Star Wars: The Force Unleashed II
What’s the first thing that comes into your head when you hear the words ‘Star Wars’? For many, it will obviously be the original trilogy of films, standing tall as the bastions of the sacred origins of geek culture. If you’re part of this exclusive club that ignores the new prequel films under pain of death, welcome. There are seats in the back. If, however, you saw an episode of this illustrious series that contained Jar Jar Binks, Padmé or anything to do with midi-chlorians then we can probably sort you out with a special viewing. Sorry to come over all high and mighty. It’s just the sort of reaction that Star Wars can generate. Now that even the prequels are becoming distant memories, we’ve come to the horrible realisation that many people’s first experiences of Star Wars will not be of Luke, Leia or Han’s exploits.
There are now countless ways for fans to experience the ways of the Force. For many, their first tentative steps into the universe may even be the original Force Unleashed. We can think of worse places to start, such as Episode I – you can probably skip that. Star Wars’ universe of stories has burst from the big screen to be told in every way possible and has allowed George Lucas’s vision of a singular world mythology to permeate Hollywood, TV and, of course, videogames. From wide-eyed children sitting in awe in cinemas across the world in 1977, to wide-eyed children in their living rooms sitting in awe in 2010, the only thing that has changed is the format, and possibly the hairstyles and clothes. Whether you’re watching the films, reading a book or playing a game, it’s still Star Wars at the heart of the experience, and that’s what counts, right?
Well, yes, but in many ways, no. As the years have gone on and with the prequel films dividing audiences and critics alike, it’s become clear that not everything Vader-related is immune from completely sucking. Nowhere does this ring truer than in the games that carry the Star Wars name. Don’t get us wrong; there have been some truly remarkable Star Wars titles, but for every Knights Of The Old Republic there is a Revenge Of The Sith. For every Jedi Knight: Dark Forces II, there’s a Masters Of Teräs Käsi, and what’s more depressing about this situation is that the bad games outnumber the good. No matter how blinded a fan you are, there’s no getting around the fact that watching someone play Super Bombad Racing is an experience capable of bringing tears to even Palpatine’s eyes.
Putting gameplay aside, just for now, the original Force Unleashed gave audiences the one thing that they had been craving: a good Star Wars story. It’s one of the most important supporting pillars, and with the Writers Guild of America presenting The Force Unleashed with the award for Best Videogame Writing, it’s easy to see where LucasArts succeeded. So much so, you could almost forget its other, more glaring flaws. Its fiddly camera, for instance, or perhaps its erratic targeting; TFU managed to enthral and frustrate in equal measure. But, despite everything, X360 found itself sitting down with executive producer Haden Blackman at LucasArts in San Francisco with far more excitement in our eyes than the majority of sequels could generate.
Blackman is as important to The Force Unleashed as original sound designer Ben Burtt was to A New Hope – just imagine the Lightsaber without its trademark ‘vroom’. Not only is he a walking Star Wars encyclopaedia, but he’s also The Force Unleashed’s writer. Since hearing the news of a sequel, we’ve only had one question to ask him, which has been preying on our minds more than any other: Starkiller’s dead, right, because we watched the Emperor zap him to death? “We ended the original Force Unleashed with Starkiller, after forming the Rebel Alliance and sacrificing himself in a battle with the Emperor… dying,” explains Blackman, launching into what seems like a slightly rehearsed and considered speech. “So, he dies at the end, which left us with a pretty big challenge when it came to the sequel. We knew immediately that we wanted to bring him back. We kicked around some other ideas but ultimately we’re very attached to him and we thought we could build an entire franchise around him. We’re set now, about a year and a half before Episode IV, so we’re very much in the mindset of focusing on the original trilogy. That lived-in universe feel. The irony with this one is that we have more prequel locations than we did in the original, but it’s still that same Imperial feel.”
The Force Unleashed II opens with the familiar opening crawl and Lord Vader heading towards Kamino, the planet responsible for the Clone Troopers seen in Episode II. Starkiller is being held there in chains, his memory fractured, with only flashes of his past remaining; glimpses of Juno Eclipse haunt him. “Vader explains to him that he’s a failed clone and that he’s using an accelerated process here on Kamino that allows him to grow these clones in a matter of months. Unfortunately, that process has a lot of side effects and it drives subjects insane. This is something, actually, from the greater continuity we’ve pulled in,” Blackman continues, perhaps justifying the setup.
Could he already be sensing a growing backlash from fans, claiming retconning lunacy? Ignoring that for now, Starkiller escapes his bonds. Emerging from the facility, he manages to cause as much destruction and death as you’d expect from someone with the Force brimming from his every pore.
