Released in September 2008, Star Wars: The Force Unleashed proved that a game can be plenty of fun and still utterly heartbreaking at the same time. This beautiful action game from LucasArts had so much going for it: stunning art design, a robust physics engine that drove a wide variety of Force powers, and a compelling story that almost made fans forget about the prequels. (Hey, we said almost.) But a number of niggling issues like an imprecise targeting system and some ill-conceived set pieces punted much of the game's potential. Despite those issues, the game wound up selling north of 7 million copies, so naturally LucasArts is working on a sequel--a game we had the opportunity to see last week. [Warning: This preview contains spoilers related to the original Force Unleashed.]
Knowing where the sequel picks up requires a brief history lesson on the ending of the original. If you don't recall, The Force Unleashed offered players a choice: kill Darth Vader and serve at Emperor Palpatine's side (the non-canonical dark side ending) or take the good guy route by going after Palpatine. The latter option resulted in the protagonist Starkiller sacrificing himself to let his rebel accomplices escape, lying dead as the game drew to a close. The Force Unleashed II picks up the narrative thread from this option, the canonical ending from the original. You've been cloned by Vader's forces and are currently being housed in a prison cell on Kamino.
Explaining why Darth Vader would take such a risk, producer Matt Filbrandt said, "He's basically trying to re-create the ultimate Sith warrior." But after a training regime gone awry, Starkiller uses his raw Force powers to escape captivity and go on the lam, which begins a hunt that serves as the primary conflict for the rest of the game. But what of Starkiller the clone? "Essentially, Starkiller is now trying to find out who he is, what it means to be human, and ultimately all he knows is that he has these visions of [Juno Eclipse, the original game's love interest]. And in order to figure out who he is, he has to figure out who she is."
Of course, the storyline was already one of the strong points of the original game, and with the same team of writers returning for a second go around, it's safe to assume The Force Unleashed II will maintain a similar level of quality in its narrative. During this demo, we were more interested in what's being done on a gameplay level--specifically, how LucasArts is treating the targeting system players use to command objects in the environment. That unreliable targeting system was a fickle mistress when it came to using Force grip to pick things (or people) up and fling them at other things (or people). Filbrandt's take: "We've really cleaned things up. We've taken a really hard look at the overall targeting priority system to make sure that, nine times out of 10, the player's going to grab what he wants, and when he throws it at something, it's going to hit what he wants to hit."
The most noticeable change to that system has been made to the visual indicator for your target. The boxy reticule in the middle of the screen is now gone and has been replaced by a glowing blue halo effect that surrounds the entire object you're targeting. This visual effect seems to do a much better job of distinguishing what's under your control, and Filbrandt seems confident that the focus testing LucasArts has done suggests that players agree. Because this was a purely hands-off demo, we're not quite ready to believe this system will fix things entirely, but it's certainly reassuring to hear that LucasArts knows perfectly well--and is focused on improving--one of the biggest flaws in the first game.
The Force Unleashed II isn't all continuations and refinements, though. Our demo included a decent handful of entirely new gameplay sequences. It began with Starkiller in a freefall, tumbling from a giant tower as if he were BASE jumping. There were numerous ledges jutting out from the tower that Starkiller had to demolish during that freefall. There were also new Force powers like the mind trick, which has enemies fighting alongside you or turning manic and jumping off ledges depending on the scenario. We're also told that players will be able to pilot the TIE fighter that Starkiller steals from Vader during the introductory moments, which is something we're eager to see in action.
Altogether, The Force Unleashed II looks quite promising. The biggest question mark remains firmly in place--how the game plays with a controller in hand--but it's good to see that LucasArts seems aware of the first game's flaws while adding entirely new elements. We could go on about some of the new features (dual lightsabers!) and fixes (faster menus!), but we should have plenty of time for that as we get closer to the game's release later this year. Expect to see more on The Force Unleashed II at next month's Electronic Entertainment Expo.