Just over two years ago, I posted one of the more favorable reviews of The Force Unleashed. The game would go on to get some DLC and eventually be re-released in an impressive Ultimate Sith Edition. Now, the sequel has arrived. To be honest, this was one of my most anticipated titles this year. Having played through the campaign already now just hours after picking this game up today, I have to say that I'm underwhelmed. While not a bad game, The Force simply isn't as strong with this one as the original.
Clone Or Not A Clone?
If you didn't know, the opening minutes of Force Unleashed II (TFU2)will inform you that Starkiller, the playable character from the first game, died at the hand of Darth Vader. Part two opens with Vader coming to Kamino to check on the status of Starkiller's clone. This clone, who is also known as Starkiller, is who you'll be controlling in this game. Somehow, it turns out, Jedi can be cloned afterall. Anyway, this Starkiller is struggling with memories of the old Starkiller. He sees visions of General Kota, the Jedi mentor from the first game. He also sees visions of Juno Eclipse, the Imperial pilot that Starkiller fell in love with. Basically, this clone is conflicted and it seems he may not be completely under the influence of Vader afterall. Being unable to fully commit to Vader, he's marked for death by Vader himself. The first shatters the relationship with Vader and has you guiding Starkiller away from the confines of Kamino to locate General Kota.
Gameplay in TFU2 is instantly familiar to anyone who has played the first one and not a lot has changed. Your given dual lightsabers, Force Push, Lightning, and Grip to start with, and later you'll also unlock Force Repulse. Controls are straight-forward with X to swing your sabers, Y for Lightning, B for Repulse, and so forth. LB is for a quick dash, required at some moments where the floor is literally falling out from underneath you. Enemies include Stormtroopers, AT-STs, Sith Alcolytes, Riot Troopers, as well as some various mechs and cyborgs. The Riot Troopers niche is that they can somehow block all lightsaber attacks that aren't supplemented with some kind of Force power. To combat these gents you need to soften them up with a jolt of lightning or take a swing with X and then Push them. The Alcolytes are kind of the opposite in that they can block any kind of Force power so you have to get in their with your sabers. At times, Starkiller encounters both enemies at the same time which is pretty fun. There are also a few boss fights against a giant beast that makes a Rancor look tiny and against a large mechanical spider. Just a couple of very basic puzzles (if you can call them that) are literally the only thing that slowdown the constant, furious action.
Not a lot is new that I could tell in TFU2, but a Force Fury mechanic was added. This is like Rage of the Gods from God of War. As you defeat enemies, a meter quietly builds up in the background. When it's full, you can activate it by press L3+R3, and doing so gives you unlimited Force power and invincibility I believe (it seemed like I never took damage while I had this on anyway). The Fury can be turned off so you don't have to use up the entire meter at once too. The thing is, I'm not so sure this ability was even necessary to add to the game -- Starkiller is so powerful out of the gates, and especially as you upgrade him, that the extra Fury ability is almost too much.
Customization, Level Design...
TFU2 has definitely expanded upon the customizations from the first game in terms of costumes and lightsaber colors and effects. You've probably heard about the addition of a Guybrush Threepwood costume (and there is even a statue of him in one level). To me, that seems a bit much, but whatever. The costumes are welcomed but, again, the game felt so darn short that it didn't seem even worth changing out. They're useful for another play-through I suppose. The lightsaber crystals were more interesting however. There are about fourteen different lightsaber colors in game, each of which has a different perk. One color may give you better health regeneration, for example, while another gives you a better chance of incinerating your foe. You can change your lightsaber colors at anytime from the Pause menu. You're able to double up on a color if you want (assuming you have found two crystals of the same color) or you can assign one type to one saber and a completely different one to the other.
Part of the awesomeness around the Star Wars universe is the universe itself and all of its interesting and diverse places. Playing a new Star Wars game is always a great chance for creators to expand upon that vision but TFU2 doesn't do much with that opportunity. Players literally visit four different locations throughout the entire game and one of them, the famous Dagobah, is an extremely lightweight and short trip. The game starts in Kamino and ends in Kamino, with a super brief, nearly pointless stop in Dagobah after you rescue Kota from Cato Neimoidia, a city in the sky. You'll also spend a good bit of time in a rebellion starship known as The Salvation.
