The Star Wars franchise is somewhat schizophrenic. In its range of products there’s such a wide scale of either high quality work or shoddy tripe that it’s hard to put blind trust in any Star Wars product.
This couldn’t be any better exemplified than with the Force Unleashed series. The original was commended for its story and attention to lore, but criticized for its sketchy combat system and glitch-ridden engine. Can Star Wars: The Force Unleashed 2 capture the heart of the original, maintain the story and setting, but clean up the glitches and clunky combat?
Bluntly put, Star Wars: The Force Unleashed 2 is a step in the wrong direction, another disappointing experience, and a dark mark on the Star Wars franchise. What’s implied to be a Jedi’s search for his identity boils down to a long and linear rampage with brief allusions to the original game’s story and references to more popular moments in the Star Wars’ universe. Cameo appearances from Yoda and Boba Fett, along with Darth Vader’s wasted role as Force Unleashed‘s antagonist beg the question: Did LucasArts run out of ideas?
The combat has been cleaned up, – and the physics engine is a lot of fun to play with. After fifteen minutes though, it all becomes repetitive and tedious. Upgrades to force powers and new lightsaber crystals attempt to switch up the gameplay – but the changes aren’t drastic enough to reinvigorate combat. After settling into a comfortable killing combination, upgrades only serve to make fights go faster. The upgrades do impress graphically, but much like the other gameplay systems it all wears thin after repeated use.
The PC version of the game at times suffers outrageous slow down to the point of being nigh unplayable, sometimes for entire levels. Add in occasional hard crashes and sketchy auto-saves and it’s difficult to appreciate what the game does right – because the technical hiccups bog down the whole experience.
Starkiller, if Darth Vader is to be believed, is a clone with astounding force-power aptitude. Unwilling to accept Darth Vader’s harsh training, Starkiller escapes on a journey to rediscover himself. Is he truly a clone? Would his mentor Rahm Kota and lover Juno Eclipse accept him either way? Could Starkiller accept himself for what he is? These are the questions LucasArts would like you to consider during your playthough.
Unfortunately, what LucasArts wants and how the game presents its story represent a massive disconnect. Starkiller comes across as an angsty teenager, completely driven by the subtext of finding Juno. Of course, this supposedly deep relationship is never clearly explained in the Force Unleashed 2 (especially considering the relationship wasn’t particularly deep in the first game either). Similarly, Starkiller’s backstory with Rham, Darth Vader, and the rebel alliance is never explained. So, if you didn’t play the first game, you’ll be at a serious disadvantage when the Force Unleashed 2 starts.
The entirety of the story is relegated to short cutscenes between Starkiller’s rampages, with occasional audio clips played during breaks in the action. As a result, it’s difficult to feel involved in the already poorly defined story of Force Unleashed 2. As long as Starkiller kills the clones and droids in front of him, whatever necessary device required to progress in the story will occur. The best example of this is Starkiller’s visit to the home of Yoda, on Dagobah. After rescuing Rahm and landing on Dagobah, the player gains brief control of Starkiller, only to watch a cutscene of Yoda giving a warning, a trip into the same vision tree Luke Skywalker will visit years later. Starkiller sees that Darth Vader has Juno, and then he leaves Dagobah. The entire scene feels completely unnecessary and vapid of any emotional tension. It simply gives reason for Starkiller to go from A to B, and oh, look it’s Yoda, isn’t Star Wars great?
Upon conclusion, Force Unleashed 2 offers the player a “Dark Side” or “Light Side” ending. It’s worth noting that this is the only instance in the game where such a decision is offered. There is no other opportunity for the player to make such an interesting decision. As a result, and due to the lack of background and personal involvement in the story, both endings feel unnatural and, quite frankly, ridiculous. The thought of a Force Unleashed 3 is disconcerting, but perhaps that’s why there are rumors that it’s already been canceled.
The best moments in Force Unleashed 2 occur early-on – the first time using force powers. The physics are a joy to mess around with, though hardly realistic, and throwing storm troopers around or crushing tie-fighters mid-air is an experience most Star Wars fans will undoubtedly enjoy. The novelty fades though, oh does it fade. It’s not necessarily the force powers themselves that become unimpressive, but the fact that you use them on the same troopers over and over again. Other enemies typically are either immune to certain powers, or have no animated reaction to the attacks.
In fact, instead of having animated reactions for force powers, many fights instead turn into ridiculous Quick-Time-Event battles – AT-ST Walkers abound in Force Unleashed 2, but force lightning and push will merely crackle and fizzle against their armor. The powers still slowly whittle away at an unseen health bar, and eventually a QTE notification will appear. After hitting the correct button sequence, a destruction animation will play out, or if the QTE fails it will require some addition damage and another attempt at the QTE. These fights are terribly uninteresting, especially considering LucasArts has such a great physics system at their disposal.
As Starkiller adventures, he’ll earn a currency that can be spent on upgrades for his force powers. These upgrades can improve damage, range of fire, number of targets, or for lightsaber throw the amount of autotargeting the game will provide. Sadly, the upgrades never feel any more useful than when first acquired. The difficulty scales proportionally, almost forcing the use of only the most powerful force powers. An underleveled force push may still be fun with troopers, but useless compared to an overleveled force lightning. Also useless are the lightsaber crystals hidden in secret locations throughout each level. Each crystal might provide a different effect, such as increased force power, life steal, or damage, but they’re all entirely unhelpful. The excitement of finding a disintegration crystal was ultimately unfounded as the effect never occurred across multiple chapters.
Sadly, this lackluster combat is 90% of Force Unleashed 2, and yes, it’s as repetitive as it sounds. Each level is simply an assortment of the same enemies you’ve fought previously, only in greater numbers. There’s a trio of boss fights, but they each generally devolve into using the same strategies you’ve used to fight their minions. Combined with the lack of an involving storyline, there’s a distinct lack of exciting moments to be found. It’s all quite bland and uninspired.
Star Wars: The Force Unleashed polishes some of the mistakes from the previous title at the expense of the majority of what the original did well. The story is in shambles, built more around appearances from well-known Star Wars characters and settings instead of creative and endearing ideas. The game’s best aspect, its physics engine, is overshadowed by a shoddy QTE combat system and repetitive enemy and level design. The entire production feels like a rushed sequel, made to profit off of the original’s concepts – the ones that didn’t meet expectations. The game lives off its predecessor’s plot, its combat system and the Star Wars brand name, and distinctly lacks any original or exciting concepts.
That said, it’s not a painful experience, beyond the technical issues which have been discussed. In motion, the physics engine looks great, there are moments when Force Unleashed 2‘s visuals feel very much like a movie scene. It’s short enough not to be insulting, and the inclusion of combat challenges offers some replayability. Locating and unlocking hidden upgrades is a healthy enough distraction from the repetition of the combat to keep player’s moving and hoping for a strong conclusion.
Of course, anyone who plays through to the credits will realize that a strong conclusion never occurs. Star Wars: The Force Unleashed 2 is an utter disappointment, and if it wasn’t for the grandiose production values there would be no rewarding aspect to the game for all but the most faithful of Star Wars fans.