Star Wars: The Force Unleashed II hands-on and Sam Witwer interview

2008’s The Force Unleashed was the biggest selling Star Wars game yet, despite mixed reviews. Can its sequel improve on its predecessor? Michael finds out…

The following contains spoilers for the first Force Unleashed if you haven’t completed the game.

Star Wars: The Force Unleashed was a surprise breakout hit back in 2008, bringing to the gaming world a powerful story set in between Revenge Of The Sith and A New Hope. Its mixture of God Of War-style action and the devastating force powers of Starkiller, Darth Vader’s secret apprentice, made the game stand out among the collection of lacklustre titles and sequels that has plagued the franchise over the last five years.

So, it’s no surprise that LucasArts has wasted no time in concocting a sequel. Due out in October, Force Unleashed II continues the story of Starkiller and promises to deliver more story and even larger explosions than its predecessor. At a recent preview event in downtown London, we were treated to a polished PowerPoint presentation from producer Cameron Suey, leading us through the main points of the game.

Narrative-wise, it kicks off with a slightly odd twist. The primary ending for Force Unleashed saw Starkiller sacrificing himself for the good of the nascent Rebel Alliance. In the sequel, you play as a clone of Starkiller, who is plagued by memories and embarks on a journey of self-discovery, after breaking out of the cloning facilities of Kamino.

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Traversing the galaxy in Darth Vader’s TIE Advanced, the hero searches out characters familiar from the preceding game, such as Juno Eclipse and General Kota. But the Empire don’t take his escape lightly, sending after him no less than Boba Fett, who commands a squad of crack Imperial troops to hunt down the lost clone.

Our interest was piqued already, but we were shown a short cinematic from towards the end of the game’s first act, showing Starkiller setting down on Dagobah, and meeting exiled Jedi Master Yoda. The stylistic and narrative echoes of The Empire Strikes Back became almost deafening, as the young Jedi, uncertain of himself and battling inner demons, entered the Dark Side Cave.

It was a little strange, therefore, that such a seemingly character-driven, narratively rich game should be previewed by a plot-less hands-on. After the lecture was over, we were placed in front of a super shiny television screen and let loose on the E3 preview build of Force Unleashed, which consists of a tutorial-heavy sequence of gated action and mayhem.

Kicking off with a breathless freefall segment, Starkiller gets to grips with his force powers old and new, including additions such as the Jedi Mind Trick, which sets hapless stormtroopers against each other, and the Jedi Fury Mode, a kind of overload function where all powers are given insane strength.

But, stripped of story, Force Unleashed II can’t help but seem like other third-person actioners, with mild puzzles involving consoles and levers, heavy duty enemies that are finished off with QTE button presses, and massive bosses that recall just about any game of its genre.

So, we left the preview event a little confused. Cold at the immediate gameplay, yet intrigued by the plot. After all, the first Force Unleashed game was noted for its strong writing and performances, so, if all goes well, the sequel should be just as engrossing and compelling.

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Luckily, we had a chat with Sam Witwer, the American actor (Smallville, Battlestar Galactica), who provides voice and likeness for the game’s protagonist, Starkiller. A genuinely charming gent, Witwer helped assuage our anxieties somewhat, letting us in on his own worries as both a gamer and a Star Wars geek, and telling us what it’s like for an actor to work on a videogame.

It seems that providing performances for videogames is quite a profitable sideline for actors nowadays. How do you approach it? Is it just another job?

I actually see it as exactly the same. The process is no different than, say, shooting a green screen shoot. It comes down to the two things that I think an actor relies on the most, which are… One, the script. If the script is good, then you have a real launching point to do something special. And second, the other actors. If the other actors are on point and talented, then you have something to work off of. And Force Unleashed II has both. It has a wonderful script and wonderful actors. And I couldn’t be happier than I am with how it’s all gone, especially with the story.

There’s a bit of debate in the videogame development community about how to bring actor’s performances into the game space. The first Force Unleashed used motion capture, which some people see as being the most convincing approach. Whereas some still have voice actors recording individually in sound booths. Do you think it’s important to have the actors together, bouncing off each other?

It’s absolutely crucial, as far as I’m concerned, to do that. If you really want to feel like these people are talking to each other.

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This time, we did not employ visual motion capture like we did on the first one. We used a bunch of video references which included having several HD cameras on each actor, all in the same room.

So, you’d have me and the other actors, like me and General Kota, Cully Fredricksen, the actor, and we’d have various cameras on both of us. And we’re both looking at each other, and we’re both shooting and recording the dialogue at the same time, and what that allowed us to do was have overlaps. I might be saying something, and Kota might start talking over me: “Blah, blah, blah, whatever!” And I could get upset with that.

You really, really get this wonderful sense of the characters. That they’re responding to each other, and that’s absolutely crucial to get those human performances.

It’s a really interesting development, because, if you think of the history of gaming, there’s always been something a little off about the performances. And it’s only been in the last few years that it’s improved, with some landmark games like the Grand Theft Auto series and Uncharted, where the performances just seem to click better.

I think a lot of that is the fact that, you know, for example, videogames are still in a place where they’re underestimated as a storytelling medium. And the reason for that, I believe, is because it’s a new thing.

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When you and me were eight years old, videogames were for eight year olds, and they were underestimated for that reason. The technology was very simple. Also, the sophistication in terms of the audience, the eight-year-old audience, it didn’t really require those performances or storytelling.

