Since friend of Threat Quality Matt Burns was dear enough to provide me with a Playstation 3, I’ve been catching up on all sorts of things, like making use of Netflix streaming in a way that makes more sense than plugging a laptop into a TV, realizing I can copy videos to its hard drive via a flashdrive, and yes, playing video games that all my friends are done with and see fit to lend me.
Which means I finally got around to Star Wars: The Force Unleashed II, a game that is completely inessential and yet designed exactly for me in mind.
And by me, I mean the personal-continuity-obsessive who would also like there to be enough cheat codes that I don’t have to struggle.
I quite liked the first SW:TFU, especially since I played it on the Wii, which at the time was doing its best to provide games where you use the controls as a virtual sword (see also: Red Steel II), and so could wave the wand around and make the lightsaber noises with my mouth even though the sound effects were perfectly audible. And the cheat codes were readily available, which meant I could play the first time through with massive force powers and any costume I pleased.
But mostly, I was taken with the fact that the story seemed to be a special apology and offering for anyone who hated the new trilogy (read: anyone over the age of 7, if my nephews’ relative enthusiasm is anything to go by).
While the sheer volume of comics, books, TV shows and video games in the Star Wars franchise makes it potentially overwhelming to become a “true” Star Wars fanatic (especially since there’s plenty of contradictions depending on who wrote what, when it was published, what accent and origin Boba Fett had when, etc.), it’s also quite useful for the kind of fan who builds his own personal continuity out of what he or she considers narratively worthwhile.
For instance, it’s pretty easy to ignore The Phantom Menace entirely, since it doesn’t actually tell you anything new – other than introduce the idea of midichlorions, which were promptly never dealt with again in any subsequent movies.
Which means if you were to come to the whole thing cold, you could start with Attack of the Clones, pick up what little you need to about Anakin and Padme’s prior relationship from the painful dialogue, and move on. But there’s a much better option if you need to concoct your own “Episodes 1-3”:
Episode 1: Genndy Tartakovsky’s Clone Wars micro-series. From the dialogue in episodes 4-6, all you need to know about the backstory is Anakin Skywalker was a badass Jedi and fighter pilot who was a hero of the Clone Wars and was mentored by Obi-Wan. This series of 3-minute shorts illustrates that war from a variety of fronts, showcasing various Jedi, fleshing out Obi-Wan and Anakin’s relationship, and providing absolutely astounding action sequences and a decided lack of crap dialogue (or, in fact, much dialogue at all).
Episode 2: Revenge of the Sith. It’s about as painful as the other new films, though it’s saved somewhat by the fact that Ewan MacGregor and Natalie Portman got enough of a handle on how to perform despite the lack of sets, director’s notes, or a capable lead to play off of (which is to say, Broad As Hell, but it’s a choice, at least). And it fills out the rest of the required backstory – where Luke and Leia came from, how Anakin became Vader – the big stuff. The stuff audiences wanted to know in the first place (again, no midichlorions, and precious little Jar Jar Binks).
But it wasn’t until The Force Unleashed came along that there was an “officially sanctioned” version of the only other bit of backstory I was interested in: how the rebel alliance got its shit together. And The Force Unleashed tells actually a pretty clever story about being united by a potential enemy who was turned by the inherent nobility of a cause. It’s a simple, classic story, free of goofy sidekicks or droning about trade regulations. In fact, it feels more like a Star Wars movie than anything else since Return of the Jedi.
So while The Force Unleashed is treated as a between-the-raindrops “Episode 3.5” by its creators, it’s basically become my own personal Episode 3.
Episode 1: Tartakovsky’s Clone Wars (illustrates background of the war that created Anakin and Kenobi); Episode 2: Revenge of the Sith (illustrates Vader’s fall); Episode 3: The Force Unleashed (illustrates the rise of the rebellion that will lead the narrative in episodes 4-6).
(SPOILERS FOR A GAME EVEN OLDER THAN THE ONE I’M TALKING ABOUT COMING UP.)
That the hero of TFU dies at the end helps, because there’s no pesky questions of “Where’s Starkiller in 4-6? Why doesn’t anyone mention this guy who’s so important to the formation of the rebel alliance?” Simple. He helped build it, he died trying, here’s a nice easter-egg if you wanted to know where the alliance sigil came from, the end.
And then along came TFU II to goof all that up.
It’s not surprising – the first game was successful, after all – but it opens a book that was closed up pretty tight. And I don’t begrudge the makers for using the simplest of methods to resurrect the dead Starkiller character – Vader cloned him because why not? – rather than concoct some more convoluted scheme.
The problem is it came up with a way to bring a character back and put him into a story that’s now without consequence.
The first game had the added narrative advantage of feeling like you were watching a secret history, a truly untold chapter in a larger epic that helped flesh out the origins of one of its most important aspects. With all that done, the sequel didn’t come up with some further details to build on, or an interesting story side-line.
The story is simply this (again, SPOILERS IN CASE YOU’VE BEEN SAVING THIS GAME FOR A RAINY DAY AND DON’T WANT TO KNOW ANYTHING):
The clone-Starkiller escapes Vader and rescues his crusty old Jedi mentor; Vader kidnaps Starkiller’s quasi-girlfriend Juno; Starkiller helps stage an attack with the rebels in order to get Juno back; he fights Vader and some half-formed clones of himself to get her back; they capture Vader and fly him off to interrogate him; Boba Fett’s tracking them; audience prepares
for sequel video game.
Oh, and in the middle he visits Degobah to wander around the vision tree for about 30 seconds, but that’s neither here nor there.
The point is, there’s no real story here. There’s just video-game logic – complete task A to move to scene 2 and complete task B and so on. It feels artificial and thin in a way the first game didn’t.
(This has nothing to do with the gameplay itself, which remains fun if a bit repetitive, and is no slight on Sam Witwer, whose computer-generated performance is still more real and heartfelt than Hayden Christensen will ever be.)
But worse, as I’ve said, it screws up the personal trilogy I’d developed in my head.
NOW the trilogy is Clone Wars, Revenge of the Sith, and The Force Unleashed Video Game Series, wherein Starkiller helps form the rebellion, dies, is reborn as a clone, rescues his girlfriend, and then fights Boba Fett, and then presumably dies again because if there’s a super-powerful Vader apprentice roaming around in the background of episodes 4-6, someone had better explain that one to me. It’s a little less effective.
As a casual video game player, I have no problem with the promise of an upcoming game where a super-powerful Jedi fights Boba Fett. But as a casual-to-moderate Star Wars fan who had enjoyed a hidden chapter in an epic and didn’t want that added on to, in the diminishing-returns way that Clone Wars was added on to by meh Cartoon Network shows or hell, even the new trilogy, I can’t help but be a little disappointed.