Believe it or not, I like George Lucas as a filmmaker (I know, I know, an admission like that isn’t too far from saying you like Michael Bay as a filmmaker, or a stomach virus as a cleanser), but artistry is often found in the unlikeliest places, and the avant-garde rhythms and shapes Lucas absorbed as a young film-school pup reemerged several decades later, appended to a multi-billion dollar sci-fi trilogy, creating some of the most memorable imagery the American blockbuster has seen in ages. Sift through the detritus of Jar Jar, Jake Lloyd, and the harlequin-romance dialogue in Attack of the Clones, and there’s an eye for color and strange geometry, a distinctive palette, and an unexpected and operatic sense of despair and loss.
When Lucas effectively subcontracts the “expanded universe” to other media (games, spin-off movies, and books), that’s quite another story, and the result usually doesn’t put the best face on the franchise. The blurry line that separates a writer-producer-director like Lucas from innovators in experimental film and video now becomes a thick, reinforced concrete barrier, and the stories, such as they are, typically amount to half-hearted camp. Even if you think Lucas is nothing more than a media mogul who likes to play at cinema, less Slavko Vorkapich and more Howard Hughes, there’s still something to be said about the quality of copies versus originals—or the difference between a naïve Padawan and an evil clone.
Which brings us to Star Wars: The Force Unleashed II—the assets and liabilities of which are very cleanly divided between action gameplay and what can only condescendingly be referred to as the “supporting” narrative. It’s a sequel to the 2008 hit, one that ends by ensuring that no sequel could even be proposed without some impossible narrative contortionism, but the corkscrew premise (dead, not dead, clone, not a clone, dark side, not on the dark side, etc.) is the least of the game’s problems.
Because if this reviewer can give anything a pass, it’s a farfetched kickoff. Other issues, not so much: TFU2 takes a severe beating from its charisma-deprived protagonist, who on the drawing board might have been patterned after the physically and psychically corrupted Anakin Skywalker in Revenge of the Sith, but whose sickly pallor and clingy, whiny voice (courtesy Sam Witwer, best known as the ill-fated Private Jessup in The Mist) tends more to resemble mid-1990s Giovanni Ribisi, specifically from his X-Files guest spot. Supporting players don’t help either, from the smart-aleck nagging of General Kota to the unconvincing mimics of Yoda and Darth Vader. (Here’s an idea: If you can’t get James Earl Jones and Frank Oz, maybe don’t bother with their iconic characters.) As for the story itself, the less said the better.
Fortunately, almost all of the bullshit cutscenes are skippable, and if the only thing you want from a Star Wars FPS is to slash your way through Lucas-scapes, dropping bodies, and smashing AT-ATs, this is the game. A robust but manageable stream of troopers, imperial guards, invisible robo-werewolves (just go with it), and other assorted baddies runs through the game, and the “Unleashed!” level of difficulty (the fourth tier of difficulty, which is only unlocked after finishing it on one of the other three), remarkably, gives the player a hell of a fight without making completion impossible. But not for lack of trying.
The most pleasant surprise is that the hero’s multitude of capabilities—saber-throwing, arcs of electricity, force repel, mind tricks, etc.—are actually quite easy to remember and master, and it’s a measure of the designer’s creativity that you come across just the right situation to use each skill at least once. Elaborate saber-fighting techniques are just a matter of frenetic button-pushing, which should come as no problem to anyone who’s played a video game, especially a shooter, for more than two minutes. I had some quibbles with the design (the usual invisible bulkheads that plague most FPS’s, some instability while executing complicated jumps), but if there’s one basic test for games like these, it’s that they’re hard enough to make winning feel like an accomplishment, but winnable nonetheless. The fact that the game clears this hurdle makes it easy to ignore its otherwise crippling liabilities.