Tuesday, May 3, 2022

Second Look - Star Wars: The Force Unleashed II (PS3)

Note: This review contains spoilers for Star Wars: The Force Unleashed and Star Wars: The Force Unleashed II.

After the success of Star Wars: The Force Unleashed, LucasArts capitalized on its success with a sequel, The Force Unleashed II. Unfortunately, the end result fared far worse critically, followed by lower sales numbers. As I would learn later on, the state of the finished product came as a result of a rather troubled development, which included an unusually short production period of only nine months. This made me curious how well the game had aged, so I fired up my PS3 copy after over eleven years and played through the entire campaign. Suffice to say, my outlook on it has since lightened up, but its short development certainly held it back from greatness.

To quote the opening crawl: “The galaxy is on the brink of civil war. Inspired by the sacrifice of DARTH VADER's secret apprentice, a ragtag rebel alliance plots to overthrow the evil GALACTIC EMPIRE. Imperial forces in relentless pursuit of the Rebels have captured the Jedi Knight RAHM KOTA. Its general lost, the Alliance fleet has vanished. While the Empire searches for the Rebels, Darth Vader has put a dark plan in motion that will bring an end to his apprentice's legacy....”

Six months after the Light Side ending of The Force Unleashed, Darth Vader has been trying to create the perfect clone of Starkiller, one that will serve the Empire unconditionally. During a training exercise, following a period of isolation, Vader tries conditioning the current clone of Starkiller to let go of the original’s feelings by killing that which he loved, the pilot Juno Eclipse. Unfortunately for him, Starkiller can’t bring himself to do so and escapes. Once Starkiller leaves Kamino, he sets his sights on figuring out just who he is.

Starkiller escapes to figure out who he is.

Although the story does require cheapening Starkiller’s death from the original game, the concept of a self-aware clone is a compelling idea on its own. That sort of setup can lead to many storytelling possibilities based around a journey of self-discovery, wherever that may lead. There are moments where the game taps into this potential, including an interaction between Starkiller and a rescued Rahm Kota, but Starkiller’s internal struggle is never fully capitalized on. Instead, he seems mostly concerned with finding Juno, even at the cost of the Rebellion’s success in attacking the cloning facility on Kamino, under the idea that doing so would bring him some sort of closure. While the search for Juno is clearly motivated by the original’s emotional attachment to her, it doesn’t offer as much narrative complexity as Starkiller’s internal struggle from the original game, where he was torn between his upbringing into the Dark Side and his natural leanings toward the Light Side.

Like in the first game, Starkiller’s quest leads to one of two endings, this time determined by a single choice made after defeating the final boss and blatantly labeled “Light Side” and “Dark Side.” Whether or not the payoff of either ending feels satisfying would depend on the player, though I personally found that the Light Side ending brought better closure to the story, since Starkiller accomplishes his goal and the final scene doesn’t necessarily contradict the Original Trilogy. On the other hand, the Dark Side ending relies on a twist with no foreshadowing (and only explained in unlockable cinematics) and only serves as a setup for the DLC (more on that later).

As with any proper sequel, The Force Unleashed II introduces some nice gameplay improvements while keeping things familiar, though in doing so, it more closely resembles God of War than its predecessor. The most obvious change is that Starkiller can now dual-wield lightsabers, which may feel vaguely similar to Kratos’ chain blades, but feels like a natural progression from only wielding one lightsaber and has a much different execution that still fits within the world of Star Wars. Another natural progression is a quality-of-life change in how lightsaber customization works. Rather than setting a crystal color and power separately, each color grants a unique ability and can be assigned to either the main or secondary lightsabers (or both if the player owns two of the same color). While some players may miss the full customization from the original game, this change lets players equip more than one power at a time, which allows for greater customization of their playstyle. The only downside is that at least two crystals can become obsolete once the player has upgraded Starkiller enough (more on that later).

Dual-wielding feels like a natural progression.

