Monday, 29 November 2010

Just Finished: 'Star Wars: The Force Unleashed 2'

Starkiller would have his revenge on the plumber who broke his shower.

When I heard that LucasArts' big-budget stab-a-thon The Force Unleashed was due to get a sequel this year, I didn't exactly react with the same kind of giddy enthusiasm that Rogue Squadron 2: Rogue Leader instilled in me from its very first 30-second trailer.  In fact, I was sorely tempted to bash my head off a desk whilst screaming "WHY?!" very loudly.  Here was a self-contained narrative with a very definite end (assuming you got the canon ending cutscene, not the 'bad' one where your bloke kills Vader and takes his job), that filled in one of the few remaining interesting blanks in the overall Star Wars mythology, and whose hero needed to die at the end so he could live on as a martyr, a nameless inspiration to the plucky Rebel Alliance.  Oh yeah, and there was a game in there too, but it was at best inoffensive, and more often than not completely forgettable if pretty-looking God of War rubbish.  So, if the story didn't demand a sequel, and the odds of anyone particularly wanting to experience an adventure with the same tired gameplay mechanics were next to impossible, why the hell does Force Unleashed 2 even exist?

Ah, but we know this already: it's because LucasArts like the smell of money.  And since they seem to have scaled back their operations in recent years - I can't think of any other Star Wars games that came out in 2010, unless that Old Republic MMORPG gets rushed out in December - they need to focus on guaranteed winners.  Why bother trying something new, or going back to an old series in need of rebooting (would it kill you to green-light Jedi Knight 4 or Rogue Squadron 4?), when you's got a recent hit in your hands, and you're still in contact with (mostly) the same guys who made it?  More is more, after all.

Hell, I was gonna skip this one altogether, especially after the reviews turned out average at best, but I had money to burn (again, leaving Christmas shopping to the last minute) and the Wii version was only £24 in Tesco's.  So, I bought it yesterday, played the hell out of it, and finished it this morning.  Conclusions?  Well, it's short, obviously.  Possibly shorter than the last one, and that was no 40-hour social-life killer to begin with.  Comparing both games is like comparing an Ugnaught to an Ewok; sure, one's taller, but you wouldn't call either of them anything other than midgets.

The story this time revolves around Darth Vader, Dark Lord of all Harebrained Schemes, attempting to clone his former secret apprentice, codename Starkiller (a name that everyone seems to know even though it wasn't even mentioned last time...), and use said clone to murder General Rahm Kota, the blinded Jedi Master whom served as a mentor to the real Starkiller.  Since his noble death in the first game, the Rebel Alliance have taken Starkiller's example as a beacon of hope - which is about the only thing keeping them on their feet as the Empire chases them across the galaxy.  If a man bearing Starkiller's face were to kill the man who now serves as joint head of the Alliance military, it would surely break that hope.  Clever.  Well, not really, but I doubt anyone in the Empire bothered to point out how ridiculous and protracted the whole thing is, for fear of throat-crushing.  Anyway, Vader's tried and tried again, more than a dozen times, but the clones were always flawed - and now his latest attempt, though physically perfect, is tormented by the memories of a dead man, memories that drive him to run from his master and swan about the galaxy in search of his one true love.  Or that other guy's one true love, even.

Hope you like rain, 'cause this game's extremely fond of getting you wet.  Er...

As you might expect, being a clone of Starkiller means you'll be navigating the game world in much the same way as he did, through a combination of rudimentary platforming and frequent lightsaber...I'd say 'battles', but that implies an element of doubt over who's going to win.  Let's say 'exhibitions'.  Basically, stormtroopers run up to you and fire away with their silly guns, doing little except making the screen a bit brighter with their bright red lasers, and you hammer the attack button and barrel into them like Crash Bandicoot with neon razorblades sticking out of your arms.  A few seconds later, they all fall down.  Amusingly - and unlike in the first game - dismemberment occurs with alarming regularity; though bloodless, it's nevertheless extremely satisfying to see white-armoured limbs flying, and torsos split from their legs.  Oh, in case you were wondering, two lightsabers?  Yeah, they don't really make any difference to how you play.  You can mix and match the colours, though.  That's cool.

