Star Wars: The Force Unleashed apparently sold seven million units. If you’re reading this review it’s likely you’re one of those seven million, and it’s also likely you had some gripes with that game, even though it was often fun, imaginative, and told a solid story. We’ll talk about the initial setup for The Force Unleashed II’s plot which addresses the ending of the first game, but beyond that there will be no spoilers. We’re going to do a detailed breakdown of all the small ways TFU II improves upon the original – we did a sort of side-by-side comparison, playing both games all the way through one after the other.
Above: What's better than a lightsaber? TWO!
If it’s been a while since you played TFU, the improvements in the sequel may not be obvious as they are mostly subtle, but know that nearly across the board, the developers clearly took player feedback into account and tried to improve everything that didn’t quite work the first time around. First, let’s talk about what’s going on when the game begins – if you haven’t yet finished the first game, we’re going to spoil the ending so skip ahead to the next section.
At the end of the first game, Darth Vader’s secret apprentice, Starkiller, has a choice to make: get revenge on Vader and kill him (but get killed by the Emperor), or save Rahm Kota… and also get killed. The second choice, the Light Side choice, is the canon ending, meaning it’s the one TFU II uses as a launching point and which counts as true in the overall Star Wars universe. So how can we be playing Starkiller if he died in the first game?
TFU II opens with Starkiller imprisoned on Kamino, the stormy ocean planet seen in the movie Attack of the Clones, where all the clone troopers came from. Getting an idea of where this is going? Vader arrives and tells Starkiller that he’s a clone, and in fact the latest in numerous attempts to clone the secret apprentice – he’s the only one to survive more than a few days. Starkiller promptly decides, “To hell with being this asshole’s slave” and leaps out the window.
What follows is incredible, and a showcase for how TFU II is not only going for more exciting moments than the original, but also not turning those moments into exasperating tedium (pulling down the Star Destroyer). Remember the scene in TFU when Starkiller plummeted through the atmosphere and force-pushed debris out of his way? Remember thinking, “Man, why can’t I play this part?” Well now you can.
Above: Not a cutscene
In fact, TFU II contains more than one skydiving sequence and each one is just plain awesome. The key here, unlike what they did with the Star Destroyer pulling scene in the first game, is that these sequences aren’t difficult or unintuitive. The game tells you that you can Force Push obstructions out of your way as you fall. Great, but what happens if we want to use Force Lighting? Oh, wait, we can do that too. Did we just blow up a tie fighter with lighting, in mid air, as we were plunging past it? Sweeeeet.
Watching the cutscenes in TFU II might inspire the reaction of “Hey, these faces look really good.” Try going back to the first game, though, and the massive improvement becomes clear. The character models in TFU actually look awful – the faces are blurry, the lips move in really weird ways when the people talk, and for some reason they all look like they have cataracts. It’s like a Star Wars universe populated by zombie versions of themselves, or maybe old people with great plastic surgery. In TFU II they don’t have those bizarre watery eyes and although Starkiller’s mouth looks weird when he talks, we think that’s just because he has a weird mouth. Otherwise, everything looks great during cutscenes, and in most games this wouldn’t be important, but this now-franchise is built upon its storytelling strengths, so with better looking people and more realistic expressions, the story comes that much more alive.
Strangely, the much-touted DMM tech, which allowed wood and glass to splinter realistically in TFU, is essentially absent in TFU II. We honestly didn’t miss it much, but going back to the original and seeing objects shatter into jagged pieces looks extra cool by comparison. TFU II claims to still use DMM, but hell if we could tell. Still, the game looks fantastic, and has a more solid look to it, feeling more finalized and certainly less buggy than the original.
For instance, the rain on Kamino, rippling down every surface, is engrossing just to stop and watch for a few seconds:
Above: Wait a minute... is that stormtrooper trying to do a running headbutt?
Another particularly beautiful and imaginative aesthetic is the design of the cities on Cato Neimoidia, which are constructed as upside-down buildings hanging from the underside of gigantic arches:
Above: Hey, that's cool, we didn't notice the natural stone arches before. A hint that the Neimoidians built their cities through inspiration from the environment? Cool...
