Retrospective: Star Wars Dark Forces/Jedi Knight (Part 2)
May the Fourth be with you!
Over the past few weeks, I’ve spent over 30 hours livestreaming a playthrough of the Star Wars: Dark Forces/Jedi Knight series. It has been a tremendously rewarding experience, welling up nostalgia from the deep recesses of my memory. It’s also been a tour de The Force in game design history, helping to illustrate how PC games evolved from “Doom Clones” in the mid 1990s to the modern genre of “First Person Shooter” influenced by Half Life, Halo, and others.
I spent plenty of time during the streams trying to analyze the games and elucidate my thoughts, but now that I’ve had time to digest the games, I wanted to write up this retrospective covering the whole series and my experiences playing and remembering them.
Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast
(2002, Raven Software)
A sequel to a sequel, this game should really be known as “Star Wars: Dark Forces III: Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast”. But odd naming conventions aside, Jedi Outcast appeared after a 4-year gap in the series, during which several major shifts in the video game industry had taken hold. First, LucasArts, whose name as a developer once served as a watchword of quality, fell off a cliff. While they did continue to develop a few games, these were mostly long-forgotten games based on the prequels, or handheld entries that rarely made any impact. Instead, LucasArts shifted more and more towards the role of publisher, with uneven success through the 2000’s. In the case of Jedi Outcast, they turned to Raven Software to develop the game.
Raven had a solid pedigree; they had produced the excellent Doom clone/FPS series of Heretic and Hexen games, and showed their ability to treat a major IP extremely well with the thoroughly enjoyable Star Trek: Voyager – Elite Force (how they managed to make an FPS work in a Star Trek setting, especially a weak one like Voyager, is truly remarkable).
This new development team was also working within a new reality of gaming. HalfLife and Halo had come and set new standards. Microsoft had gone all in on pushing their PC titles onto the Xbox, which meant that console ports were rapidly becoming the dominant form of FPS life. Graphic fidelity and performance had made leaps in bounds in just a few years. All of these changes came together to produce Jedi Outcast, a game which after a new playthrough I found to be uneven but overall a fun experience.
The presentation reaches its series peak here. Music, graphics, and UI are all top-notch, and the voice acting cast is extremely solid—peaking with the appearance of Billy Dee Williams as Lando Calrissian. The plot is serviceable; continuing Kyle Katarn’s journey is great, but I found the villain Desann underwhelming and lacking any real motive besides “I’m evil” (though to be fair it’s rare to find a Dark Jedi with any other motive). To his credit, however, Desann is a dinosaur-person, and that certainly counts for something.
Of course, gameplay is king, and this is really where the unevenness of Jedi Outcast comes out full force. To Raven’s credit, they understood the series had its roots as a FPS, and they sought to continue that tradition and develop it further. Using the plot device that Katarn decided, following the events of Mysteries of the Sith, to close himself off to the force and give up his Jedi training, it forces the player to rely solely on guns for the first few levels. It’s a solid idea to push forward approaching the game as a FPS first, and a lightsaber fighting sim second.
That is, it would be a good idea, if the gunplay actually worked well. However, there is a shocking oversight in the design of the weapons and enemies that turned the shooting sections into a real slog. At first, it feels like the guns simply aren’t very accurate, because it seems to take a huge amount of shots to take down enemies. But even from point-blank range, it’s almost impossible to kill an enemy without using a huge amount of ammo and taking a huge amount of damage in return.
As far as I can tell, the issue is either that the enemy hitboxes are too small, the blaster bolt hitboxes are too small, or a combination of the two. Even a tiny amount of spread from blaster shots means the bolts seem to just barely find their way around the enemy’s shoulders, or between their legs, or anything but doing damage. And so, the early levels are simply frustrating; you burn through ammunition too quickly, and take too much damage. Overall, the gunplay feels entirely awkward and unrewarding. And that’s a real problem if you are designing a first person shooter.
