Date: May 3, 2002
Blaster bolts shot past my head as I palmed open the door leading into the giant Imperial hanger, lightsaber at the ready. I charged in, lightsaber cutting the air into azure ribbons as deflected energy blasts slammed into the walls or left smoking craters in the bodies of nearby troops.
The Imperials, however, were not so easily deterred. Several groups of stormtroopers moved across the bay to launch a flank attack while two heavy laser batteries at the main hanger entrance began tracking my position, launching a murderous cross-fire of high-impact blasts.
As I ran for the blaster batteries I stretched out with the Force, accelerating my movements as the world around me slowed. Each blaster bolt seemed to stretch in slow motion, as my parries raced to deflect them. In seconds I reached the first of the heavy batteries and lept over its defensive shield, lightsaber sweeping down to stop the soldier within from firing again.
A random blaster shot drove me into the far wall as my personal shield system strained to absorb it. Dazed for a moment I refocused on the new threat—while the second blaster cannon laid down covering fire, a new group of storm troopers led by several officers was advancing on my position. With no way to deflect the fire from both sides, I was trapped—or so they thought.
I took a deep breath, locked my lightsaber on, and hurled the blade, opening myself to the Force as I did so. The blade spun rapidly, hurtling over and over through the air as it slashed through trooper after trooper. As it finished its loop it shot back into my hand, igniting in time to catch a fresh wave of blast energy as the remaining troops on the far end of the hanger opened fire.
I raced for them, dodging, spinning, and whirling as my blade took fire from all sides. I spun, dove, slashed, and thrust, using every Force-powered combat trick I knew; alternatively using my powers to hurl the white-armored soldiers the full length of the hanger, or hurling deadly blasts of Force Lighting into their midsts, causing them to dance like bizarre puppets as the energy coursed through their bodies.
Even as the last stormtrooper fell, I heard a deep grinding behind me. Whirling around I saw the massive blast doors at the end of the hanger opening—and standing just behind them, a trio of ATST Walkers. Guns blazing, they began striding towards the far end of the bay as I brought my lightsaber into a defensive position that would allow me to respond quickly. With my Force powers already drained from the stormtrooper battle just minutes before, this was going to be one hell of a fight…
Take the above scenario and add amazing graphics and sound, a smooth combat control system, and breathtaking Jedi combat, and you’ve got a clue what its like to play Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast. The only way you’ll get any closer is to actually play the game—which is why I recommend ordering a copy as soon as you’re finished reading this review. Whether you’re a casual Star Wars fan or have Salacious B. Crumb’s autograph sitting over a stuffed (miniature) bantha on your desk, this game is one amazing adventure.
Pushing the Quake 3 Engine to the Max
When LucasArts decided to develop JKII, they gave Raven Software the green-light on developing it, rather than keeping the project in-house. It was a smart decision. Ever since the Hexen and Heretic series of games, Raven has had a history of producing excellent first-person shooters, typically based on id software’s game engines. With each game, Raven has demonstrated their ability to push an engine to its highest level of performance—Hexen II, based on the Quake I engine, nearly reached Quake II visual levels, while Soldier of Fortune (based on Quake II) looked nearly as good as Quake III. Now we have Jedi Knight II, which extends the Quake III engine into gorgeous new realms of display quality.
From the mines of Artus to the passages of the Imperial ship Doomgiver, Jedi Knight II shines with gorgeous visuals and incredible character models, and surpasses even last year’s Star Trek Voyager in both polygon count and detail.
The one downside to all this graphical power, however, is that you’ll need a powerful card to run it. I’ve played JK II on a Prophet 4500 (Kyro II), Radeon LE, and GeForce 4. While all three cards are capable of running the game (and it looks good on all of them) lets just say this game makes an excellent reason to purchase a GF4, or at least a GF3—the game shows off the power in both cards excellently.
Sound Effects and Music
JK II’s sound effects and music are both well-done. From the distinctive whine of blasters to the deep electrical hum of a lightsaber, most of the sound-effects from the game are drawn directly from the movies, while the few new weapons / sounds fit well within the existing Star Wars soundscheme. The music, similarly, is almost entirely drawn from the movies, with a few minor variations on pieces to spice things up a bit.
Although the music and sound effects are great, I admit, it would be nice to hear some new additions to both. As thrilling as the Star Wars theme or Imperial March are, both pieces are getting more than a little old. Rather than using only recycled music or sound effects, Lucas Arts should take the time to create new pieces. While John Williams is unlikely to hire on to write game music, there’s no reason why other composers couldn’t be brought in. With that said, however, the existing effects and soundtrack in the game are both great—even if they are the same pieces and sounds we’ve been hearing for twenty-five years.
The voice acting in JK II, is good, for the most part. Billy Dee Williams is the sole-returning cast member from the original movies, but his reprisal of Lando is spot-on, while Jan, Mon Mothma, and even Kyle himself are quite nicely done. The one exception, however, is Luke. His lines are far too stiffly delivered and too quickly spoken—he sounds more like “Hasbro Toy Robot Luke with Moving Arms” then “Luke Skywalker, Jedi Knight.”
