Star Wars: The Force Unleashed II - hands-on

While it’s not unusual for developers to trumpet the story they’ve created for their latest game, it is an eyebrow- raiser to hear a producer of the sequel to the fastest-selling Star Wars game ever emphasize that story is the tip-top, most important thing about the latest addition to the Lucasverse. Most would say gameplay.

“Story comes first,” says Brett Rector, the producer in question. (“I’m one of the producers,” he says, “but we have about twelve. It’s a pretty huge job as some of us work with design, some with environment art, animators, technical artists, engineers... it’s a hefty job and a pretty sizeable team.”) And he’s perhaps right to emphasize the narrative, as the game mechanics speak for themselves.

Don’t go expecting a wholesale reinvention of the first Force Unleashed – this is more of a continuation, but that’s no bad thing, given the original’s solid execution of wreaking havoc with the Force. There are new additions, sure – Mind Trick lets you turn stormtroopers on each other or make them hurl themselves off mile-high ledges, and the slowly built-up ‘Force Fury’ meter lets you overclock your powers to a startling degree. We saw a power-drunk Starkiller use Force Grip to pick up an AT-MP (rocket-equipped scout walker) and hurl it around with abandon, or snatch TIE-Fighters out of the sky to throw into a gleaming spire, or juggle bad guys by tossing them repeatedly against pinball bumper-style security devices. It’s intoxicating stuff, and looks glorious. But it’s the story Rector wants us to appreciate.

Talking to us in London about Force Unleashed II, Brett is good-humored, funny and endlessly enthusiastic about his baby, which sees the main character Starkiller – Darth Vader’s dead-at-the-end-of-the-first-game ‘secret apprentice’ – resurrected as a clone on the planet of Kamino (as seen in, er, Attack of the Clones). This new Starkiller is troubled by surfacing memories of his ‘old’ life, and busts loose in a quest to find who he really is, which means tracking down Juno Eclipse, his old pilot and love interest. Vader promptly lets loose Boba Fett while Starkiller scours the universe, stopping off at Dagobah for a chat with Yoda and a visit to a certain cave seen in The Empire Strikes Back.

“Story comes first,” re-affirms Rector. “But the story and gameplay are there to service each other – the story services gameplay, and the gameplay services story. But at the top of it all we just want to tell a compelling story and that’s how it’s always been. It’s one of our tenets at LucasArts, and it’s stemmed from the old days. It’s always been about a good story and good gameplay to support it! And that’s especially true of this franchise.” It’s not exaggeration – for all the variable Star Wars games we’ve had to endure over the years, LucasArts has arguably always had a focus on narrative. And given Unleashed’s canonical nature, surely it must have been tempting to throw in everyone from Bossk to Bothan Spy #27 to keep the hardcore happy.

“Breaking the story is a collaborative effort,” says Rector. “It started with Haden Blackman [soon to be the former executive producer of next gen Star Wars titles at LucasArts], who was integral to this project and the executive producer. What we do is focus on story first, and the characters – the game should support the story, not the other way around. It’s not like we take what characters we want from the Star Wars universe and say ‘let’s punch them in here and see where the story goes.’ Obviously, though, we have wish lists and wants, and you can make those lists all day, but then the story starts to take shape and you put these little bits and pieces in, and eventually you have your own tiny part of the Star Wars mythos!”

And although you might think that getting your own official Star Wars story approved would be riddled with draconian do’s and don’ts, you’d actually be completely wrong. “Part of my job is that I work with licensing as well,” continues Rector, “so I liaise with them. I was right in there, and they have to approve everything so we have to run everything by them. And you know what? They encourage the creativity of the team. We did have the Ultimate Sith Edition of the first game and when we touted that as an Infinities [a non-canonical comic book mini-series from Dark Horse] type of storyline they were more apt to let us go that route – they were like, ‘Look, this isn’t canon,’ and we were saying ‘Yes, we know,’ because we had those two endings in the first game. So licensing keeps us in check.

“And they really have a great respect for us as well,” continues Rector. “Plus, working with Haden, who’s worked for the company for twelve, 15 years... he’s been there a while, and so they have a great respect for him. They know we’re going to do justice to the license and to Star Wars, and not wreak havoc on convention... not that they would allow us to anyway! It’s a nice little trust there – they know we’re not going to try to slip anything by them.”

Star Wars in game form looks like it’s remaining in safe hands for the moment, then. And in terms of being an actual playable experience, while The Force Unleashed 2 may not reinvent the Corellian wheel or drop the jaw with massive surprises, it’s still inventive, action-packed and provides exactly what the seven million buyers of the first game want more of. That we’re as excited to see what happens to this Starkiller clone as we are to throw stormtroopers around via the power of our mind speaks volumes about Brett Rector and co’s dedication to telling a ripping yarn.

Sep 6, 2010