But then, something happens that fixes the game. You get your lightsaber back. Now, instead of pouring blaster shots at enemies to no effect, you get to jump and dance around them as you hack and slash away. Adding to the fact that your force powers start to emerge again, the game suddenly becomes really fun. Interestingly, the devs at Raven apparently didn’t expect that players would enjoy the lightsaber action as much as they did, and would use both guns and sabers throughout the game. But with how bad the guns are, and how good the saber is, it’s no surprise that for the rest of the game you only use your guns when you absolutely have to (like when dealing with the incredibly annoying snipers).
The rest of the way through, the game remains mostly great. Occasional sketchy level design slows down the fun here and there, such as the aforementioned snipers that bring gameplay to a halt. Or the penultimate level, which forces the player to use an AT-ST walker, which sounds like it should be a memorable highlight, but thanks to the extreme difficulty in actually hitting any enemies, is memorably bad.
Everything wraps up in a enjoyable and epic fashion, with running battles throughout the Jedi temple where the player is able to fight alongside fellow Jedi against saber-wielding baddies. You defeat the big bad dinosaur man, find out your long-time companion Jan Orrs is still alive, and everything wraps up nicely. It’s an exciting and rewarding conclusion to the saga of Kyle Katarn. But it isn’t the end of the series.
No, thankfully, the best is yet to come!
Jedi Knight: Jedi Academy
(2003, Raven Software)
The most modern game in the series, and the one I’ve played the most, Jedi Academy should be thought of as "Distillate of Jedi Knight". Raven took lessons learned from Jedi Outcast and did a phenomenal job of refining and perfecting almost everything from that game into a pure expression of gameplay. Its hard to undersell how rewarding I find the raw gameplay of Jedi Academy; there simply isn’t another game in the series that makes you feel more like an absolute beast of a space monk warrior.
Raven now understood that the lightsaber and force powers deserved to be the center of gameplay, and in Jedi Academy guns are very much secondary. It’s rare indeed that you feel like you need anything other than the saber and the Force to complete a level. In fact, when the game begins, you only have the saber in your inventory, which seems to state the intention of the devs pretty clearly.
You rapidly gain various force powers as well, and because Raven completely opens up the force power system to customization, you are able to build the type of character you want at the pace that you want. Personally, I make a beeline to the Force Grip power, which allows the player to pick up and fling enemies into walls, ceilings, or off edges and into bottomless pits. It’s a gameplay element that has a hard-to-describe but supremely satisfying feedback.
The developers really seemed to understand this strength, and the levels they put together play to it for the most part. Almost every level feels like a huge arena created specifically for you to rampage across, wrecking basic enemies with your power and having epic duels with enemy force users. There are a few outstandingly boring and annoying levels (such as the ripoff of the film Tremors which devolves into a huge jumping puzzle) but these levels are short, and the player finds themselves back to blasting enemies into lava pools with lighting bolts in short order.
The weakest note in Jedi Academy is no doubt the story. First of all, we are no longer Kyle Katarn; he does appear prominently in the game, but we don’t get to play as the series’ main protagonist at all. To Raven’s credit, they did try to give the player a hook to tie them into the story; you are allowed to “create” your character from a somewhat limited set of options of gender, race, and outfit. No matter what you choose, your character is still new Jedi recruit Jaden Korr, with the same voice actor regardless of your chosen race (which I found to my extreme amusement when my Rodian spoke perfect Basic with his tiny flap of a mouth).
The main antagonist returns from Jedi Outcast, but once again her entire motivation is “I’m evil rawr”. The voice actors for the bad guys seem to understand the shallowness and campiness of their characters, and revel in hamming it up and chewing scenery. While fun, it makes the game feel a little less serious and mature that previous games (especially with the climax in which you fight a hilariously evil Sith ghost). It feels like a plot from a Saturday morning cartoon. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s a break from the somewhat more serious storytelling of the rest of the series.
I think the best way to describe Jedi Academy is as the junk food of the Dark Forces/Jedi Knight series. It’s bold and bright, but simple. It is both satisfying and shallow. It’s pure, but totally lacking in nuance or complexity. It some ways, it’s the best in the series. In others, the worst.