Saturday, 6 November 2010

Review: Star Wars: The Force Unleashed II (360)

Star Wars is filled with some of the most familiarly emotive moments in mainstream cinema history: The scene when Luke first discovers his fathers true identity; the scene in which he learns that self-belief is as important a tool in using the force as is any physical training. It’s in these moments you can really see how much the series has truly impacted on our minds not only as children, but also as adults. Sure, the direction is somewhat cheesy, and the narrative decidedly cliché at times, but nevertheless serve to connect us to a world full of imagination and wonderment.

In that respect SWFU II misses the mark by some margin. While the game improves on its predecessor in many ways – the gameplay is noticeably polished beyond subtle touches here and there – the story and direction is a distinctly miss-matched affair lacking in overall focus and artistic flair. Technically, FUII does everything the first game should have done; it’s bigger, better looking, and far smoother with less in the way of bugs and glitches. However, it also cuts away some much-needed variety, with the reduction in enemies and stages making it a far shorter, less complete adventure.

Starting off, and you can see that the combat system, the basic staple of gameplay that makes up FUII is considerably polished over and above that of the first game. Animations are instantly smoother, as is the transition between lightsabre swipes and combined force plus force moves. Combos also flow into each other with much needed fluidity, and the core components which felt a little rough around the edges before, are nicely worked over into an enjoyable mix. This sequel is definitely better put together as a whole.

Starkiller, or should that be Clone Starkiller, has a much more fully-featured repertoire of moves from the get go. His force powers and lightsabre skills are noticeably varied by FUI standards. It is possible to perform force lighting, grab, and burst moves all from the start of the game. Plus combining force moves into light sabre combos is now a regular, and rather useful strategy for combat against a multitude of foes, and not just the ones immune to your electro-powered blade of doom.

Just running around hacking down strings of clueless Storm Troopers is a distinctly satisfying affair. As is blasting them with force lighting, or grabbing them before throwing them head-on into a wall, or a platoon of more unsuspecting troopers. This is now something that actually feels like it is equating to you using Jedi powers.

Or at least initially, for the opening few minutes, after which a veil of uninterrupted similarity and boredom begin to creep in. You see, while the FUII happily smoothens over the original’s rough edges, featuring more fluid combat, and the eradication of a wide range of intrusive glitches, it also fails to amount to being anything more than a polished up version of that very same game. But without the visionary storyline, or interesting plot or character developments.

So, while at first it appears that SWFUII is plenty polished over its predecessor, it soon becomes apparent (pretty early on in fact) that the vast majority of complaints raised about the first game haven’t been addressed at all. Take for example the many QTE finishers throughout the game; the closing few hits against the various enemy druids, and planetary creatures – they all end in the same way. Each particular enemy has only one type of QTE finisher, and they get old really quick.

This is made even worse by the fact that there is only a handful or more of enemy types throughout FUII, and most of these you will have seen before even getting a quarter ways through the game. Repetition then sets in even faster than it did before in the first FU. With only a familiar few foes to dispose of over and over again, the whole notion of becoming a powerful Jedi warrior soon wares off.

Warning signs were of course echoed way back in the earlier stages of development - ever since the team at Lucas Arts stated that the overall range of enemies would be dropped for this sequel there have been concerns. The team said that they wanted fewer foes in exchange for more varied combat; better AI, a wider range of enemy attacks allowing for a more tactical approach. However in reality this boil down to some enemies needing to be disposed of using only certain force powers, whilst others need slicing up with your lightsabre. It’s hardly inspiring stuff.

Outside of the basic combat, the same old frustrating platforming sections return in full force, and began to hamper enjoyment of the game very early on. In just the second stage the game starts to draw up short but equally unappealing jumping sections, whereby judging the angle and distance of your leaps can be a tiresome process. Some even require a double jump, plus dash combo, which usually results in you dashing off the edge of the platform you are supposed to be landing on.

Being a Jedi obviously requires at least some acrobatic prowess, and sections like these should be included. But not like this. You only have to look at the likes of Ninja Gaiden and Prince Of Persia to see just how such acrobatic flair should be done. Traversing the environment, running over it, leaping and bouncing with utmost grace and fluidity is a prerequisite, and not an un-used afterthought like it is here.

This is evident that this should be the case in the game’s many cut-scenes, in which the choreographed battles, although not particular exemplary, display the kinds of things we only wish we could be doing.

Despite being a little hurriedly put together, they do at least bare resemblance to the groundbreaking, but slightly stiff direction work seen in the action scenes from original trilogy. And as a whole, the game’s cinematics do succeed in feeling like a proper Star Wars production. Sadly, they also gloss over the fact that the plot is simply a overlooked rehash of what has gone before, now simply being a series of scenes and environments which cut disjointedly into one another with no coherency, or ryme or reason why such stuff is really happening.

Starkiller’s story has already been told. There’s no need for a re-treading of history. In the first game we saw how the beginnings of the Rebel Alliance was put together, but here, we are given very little tangible expansion of that story. There’s nothing here which remotely engages you like with the last game, nothing which really needed to be told. Essentially, while the original FU provided a nice interlude in between Episodes III and IV, FUII does very little convince us of its place, other than being a short episode of a Star Wars TV show – one that is there to pad things out before Luke, Han, and co arrive to set things right.

You are in effect just a clone trying to find out just who you are in the word, and as the game rolls on you are simply confronted with more questions, and even more child-like rebuttals. Surely, it would have been better to set-up the story with another rouge Jedi warrior, one that hasn’t yet been hunted down, one that could still play a key role. Instead, the story here holds no water, and we never care about Starkiller, let alone what the story is trying to do.

In that respect it is clear that with FUII the developers weren’t really aiming to tell an engrossing story, but instead try to deliver on some of the technical promises they failed on the last time around. And although they have, on some levels at least, succeeded, they have also completely forgotten to take care of some of the major design and gameplay issues which almost broke the original FU, to the point where the latter half of the game (that Star Destroyer incident) was utterly un-redeemable.

FUII isn’t anywhere near that bad, though it isn’t anywhere near as good as it should have been for a sequel. The opening stage is fairly well done, but really, that is all the game has to offer, right there. Later on things just get more repetitive, and more frustrating, with poorly implemented platform segments being broken up with overly familiar combat. The overall graphical polish is superb (good use of AA, better shaders and facial details), and the animations and combat flow far more smoothly than before. Most of the game-breaking glitches and bugs have also been dealt with.

However, despite this as the story draws to a close, and the inevitable final encounter looms, you can’t help but feel that things should have dramatically moved on. Instead, what we are left with is a technically impressive reminder of what the first game could have been, but chopped up, cut down, and delivered with a distinct lack of focus, or narrative care and attention. Combat is fun for a while, and being a Jedi is pretty cool for the most part, but the small and samey nature of the overall experience quickly breeds in boredom.

The Force Unleashed II could have been a thrilling, excitingly fun, and solidly diversive experience in its usage of the Euphoria engine, and cool Star Wars setting. Unfortunately, it is just a glorified tech demo, with some mildly enjoyable gameplay tacked on the end of it, lacking in focus and outstaying its welcome all too soon. It’s such a shame, as the franchise still has so much unused potential. Although we are unlikely to see that now.


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