Even the most enthusiastic developer will tell you making games is damned hard work. Nonetheless, it's hard not to be jealous of those who get to play around with the Star Wars licence. Imagine creating your worlds as a level designer and then getting to fill them with the iconic motifs of a beloved and instantly recognisable universe – shiny Stormtroopers, swooshing lightsabers, the ominous rasping respirations of Darth Vader. And then there are all those other characters. It must be awesome to witness someone you've designed having a chat with Yoda in a cut-scene.
The original Force Unleashed revelled in the spectacle and visual effects of Star Wars, inviting you to put irresistibly cool Dark Side powers to use in chaotic, flashy and occasionally over-the-top combat. Putting all the God of Star Wars jokes aside for a moment, the licence turned out to be a good fit for a violent action game. However, repetitive enemies and occasionally unimaginative levels didn't always do enough to encourage you to exploit the full destructive potential of the Force.
At least it was well-written. The plot, penned by Haden Blackman, is among the best of any Star Wars videogame. Blackman has since left LucasArts, but not before polishing off the storyline for the sequel. Force Unleashed II recognises its predecessor's strengths – a rich story and round characters, graphical flair and the dangerous allure of using Force powers to kill and destroy – but it's letting us play a bit more creatively in the Star Wars sandbox.
Force Unleashed II is set shortly after the first game and between the two film trilogies, not long before Episode IV. Starkiller, having died at the end of the first game, has been cloned by Darth Vader at his secret research base on the stormy, sun-deprived an unmistakeably Dark Side-y planet Kamino.
But the experiment is failing. The clone is tormented by mysteriously inherited memories of the original Starkiller, particularly his love interest Juno, and resolves to escape from Kamino in order to trace his memories back to their source. Where the first Force Unleashed was about redemption, claims the developer, Force Unleashed II is about identity.
Both games, of course, are about slapping, slicing, zapping and force-throwing Empire-affiliated rapscallions of the Star Wars universe around by means of sleek lightsabre-based melee combat, eye-catching choreographed grapples and a small but effective selection of Force powers.
More is being done to employ the full range of these delightfully destructive powers this time around. There are enemies who will only succumb to certain tactics, like flying Stormtroopers who must be zapped out of the air with Force Lightning and robots with enormous shields that have to be flung away with Force Grip.
More varied enemies means more fun with the combat – why bother spamming the melee button to slowly dismantle an AT when you can stop its missiles in the air with Force Push, then send them straight back into its face?
Force Unleashed II's opening level takes us through Starkiller's escape from Kamino as he fights off Darth Vader's entire guard before escaping in his personal TIE fighter. It's not short on spectacle. The action begins with Starkiller flinging himself out of a window to get away from Vader, followed by a freefall sequence where you can either dodge all the jutting space-architecture and TIE-fighters or blast your way through. We land on the floor of one of the research complexes, having smashed through the ceiling and blown out all the glass windows. It's not exactly a quiet getaway.
You get EXP for destroying stuff in Force Unleashed II, which is one of the many incentives for using the full range of force powers to fling furniture and shatter screens and windows as well as devastate waves of Stormtroopers. Chucking things about with Force Grip is much easier now, too – rather than trying to line up the annoyingly fixed camera on your desired object, you can now rely on context-sensitive targeting.
The controls are familiar from the first Force Unleashed. Your two main Force powers, Push and Lightning, are on the face buttons, and Force Grip is on the trigger. Other, less frequently-used powers like Mind Control are accessed by holding down the left trigger. The new Starkiller spins his two lightsabres around with unquestionable flare.
Melee isn't just a one-button affair – there are close-up grapples that zoom in on the action, and you can now boomerang your lightsabres in front of you to slice through crowds. It looks semi-choreographed even when it isn't, which speaks volumes for the combat's natural flow.
Force Fury amps everything up, making Force powers even more destructive. You can crush huge mechs and TIE fighters into tight chunks of metal, incinerate human foes or fling enormous pieces of rubble at boss monsters. At the end of the first level we were using Force Fury to pluck passing TIE fighters out of the air, crush them, and throw them at pillars until they collapsed, creating a path to Vader's personal ship. These cinematic Force-power setpieces are easily as much of a draw as freeform combat.
Speaking of set-pieces, LucasArts is really making an effort with big boss battles. After finishing the opening level we're given a glimpse of a boss monster from later in the game, the coliseum-destroying Gorog of Cato Neimoidia. It's a multi-stage fight, progressing from the coliseum floor all the way up to the behemoth's head as it punches through the surrounding building. You can surmise that the LucasArts team has been paying close attention to certain other action games in the two years since Force Unleashed I was released.
Like any Star Wars game, this one will be able to trade on fan service as much as its own merits. However, fan-pleasing gestures like the recently-announced inclusion of Boba Fett and Yoda sit alongside some major gameplay improvements.
Where Force Unleashed I relied on its considerable cool factor to pull players through increasingly tired scenarios, the sequel should feature enough variety to stand amongst more accomplished peers. We can joke about God of Star Wars, but there are worse things to aspire to.