repeatedly screeches, "You have to deactivate the shield!" over a crackly radio connection, I can't help but think, hey, the Dark Side seems mighty nice this time of year.
Combat against the lesser foes is more entertaining, even though the selection of enemies is so skimpy that you'll see most of the game's basic antagonists within the first 20 minutes. There's the usual array of stormtroopers, of course. As mentioned above, screwing with these guys is so much fun it should be an Olympic sport.
Aside from those drones (which come in regular and somewhat-smarter-than-regular varieties), The Force Unleashed II has just a handful of basic tricks up its sleeve. There are the bad guys who are immune to your lightsaber, and the bad guys who are immune to everything but your lightsaber. Toward the end of the story, the game starts tossing these two out side-by-side. Enjoyment does not ensue. I understand the fast-paced chess match that the designers were trying to set up, but here it simply plays out as bland frustration. It's a clumsy tactical element that takes the most satisfying thing about The Force Unleashed – dancing on the edge of berserk with crazy combinations of powers – and neuters it.
Then you have the huge droids, which you are supposed to whale on until you get the opportunity to slay the beast with a quick-time event. You know quick-time events; they're those moments where the game flashes an "X" on the screen, and you get a mini-cut-scene as a "reward" if you press X in time. The Force Unleashed II is packed with 'em. Is this the best that the medium can do? The game tells us which button to push, and then we push that button? Star Wars deserves better than this tired old crutch.
One of the promises made by the developers was that they would improve the all-important 'Force Grip' controls used to manoeuvre impossibly large objects in mid-air. This seems like a strange claim now, as I perceived minimal change in the Force Grip part of the game. That's fine with me, as I never had much of a problem with it in the first place. It had a bit of a learning curve, but once it was in my fingers, there was no end to the thrill of grabbing enormous chunks of the scenery and flinging them around.
If anything, Force Grip is a tad worse in The Force Unleashed II. To the developers' credit, once you toss an object, it does seem to home in on enemies a bit more reliably than in the first game; the hard part is picking something up in the first place. The Force Grip targeting flickers all over the screen with no apparent rhyme or reason, so it can be maddeningly difficult just to make Starkiller grab the crate that's sitting right in front of him.
More problematic is the game's use of space. The Force Unleashed gave players wide-open spaces where they had plenty of room to manipulate objects in three dimensions. Too much of the sequel takes place in relatively cramped corridors, such that using Force Grip is a clumsy affair, like working your recliner sofa through a narrow doorway.
On one seemingly airy level, The Force Unleashed II even commits that most egregious sin of level design: invisible walls and ceilings. I found myself wondering, why can't I rocket that stormtrooper into the great beyond? The answer was: because the developers said so, that's why.
It's hard to imagine a game that squanders its opportunities more than this one. The Force Unleashed was not just a very good game; it also had plenty of room for improvement. That translates into a rare chance to make something phenomenal. This sequel should have been like Mass Effect 2: a triumphant success that makes good on the original vision.
Instead, we get a game that feels like it was created out of obligation rather than inspiration. The Force Unleashed was Haden Blackman's baby, yet he left LucasArts a couple months before the sequel was released. In retrospect, that may have been a sign of trouble. The game industry's obfuscating wall of public relations minders and non-disclosure agreements will keep us from knowing the story behind The Force Unleashed II for a long time, but the final product certainly has the whiff of a creative process gone awry.
Whatever went down behind the scenes, the result is a game that sometimes resembles a flavorless tech demo for The Force Unleashed – not a worthy successor. While there are certainly pleasures to be had in The Force Unleashed II, they come off as the dregs of a concept that has run its course. The series was bound to exhaust itself someday, but the fact that it happened this early is a brutal disappointment.
5 / 10