Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast Review

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Publisher: LucasArts
Developer: Raven Software

Platform: PC
Reviewed on PC
Windows System Requirements: Pentium II 400 MHz (for multiplayer)/Pentium II 350 MHz (for single-player), 128 MB RAM, 16 MB video card, 665 MB HD space, 4x CD ROM

Kyle Katarn is back. Having abandoned his use of the Force after an uncomfortable brush with the Dark Side, Kyle works as a mercenary with his more-than-friend Jan Ors. The shattered residue of the Empire, called the Remnant, remains a threat to galactic freedom. When Remnant Admiral Fyyar teams up with a big, ugly Jedi named Desann, Luke Skywalker and his Jedi academy come under threat. None of which might trouble Kyle... until Desann captures Jan. The player takes the role of Kyle in this first-person shooter. En route to the final showdown, you guide Kyle through a series of missions against Remnant forces. Along the way, Kyle rediscovers his connection to the Force and progressively learns the Jedi skills he needs to save the galaxy.

Rob de los Reyes

I can only assume that the people who design jumping puzzles were once the children who enjoyed pulling the wings off flies. What explanation, beyond raw sadism, is there to explain a gameplan that involves adding mortal peril to a four foot jump that even the palest among us could land in real life? A plague on all their houses. Doubly so because, absent those vexatious jumping puzzles, Jedi Outcast otherwise takes a well-earned place as a new benchmark of fun.

It all starts a little slowly. After an uninspired opening, you spend the first several missions playing... Dark Forces. Blaster in hand, thermal detonator at the ready, Kyle Katarn runs and guns his way past hapless stormtroopers (oh sure, blame the blaster for the inaccuracy). For those who played the original Dark Forces, the opening levels offer pleasant nostalgia. For everyone, these levels introduce you to the lovingly drawn stormtroopers. They are beautifully animated, and their conversations are a welcome source of humor throughout the game. Further enhancing their life-like quality is their AI. In some ways, contemporary AI with all its current flaws is ideally suited for stormtrooper behavior. They are smart enough to run for help and to seek a good firing position, but loyal enough (and dumb enough) to stay in the fight while you carve your way through their ranks. The problem with those opening levels is that you can't go home again – at least, not for that long a stretch. The truth is that Jedi Outcast doesn't really start until you get that lightsaber in your hands, and I'm hard pressed to think of a reason why it should have taken so long for that to happen.

I'm a Bit Puzzled

Having said that, one thing the early levels could teach the later levels is how to do a jumping puzzle. Despite the earlier invective, there are good and interesting reasons to deploy jumping puzzles – in moderation. If nothing else, they add the third dimension in 3D gaming. To succeed, you have to remember to look up and down (this ain't no side-scroller) and move along the vertical axis. In the early levels, this is all the jumping puzzles are about. You appear to be trapped in a room, but wait, you look up and see a pipe jutting out a few feet beneath an open air shaft. All the landings are wide enough, and the consequences of falling minimal enough, that the challenge is figuring out where to go. The puzzle is essentially solved when you realize that the solution involves jumping. Later in the game, it's no longer enough to know what to do. Suddenly you must jump at just the right angle, release the jump button at just the right moment, and do it seven times consecutively, or die a grisly death. This is all the more frustrating because the jumps would be easy if, as in real life, you could see where your feet are in relation to the ground. All gaming puzzles are, by their nature, artificial ones. Some puzzles (the fun ones) just hide it better.

