Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Star Wars: The Force Unleashed II

Post-Launch Review
Star Wars: The Force Unleashed II
Developer: LucasArts / Aspyr Media (PC)
Released: October 2010

The Force Unleashed II picks up six months after the events of the first game. Darth Vader visits the cloning facility on Kamino to check the progress of his latest Starkiller clone. The clone is experiencing visions and memory flashbacks of the original Starkiller. Faced with the threat of extermination, Starkiller fights his way out of the facility to search for old friends and the truth of his identity, getting tangled up with the fledgling Rebellion in the process.

At Launch
The Force Unleashed II received mixed reviews, averaging out to around 60%. Critics felt that the visuals and sound were top-notch, gameplay was fluid and the mechanics are sound, and that LucasArts took seriously the criticism surrounding the first game. However, they also felt that the story didn't offer as much as its predecessor, cameos of film characters were poorly handled, levelling up felt less meaningful since Starkiller is already powerful from the start, and the gameplay felt repetitive and formulaic.

Post Launch
A patch fixed a few technical issues. One DLC mission was released, which continues the story of the “alternate history” DLC missions from the first game. In this mission, Starkiller is dispatched to Endor to stop the Rebel ground forces attempting to destroy the Death Star's shield generator.
The Good
Graphics and Art
I'm really impressed. The game looks like a Star Wars movie, which is fantastic. It's not quite as real-looking as, you know, real life, but it looks amazing in motion. Facial animation is excellent — characters show a lot of emotion and they're very expressive. It's probably the combination of strong art direction, fluid animation, and cleverly-applied motion blur that make it look so good. My screenshots don't quite do it justice — it looks better when you're actually in-game. Maybe look up some HD videos to see what I'm talking about.
Scaling Up
The intensity and scale of the plot sure do jump up a peg, and that's awesome. There's a multi-stage boss battle with a creature the size of a building. We see the early days of the war between the Empire and the Rebel Alliance, which means that a good chunk of the game takes place during a large-scale battle — the Rebel assault on the Empire's cloning facilities at Kamino, which actually explains why the Empire stopped using clones. There's a major sequence where the facility's shields are too strong to penetrate with the weapons at hand, so Starkiller crashes the fleet's flagship from orbit directly into the facility. It's even more of a spectacle than the first game, and I actually wasn't bothered as much with the sheer scale of the Force abilities used by Starkiller. Maybe that's because the scale of the plot is better tailored to the scale of your powers.
Guest Appearances
Some critics called the guest appearances unsatisfying, but I actually thought they worked very well and were handled with commendable restraint for such an over-the-top series.
Yoda is very quiet and simply acts as the gatekeeper to the cave visited by Luke Skywalker in The Empire Strikes Back, where Starkiller experiences a vision that sets him back on track.
Boba Fett is hired by Darth Vader to lure Starkiller back to Kamino, and makes appearances in cutscenes midway through the game and again at the end if you choose the light side ending.