In addition to enhanced Lightsaber combat, the game also expands and refines Starkiller’s Force abilities. He has two new Force powers: Mind Trick, which can either make enemies flee (often killing themselves) or attack other enemies nearby, and Force Sense (activated by pressing Up), which helps guide the player to their next objective. Force Grip also feels more responsive and any Gripped object, even living enemies, can be enhanced with Force Lightning and turned into a Lightning Grenade that deals AoE damage once it lands. With proper block timing, Starkiller can also deflect projectiles back at the enemy or whoever gets in the way.

Other alterations to the Force draw some clearer inspiration from God of War. Much like the various Rage modes Kratos has access to, Starkiller can now use the similar Force Fury ability, which grants him increased power by clicking both analog sticks once a bar in the corner of the screen is filled through combat. Much like in God of War III, which came out five months beforehand, QTEs are now displayed using the four sides of the screen rather than just one location. Additionally, all upgrades now draw from the same pool of Force Points (sometimes called Experience Points), with no option to respec at any point.

Upgrading Force powers is more streamlined.

Though there are fewer enemy types than in the previous game, a mixture of new and returning enemies helps keep the player on their toes. Certain enemies will only react to either Force or lightsaber attacks and, at times, players must mix up their strategy when both types are present on the screen. Starkiller can also now grapple weaker ground enemies, though players may find themselves not using this ability as much when playing on lower difficulties.

Outside of combat in general, the game makes a change in how holocrons work. Each level still has a number of holocrons players can collect, but are no longer separated into temporary Sith Holocrons and permanent Jedi Holocrons. Instead, there are now four types, each offering a different permanent bonus based on their color: Experience Points (Yellow), Saber Crystal (Red), Green Bacta Tanks (Green, increases max Health Bar) and Blue Bacta Tanks (Blue, increases max Force Energy Bar). There’s also a welcome quality-of-life change in the form of snappier menus, significantly improving the pace of the game, as well the ability to finally pause cutscenes.

In spite of all the great additions and improvements, however, the game’s condensed development time introduces plenty of issues that hold it back from the heights of its predecessor. While the Force Grip ability works much more smoothly, the associated puzzles are greatly simplified, the most complex ones making the player move power cells from one location to another. Actually, during a bout of curiosity, I noticed a power cell turned invisible (but could still be interacted with) when taken past a certain point, though it turned visible when brought back. On that note, there are some physics oddities, like one instance where and object went through an outer window on the Salvation without breaking it.

Force powers remain fun to play around with, but it’s possible to make Easy difficulty a bit too easy once you have enough upgrades, even discounting the regenerating health. Less prepared or careless players, however, can still get their health shredded even on Easy, especially towards the end of the game where it only knows how to introduce difficulty by throwing gauntlets of enemies at you. The one downside to the Force Upgrades, however, is that once you’ve fully upgraded every Force power, you’ll continue uselessly accumulating Force Points from regular gameplay and collecting yellow holocrons. This also renders two of the lightsaber crystals, Orange and White, completely useless outside of a cosmetic change.

Force powers are fun, but can eventually make Starkiller
overpowered (screenshot from Steam version).

The biggest issue with The Force Unleashed II, however, is its length. Despite having the same number of missions as the original game, nine, you can beat the entire game in just four to five hours, or one sitting. On top of that, missions are far more linear in design this time, even removing the minimap, and can get pretty repetitive and lazy. For instance, Dagobah is just a short walk to a cutscene, two missions on the Salvation are more or less the same level in reverse and two on Kamino recycle much of the same assets and environments. As if that wasn’t enough, this linear approach makes the Force Sense guidance system feel redundant most of the time and the game still holds your hand through onscreen tutorials and instructions, as well as Rahm Kota telling Starkiller exactly what to do in the later missions.

As you can imagine, this can get very annoying very fast.

If you want to pad out your total playtime, you can now take on Challenges that test your skills at combat and navigation. There isn’t much, but you can compare yourself against players from around the world and even unlock extra content not normally accessible through the main game, like cinematics and extra lightsaber crystals.

