Games 10/26/10: Star Wars: The Force Unleashed II, Fallout: New Vegas, Super Meat Boy

Star Wars: The Force Unleashed II
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
Also available for: Wii, Windows PC and Nintendo DS
From: LucasArts
ESRB Rating: Teen (violence)

To a fault, everyone expected “The Force Unleashed” to play incredibly. And while it didn’t live up to the impossible hype, the gifts it gave players to abuse as Darth Vader’s apprentice — better-than-average light saber combat, Force lightning, Force push, the ability to Force grip and fling anything and anyone not bolted to the ground at will, and a combo system that nicely tied these abilities together — made for a flawed but extremely fun game.

“The Force Unleashed II” brings all of that back, adds a few new pieces on top, and filters it through a game that finds a much better balance between challenge and frustration. Starkiller, now Vader’s former apprentice, returns — and if you played the first game and are wondering how, “TFU2” explains it rather well — and most of his powers from the first game are available to players immediately.

The addition of a second light saber to Starkiller’s arsenal doesn’t vastly improve combat, but being able to separately customize each saber’s attributes (and color) with discoverable saber crystals is pretty handy. Starkiller now can turn objects and enemies into lightning grenades by gripping, electrifying and throwing them, and the ability to play Jedi mind tricks on enemies is, in addition to amusing, a huge help when Starkiller is vastly outnumbered. Also useful when outnumbered: Force Fury, which briefly but satisfyingly jacks up all of Starkiller’s abilities to 11.

Like its predecessor, “TFU2” counters Starkiller’s immense power by flooding the screen with enemies, some of whom can resist certain abilities. But the enemy types make more sense this time — grunt enemies can’t magically resist the Force, in other words — and while “TFU2” doesn’t roll over, it generally does avoid dropping players into levels and boss fights that encourage cheap enemy behavior.

It helps, also, that the game’s interface makes it easier for players to see who or what they’re targeting with Force powers before actually deploying them. The number of moving parts and physics in play means things still get nice and chaotic, but “TFU2” does a much better job of maintaining a manageable intensity throughout its campaign.

Where the original “Unleashed” actually exceeded its immense hype was in how polished the storyline was and how shockingly well Starkiller — a character who previously did not even exist — bridges the gap between the two “Star Wars” movie trilogies.

“TFU2” isn’t privy to the same element of surprise, and because the story is more about Starkiller than the events that led up to the first “Star Wars” movie, it cannot compare to the first game in terms of fan service.

But for the second time in two games, the story exceeds expectations — a feat all the more impressive because of how the first game ended and how little wiggle room “TFU2” has to maneuver between that story and the first movie. It already was a shame that the events of the first game weren’t part of the second movie trilogy, and with these new developments, the story of Starkiller’s coming into being has now exceeded that of Anakin Skywalker’s weepy development by several lengths.

Like its predecessor, “TFU2” doesn’t have a multiplayer component. But it does have a series of unlockable challenge arenas, which test different Jedi abilities and award players online leaderboard bragging rights if they score well. The challenges don’t give “TFU2” a ton of additional staying power, but they are fun, and they test Starkiller’s abilities in some clever ways that the campaign does not.

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Fallout: New Vegas
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
From: Obsidian Entertainment/Bethesda Softworks
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence, sexual content, strong language, use of drugs)

The Vegas strip in “Fallout: New Vegas” is minuscule compared to the vast Nevada wasteland that surrounds it, but because it’s the only place in the whole region that sparkles like nuclear war never happened, it beams in the horizon for miles from any direction.

When you spot it for the first time in your travels, “Vegas” doesn’t break from the action with a cutscene or make any fuss whatsoever. Like everything else in a “Fallout” game, it’s just there, and players will spot it in ways and under circumstances that are organic and unique to the story they’ve spun for themselves up to then.

Such staggering freedom is what made the highly imperfect “Fallout 3” a cherished game in 2008, and while “Vegas” rarely improves on those imperfect things, its reverence for discovery — and the terrific stories it tells to complement that reverence — make it a must-play for “Fallout” fans.

Enjoying the journey isn’t as simple as it should be, because “Vegas” restores nearly every shortcoming from “Fallout 3.” If you didn’t like the menu interfaces then, you won’t like them now. A new iron sights view barely enhances the clumsy first-person shooter controls — players hoping for a transformation on the level of “Mass Effect” to “Mass Effect 2” should stop hoping — and the third-person perspective remains comically useless. Friendly and enemy A.I. is spotty as ever, the graphics that looked old in 2008 look older now, and despite the cross-country scenery shift, everything from lock-picking to computer hacking functions exactly as it previously did.

Also returning: bugs. “Vegas” is a monstrous game that gives players free reign over a ton of variables, so the appearance of bugs isn’t a surprise, but gaming forums are flooded with reports of graphical glitches, malfunctioning quests, escalating load times and crashes that sabotage progress and damage save files. Your mileage may vary — the game didn’t crash once during the course of this review — but if you’re skittish about the prospect of losing progress to crashes, best to wait for the patch Obsidian has stated is forthcoming.

Few games with that many issues would merit recommendation, but when “Vegas” is doing what “Fallout” does best, it’s hard not to love it anyway. The Mojave Wasteland is so big that players can complete the main storyline without experiencing a full three-quarters of the characters, towns and secrets hidden off the main road. Just as was the case in “Fallout 3,” many of “Vegas'” best moments lie here, and the game applies a level of storytelling care to even the most trivial area that surpasses what most games’ main quests receive. More than 100 hours’ worth of discovery lie in wait, and “Vegas” allows players to tick them off with whatever methods — combat, stealth, science, reason — they prefer.

In fairness to Obsidian, “Vegas” doesn’t completely neglect to improve the “Fallout” formula. The ability to create medicine from picked plants nicely recalls Bethesda’s “Elder Scrolls” games, and “Vegas” allows seasoned shooters to craft ammo and purchase new ammo variants and weapon upgrades. Educational magazines, which offer temporary but significant attribute boosts, allows players of one discipline to briefly reap the benefits of another. And a new Hardcore mode — which, among other factors, introduces hunger and sleep deprivation and limits how much ammo one can carry by applying weight to every bullet — should appeal to players who want the full wasteland wanderer experience.

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Super Meat Boy
Reviewed for: Xbox 360 via Xbox Live Arcade
Coming soon for: Windows PC, Macintosh, Wii via Nintendo WiiWare Channel
From: Team Meat
ESRB Rating: Teen (animated blood, cartoon violence, crude humor, language)
Price: $10

The 350-level “Super Meat Boy” easily marks its territory as the year’s most difficult platforming game, but its real claim may be the startling gap it opens between challenge and frustration. “SMB’s” levels are extremely short — many of them require fewer than 10 seconds to complete — and the goal is simple: Guide Meat Boy to the goal by running, jumping and using his unusual body composition to slide down walls and make perfectly-timed jumps above, around and through perilous traps. “SMB’s” difficultly escalates quickly, and some insanely tough level await players who push through to the game’s second half. But “SMB” significantly curbs frustration by making it so easy for players who fail to try again. A failed level reloads instantly without prompting, and outside of a few side challenges, players have as many chances as they need to get it right. The reward for finishing a tough level — watching a simultaneous replay of every single attempt — is as amusing as it is gratifying, and “SMB” rewards players who keep at it with an impressive handful of unlockable playable characters (with different attributes) from other independent games. Games this tough rarely bend this far backward without losing their edge, and while “SMB” looks great and controls perfectly, its pitch-perfect understanding of this balance is what makes it one of the year’s very best downloadable titles.