Of course, stabbing things will inevitably get boring, and Unleashed 2 is very keen to make sure you realise how many other ways there are to deal with your enemies.  The Force Push remains an effective crowd-clearer, scattering Stormtroopers like bowling pins, and you can still physically 'grip' any movable object/person/robot and throw it across the room, although for some reason the option to kill them with the Vader Choke has been removed.  BAH.  To make up for this oversight, Starkiller-2 now has a couple new toys in his bag.  The Jedi Mind Trick has been upgraded from mere distraction tool to a full-blown brainwash effect, forcing any enemy it's used on to turn against his friends until he dies; it's fun, and is smartly used in a particular part of the Dagobah level, but rarely feels like an essential addition.  What is essential is Force Rage.  Chain enough attacks together (about five or so - it's very lenient) and you can freeze time and highlight specific enemies, which Starkiller-2 then deals with in slow-mo with some funky one-hit-kill acrobatics.  It sounds borderline game-breaking, but on later levels you'll come to rely on it frequently.

Your handy one-pic walkthrough for The Force Unleashed 2:
Just kill everyone wearing white.

At this point, you're probably expecting me to say that this is all good fun for the first few hours, but overstays its welcome.  Uh, no.  It's actually fun for even less time than that.  The enemies respawn too fast, and are often put in places where they're hard to reach and thus hard to deal with.  In a game built around the hook of you playing as a near-Godlike uberwarrior, having to jump up an overly large flight of stairs onto a balcony just so you can get a clear run at the geeks who've been blasting holes through your natty tunic for the past five minutes as they sat smugly out of fingertip-lightning range really breaks the flow.  Speaking of which, I'd rather like to have a word with whoever planned out the levels, because trying to increase the difficulty by mixing regular Stormies with some invisible ones, and some lightsaber ones, and one of those shrunken AT-STs with the non-deflectable rockets might make the game harder, but it mostly just makes it more irritating.  When split into specialised groups, the higher-tier enemy types are hard, yes, but you can work out a strategy to maximise your abilities against them.  When they're all lumped together in one giant salad bowl of evil, focusing on one group without being shot/stabbed/exploded by the others is impossible.  You still won't die, of course, since Starkiller's health regenerates quickly and you're never more than a few Force Dashes away from a quiet corner to rest in, but you never get to feel like an elegant space-buddhist warrior dancing a lethal ballet.  Rather, you're an irritable 12-year-old whacking a wasp nest with a big stick and jumping around on the spot as the little buggers sting you back.

This is a screenshot from the Wii version.  As you can see,
it's indistinguishable from the next-gen version.
*trying not to laugh here*

While I'm here, I should probably say something about the controls.  Now, Krome Studios, in my mind, did a pretty good job adapting Force Unleashed 1 for the Wii, with some of the most thoughtful sword controls I've seen outside of Red Steel 2.  Sure, you could try to just waggle your arm frantically, but Starkiller would never respond to that properly; instead, you made confident strokes, horizontally or vertically, and he performed a similar strike on-screen.  It worked well enough, and it kept all the buttons free for Force powers.  Sadly, Krome must've upset George Lucas somehow, because they've been kicked out of the project and replaced with Red Fly here.  And what they've done, simply, is fuck it all up.  Okay, okay, I'm sure some people will find mashing A for saber combos easier than flailing their arms around, but borrowing one of the main buttons was a mistake.  As a result, the Z-button on the Nunchuk has to pull double-duty as an activator for both Lightsaber Throw and Force Lightning, depending on whether you shake the Remote or the Nunchuk.  Then there's aiming to consider.  Although steering a pointer around the screen to determine which object you want to fling with Force Grip is definitely an improvement over relying on an iffy auto-targeting highlight, doing the same for your Pushes, Mind Tricks, Saber Throws and Lightning is a pain, especially in mid-battle.  Double points go to the Lightning here for sheer unwieldiness; have you ever tried holding a button down on a Wii Nunchuk and shaking it and aiming at something with the Remote whilst still shaking?  Go try it now.  If it feels natural, I advise you keep fridge magnets away from your head, 'cause you're obviously some sort of robot.

"You wanna know what happened to Krome Studios?  I HAPPENED."