Of course, one of the major components of an FPS is its weapons load out, but the introduction of a highly developed lightsaber combat mode introduces some odd problems into Jedi Knight II. For starters, once you have the lightsaber, there’s almost no reason to use anything else, especially in the later levels. The lightsaber is capable of taking down anything in the game (even an ATST walker) and with the variety of slashes, vertical attacks, and throwing modes available, there’s just not much reason to pull out the ol’ rocket launcher.
For that reason, the weapons in JK II feel fairly forgettable. You’ve got your standard array of laser pistols, rifles, bowcasters, and missile launchers (plus a few other goodies) but chances are you won’t be reaching for them much once you hear the distinctive hum of your lightsaber for the first time. This is both a good and a bad thing. As we’ve already stated, lightsaber combat (and force powers) are both done so well in JK II that fighting with them feels more like a gracefully choreographed (and wonderfully deadly) art form than a button-mashing slaughter-fest—but it also makes me wonder why JK II offers a standard weapons load out at all, save because its written somewhere that FPS’s have rocket launchers.
Gameplay: Jedi Knight’s Biggest Weakness—And Crowning Glory
The sad truth is, if you were to judge Jedi Knight based solely on the first 3-5 hours of the game, you’d be in for a big disapointment. The game opens with Kyle Katarn (your character, and star of the previous Jedi Knight games) landing on a once-deserted Imperial outpost with his partner, Jan Ors. You’re investigating a suspicious transmission from the planet—and promptly discover you’ve stumbled into a re-activated Imperial base.
It’s a promising start, but it doesn’t stay that way. The first chunk of the game, while not bad, is overwhelmingly bland, and is mainly an exercise in jumping, shooting, and puzzle solving. While there’s nothing ‘wrong’ with the first few missions in the game, there’s nothing particularly ‘right’ about them either, and they’re likely to leave players with a strong feeling of déjà vu. Sure, you’re gunning down storm troopers and knocking over droids, but there’s little in the early game to make shooting storm troopers feel much different then gunning down terrorists, or Skaarj, for instance.
Fortunately this changes when Kyle recovers his lightsaber (which he apparently handed over to Skywalker at the end of Jedi Knight I). From then on, the game becomes a non-stop action fest, with each battle an opportunity to test your growing Jedi powers and abilities against the Imperial Remnants war machine. The pre-lightsaber and post-lightsaber sections of the game couldn’t be more opposite. One is a bland, pretty, trip through a Star Wars-lookalike universe—the other is a frantic, pulse-pounding war between Kyle, the New Republic, and the Imperial Remnant. The lightsaber combat model is fabulous enough to change the entire course of gameplay, and its where Jedi Knight absolutely shines as a five-star product.
The only real problem with gameplay (apart from the pre-lightsaber era) is the ridiculous number of jumping puzzles the designers built into the game. While I always considered Force Jump an important Jedi Power, I never knew it and it alone was so required for basic movement around planets and scenarios. Though the jumping puzzles usually aren’t all that hard, there are quite a few of them, and they tend to be rather tedious. Half the total number of jumping puzzles would’ve worked much better—and caused less frustration.
There is one other issue with gameplay / level design I’ll bring up. Level design in JK II is very good in most places, and downright excellent in a few—save for the last stage of the game. Without warning, the entire game abruptly switches to the Daikatana universe—and you find yourself in a swamp, fighting swamp creatures, and dealing with swamp terrain. I’ve never played a map that reminded me so much of Daikatana without playing Daikatana, and as that particular gem of a title made me want to scrub my face with steel wool (repeatedly) I’d just as soon avoid any levels that even remotely resembled it. This level aside, however, level design is very, very good.
Story Mechanics and Plot
The Jedi Knight games have always had a fairly-developed storyline, so I was curious to see if Jedi Knight II would continue this trend. Throughout the saga you’ve played as Kyle Katarn, a mercenary for the New Republic. In the original Dark Forces you stole Death Star plans for the fledgling Rebellion, rescued Jan Ors (now your faithful partner) and defeated the Empire’s new Dark Trooper. In Jedi Knight you fought against Jerec, a Dark Jedi who sought the tremendous power in the Valley of the Jedi, an ancient battleground where hundreds of Jedi souls reside. The latent force energy present in the Valley was capable of making any Jedi, dark or light, an unstoppable warrior. After defeating Jerec, Kyle sealed the Valley and left, leaving he and Jan the only two people who knew the Valley’s location.
Jedi Knight II opens with the New Republic’s interception of a transmission that refers to the Valley, and Kyle and Jan fly off to the supposedly-deserted outpost to investigate. Their they begin to uncover a conspiracy that will not only force Kyle to revisit the Valley, but will have him battling Reborn Sith, a new Dark Jedi threat, and the foul machinations of the Imperial Remnant itself.
