The Force Unleashed II? More like the Short Unleashed II, amirite?

I just finished this game yesterday. Literally. I got it Wednesday, finished Thursday. It’s super short.

That said, it has a lot of weird appeal to me. One, it feels more like a Star Wars story than anything else bearing that name in close to 15 years or so. Yeah, I said it. Starkiller, or whatever his real name is, actually is a fairly compelling protagonist, and what they’ve done here is even better story wise (despite its abysmally short nature). So, all complaints about the game aside, I admire the writers for crafting what has been, ultimately, an interesting Star Wars story with neat twists and interesting characters. Juno, Kota, the whole supporting cast is really solid. Vader doesn’t play particularly well here, but I couldn’t tell you why. It just doesn’t seem like him. It’s like the writers weren’t paying enough attention to the best Vader stories ever told, which are 2 in number: the original trilogy, and this. That feels like Vader in that story, and rightfully so – he says very little, what he does say is important, and he struts about like a badass who’s imminently confident that he can kill whatever decides to agitate him that day.

Ok, but TFUII – complaints: it’s short. I can’t help but mention this because it’s SO short. It’s way too short. Just as things get interesting, just as our hero has a fascinating revelation, shit ends. The combat is still super repetitive, and it’s made worse this time, strangely, by being more fair and interesting.

In the first game, you leveled up just about every force power eventually, though you never needed to touch anything other than Lightning and Saber stuff. Whatever the case, you got all your powers to level 3 by the close of the game whether your wanted to or not. This game is considerably less finnicky about how you level up – you earn XP for every kill and every object you destroy, and that XP is spent purchasing upgrades. Powers still unlock at linear moments throughout the campaign, and it is annoying to have to watch the cutscene about the power unlocking every time (I always died right after something like that). The health system takes the Ninja Gaiden II approach of having damage hurt your overall health and then some vague bit of regenerating health. Avoid getting hit enough and your health pops back up. Your health can never go below a certain point without being able to regen, which is kind of a nice change because it means there’s less contrived cheapness. In TFU the first time ’round, the scariest thing in the world were Purge Troopers, dudes who literally kick your shit in by chaining together attacks that made you prone and helpless and unable to fight back. Every attack they had made you prone, and the only way to get health back was to go eliminate some helpless Stormtroopers. Well, they got rid of that. Which I thought was good.

But now, their combat methodology is to force you to “vary” your attacks based on what resistances an enemy has. Troopers are still fodder – you can take out twelve with one or two combos. Jet Troopers are lightning bait, but at least I have to specifically use that power. There are now riot troopers who are only vulnerable to force powers and Sith Acolytes who are immune to force powers and so you have to saber them. Then there are weird like, saber troopers? I don’t know. They have lightsabers, they can deflect your force attacks and block most of your saber stuff. What’s a guy to do?

Use the new grapple system, that’s what. Actually, that’s what a guy is to do the whole game, for a number of reasons. One, it’s super satisfying – you get a nice up-close cinematic takedown complete with a lightsaber impalement and a throw (alternatively, you can toss an enemy into the air Devil May Cry style and wail on them as they’re up there and defenseless), but the thing is that you can’t take damage while in the grapple animation. In fact, other characters don’t shoot at you. So I would essentially wail on whatever big dudes were present – AT-STs, combat droids, that sort of thing – and then, when my health got a bit low, just dash around grappling little dudes for insta kills (or near insta kills) and getting health back from my life-drain saber crystal and regeneration saber crystal.

The animations for Starkiller’s kills are still spectacular. Let me rephrase – the animation is still spectacular. He still walks a bit like he’s got something shoved up his butt, but from the looks of him, there’s been trauma in his life. The cinematic animation is vastly improved this time around. I really believed a lot of the emotions they were showing me, and I didn’t feel like the characters were quite as dead-faced. I don’t know what they did to fix it, but it worked. Again, Vader still looked and sounded bad. Visually correct, but his motions were very un-Vader-like.

I did my first “hour as the designer” thing and found several things I didn’t like –

They very quickly introduce you to first-order optimal strategies, i.e. the grapple, that last you the entire game.
They establish an enemy as scary, let you beat, and then immediately reuse it. Broke my flow entirely.
They reminded me about Quicktime events, or “how to make a game boring.”

There weren’t any technical breaks in the first hour or so, but I came across some later on – disappearing geometry, geometry that would only appear form certain camera angles, characters that warped about as I abused the grapple mechanics, so on and so forth – but I traced most of those bugs back to the simple reality of all the different pieces interplaying. Sometimes the euphoria engine would just very occasionally not know what the hell to do with a character’s limbs, and rather than break, the character disappeared. Geometry that I wasn’t supposed to get on top of would simply disappear, or if I was manipulating stuff with the Force grip ability and got it out of my line of sight, it would typically disappear moments later, not matter how cautious I was with the move.