We should note, however, that the variety of locales is actually diminished from TFU. Both games recycle some locations, but in TFU II it feels more for the purpose of story rather than a cheap way to reuse resources. The actual architecture of the levels, like the first game, is rather uninteresting – it all looks pretty, but the shapes of the spaces mostly boils down to rooms connected by catwalks and hallways. They are lovely looking catwalks and hallways though.
Small changes to the way you can control your movements, your attacks, and the Force make gameplay smoother in almost every facet. In the first game, actively blocking attacks rooted you in place; now, you can walk while blocking. The Force Dash maneuver is now a little bit faster, carries you a little bit farther, and has a shorter cooldown which means you can zip around more rapidly. These changes to blocking and dashing alone make the game faster and more nimble.
You also won't find yourself getting “stuck” without any control inputs nearly as much. What we mean is, in TFU there were many attack animations where you were locked into them and committed, leaving yourself vulnerable and unable to respond to threats. This has been tightened up significantly. The first game also had a really irritating tendency to knock you prone and then force you to sit through an agonizing time before Starkiller would get to his feet like he had all the time in the world – and then the game had the nerve to make enemies continue to hit you while you were down or almost finished getting up. TFU II has essentially eliminated this problem. We had a few moments where the swarm of enemies suddenly overwhelmed us with stacked damage, but most of the time we didn’t experience cheap-feeling attacks.
Above: "Ah, see now those are the EXACT guys I wanted to cook"
Another huge gripe with the original game was the finicky targeting system and how it made Force Grip a bit of a dice-roll. This system has been improved in two ways. First, there is simply a lot less clutter lying around the levels, so there aren’t as many potential targets to confuse the lock-on system. Second, the targeting itself has been tweaked somehow to just better guess what you want to grab onto. Sure, there are still moments where you’ll pick up something you don’t want, but the difference between the games is substantial.
The upgrade system has been revamped: instead of gaining levels and spheres, Starkiller earns Force Points and then simply spends them like currency on individual powers. Upgrades for each power have different costs, so it becomes interesting to choose what to upgrade. The options have actually been pared down quite a bit, and frankly we don’t mind at all – the old system feels bloated and full of redundancies. Part of this is covered by the improved health and Force bars – Starkiller now regenerates health automatically, and Force regenerates more quickly – it has a shorter down time thanks to no “overuse” bar where in TFU you’d actually get a yellow bar that had to deplete before your Force energy even started refilling. The other part that has shifted customization involves the lightsabers.
TFU II sure likes to show off Starkiller’s new dual lightsabers. Strangely, there’s no story explanation for why he uses them – Darth Vader just hands him two of them without comment. In combat terms, the dual lightsabers are only cosmetic. They don’t change anything noticeable in the way you fight. However, they do make swapping saber crystals more interesting, since you can combine two colors for complementary effects. Changing them actually makes a big difference in TFU II, so a bit of strategy comes into play.
Above: Force Repulse looks spectacular, but the actual mechanic isn't particularly interesting, so we chose not to upgrade it at all
We often employed blue crystals to maximize our ability to cast force powers frequently, but in tough situations where incoming damage became difficult to avoid, we swapped to our purple and green combo: purple to increase our defenses, and green to speed up health regeneration. Later on, fighting against warriors who also wield dual lightsabers and who are extremely skilled at blocking any attacks, we swapped in crystals to add damage effects, like an incineration crystal that ignited enemies - this way, even if the warriors blocked our strikes, they would catch fire. It’s also fun to just mix and match crystals for the sake of creating aesthetically pleasing combinations of lightsaber colors.
What the hell was up with the checkpoint system in TFU? It was atrocious – at one point, the game actually took us back to before a boss battle. It’s possible that there are some cruddy checkpoints in TFU II, but we didn’t encounter them. The checkpoints we did encounter were entirely reasonable, but we also didn’t encounter them as often: TFU II doesn’t kill you as much as the first game, and especially doesn’t often kill you for bullshit reasons (we recall dying instantly in TFU with no discernable cause).
