The original Force Unleashed represented what a lot of gamers have always wanted from a Star Wars game a big, burly Jedi fest with megaton Force powers and a rip-roaring story of rage and betrayal. The first game to be based in the period between Revenge of the Sith and A New Hope, it centred on Starkiller, a young warrior recruited by Vader as a secret apprentice. When sent out to spy on the burgeoning rebel alliance, the brooding anti-hero gradually comes to sympathise with their viewpoint.
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4. XBox 360
2. Star Wars: The Force Unleashed 2
Although criticised in the gaming press for its one dimensional hack-n-slash gameplay, the mix of relentless third-person lightsaber battling with a twisting plot (which nicely explained the origins of the original Star Wars trilogy) brought in sales of 7m copies and a host of awards. A sequel was inevitable, but there was always going to be one problem: at the end of the original game, Starkiller is killed saving the rebel leaders. Though, of course, in the Star Wars universe, problems like this are never impossible to address
"When we started Force Unleashed 2, we kicked around some ideas," explains the game's executive producer and lead writer, Haden Blackman. "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."
So at the opening of the sequel, Vader seems to have a clone of Starkiller locked up in a holding cell on Kamino, the water planet from Attack of the Clones. When Starkiller escapes, his first thought apart from wondering whether he actually is a clone or not is to track down his love interest from the first game, Juno Eclipse, while rebel chief Rahm Kota wants to use him as a weapon against the Empire.
These contrasting missions see Starkiller travelling to Dagobah (where he apparently uncovers some uneasy truths about himself in the Dark Side Cave), and on to join a rebel fleet at the edge of the galaxy just as it's attacked by imperial bounty hunters. So, Starkiller just needs to locate Juno, save the rebellion and discover the truth about his own identity. "I was really happy with how the story turned out in Force Unleashed," says Blackman, "But it's 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..."
This all sounds intriguing, but what Force Unleashed 2 really has to do is build some depth and substance into the button-mashing maelstrom that was its predecessor. Blackman claims this has been a key priority; the team has completely redesigned all the familiar Force powers from the first title including Force Push and Force Grip, and has added a few newcomers including the potentially amusing Force Mind Trick that'll allow you to trick Storm Troopers into leaping from high ledges. Each power is upgradeable, too, so with Mind Trick, you'll eventually be able to encourage enemy soldiers to start firing on each other. Plus, Starkiller can wield dual lightsabers now, which opens up some new combo possibilities. And looks cool.
More importantly, the design team has chosen to actually scale down the variety of enemies you'll face. In the original game there were around 100 different kinds, now there are 25, but each has its own unique abilities. As Blackman says: "We took a lot of time with TFU2 to really sit down and redesign our whole AI system, the way they navigate, but also to invent a whole host of new enemies, and make them tactically significant." He shows us two enemies to illustrate this new diversity. The carbonite trooper is large robot capable of freezing the player Han Solo-style, if they get too close so that's one to tackle from a distance. Conversely, there's the missile trooper, which resembles an enlarged power droid complete with an array of ranged homing projectiles; so this is one you need to get in close to and take out with a lightsaber.
Level design has changed this time, too. In the first title, many gamers admired the art direction, which recalled the grungy look of the original movies, but disliked the linearity. This time things are more open and interactive; Blackman describes the stages as "Force playgrounds", each one littered with objects that can be picked up and propelled around the environment to destructive effect. Players will be able to gain XP by using props in imaginative ways, and this in turn feeds Starkiller's Force Fury gauge, which gives a temporary mega-boost to his powers. It looks like there will also be special sequences which Blackman refers to as "run for your life moments", in which you'll have a set amount of time to leg it through an area while the whole place is systematically destroyed. Sounds a little like the end of the Crew Expendable mission in Modern Warfare, but we'll see how it goes.
