While the games industry is fortunate enough to find that its best-sellers are usually excellent products, from time to time a few questionable titles slip through the net. The original Force Unleashed was one of them, with its impressive use of the Star Wars licence thanks to glossy animated scenes and fancy physics prowess unable to quite hide the shallow combat and frustrating boss battles. It was enjoyable but ultimately lacking, and so with seven million sales worldwide it's easy to see why there's a sequel. And to LucasArts's credit, it knows where it went wrong and has clearly worked hard on remedying those disappointing elements.
Those who finished the first game might be a little baffled by how a sequel could actually come about. The 'bad' ending saw Starkiller align with Darth Vader, which led to alternate scenes of the films in a series of optional downloadable content, while the other saw him lay down his life in order to save the Rebel Alliance. But he's back for the sequel, found trapped in isolation on Kamino and kept alive by Vader, and is told he is a clone of the original Apprentice. However, flashes of the past convince him otherwise, and as he is tasked with defeating a hologram of the love interest from the first game, he resists and breaks free from captivity.
And he does so in spectacular fashion. The first playable scenes are in complete freefall as he smashes through a wall, using Force powers to break through ledges travelling towards the screen at a frightening speed and chucking his lightsaber at oncoming TIE Fighters trying to shoot him out of the sky. Before long he pummels through the roof of a ground installation, sending patrolling guards flying in his wake, before fleeing off down a corridor and starting the adventure proper. Since his abilities from the last game are conveniently stripped away, the player is taught the basics once more, flinging boxes through force field doors and juggling enemies in the air with new duel-lightsabers.
Soon touching down into a crowded courtyard, things become a little hectic. It's here where the improvements for the sequel come to light; the visuals have been given a boost, with higher-quality textures and more fluid animation, along with the return of the sadistically pleasing ragdoll physics as you launch Stormtroopers into the air or dismember their limbs with rapid attacks. The often brainless, button-mashing combat is no longer as ever present since jet pack guards and baton-wielding foes easily repel basic attacks. Throwing in a Force push or mind control to turn them against their own side is a simple but effective means to diversify the combat.
Since there is also a turret lingering on the sidelines as you battle squadrons of Stormtroopers, the entire section is both a test of learning new skills and ensuring you stay alive. By the end of it, a mechanical beast with freezing gas and high shield requires a QTE finish to dispatch before heading further into the base. From here until the end of the stage it feels more like the progression from the first game, with long linear corridors populated with boxes and sentries foolish enough to take you on. However, the basic combat feels a little more free-flowing and enjoyable now, and the platforming is a little tougher even in this opening stage, requiring full use of double jumps and dashes.
Facing up against more of the larger enemies showed issues with the targeting, which is required to seeing oncoming attacks and pulling away their defences, but is something that could be ironed out before release. The final stages of this opening chapter mirror the high velocity and cinematic pace of the introduction, having you run down an exploding corridor before plucking TIE Fighters out of the sky and flinging them into a tower to create a makeshift bridge. It ends by toppling a couple of unsuspecting AT-ATs and flying out on a ship as Darth Vader watches from the shadows.
This basic but varied opening stage ends there, as did our hands-on with the campaign, but LucasArts was keen to show off what to expect later. Starkiller finds himself on Cato Neimoidia soon after - a planet featured briefly in Episode III - which is populated with a casino-like 'pleasure palace' that promises plenty of interaction with the game's freeflowing physics systems. The climax is an arena battle against a vast beast called the Gorog, ending in another freefall section as the environment crumbles around him. LucasArts was also keen to stress that boss battles will be more balanced this time around and that it hopes to smooth out those frustrating climbs in difficulty.
Meeting up with General Kota, the adventure moves from planet to planet in search of exactly whether he is actually a clone, as well as the fate of his love Juno. There also promises to be several cameos from key Star Wars characters. Jumping in between stages, the sequel retains the impressive scale and variety of the look and feel of each planet, as well as the QTE-heavy mini-bosses. Like the jet-pack guards, more higher level minions required varied attacks to defeat, and Starkiller can now build up and deploy Force Fury to enhance his abilities, rending Stormtroopers to dust and toppling mechanical beasts with ease.
One of the more interesting additions is the Challenge Mode, bite-sized missions outside of the campaign designed to make good use of online Leaderboards. They'll be composed of platforming, fighting and puzzle challenges that are scored with timed medals. The only one on show was a basic moving platform section that had you collect an orb and make it back to the beginning, and although the original was not particularly renowned for its platforming, here it felt solid and competitive. The number of stages for this mode has yet to be announced, but it will act as a pleasant means of extending the value of the game, as well as added a bit of variety outside of the campaign.
It's not surprising that the formula hasn't been dramatically changed in Force Unleashed II, and with the original's strong sales it's not difficult to see why. But it has improved just about everything in an effort to make combat and progression more diverse, while retaining its flashy and over the top veneer. Whether it eventually becomes monotonous like the first game is difficult to tell, but between the more challenging enemies, new Force powers and additional arcade challenges, my time with it was more than satisfactory.
Star Wars: The Force Unleashed II will be available on Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC from October 29.
> Click here to watch the latest trailer for the game