Above: The platforming still isn't great, but it's not horrible either. Pulling off air-dashes to cross this chasm is pretty satisfying
The enemy AI has been vastly improved – it’s too bad this only brings it up to “acceptable” because the vast improvement is in comparison to the absolutely embarrassing AI in the first game. If you don’t remember, you might have seen stormtroopers completely ignoring you when you were right next to them, or enemies diving off bridges, or even bosses that got stuck trying to figure out how to get to you.
Speaking of bosses, TFU II dumps the tedious Jedi battles and offers more interesting encounters that we won’t spoil here. We will say, though, that one boss in particular has multiple stages, with each getting cooler than the last. Although the first part of the boss is kind of annoying, the subsequent sequences more than make up for it.
Above: This is not the mega-epic boss. That other boss is bigger than this
Finally, there are the two new powers. TFU II swaps out of the Lightning Shield power for Mind Trick. The Lightning Shield was kind of cool in the first game, but it doesn’t hold a candle to Mind Trick. Now you have the hilarious option of getting enemies to fight each other or even dive right out through windows. The dialogue alone is worth it: Starkiller offers different quips to convince enemies to go against their will, and the enemy responses get quite amusing. The other addition is Force Fury, which is really an uninspired afterthought. It’s just your standard “rage” meter that gets built up and once activated turns on hyper mode. We actually barely bothered to use it. Still, seeing Starkiller continuously toss two whirling lightsabers is pretty cool.
Not everything in The Force Unleashed II is hunky-dory. All of the above tweaks take the clunky weak points of the original and smooth them over or trade them for something more fun. At the same time, that’s what they are: small tweaks. Other than the Mind Trick power, not much has changed for toys to play with, especially since the dual lightsabers don’t do anything other than look cool, at least in the middle of combat.
Above: Now why does this place look familiar? Hmm...
The backdrops to the action are mostly less imaginative than the first game. Cato Nemoidia is gorgeous, but other than that, there isn’t much to match the majestic vistas of Kashyyyk or the ultra-alien flora of that world with the war-painted rancors. So we just don’t see as much of the fantastic Star Wars universe, and unfortunately it seems we spend less time there. We didn’t get an exact time on our playthrough, but TFU II feels slightly shorter than the first game, and the original was already a short game. This becomes a sticking point to carefully consider – did the length of the first game leave you feeling unsatisfied? We didn’t have much of an issue with either game’s length – but then if you only buy one game a month or whatever, it could matter quite a lot. The game does offer challenge modes, but they’re also short and frankly not much fun.
Star Wars: The Force Unleashed? Yes. We realize we explained all of this already, but it is definitive that TFU II is a superior game. It plays better and looks better. Its story holds up to the quality of the original, and builds upon the relationships established earlier, deepening the complexities and raising new questions. Most importantly, the game is more fun.
Castlevania: Lords of Shadow? No. Castlevania is more hardcore, which could make TFU II more appealing to those just wanting fun combat and epic boss battles, but it’s hard to argue with Castlevania’s deeper combat, more imaginative world, and generous length. TFU II’s story is more interesting, though.
Enslaved: Odyssey to the West? No, but it’s close. Both are story-driven action games. TFU II looks and plays with more confident polish and its story fits perfectly into a ridiculously deep universe (which isn’t easy to do, we might add). Enslaved, however, also does a take on an existing story (Journey to the West) but goes in a wholly original direction. Its world isn’t like anything we’ve seen before and its characters are downright amazing in their human emotions and nuanced interactions. We have to give the slight edge to Enslaved for being more daring, whereas TFU II plays it safe.
Star Wars: The Force Unleashed II takes nearly every complaint we had about the original and fixes it or gives us something better. We finally feel like a proper, force-wielding one-man army. It’s still short and doesn’t take us on a truly grand tour of the Star Wars universe, but the storytelling holds up in quality and fits right in to the existing mythology.
Oct 26, 2010