It actually pains me to be so mean to Red Fly; they're a fairly small developer, and their previous two Wii games - Mushroom Men: The Spore Wars and the Wii port of Ghostbusters - were both pretty damn good, so I know they've got talent.  And in fairness, they've tried their best here; sure, the environments all appear to be made of cardboard, but the volume of enemies on-screen is impressive, there's lots of very nice VFX thrown around and the character animation is very nice indeed.  They've also added in a few features unique to the Wii version, namely some extra puzzle-locked doors amongst the platforming bits (which do make for a nice change of pace) and a multiplayer mode.  Unlike Unleashed 1's Duel mode, which let 2 players smack each other around using roughly the same controls and powers as in the single-player mode, here you can have up to 4 players scrapping on a 2D plane, with special moves, taunts mapped to the d-pad and multi-platform levels featuring starfighter strafing runs, lightning storms and other things bound to shorten your life.  It all feels like a Star Wars-themed version of Super Smash Bros., albeit one with health meters rather than stage knockouts.  Not a bad laugh, but it's unlikely to see much use unless you don't actually own Smash Bros. - and face it, if you have a Wii, and you still use it, you do.

Now, about that story - wait, first, let me make this clear:

...Okay, if you're still here, I guess you don't mind me spoiling stuff.

I can't help but feel a little disappointed by the scale, or rather the lack of it, to the story.  Whereas Unleashed 1 kept you on the move through a wide variety of very different planets and places, here you start off on Kamino (rainy cloning planet), go to Cato Neimoidia (actually a nice concept, with cities hanging under massive arches, but stylistically too similar to Cloud City for my liking) to rescue the blind guy, stop off on Dagobah (where Yoda makes a cameo, natch) for some arbitrary soul-searching, then bugger around on a big spaceship for a while until, wayhey - back on Kamino again for the finale.  Granted, the developers have every right to feel pleased with their rain effects, because they are very nice indeed, but I don't think that alone justifies the return visit, especially since Vader could have lured Starkiller anywhere at that point.  There's also the slightly maddening feeling that you're only a peripheral player here, rather than the centre of attention; whereas Starkiller-1 was proactive in forming the Rebel Alliance, freeing Princess Leia and Bail Organa from imprisonment and trashing Imperial production yards, here he's only chasing skirt, and the Rebels happen to get in the way.  There are hints of a grander plot going on around you, but you're never made to feel like part of it.  Maybe that's deliberate, but I can't help but feel it was a wasted opportunity.

Oh yeah, and there's the fanservice.  Much of the pre-release hype was centered around the appearances of superpowered garden gnome Yoda and bucket-headed bounty hunter Boba Fett (who you probably saw further up the page), which makes it surprising to note how restrained the writer was in limiting their roles as much as he did.  Even so, Yoda feels irrelevant, as does the entire Dagobah chapter; surely not every Jedi has to go to that horrid swamp just to 'find themselves'?  Especially since all Starkiller-2 finds is where the lovely Captain Eclipse happens to be, something he could've managed through other, less weird means.  Boba Fett's presence, on the other hand, fits the plot fairly well; Vader needs Starkiller-2 back, he knows the boy's after Eclipse, so he sends Boba to capture the girl, confident in the belief that none of his own minions would be able to follow that simple instruction.  Fair enough.

All complaints aside, however, I still enjoyed Unleashed 2 as a story.  It may not be epic, or meaningful, but it is quite heartfelt, and the script gets surprisingly witty sometimes.  It helps that the voice actors are all clearly inspired by the material; Sam Witwer makes Starkiller's conflict and anguish over his unnatural birth palpable, Tom Kane still makes for an uncanny Vader, and special mention must go to Dee Bradley Baker as Fett - until the credits rolled, I was convinced they'd got Temeura Morrison back in, so perfect is Baker's impersonation (I suppose Morrison was busy playing Abin Sur in the Green Lantern movie whilst the recording was taking place).  One final caveat, though, is that to really enjoy Unleashed 2, playing Unleashed 1 is a necessity.  Juno Eclipse, despite being Starkiller-2's obsession and ultimate goal, is actually marginalised for most of the story, and without having seen the romance blossom between her and the original Starkiller, you may find yourself wondering why she's so important.


Actually, my review on the whole is pretty much over.  : P

Overall rating:  5/10.  Star Wars fans can add 1 or 2 to that.  No lessons have been learned from Unleashed 1, but it's not a bad way to waste a weekend.

Don't you look at me like that, boy.  It's not my fault your games aren't as good as Kyle Katarn's.

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