Nor was the technology available. Then, when we became 16, videogames were for 16 year olds. So, not only has the technology aged, but the requirement of the audience for storytelling ages too.

For example, Australia has a very strict legislation on video ame ratings, right? And people are afraid of violent videogames and this and that. Well, that will all eventually go away, because you will have a 70-year-old legislator, who grew up playing videogames, who totally gets them, isn’t intimidated by them, nor does he underestimate them.

So, the sophistication of storytelling in videogames will only grow as the audience for videogames grows.

You’re speaking here like you have a lot of personal investment. Are you a gamer, then?

Oh, it’s kids’ stuff, I never play videogames… No! Absolutely, I’m a huge videogame player. I got into it with Atari 2600, moved up to Commodore 64, Amiga, and so forth. The original NES. You name it, man, I’ve kind of done it all. In terms of current generation, I’m a huge PC gamer.

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They’re a bit of a dying breed nowadays…

Yeah, right, we’ve gotta keep it together! The thing is that there are still games that I feel are superior on a PC. And I don’t think I’m wrong about that.

I was a little hesitant, for example, to buy an Xbox, or any of the next-gen consoles. I was hesitant. But when I did, I realised, you know, there are lot of games that are better suited to it. Force Unleashed is one of them. It’s extremely well-suited to the Xbox. And Arkham Asylum or whatever.

But, on the other hand… Shooters, they’re just better on the PC. They just are. I’m sorry, they absolutely are. I’ve played plenty of them on the Xbox, I’ve played plenty of them on the PC, and they’re better on the PC.

Certain games, they just translate across platforms differently. That’s not to say that one platform is better than the other, it’s simply different types of games.

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So, what was it like once you had the opportunity to be in a game, with Force Unleashed?

Well, that, coupled with the fact that I have an extreme love of Star Wars, it was absolute wish fulfilment. I didn’t know what to do with myself. I was on a three week long high once I landed that role. And the way that I got the role, it’s absolute luck.

Amy Beth Christenson, who was one of the lead concept artists here, was creating a bunch of concepts for what would be Darth Vader’s secret apprentice. And they were trying to figure out who the character was going to be, what he was going to look like… all that stuff. So, when they finally settled on one concept, and unleashed it to LucasArts, David Collins, who’s a buddy of mine, and Darragh O’Farrell, who was head of the sound department here, and Peter Hirschmann who was the vice president at the time, they all looked at each other when they saw the concept for Darth Vader’s secret apprentice, and they all said the same thing. They said. “That’s Sam Witwer.”

So, I got a very mysterious call in the middle of the night from David, saying, “Listen, man, you really got to send your materials here… We need to get this going,” and I’m like, “Get what going!?” He’s like, “Well, look, Darth Vader has this secret apprentice…,” and I’m like, “Woah, woah, woah… what?! Who has what now?”

Andso, I sent the stuff out, and my materials, for example, my showreel, my resume, and my headshot became of great interest to Lucasfilm, because I looked exactly like their character. Same haircut, same everything.

It must have been a dream come true, but there must have been a lot of pressure. How’s that worked out with Force Unleashed II?

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The story is extremely satisfying. With the first game we were extremely worried. In fact, I lost sleep over creating this Star Wars protagonist. I’m a huge Star Wars fan, so the idea of creating a new Star Wars character created a great deal of apprehension and, dare I say, fear in me. Because you don’t want to get it wrong.

I love Star Wars as much as any fan does, so I know how opinionated they are, and I know how vocal they are about their opinions. We worked very hard to make this character feel like a Star Wars character, feel like he’d deserve to be in the same room with Han Solo or Luke Skywalker.

And the fun about the second story is that, by now, the fans have embraced him. So, what more can we do with this guy, where can we push the character? In what new direction can we take him that we haven’t seen before? So, there was a lot more enthusiasm than apprehension this time.

But now you’ve got to live up to the first game…

[Laughs] Yeah, thanks, pal! Thanks for reminding me. Now I have the apprehension all over again!

No, you’re absolutely right, and what I like about this story is that it is absolutely straightforward. The first game had a lot of twists and turns, and the plot was a little complicated. In a good way. This one is very, very straightforward, and it’s literally all about the character, it’s all about his psychology and what he’s going through. And so, the plot is simple, the psychology is complex, which I love.

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How do they spin it, though, considering Starkiller died at the end of the first game?

That’s a very valid point. Me and David Collins were at this restaurant, and I was talking to him about how it was sad that Starkiller was gone after the first game. I loved that character. It was really great to play him and I guessed that was it for me and Star Wars, but hey, I had a great time. And LucasArts was talking about a different character, so Force Unleashed II was not going to have anything to do with me. And David said during this lunch, “You know, what if they did come to you and said they wanted to do Starkiller?” And I said, “Well… it doesn’t make any sense to me, because he died, and I wouldn’t want to hurt the integrity of that first story… I would say no, I would definitely turn it down.”

So, then, six months later, David calls me up and goes, “Hey, dude, they want to do Starkiller again.” I’m like, “Cool, let’s do this. Sign me up!” So, my Star Wars enthusiasm kind of took over.

But then, of course, I ask the same question everyone else is asking. What are we doing? What does the script look like? How are you bringing him back and why? And once I saw the script, I was very, very happy that Haden Blackman works at this company, because he did it again. He’s an incredible writer. He created a story that not only made sense, but is absolutely worth telling.

Sam Witwer, thank you for your time!

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Force Unleashed II is set for release at the end of October on PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PC, Wii and DS.