At the heart of it all, the game engine has been upgraded, with an overhauled streaming system, as well as new lighting and physics. Like its predecessor, Force Unleashed 2 will combine three third-party physics engines, Havok, Euphoria and Digital Molecular Matter, to provide cutting edge human animation, materials effects and authentic physical forces. But this time round, the team feels it's getting the most out of its triple engine set-up, with enemies flailing and scenic structures collapsing as you blast them with Force powers. "The biggest difference is that the team knows how to use this stuff!" jokes Blackman. "Whenever you're building the first iteration [of a game series] and a brand new game engine at the same time, everything comes in hot and fast we were literally figuring out how to get the most out of those three technologies all the way up to shipping. The DLC then helped us to learn more, and that knowledge has given us the biggest leap forward."
As a writer though, it seems what Blackman is most excited about is the story behind Force Unleashed 2. During the pre-E3 hype for the game, he's been telling reporters "this is our Empire Strikes Back", which was always going to drum up interest. But what exactly is he getting at with this quotable soundbite? "Empire feels to me like a more personal story," he says. "They introduce the romance between Han and Leia in a really meaningful way, and it's a much darker story than A New Hope so there are some of those elements that we wanted to carry over.
"But we always looked to Empire Strikes Back as our guiding star - a lot of the art direction in Force Unleashed was based on Empire. But we really made a conscious effort to say, 'okay this is a sequel, how do we take some of the same steps forward that Empire did in terms of tone and character development?' And to me, Empire may be the best movie of all time, so to set that as a goal was good for motivating the team!"
Like the first game, too, Force Unleashed 2 will create direct parallels with the movie saga. The original talked about the formation of the rebellion, but the sequel will move things on and explain other factors of the era immediately before A New Hope. As Blackman hints: "There are moments fans will look at it and say, 'well I didn't know it happened that way '" He also mentions that several major characters from the movies will take significant roles in this game, though won't be drawn on who. I ask about the demo, which shows the rebel forces about to be attacked by mercenaries does this mean we can expect a certain favourite bounty hunter to appear? "You mean IG-88?" quips Blackman.
But it's not all going to be about thrilling hardcore fans with recognisable cameos. Blackman insists that he wants Force Unleashed II to interest those who haven't even seen the film saga. "We're trying to re-envision and reinvent Star Wars in some ways," he claims. "If you like the big OTT action games, I'm hoping you'll like this one, and that the Star Wars setting is just a bonus. At the end of the day, we're making a game not a movie. It's the gameplay that has to really grab you."
He also points out that there are both obsessive Star Wars fanatics and casual fans on the team, and that they have regularly looked outside of the series for inspiration: "We're constantly referencing other movies and games when we're trying to get a point across. We have a kind of short hand. If I say, 'I want his reaction to be like Roy Scheider in Jaws when he fist sees the shark' everybody knows what I'm talking about. There's a moment we touch on in the story this is one of my favourite moments when Starkiller has a vision of Juno and she passes right through him and fades away. And I wanted his reaction to be reminiscent of the moment in Poltergeist, where the mother of Carol Anne, the girl who's disappeared, feels her daughter pass through her. She closes her eyes and can smell her daughter around her. I wanted to get that same emotional punch."
So what can we really expect from Force Unleashed 2? Demo footage from E3 suggests a strong physics system, some outlandish powers and a range of interesting destructible environments. But can the game really move us away from button mashing and toward a more refined system, like Bayonetta or Yakuza 3? We'll need hands-on experience to gauge that.
What we do know is that, once again, there will be no multiplayer with the PC, PS3 and Xbox 360 versions. Blackman says he wanted to concentrate on the single-player story, but as Red Dead Redemption has recently shown, it's possible to have a very strong campaign-based game, but still make some room for a few offbeat online multiplayer activities. It seems that the Wii version will feature a four-player deathmatch, though, and there's talk of a "Challenge" mode in the other versions which will feature an online leaderboard perhaps little consolation to many gamers in this connected era.
But then, as the strongest element of the original game was its twisting cinematic narrative, there's still going to be plenty of interest in this clearly intricately planned and crafted sequel. Blackman has been working on Star Wars games for 13 years and seems as excited by this one as anything that's gone before. "I can't wait to see the reaction to the ending!" he says. " It ties directly into the saga, and to the character arcs of some of the main characters we know from the saga. I think we've made some bold, ballsy choices that are going to leave fans talking "
Star Wars: The Force Unleashed II is released on DS, PC, PS3, Wii and Xbox 360 on 29 October
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