- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 6, 2010

Superhero and cartoon characters are integral parts of the electronic entertainment industry. With this in mind, I salute the meld of pop-culture character and video game with a look at Star Wars: Force Unleashed II (from LucasArts, reviewed for PlayStation 3, rated T for teen, $59.99).

Darth Vader’s apprentice returns from the grave to help usher in the downfall of the Empire in this third-person action game. A single player controls the clone of Starkiller through nine action-packed levels as he searches the galaxy for his beloved Juno Eclipse and helps fuel a rebellion.

What’s the story? From the product literature: With his death, Starkiller robbed Vader of the opportunity to destroy the Emperor. Most important, his death gave rise to the Rebellion. However, waking up in shackles on the planet Kamino, Starkiller has only fragments of memories of his past life. Told by Darth Vader that he is merely a tool, a clone that Vader will use to gain control of the Empire, Starkiller escapes and sets out to learn the secrets of his past.

Play the role: The solo player controls the unstable hero as he slips out of Vader’s grasp at the cloning facility and takes a trip through the galaxy to help explain what happened between episodes three and four of the movies.

That translates into brief introductions to famed bounty hunter Boba Fett and a little green Jedi Master and help from characters from the last game, including the obnoxious General Rahm Kota, who bellows orders throughout.

Get to the action: The Force is too strong with this one, and his might leads to a hack-and-slash slaughter punctuated by the liberal use of electricity and shock waves on Empire minions such as Incinerator War Droids, Saber Guards and Sith Acolytes.

Armed with a pair of light sabers, more for show than variety, Starkiller can toss those babies at foes while he levitates the hapless victims like rag dolls. Very impressive.

He can upgrade the blades fairly easily by finding crystal holocrons to unleash light-saber powers that will incinerate and disintegrate enemies.

He also has a rage meter that finds him glowing blue when the meter’s activated and destroying nearly anything on-screen, including powerful AT-STs (All-Terrain Scout Transports) and AT-MPs (All-Terrain Missile Platforms).

New to his arsenal is the legendary Jedi mind trick. With a click of a button, Starkiller offers suggestions such as “These men will kill you” to weak-brained enemies, causing them to attack one another, babble incoherently and even jump off precipices to their death.

Furthermore, to hone his skills and upgrade his powers, the player also can access a series of 10 challenges, including preventing groups of Stormtroopers from escaping on Kamino.

Memorable moments (in no particular order): Visiting Dagobah and the Cave of Evil, hosted by none other than Yoda; crushing T.I.E. Fighters with the flick of the Force while cascading through the air; battling with a beast that eats Rancors as an appetizer; crunching Jumptroopers’ gear to watch them fly around like out-of-control bottle rockets; entering Kamino’s atmosphere at hyperspeed; and encountering a chest-sucking Terror Spider Droid for the first time.

Violent encounters: There’s still no gratuitous bloodshed in this galaxy far, far away, but Starkiller now can lop off a limb and decapitate unlucky Stormtroopers en route to taking down garrisons of the Empire’s finest.

Our hero also has perfected crying out in Wagnerian levels of agony anytime he feels the sting of a saber blade or laser or stub of the toe.

Unfortunately, fans will feel the Dark Side flow through them in unbridled anger as they grind their teeth over the unfocused plot and lazy combat repetition and the game’s brevity.

Read all about it: Dark Horse Comics covers the latest adventure of Starkiller with the 88-page graphic novel “Star Wars: The Force Unleashed, Volume 2” ($11.99) featuring a story by the author of the game series, Haden Blackman.

Pixel-popping scale: 8.0 out of 10. Despite a handful of dazzling game-play moments and some gorgeous cut scenes and landscapes, a sputtering frame rate during intense battles and occasional collision-detection issues weigh down any potential of a perfect score.

Star power: Sound effects and John Williams’ powerful musical score are the true celebrities of this game.

Unlockables and extras: Besides upgrades to Force powers and saber crystals, new costumes eventually are available and include our hero testing experimental Jedi armor, dressed as Boba Fett or disguised as Guybrush Threepkiller (a doppelganger of a famed Monkey Island character).

More entertaining is the encyclopedic Databank, thanks to a personalized set of entries that offers insight into characters, locations and technology of the Star Wars universe.

For example, read an entry from one of the last remaining clone troopers, Cody, on the bad idea of recruiting humans as Stormtroopers or words from Lieutenant Firmus Piett on Darth Vader’s obsession with the rebels.

What’s it worth? I often found myself trying to get through the monotonous combat as quickly as possible just to watch an awesome cut scene.

However, much more egregious was the overall length of the game. Average Jedi gamers will rip through the action in less than five hours and wonder, “That’s it for $60?”

Put it this way: For roughly $75, I could own all six “Star Wars” movies on DVD (about 12 hours of memories) or for $65 I could buy two seasons’ worth of the animated “Star Wars: The Clone Wars” on Blu-ray (16 hours of pretty good storytelling).

Let’s be serious; in a gaming world filled with consumers demanding more and more replayability and deep multiplayer experiences from their virtual epics, Star Wars: Force Unleashed II is one of the most underachieving games of the year.

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• Joseph Szadkowski can be reached at jszadkowski@washingtontimes.com.

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