Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Something Newish -- Star Wars: The Force Unleashed II (2010)

I will always be ten years old when it comes to Star Wars.  I was a kid in 1977 when the original movie came to theatres, sans the Episode IV: A New Hope moniker tacked on later.  And in a decade whose greatest films were R-rated productions I wasn't going to get to see for quite some while (think The Exorcist, The Godfather, The French Connection, Midnight Cowboy...), George Lucas' old-fashioned space opera was exactly what I wanted to see on the big screen.

Fast-forward several decades, and I've played my share of Star Wars videogames.  A few were great, most just presentable, but I've enjoyed most of them, even Rebel Assault.  So when Steam ran a sale on Lucasarts' The Force Unleashed franchise in early December, I opted to pick up the PC version of The Force Unleashed II for $4.99, jumping into the middle of the story with this year-old sequel, owing to its slightly better metacritic scores.  (I think it is brave and commendable that Steam includes such scores, and links to reviews, from within its purchasing system.)

The fact I'm already writing about this game less than a month later, a busy holiday season month at that, may provide a clue about my experience with the game.  Like the Star Wars prequel episodes, all unnecessary three of 'em, The Force Unleashed II is pretty to look at and fun in small doses... but there's not a lot of "there" there.  (There will be a few SPOILERS ahead, but I'll try to keep them to a minimum.)

Part of the problem, of course, is that the Star Wars canon as established by the films must always be held inviolate by these officially licensed but officially unofficial spinoffs.  Anyone who's read the lesser Star Wars novels will recognize the situation -- we find ourselves working with characters who have to squeeze their own heroic tales into the gaps and cracks of the greater saga.  Yes, Boba Fett can show up for the fans; but he will be carefully whisked offstage at the earliest opportunity, most likely leaving us to plod through a story about IG-88's quest for the whatsit on DantooDagobAalderiine, where the stakes rise about as high as Luke's boyhood homestead looms over the Tatooine horizon. 

In this case, our hero is a clone of the first game's hero, a dark but lightward-inclined Jedi master named Starkiller -- or is he?  It's a conundrum that never really gets resolved by the game's story, and in fact it's a poor device from the get-go -- either this guy isn't a clone, thereby undermining the dramatic impact of Starkiller's climactic sacrifice in the first game (I gather); or he is, in which case Lucasarts can just keep pumping out meaningless copies as needed.  Neither answer is very satisfactory from a dramatic standpoint.  It's a shame, too, because a lot of the writing in The Force Unleashed II is quite good in the cutscenes, where characters actually get to interact.  There's an appropriate degree of gravitas in the dialogue, delivered by actors who take the material seriously enough that it doesn't sound silly.  And Darth Vader works surprisingly well as a character in-game -- the designers aren't afraid to acknowledge his established weaknesses and treat him as a damaged, corrupted man in a scary suit, so it doesn't seem out of place when we're able to do him a little damage later on in the story. 

But the game outside the cutscenes suffers from problems I can only attribute to budget constraints in this new High-Definition era.  The Force Unleashed II features beautiful artwork -- the prequel movies have their problems, but the splendor of the Old Republic is genuinely gorgeous to look at in the movies and in this production.  The game also benefits from interesting level designs, believable animations, stunning weather effects, and challenging, varied enemies... about two and a half hours' worth.

And there's the Hutt in the ointment -- the game lasts a good 6-8 hours at the outside, even for an aging gamer like me, and while there are some amazing moments -- channeling a massive force attack through a shipboard gun turret to cut an Imperial Star Destroyer in two, for example -- there's a lot of repetitious padding in between.  It's fun to throw lightning at jet-pack equipped stormtroopers, sending them spiraling helplessly into the distance as we force-push another pack of stormtroopers over a railing.  It's a challenge to deal with the big enemies -- do we deflect their weapons back at them, try to cut their power supplies, or jump into the fray directly to take them apart with masterfully-animated pyrotechnics and authentic Ben Burtt sound effects?  And it's great to jump from platform to platform, using the Force to pull random bits of architecture into place to create a passable route while we fight off attacking goons from the Empire. 

The problem is that it's not necessarily fun to do these same things over and over again, with minor variations, and it starts to feel like Jedi Final Fight after a few hours.  And the difficulty is uneven; the game's checkpoint system is quite forgiving of missed jumps -- and there are a lot of well-concealed gaps, so that's appreciated -- but if we fail during one of the big set piece combat sequences, we usually have to start the whole marathon battle over again.  Sometimes we are sent so far back after a failure that it becomes a chore to continue, yet in between these extra-challenging sections we're overpowered enough (and the controls are slick and straightforward enough) to make short, visually impressive work of the poor Stormtroopers, who must surely have wives and children back home.  I mean, they're just doing their jobs.

On occasion we find ourselves getting lost while we try to find that one lone stormtrooper we can hear taunting us, but not see -- until we finally find him stuck somewhere in the ornate set design and put him out of his misery so the next door will open.  And the powerups we can use make a difference, but it often feels a little unsporting to reconfigure our already overwhelming Jedi skills for the sake of easier cleanup.  A Jedi should be disciplined, efficient and effective -- killing every last soul in the place hardly seems appropriate to the gentle religion of Obi-Wan Kenobi and Yoda.  But kill we must, or we'll never see the end of the story; the only thing missing is a big white Vader glove urging us on to the next section down the street as the last bit of dismembered stormtrooper fades away. 

I'm not saying I didn't enjoy aspects of Star Wars: The Force Unleashed II -- it's still fun to see the Star Wars universe from a different perspective, the action definitely has its exhilarating moments, and it is a gorgeously modern game.  But, very like the prequel movie trilogy, this game would be a lot more enjoyable if there was less of it.  This short game ends up seeming longer than it is -- there are great ideas here, but they're driven into the ground by an unavoidable aura of been-there-done-that, Young Starkiller. 

As if hundreds of voices lovingly designed it with care, and were muddily silenced.

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