The only things that help make the experience more bearable are the impressive graphics, which greatly improve over the original, and the great music and voice acting. I noticed some framerate drops while on the Salvation, but the game overall looks and plays very smoothly and takes a risk by letting Starkiller visibly dismember and decapitate enemies. As an added bonus, you can customize Starkiller’s appearance with a number of costumes, much like in the original, including Guybrush Threepwood from the Monkey Island series, also developed by LucasArts at the time (you can even find statues of him at one point).

A surprise to be sure, but a welcome one.

Following the game’s release, it received only two pieces of DLC, both at the low price of $0.99. Due to the lack of a rerelease collecting this content, I finally bought both pieces of content for the purpose of this review.

The first bit of DLC is merely a Costume Pack, labeled in the PS3 store as Costume Pack 1 (I guess they expected to release more). All this does is add ten new costumes to the game, including some variants of Starkiller and supposedly fan favorite variations of other Star Wars characters, like Luke Skywalker as he appeared while training with Yoda on Dagobah. One of these costumes, Admiral Ackbar, seems inserted solely for fanservice.

Like the base game, the Endor DLC begins with an opening crawl: “The Rebellion is on the brink of destruction. Mounting a desperate attack on the second DEATH STAR, the Rebels hope to restore freedom to the Galaxy. While the battle rages in space, a small band of Rebels land on the Forest Moon of ENDOR to assault the shield generator protecting the battle station. Little do the Rebels know, Darth Vader has dispatched his personal assassin, a dark clone of Starkiller, to finish the Rebellion once and for all....”

This bit of DLC takes place after the Dark Side ending of The Force Unleashed II and during the events of Return of the Jedi, rounding out the representation of the Original Trilogy within the Force Unleashed project. As such, you play as a different Starkiller, this one a secret Dark Apprentice of Darth Vader who kills off the Starkiller from the base game. There isn’t much in the way of story, but it does present an interesting “What if?” scenario regarding Princess Leia that acts as a good bit of fanservice. Oddly, however, despite how incompatible the Dark Side endings of both Force Unleashed games are, a bit of dialogue from Leia suggests that the events of the first game’s Hoth DLC still happened (or at least some version of it).

As far as gameplay goes, it’s pretty much identical to the original, though it has its own exclusive holocrons, including a costume. Downloading this DLC also changes the Select Level option to Select Campaign, though Endor only contains one mission. Players can complete said mission in about an hour depending on the difficulty level, which isn’t all that bad for the low price of entry, so you might as well buy it while you still can. For some reason, however, you can’t outright skip the credits and the game won’t register that you’ve completed the Endor campaign once you return to the main menu.

One final thing I’d like to mention is the Collector’s Edition. Apart from some exclusive content attached to a voucher (three Challenge Mode levels, a skin and a lightsaber crystal), it also came with a Mimobot USB designer drive modeled after Starkiller (remember those?). This drive included its own special content, specifically an interactive digital art book with producer’s commentary, five computer wallpapers and the full game script. For the purpose of this review, I finally took a look at the contents of the drive, but I was unfortunately a bit late to the party. I was able to access the wallpapers without issue, but the art book and script were locked behind a webpage that requires the now defunct Adobe Flash to proceed. Since I couldn’t find any archive of the contents of this site, not even on the otherwise comprehensive Wookiepedia, I can’t comment on the quality of the materials. Hopefully, a potential rerelease of this game includes the content in a DRM-free form.

Looking back on The Force Unleashed II, it’s honestly impressive that LucasArts managed to deliver what they did in only nine months, as the final product manages to address issues from the original game while still trying new things. Unfortunately, it’s still a subpar experience compared to the original, with numerous issues and limitations brought on by the short development time. If you want to experience it for yourself, however, the secondhand market prices are much better than at launch for the amount of content. Just keep in mind that the Collector’s Edition is now pointless to own unless you really need a steelbook and a Mimobot flash drive in your life.

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