There is a fundamental difference between people who class the little cushioned pods that career wildly around a track at carnivals and funfairs as dodgems, and those who call them bumper cars. One pastime: two outlooks. Similarly, when presented with a Force-aided freefall through more lightning than several electrical storms, swirling clouds of hazardous debris and floating bits of TIE Fighters there are two approaches: you can duck and weave, or use your awesome powers of Force manipulation to punch asteroids into pebbles and fling debris into out into the ether and cause security droids to short circuit and explode with a dose of Force lightning.
The Force Unleashed - that stepping stone chapter between Revenge of the Sith and A New Hope - is getting a sequel next month (26th October), and we spent a little time finding out how Starkiller managed to come back from the dead and just how the team are getting along with trying to rectify the faults of the original.
As Tom's review notes, the first game was something of a mixed bag. It's narrative elements fairly strong, award-winning in fact, the game suffered from being a fairly trivial hack-and-slash with a distinct lack of variety in both gameplay and locales. The difficulty was that, just like Jim in American Pie, The Force Unleashed blew its load before it even began - the demo level that saw the player throwing Wookies from the treetops with a maxed-out Darth Vader proved to be the most entertaining part of the whole game.
So it is that Round Two aims to address these issues. The game kicks off with Mr. Starkiller escaping a secret cloning facility on Kamino with that freefall I mentioned at the start, following a quick refresher courtesy of Darth Vader, who had copies made after his original apprentice snuffed it...only they all went mad and had to be exterminated. Thankfully, this particular incarnation of Starkiller seems to be working fine and so Vader proposes another stab at taking over the galaxy, that is until the clone starts to remember things from his previous existence, culminating in an inability to do any harm to anything resembling former-love interest Juno Eclipse.
Cue a crisis of identity, a reassessment of what's important and a thrilling escape as this new and improved Starkiller sets off to find Juno, learn about himself courtesy of the Dark Side Cave and a little nudge from a little green pal, and join up with Rahm Kota once more to try and take down the Empire.
We didn't manage, as you'd expect, to see much of the unfolding narrative, or gain any insight into the various twists and turns that it will provide - considering that this was integral to the experience last time around, it's unsurprising that LucasArts are keeping those cards as close to their chests as possible right now - but Haden Blackman, the game's lead writer and designer, has stated that [The Force Unleashed had] a broad story in terms of the action focus. We don't get into the heads of characters very much – apart from some new insight into Vader. I want to make this a much more personal story [...] We considered starting with a new character or going to a different time period, or even doing some weird thing where we start from the 'evil' ending of Force Unleashed 1, which actually then became the basis for a couple of our DLC levels [...] But ultimately we kept saying that Starkiller was a character we'd invested a lot of time into. I enjoyed writing for that character, we enjoyed working with Sam Witwer, the actor who portrayed him, and we thought there was still room to tell stories with him. It wasn't a huge debate – once we'd put the idea forward everyone got behind it.'
But it was the gameplay we were really there for, and there are a few curious new additions and revisions to the formula that look most interesting indeed. The first is the new Jedi Mind Trick power. Target a Stormtrooper - a feat made rather less vague and fiddly this time around thanks to some slight tweaking of the control system - and, at the press of a button, you'll send him into a state of confusion. Depending on the strength of the power - the RPG-lite elements make a welcome return - you'll either encourage the wayward henchperson to stop in their tracks, fire on their mates, or head for the nearest precipice or window, open or otherwise, and hurl themselves to their doom.
The number of types of enemy has been scaled back too - there were over 100 in the last game, now there are around 25 - the idea being that fewer, more unique, enemy types will make for a more varied game experience. Frankly, I'm a little sceptical on that front, but from the time I spent with the game it's clear to see that combat is far more tactical than before. Wade into battle against a rabble of Stormtroopers and you'll be able to juggle them around like puppets before making kebabs out of them on the end of your lightsaber; try it against some missile or shock troopers and you'll have to be quick on the draw and somewhat inventive, as your lightsaber won't help you against the latter.
Again the levels are strewn with things to pick up and play with - the targeting on Force Grip has been supposedly refined to make chucking around your object of choice a bit easier, though we didn't see too much of a difference - but there are actually slightly fewer interactive objects than before, although the areas have been opened up a fair bit. The effects are there for all to see, though, and it's clear that having a second run at the triple engine setup that the team used for TFU is paying dividends, often with hilarious physics-based results. Some of that is down to the limbs that now come off when you finish off an opponent, which is a pleasant touch. I've always had a slight hankering for a game that allows us to tap into the full power of a weapon that can theoretically slice through pretty much anything. Well, this is not it, but it's a start and it shows that team have listened to fans and critics alike.
As you'll have noted from the trailers, Starkiller now races around wielding two lightsabers in his curious backwards grip although, I have to say, having seen Jedi Academy unleash all three styles (rounding things off with the Darth Maul double-bladed staff) a bit of choice would have been nice. The area of your attack is bigger, sure, and it means that Starkiller can now pull off some pretty cool combos, but it doesn't really change the way that the game plays in any significant way - or at least it didn't in our limited playthrough. Everything still feels exceptionally (almost too) fluid, like Starkiller is gliding around on an oil slick, and it's difficult to see on this evidence anyone who disliked the way the first game played being won over by the second treatment. That said, difficulty levels count for a lot. Of course you can still button mash, but the variety of enemies and their offensive and defensive capabilities, the improved AI (especially on the higher difficulty settings) and the more extensive combo lexicon mean that there's a good amount of depth there.
One thing that is a marked improvement, though, is the addition of Force Fury. Boss battles were traditionally a snooze fest of evasion and spamming Force Lightning, followed by a mandatory Quick Time Event. Force Fury, its bar fuelled by imaginative use of the Force when dispatching foes, essentially overloads Starkiller's powers. It was frankly ridiculous that he could pull down a Star Destroyer (admittedly with cack-handed controls which made it a difficult feat) but not crush an AT-ST. Well, now he can.
It's clear that The Force Unleashed II isn't just a clone of its former instalment, but neither does it seem to be a huge departure from the formula. As it stands, when it ships at the end of next month those fans who loved the playground stylings and fast-paced combat of the first game will go bananas for this, but sceptics probably won't be turned.