“Before he escapes,” continues Blackman, “Vader reveals that Starkiller was being prepped to kill a Jedi. In fact, it’s Jedi General Rahm Kota. He’s been captured on a planet called Cato Neimoidia and he’s being held by Imperial forces. Vader was intending to send Starkiller to execute him. Knowing this now and also knowing that Kota could be his last link to Juno and the Rebel Alliance, Starkiller sets off to find him.”
It’s here on Cato Neimoidia that we get our first glimpses of the potential that TFU II has to surpass anything accomplished in the original. Not only is it a Las Vegas-styled city, perfectly capturing the oppressive nature of life under Imperial rule, but it’s an excellent showcase for the refined DMM (Digital Molecular Matter), Havok physics and Euphoria animation engines.
It’s here, on the bright, neon-lit planet, that Starkiller finds his old ally, fighting in a gladiatorial arena. Getting to Kota is easier said than done, though. Once the dust has settled and the last Stormtrooper has finished slowly slumping against the wall, the skyscraper-sized auditorium shakes. From the darkness, a creature that Blackman has ominously called the Orloc roars. “It’s positively huge; it’s the biggest thing we’ve ever done,“ he says. “One of the hallmarks for The Force Unleashed II will be these big boss battles, instead of just focusing on these mano-a-mano fights.” For a universe as densely packed and fleshed-out as Star Wars, it’s always fascinating to see new places and creatures, especially those glimpsed in the films themselves. “Cato Neimoidia is a planet we see very briefly in Episode III. It’s an archway planet so it has all these giant stone and metal arches with huge cities.”
We’re tentatively shown a glimpse of the Orloc boss in-game; it’s all muscles and teeth, snarling at the impassive Starkiller. Enormous chains hold weights, dangling off the ends of its arms, smashing into the scenery. Blackman’s right: it’s much bigger than anything seen before in The Force Unleashed. Starkiller runs beneath, dodging attacks and generally looking about as threatening as a fly, but as quickly as we’re getting settled in, it’s time for us to move on. This is just a glimpse, after all. Kota and Starkiller are reunited and it’s off to search the galaxy for Juno or strike back at the Empire, and in a narrative sense this couldn’t feel more like Star Wars. As Blackman lays out a full half of the story, we’re told that not only is TFU II fulfilling the expected Empire Strikes Back, ‘dark’ entry to the series cliché, but it’s also looking more than likely that Dagobah and Yoda will also feature, drawing further parallels to what is considered the pinnacle of the films. Starkiller will even have to enter the Dark Side Cave, many years before Luke gets anywhere near it.
We’ve got intrigue, the evil Empire, Jedi, huge creatures, spaceships, and everything else you’d expect. From Blackman’s position, the simple act of writing a story for The Force Unleashed II isn’t as easy a process as you might think. He has to work within the confines of the Lucas-sanctioned world. After all, TFU has the enviable position of actually becoming canonical to the Star Wars saga. “We work very closely with Lucasfilm licensing, who approve everything we do,” explains Blackman. “So, we’ll come to them if we want to make anything new. We’ll create concept art for them and describe what it is we want. For planets like Felucia that were only glimpsed briefly in Episode III, we’re able to create a whole new alien species and really roll out the detail, add a giant Sarlacc pit, and do some really cool stuff. There are new units in TFU II that have never been seen before, and I was really nervous about whether licensing would approve them or not.”
Clearly, it’s not just a case of letting your imagination run away with you, but for Blackman, it’s in his blood. Writing countless books and comics within the universe has placed him in the perfect position for something as ambitious as The Force Unleashed. But that’s half the battle. No matter how successful or praised the narrative is, this is a game and it has to be fun to play. This is an area where LucasArts has some catching up to do. “We’ve spent a lot of time taking both the critical feedback and consumer feedback on TFU,” admits Blackman.
“It didn’t always match up. We heard different things from critics and consumers, but we took all that feedback and made a whole systems inventory. All the things we wanted to improve, and at the top of that list was Force Grip.” It was the most impressive but technically flawed aspect from the original. In theory, it gave you total control of your surroundings, but in reality it was a fiddly mess of confusing design choices and awkward controls. “It’s the most fun power in the game, even in TFU, once you’ve mastered it. It’s almost like a different experience. So, we wanted to make sure we really improved it and made it more accessible, and we’ve done a lot with the targeting.”