Ironically, Jedi Outcast, more than any game I have played in awhile, shows just how shopworn and unnecessary jumping puzzles feel these days. In its level design, Raven lays out every trick in the book and writes a few more for good measure. Familiar puzzles include hit-the-switch-and-run, find-the-key, seek-the-code, and shut-down-the-power. Again, doled out in moderation, even familiar puzzle types can pose lively new challenges. Outside of jumping puzzles, Raven seems to have an almost preternatural grasp of the art of the action puzzle. But there's more. In the course of the adventure, you will take control of droids, AT-STs, and ship guns. You will charge in with guns blazing and cross a darkened room on tiptoes. The revelatory achievement, however, is the creation of puzzles solvable with the wholly invented Force powers. Some puzzles are scripted to be solved with the Force powers (pulling a far off switch, using a mind trick to make a guard open a door), and still other problems (tactical problems mostly) may be solved either with guns or with the clever use of Force powers. With all the puzzle types on offer, it becomes easy to overlook any one bothersome example. Just wait, the next puzzle will be different. The larger aesthetic point is that the Force power puzzles remind us that games get to make their own rules. Developers need not be content creating virtual obstacle courses that could just as easily be created with a hammer and nails.

When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough Get Lightsabers

The grand achievements – and reasons enough to buy Jedi Outcast – are the lightsaber and Force powers. The six screenshots below are illustrative on more than one level. You'll note that only one of the six features a weapon other than the lightsaber. It's not that other weapons aren't available. They are there, and I used them. But I used them to solve specific problems, then re-holstered them as quickly as possible. The lightsaber looks and sounds exactly as you imagined in your childhood air-saber battles. What's more, Raven found a way to let the player control some elements of the lightsaber strokes while augmenting the player's moves with additional actions that give the illusion of player skill. I knew darn well I had nothing to do with that flipping, twisting upstroke I just executed, but I didn't care. Every fight was the coolest fight ever, and I was the finest duelist to walk the earth. That Titanic guy can move over – with lightsaber in hand, I was the King of the World. For anyone who has ever fantasized about a lightsaber duel, the experience is not to be missed.

The Force powers are fancifully rendered and a joy to play with. The only trouble is that, by default, they are mapped to the function keys. Given the pace of the game, I found it difficult to reach that far up the keyboard and keep doing the other things I had to do not to die. The problem is particularly acute in the early stages, when your Force powers are weaker. These weaker versions of the powers often require the targeting of a particular individual – something I found close to impossible to execute before either the target or I died by some other means. The controls can be remapped, but then you risk not having the correct weapon at the ready, which seems more critical. The problem eases when the powers apply over areas instead of individuals. Without the need to aim, I was able to use them much more often. As with the lightsaber, childhood dreams sprang to life. With a reach of the hand, I could yank a group of stormtroopers toward me from across the room and whack them with my lightsaber while they were still on the ground. At the highest level of lightsaber defensive skill, I was able to take out a dozen stormtroopers just by standing still and reflecting their blasts back at them (see the picture at bottom right). With the Force powers as with the lightsaber, players are treated to the intensely satisfying illusion of skill.

Odds and Ends

There are artistic quibbles to be made here and there, although some are problems inherent in the Star Wars world. For example, until the jungle sequence, the world is almost entirely gray. This is in keeping with the dark and mechanistic world of Star Wars, but it lacks zip in a computer game. Certain opportunities to remedy that grayness were just missed. The Bespin City level was needlessly colored using little more than three shades of beige. The various consoles and display equipment throughout the game are also problematic. Most of them don't do anything, so you learn to view them as attractive wallpaper. The problem is that sometimes the panels actually do something. The active ones tend to look slightly different, but you'll run around clicking on dead panels more often than you'd like. But quibbles are quibbles, and they don't significantly detract from the realization of your Star Wars dreams.

Finally, Jedi Outcast offers a few multiplayer modes including one-on-one lightsaber dueling, giant free-for-all matches, and a couple of renditions of capture the flag. The pacing is much quicker than the puzzle-laden single-player game and a welcome diversion as such. With a fair range of avatars to choose from and customizable force powers, the multiplayer option is solid, brainless fun. Death is frequent, but reanimation instantaneous. There are some team matches, but if they are meant to involve actual teamwork, I didn't find it. Most matches, whatever the technical form, are a big game of King of the Mountain. But with lightsabers and Force powers aplenty, the Mountain has never been more perilous.

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This page contains a single entry by Editor published on April 21, 2002 6:03 PM.

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