Unfortunately, though the plot sounds great on paper (and when summed up in a paragraph), in reality, the plot of JK II is so thin, you could drive a walker through it, with room for a few TIE fighters and a Lambda class shuttle or two.
The first encounter with the Dark Jedi Dessan seems promising, and indeed, sends the game in a bold new direction (as well as forcing Kyle to re-confront his past). After the events in Jedi Knight, Kyle apparently gave up his lightsaber and turned it over to Luke Skywalker, as he felt uncomfortable with the tremendous power the Force represented (for both good and evil). Kyle has always been something of an enigma, as he is the only Jedi capable of using powers from both the light and dark sides of the Force without penalty.
Katarn’s unique abilities with the Force combined with his nine-year refusal of his own Jedi powers led me to expect some degree of animosity between him and Skywalker. The title of the game, “Jedi Outcast” seems to imply that Kyle has, in some sense, been rejected by the other Jedi, perhaps because of his own unique abilities or strange reluctance to use the Force. Instead, the game presents Kyle’s distance from his Force-wielding peers as being a complete choice of his own. The game never presents Luke (or any other Jedi) as anything but accepting and even welcoming of Kyle.
The above scenario could still work, if the game focused more on Kyle’s reluctance to use the Force, or why he can draw on both sides of its power, but such issues are dealt with only in passing and rarely to the degree they should be to flesh out such an interesting character twist. LucasArts, unfortunately, passed up a golden opportunity to explore more of the relationship between various orders of Jedi, how they relate to the Force, and how one man’s experiences and abilities can lead to an entirely different method of tapping into the energy that “binds the galaxy together.”
Instead, we are treated to a light storyline that explains the actions of the Dark Jedi Dessan in a single sentence “he grew cold” and Kyle’s own quest is less of a soul-searching exploration, and more of a “save the girl, stop the villain” adventure. This isn’t all bad—Star Wars itself was built on a similar premise—but the raw potential of the JK II storyline was tremendous, and I was disappointed that the game failed to deliver more in terms of story.
Jedi Knight offers a variety of multiplayer modes, including Free for All, Team Free for All, Capture the Flag, Capture the Ysalimiri, Holocron, Jedi Master, and Duel. The Free for All and CTF modes are your basic deathmatch and capture the flag, while CTY has the player running around seeing a Ysalimiri—a salamander-like creature that prevents the carrier from using (or being affected) by force powers of any kind. Jedi Master puts one lightsaber in a level and has all the various players seeking it—the player that finds it becomes “Master” , with maximum force powers in every level, but is only able to fight with the saber itself. Holocron mode starts players with no force powers, but scatters a variety of “modules” across the playing area, with each module giving a specific force power at maximum ability, with the ability to carry up to three at a time. In Duel, players can join a server and wait in line to fight, one after the other, with the winning player remaining to fight the next match.
JK II’s multiplayer (like the single player game) is fast, stable, and gorgeous but ultimately ends up feeling too much like “Quake III: Lightsaber Edition” in most games. Ultimately, it’s the lightsaber combat that makes JK II unique, but when all the other weaopns are tossed into the arena, that advantage is gone. While certain force powers can be used to deflect incoming projectiles, its substantially more frustrating (and less Jedi Knight-ish) to be getting fragged by rocket launchers when you’re attempting to fight a light-saber based game. Fortunately the game servers can be configured in a “sabers only” combat mode (when appropriate). I found FFA, Holocron, and even CTF to be much more fun and unique in this mode—without it, JK II basically feels like a Quake mod in multiplayer, with force powers replacing runes. Dueling mode is, however, an absolute blast, and comes closet to replicating the lightsaber battles that make the single-player game so much fun.
I’ve done a lot of nitpicking in this review—so much, in fact, that it might seem odd that I like the game as much as I do. After all the nitpicks and minor annoyances, however, what remains is the fact that JK II is an absolutely great game. The cut scenes and game engine are well rendered, sound effects and music are good, and the plot, while not as tight as it could be, manages to be fun and engaging—which is, ultimately, the most important point. The game is stable (it never crashed on me in hours of playing) and we’ve discussed at length just how good lightsaber combat is.
Jedi Knight II was the first FPS game I’ve played since Half-Life to give me that “just ten more minutes” feeling that regularly keeps me up MUCH later than I should be. That alone would be reason to recommend it, but its high production values and consistently great gameplay absolutely push it over the top. Buy this game—you won’t regret it.
Pros: Great gameplay, stable, great graphics and sound, fabulous lightsaber combat.
Cons: Sound and music are getting a touch old, early game is bland, and last stage looks like Daikatana, multiplayer mode feels a bit ‘Quake III-ish’ on most settings. Plot is weak in places.
Bottom Line: Its not perfect, but it’s the best, most fun FPS released since the last Jedi Knight, or arguably Half-Life. If the thought of slashing your way through the ranks of stormtroopers while deflecting blaster bolts and choking enemies doesn’t get your pulse up, I recommend you check it.
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