To demonstrate this, we’re shown some work-in-progress gameplay from Starkiller’s escape on Kamino, the rain-drenched cloning facility. It’s many years since Obi-Wan and Jango Fett clashed here and it’s also reflecting the general atmosphere of life under the Empire. We’re pleased to see, even at this relatively early stage, that TFU II has taken a substantial leap forward in its visuals. Water pours off the sleek scenery and crackles as it hits Starkiller’s dual Lightsabers, his ragged and torn costume billowing out behind him. The usual batch of Stormtroopers round a corner, opening fire in their suicidal way. Everything seems so much more invested and solid within the world.
Even from a cursory glance, it’s clear to see that LucasArts is far more comfortable working with its complex engine. “Before, I don’t think the designers had enough time to really make it sing and do all the cool stuff and leverage all three technologies as well as they would have wanted to,” continues Blackman. “They learnt even more with the DLC, where we’ve got some really cool set piece moments. We’ve continued that in The Force Unleashed II. There’s going to be some really great moments where all those technologies come together.” Great moments that will be kept under wraps for much of the game’s development, we’re sure. From what we can see, though, it’s not quite as far removed as we’d been hoping. To help with targeting, enemies and objects now glow with a blue halo, clearly marking them out as effective targets.
At this early stage it seems as if all these pieces are coming together to form the puzzle we wanted from the beginning. With a tighter engine, we’re confident that the same pitfalls won’t befall us as soon as Starkiller is confined within a tight space or becomes surrounded by enemies. Continued play of the original quickly highlighted the core gameplay’s limitations and showed just how fast things could become pad-snappingly annoying. But, as Blackman says, criticisms have been accounted for and are being dealt with.
“You weren’t always thinking about your tactics [in TFU], and we wanted people to think more strategically and to use everything at their disposal. We decided, with TFU II, to focus on far fewer enemy types, but make each one kind of special and unique in many ways. You’ll still have Stormtroopers, but now melee units have a lot more abilities and different tactics.” Bigger combos and generally more impressive Lightsaber antics are a given on something like TFU II, but more exciting for general combat are the possibilities that Mind Trick and Force Fury bring. The former will turn enemy units over to you, who’ll then fight alongside Starkiller, giving you a chance for some backstabbing antics, while Force Fury takes the already insane action and essentially gives it a ‘rage’ mode.
“All of your powers are totally amped up,” explains Blackman. “You’ll have brand new combos as a result. Your Force Lightning, which would normally only hit a few small targets, will now hit everyone on screen. Your Force Push, which hits someone like a cannon ball, will now send entire groups out into orbit. It’s a really nice continuation of the Force Unleashed theme.” Even with placeholder effects for Force Fury, it’s easy to see the direction in which it’s heading: this is a far more confident game, with respect to both its storytelling abilities and now also its tech. Blackman mentions that better pacing and more of a focus on puzzles will break up the action, as the game’s way of combating much of the fatigue felt by players from TFU’s constant onslaught. This is a technical powerhouse of a game – its physics alone are staggering – but as a platformer or puzzle game, the original was a disaster. Simple puzzles and jumps made for exhausting exercises in patience, as death was dealt out by a camera intent on showing you the worst possible angle. Switching back to the rather more satisfying Force Unleashed II, the camera seems, thankfully, a lot more restrained.
Starkiller slices his way through a group of Stormtroopers, their armour smashing into smithereens as his Lightsabers cut through them. An Imperial shuttle descends from the lightning-streaked sky and gives our hero a taste of his own medicine. Grabbing some nearby steel bars and wrenching them loose, Starkiller hurls them towards the shuttle – quickly followed by a Stormtrooper for good measure. The DMM, Euphoria and Havok systems are working together in a far cleaner fashion than before. Blackman informs us that his team is now able to simply do “more” with the complex systems. That means more objects interacting to create those jaw-dropping situations, with characters leaping out of the way of falling debris or holding on to each other for dear life creating scenarios that can be scarily realistic, not to mention cool.
It packs as big a punch as it did in 2008 and, considering that less than a handful of games using the technology have been released since the original, The Force Unleashed II is still ahead of the curve. It shows too. GTA IV and Backbreaker are the only two games that come to mind that utilise similar tech, and even then, DMM has only been seen in TFU. It’s key to showcasing Starkiller’s immense power and the effect of his power on his surroundings, with glass, wood and steel all shattering realistically and still looking blisteringly cool. With Blackman and his team keen to tell a larger, more explosive story in this instalment, the use of this technology is paramount. This needs to look as expensive and polished as the films. It has to be, because, in a lot of ways, this is the next chapter.
For many, this may even be their first experience of Star Wars entirely, and like the young wide-eyed kids from the Seventies, it’s easy to lose yourself in the magic. With the story already expected to deliver, the only thing LucasArts and Haden Blackman need worry about is creating a technically sound game.