The game's menus are much slicker and snappier than the first game's, with no weird load times between different menu screens. It's a relatively minor detail, but I appreciate the improvement.
Before I say anything, it should be obvious that here be spoilers.
In the light side ending, Starkiller refrains from killing Vader, who is taken as a prisoner of the Rebellion to be interrogated. It turns out that Juno isn't dead, which is nice I guess. Most importantly and awesomely, Starkiller visits Vader and gives him a little monologue about how it doesn't even matter if he's a clone anymore, because he made the choice to let Vader live and forever severed all ties. Vader ominously counters that as long as Juno lives, he will control Starkiller. The Rebels all warp out to happy music... and Boba Fett follows them.
In the dark side ending, Starkiller gives in to his anger and goes in for the kill — but he's stabbed through the back by another lightsaber. A hooded figure appears from nowhere and smashes the Rebels into the ocean. Turns out Vader lied — the cloning process has been perfected, and the hooded figure is Vader's true project: another Starkiller clone, devoted to Vader and the Dark Side. Our Starkiller gets one last look at Juno's corpse before dying, and Vader sends the dark apprentice to hunt down the Rebels.
 Both of these are pretty cool endings and a lot better than some of the lamesauce stuff in a couple of previous Star Wars games. One thing that's interesting: I'm not sure which one is canonical. Could be the first one — we've never heard of Vader being captured by two Jedi in the early days of the Rebellion, and neither of those Jedi survive into the time of the movies — but Boba Fett's pursuit means that things could be set back on track. On the other hand, the dark side ending fits better into the existing timeline, with the deaths of two Jedi who were never mentioned before — but then, how does the dark apprentice die?
The only downside is that with such poor critical reception, we might never find out which is the 'real' ending and what happens afterwards.
The Neutral
Lightsaber Crystals
The sequel goes for a simpler approach to lightsaber crystals: colour and power are tied together. Since you have two sabers now, you can choose your own combination of powers, or even use two of the same for double strength. You get more mix-and-match variation, which is cool; on the other hand, you have to choose between your preferred colours or your preferred abilities. It's an odd step backward in customization. I want to use one red and one yellow, but yellow doesn't fit how I'm currently playing, and red doesn't do anything at all. Sigh.
Plot & Characters
Despite the increased scale and epicness of the game, the plot is simultaneously more personal. It's all about Starkiller's quest to determine who he really is, decide whether or not being a clone actually matters, and reuniting with his friends.Once again, Starkiller is a standout, with a strong arc and highly sympathetic motivations and emotions, and great voice acting. General Kota plays a bigger role here as well, and improves on his already awesome depiction from the first game. Juno Eclipse, on the other hand, is relegated to the role of quest object and barely has five lines in the entire game.

I'm putting this in neutral because I can't say whether it's good or bad — the Endor DLC mission is completely unavailable for the PC version. Don't know why.
The Bad
Of course, making a sequel to a game that some hated for its retcons of the origin of the Rebel Alliance (myself included), there are yet more retcons necessary.
The one that bothers me here is that when the Alliance temporarily loses General Kota, they go into hiding and are afraid to make any offensive moves, because they don't have their brilliant leader. Well, hold on a minute — visible at the end of The Force Unleashed I is General Garm Bel Iblis, a character introduced in Timothy Zahn's Thrawn trilogy (the best Star Wars books ever written, likely on par with the original trilogy). In the novels, Bel Iblis is a tactical genius with his own private army, and was the military brain of the Rebel Alliance in its early days. So, if he's present in the Alliance — which we've seen at the end of the first game — then why is it that Kota's disappearance means that the Rebels have no military leadership? Someone didn't think that through.
Further, the endings both add unresolved plot strings that don't fit into the existing canon — at least, not without another game.

Somehow TFUII manages to be half the length of its predecessor. I realize that my 10 hour playtime for the first game included 3 DLC missions, but they weren't that long, so even without them the first game was still longer. The shorter length means fewer environments and diversity in gameplay, which leads me to my next point.
There are overall fewer enemy types in the sequel, and most of them are introduced so quickly that there's little sense of progression. Most combats are simply a mix-and-match of various combinations of enemies, rather than providing something actually new. The final boss battle is also very repetitive; it could've been cut down by half the length without losing anything, since all you do is repeat the same steps over and over with no variation. It's weird how the game's mechanics have improved, but the gameplay is a bit worse overall.
Choppiness & Slowdowns
Cutscenes sometimes become choppy and skippy, and the gameplay sometimes goes into slow motion. I don't mean that the framerate drops — it stays exactly the same, but it's as if I'm watching the game at half speed. I'm not sure what causes these issues.
The Verdict
Recommendation: Maybe.
The game looks great, and there are a few really cool setpieces, but almost everything else is a bit of a disappointment compared to the original — not to mention that the first game wrapped up quite nicely, and now LucasArts has added a ton of unresolved plot strings to a series that might never see another entry due to poor reception. If you do decide to play it, your choice of platform will probably depend on whether or not you care about the DLC, which doesn't exist for the PC version. If you really liked the first one and can find the second one for cheap, it's worth considering, but don't expect to be blown away.

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