I thought Darth Vader was supposed to be an evil genius. Why, then, is he growing a clone (or, perhaps, like, totally not growing a clone) of his former secret apprentice Starkiller? Wasn't his betrayal, throwing countless storm troopers off high ledges and founding the rebel alliance that would ultimately be Vader's undoing, enough in the first game? Evidently not, because the old wheeze is having another pop at training Starkiller to obey. If it were up to me I'd just get a new secret apprentice, possibly one that was dedicated to the cause, and would happily microwave a sack of lovable kittens if I commanded it.
But it's not up to me, so The Force Unleashed II starts with the newest Starkiller (not)clone going a bit crazy and breaking out of his prison. See, Vader! I told you it was a bad idea! But it does lead to a very exciting sequence where you free-fall down a rather large building, crashing through debris and slicing opponents into chunks while forked blasts of lightning crackle around you. This is definitely the life of a Jedi, which is now the key focus of the game.
The Force Unleashed spent far too long dallying around and denying you those incredible Force powers, but this time around LucasArts is trying to juggle the right balance between rigid adherence to series authenticity against things that make for good opportunities to test out the excellent physics engine. The first level, for instance, peppers the landscape with oversized pinball bumpers begging to ping Stormtroopers off precarious ledges. I'm not sure that's canon, but I like it.
Starkiller does cool things. He scrunches up TIE fighters like they're bits of paper, flings them into towers and makes a bridge with the fallen wreckage. He dodges sprays of carbonite from aggressive oversized droids before ripping their shields off with his mind. He effortlessly runs into the camera as the corridor he's running down is destroyed. He has all kinds of powers and he's not afraid to use them.
He earns them a lot faster, too. Repulse, Saber Throw and Mind Trick are all unlocked relatively early on, and a rejigged targeting system for Push makes telekinetic shenanigans a lot easier to pull off. Having dual lightsabers allows for some fancy combo mechanics, too - combine the lightsabers with the force powers and the combat experience is smoother, faster and vastly superior to the original.
But you'll also need to mix up your attacks, as the development team were a bit upset with how everyone just spammed the same attacks over and over in the first one. Enemies now come equipped with some very specific strengths and weaknesses, requiring you to flick between your whole range of force powers to take them down effectively. My current favourites are the jetpack Stormtroopers, who fly off in humorous random directions when you blast them with a bit of lightning.
Destroying the environment feeds you in-game currency, so you can level up your powers, but it also charges up your Force Fury - a juiced up concentration of Force goodness that bears more than a passing resemblance to Kratos' Rage of the Gods. Force Fury basically causes Starkiller to bubble with Force energy and cranks all his powers up to 11, letting you fire huge streams of lightning, slice enemies into pieces and pick up and throw massive droids and vehicles. A typical feature in a third-person action game, perhaps, but certainly appreciated when you're in a pinch and undeniably flashy looking.
It's clear that LucasArts is determined to show off the combat at the moment, but there's an unfolding storyline full of recognisable Star Wars alumni (Boba Fett and Yoda, for instance) and the mandatory series of twists and turns. After escaping from Kimino (by nicking Darth Vader's personal TIE fighter: a nice touch) you end up in a gladiatorial arena on the ornate planet of Cato Neimoidia, eventually falling down a chasm and battling a Gorog (multi-storey monster, huge teeth) on the way down. That's very Lord of the Rings, but a brilliant set-piece for the game to borrow. The first game won a Writers Guild of America award on the strength of its writing, and over 80% of the original development team has stuck around to work on the sequel. Expect more of the same narrative, basically, albeit with a darker tone.
Another big focus is on the pure gameplay experiences offered up by the challenge rooms. One was on offer in this preview build, a retrieval trial that makes you jump across a series of moving platforms to pick up a shiny object and then hoof it back to the starting point.
The room is high up, and beneath each platform are bilious plumes of fog, creeping vines and wispy trails of mist. It's a bit dank, but that's hardly the focus - you need to make it to the object and back in less than 40 seconds to get the platinum award for the challenge. I couldn't manage better than 56 seconds, which got me a crummy silver medal and a deep feeling of professional insecurity. It's all about familiarising yourself with the path of the platforms, but also it requires perfect understanding of Starkiller's abilities to shave away those all-important seconds: you can zip across the first couple of platforms with a simple dash, for instance, eliminating the need to waste time by jumping into the air.
There's no word yet on how many challenge rooms will make it into the final game, but they condense the experience down to addictive bursts of trial and error. They might lack the spectacle of the overblown campaign mode, but they're undeniably addictive gaming morsels - evoking the same compulsive need to excel that causes people to invest months of their life into games like Trials HD and Joe Danger.
The Force Unleashed II is a true sequel - an unashamedly direct continuation of the commercially successful original. But it's also clear LucasArts is focusing a lot of effort addressing the criticisms of the original, so it's highly unlikely we'll end up trudging through Starkiller's next adventure with a poor range of powers and unexciting levels. Jedi Mind Trick and oversized pinball bumpers is a clear sign of good things to come.
Star Wars: The Force Unleashed II is due for release on Xbox 360, PS3, PC, Wii and DS on October 29.