None of these areas are particularly interesting or well done from a design perspective, although most do offer some pretty good visual treats. I found Kamino's exterior to be pretty with all of the rain, but the return later in the game saw you spending more time inside and it was much more drab and repetitive. Cato Neimoidia also reused an awful lot of textures and colors and felt a little flat, although the boss fight there was pretty neat. This level is also where you start getting Kota talking into your ear and he'll do so often. On The Salvation for example, Kota gets a bit chatty and the impact of this character is greatly diminished by the end of the game because I just ended up losing 'respect' for him if you know what I mean. For a blind fellow, Kota can sure tell an awful lot even when he's on a completely different part of the ship. Anyway, Dagobah was a really strange design choice because it's an incredibly tiny stage whose only point is to give you a few powerups and to present you with a story-relevant cutscene. It all felt far too shallow and fast though, which unfortunately can be said for a lot of the game. Finally, the time spent on The Salvation was kind of mixed, too. This level did a pretty good job of mixing combat with platforming but it also had an awful lot of elevators and hallway after hallway of repeating textures.
Some of the in game moments were a bit odd too I thought, from a design standpoint. I just thought it was weird on a couple of occasions to have to stand around and wait for a TIE Fighter to pass by just so I could catch it and throw it at something. The first game had a couple of similar moments (including the terrible sequence where you pulled a Star Destroyer to the planet surface and the stick prompts were broken). The two or three times where you have to run from instant death seemed really weird too because you had to keep pressing the Dash button which makes Starkiller look like an idiot. I mean if he's this strong with the Force, why can't I just break out into a Force-powered sprint? There are a lot of little things like that that you just have to overlook, which maybe isn't a tall order for a game and it's something we probably do more than we realize. It may just be easier to scrutinize a Star Wars game than others, but it is what it is.
You know as far as playing through the campaign, it's a pretty steady ride and it is enjoyable. Sure, some design choices puzzled and disappointed me, the levels weren't very interesting, and I can't say any one part was super exciting. There's no doubt the game has its moments where Starkiller does something incredible things, but all in all the experience felt shallow. I think a lot of that had to do with the fact that you're just so powerful from the very start. There's a reason why games in similar situations do something to take away your powers and eventually give them back to you. A lot of titles handle this by giving players a taste of the end of the game then spending 80% of the game in a time before your character is as powerful as he is at the very end. Anyway, the combat and upgrade systems are basic and kind of thin too. Unlike a lot of games in the genre, you do not learn any actual combos with the lightsabers, you just press X (and supplement as you like with Push and Lightning).
I also can't escape the fact that the game is so short. I sat down earlier today expecting to play a few hours and finish the story tomorrow, but the game ended after just five and a half hours. I thought Vanquish was walking a fine line already, but wow -- who saw a five-six hour experience here? I wasn't trying to run through it either, I spent a good amount of time searching for hidden pickups as I normally do. Besides an alternate ending in the final moment of the game, harder difficulty settings, and the semi-interesting idea of finding the rest of the saber crystals, there's very little reason to revisit this story... especially since it wasn't all that solid in the first place and the final boss fight and endings were all disappointing.
Other than the Story, there are ten Challenges that are unlocked as you play through the game. That's actually one more challenge there are levels in the story. The challenges nearly all combat based and have you running various gauntlets like a lot of games in the genre offer these days. The objectives include things like defeating x-number of enemies, keeping enemies from entering a certain perimeter, retrieving Holocrons in treacherous environments -- it's nice to see this mode added, but I'd give it all back for another one or two hours of Story Mode.
In terms of presentation, TFU2 looks and sounds technically great. The visuals are slick and smooth, detailed, and nicely animated. Cutscenes are very nicely done, too. My only visual complaint really would be the heavy reuse of textures in the levels (and the fact that you are only ever in like five areas to begin with). The audio includes what I believe to be all of the original voice actors from the first game, from the British accent of Juno Eclipse to Kota's strong voice. Vader sounds great too, and you've got the classic John Williams score, the scream of the TIE Fighters, and the humming of lightsabers -- all classic, timeless stuff. Interestingly, I will point out that Starkiller sounds really lame anytime you take damage. For a guy that looks and sounds so tough in cutscenes, when you're in game and take a hit (just a normal hit, nothing major), he yelps and cries out like he's on fire or something; it's embarrassing.
Bottomline, this was a disappointing game. I had high hopes for a sequel ever since they confirmed one, and like most of you, the trailers and what I saw at E3 behind doors had me fired up. While this isn't an outright bad game, the end result is a short and unsatisfying experience with just a few bright spots.
With that, let's get to the summary...