I think it’s a solid game that intelligently gave the leeway in the right areas – projectile deflection was said to work at the exact moment the projectile would hit, but it actually worked a little before that. Often times, because of milliseconds of input or animation lag, a deflection would turn into a near miss, but I was rarely punished really badly for it. Projectiles most often didn’t do that much damage, they just had a knockback effect that would screw your combo chain – that is, if you weren’t just abusing the hell out of the grapple mechanic. Did I mention that?

That was the biggest game breaker for me. That, and, as a sequel, it let me down in a lot of key ways. Hands-down the best parts of the first game were the small, intimate boss fights against other super powered Jedi. These were moments where I had to really keep my skills sharp and be aware of the environment and the moves I had at my disposal, or at least know how to use them properly to beat the pattern. There were some that were worse than others. But there’s basically just 2 boss fights in TFU2. Maybe three, but one of them is basically just a timing puzzle and the other is just sort of run-of-the-mill “avoid the damage and wait for the guy to get tired” mode. I didn’t die on a single boss fight, which is kind of a bad thing, I think. The reason being it gave me no sense of accomplishment to have beaten the bosses. They were cinematically interesting, but I don’t really want that as a reward – I want to feel like I achieved something. Achievement and satisfaction from it – fiero, in many ways – is an emotion that games are uniquely positioned to achieve. Boss fights should give you a rush of fiero because they should challenge you to overcome a significant obstacle to achieve progress. They don’t do that in TFU2. I basically just wailed on dudes and their health bars went down.

And then there’s the on-rails sections. I hate on-rails sections, almost universally. It was actually kind of fun in Darksiders, but that was the last time I truly enjoyed it. Basically, every hour of gameplay or so, Starkiller jumps out a window/off a cliff/out of a crashing starship and hurtles through space trying to either catch up to something or land without dying. This means dodging obstacles as they come your way or blasting them with Force powers. It’s very, very redundant after you do it once, but TFUII has you doing it I think 4 times. Maybe it’s only 3. But there’s only 3 levels, so it’s hard to say.

Oh, yeah, there’s only 3 levels. Kamino, Cato Neimoidia, a Nebulon-B Frigate (which amused me), and then Kamino again. You explore a 50 foot by 50 foot section of Dagobah as well, but it’s hardly worth calling a “level” because you don’t do a single puzzle or fight on the planet.

As a Star Wars nerd, it had some interesting moments – it was Canonically fairly to very accurate. It’s the early days of the Rebellion, so they only have a rag-tag fleet of Nebulon-B Frigates and some light cruisers – Corellion corvettes and gunships, a handful of Gallofree light freighters. What was way more amusing was seeing LucasArts tapping its own history with the starfighter selection – Z-95 Headhunters and R-41 Starchasers were on display more than once, with an extremely healthy smattering of Y-wings as well. Oh, yes, I’m going to show you pictures:

No really.
First showed up in TIE fighter.

This made me smile because I’m a big enough nerd to know that all of that information is canonically accurate, and it’s super nice to see someone, anyone, within Lucas Licensing that seems to give a shit about that sort of thing. The research is admirable, if nothing else, but the problem was that it made me want to go back to those hey days of yore – when Star Wars games were the best games I played. Dark Forces, TIE Fighter – they were all incredibly solid entries in what used to be a very narrow market. And because they were Star Wars games, they had enough branding that they could be bold and different. TIE Fighter and the other X-wing games were essentially WWII-era dogfighting simulators without any ground to catch into. They replaced all the annoying fuel and oil management, flaps and all that nonsense with combat-focused stuff that let you really enjoy some wiggle room, develop a playstyle, and actually feel like a Rebel/Imperial pilot.

It was good times, and I appreciate their nods to nostalgia, but that won’t make TFU a good series. The grapple animations were fun, but got quickly repetitive. I would’ve stopped doing them if I had known there were only 3 (all the characters got the same melee [A+X] grapple except the riot troopers. For them, you stole their force pike thingy and smacked them in the face with it. But all the characters had the exact same Force-power grapple, which was basically a juggle-set-up). and they weren’t so ridiculously effective. The era of quicktime events is also done.

But the worst thing was when they showed me what TFU could really be in the hands of some innovators – at one point, Kota has to pop over to use the Force and move a bridge so that you can cross it. (Now, how Starkiller, who can crash a Star Destroyer with the Force from miles away, couldn’t reach an extra 200 feet to tilt a bridge, I will never know) In that moment, I realized that TFU needs to go co-op – solving force-push and pull puzzles with a friend would be fantastic (as evidenced by Portal 2), and the potential for team-up takedowns would actually re-enliven Quicktime events, because your friends’ failures and successes would affect you (sort of like co-op mode on Guitar Hero and Rock Band games). Not to mention how cool two-man takedowns of giant droids would be, or paired-up grappling maneuvers to really screw up a boss’s day.

So, overall:

Dear LucasArts,

I can fix TFU’s gameplay. You got everything else right. I can make it an amazing game with two words and a handful of ideas, a couple of useful cuts, and better encounter design.

I am available to start immediately.