The online reviewing biz is not for the squeamish – our turnover rate is high, with the average writer lasting less time than fresh cilantro in the crisper. I, on the other hand, am hanging on with a dogged persistence, much like a vicious case of athlete’s foot, and coming to the end of my second year writing for the venerable GO network, I’m gaining a certain degree of seniority. That seniority carries with it any number of perks. I get first choice of the female fans that mail themselves to us, though it hasn’t happened yet, and every time a game company sends us cash to bribe us into giving a favorable review, a certain amount of that trickles down to me, which has also never happened, but for the right price... Anyway, it’s good to be the king. Rank hath its privileges. And one of the privileges that actually does happen is the pick of the incoming games to review, so when Jedi Knight 2: Jedi Outcast went gold, I jumped to review it faster than, uh, faster than, um, something really fast. Crap, I’m fresh out of socially referential metaphors. At any rate, I wanted to review it because I thought it was going to be an important game in the future of FPS games, that next level of FPS gameplay that would revolutionize the genre and that people would be talking about for years to come. It turns out that I only got some of that. Jedi Outcast is an intriguing juxtaposition of pieces of incredibly intense FPS action that had me on the edge of my seat combined with puzzle-like sections of such opacity that they made me want to kill myself.
The ancestry of the series is an interesting one. In the beginning was Dark Forces, which I can’t remember anything about despite the fact that I almost certainly played it, that the box is in fact looking down at me all sad and dusty and dejected from its place high on a bookshelf as I write this. Next came Dark Forces 2: Jedi Knight. That one I do remember. You played Kyle Katarn, a reluctant Jedi who starts without any Jedi powers, gradually gains them during the game, at one point choosing between the dark and light forces, and in the end rejects his Jedi powers again. JK2:JO (hmm, maybe just JO to be simple from now on) has you again play as Kyle, a few years later, without force powers, doing mercenary work for the New Republic, investigating Imperial activity at a supposedly abandoned Imperial base. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that there’s Imperial mischief afoot, and Kyle is going to have to again turn to the Force to get some serious thwarting done.
What might take a genius, it turns out, is getting through the first few levels. I’m standing in the control room of a mining installation, the bodies of Imperial baddies all around me (metaphorically speaking, the bodies in the game vanish shortly after death), trying to figure out where to go next or what to do to get out of this level. In fact for the first five levels of the game you have no force powers at all, and the game plays much like any other recent FPS, albeit with a zesty Star Wars flavor. Hours and hours of level pulling, button flipping, chasm jumping fun. I’m supposed to destroy mining equipment, but all the equipment around me seems indestructible to my weaponry. As a whole throughout the game, I’d have to say there is a disturbing lack of stuff that can be destroyed, considering that Qui-Gon nearly cut through a door more than 3 feet thick with his light saber in the Phantom Menace, and I can’t seem to cut through a single door, box, or pipe with mine. But I’m high in expectations, and my force powers are certain to come along eventually. In JK, you obtained them a little at a time, spending essentially level bonus points on improving your force powers as you saw fit. How am I to get them in JO? As it turns out, very quickly.
In the sixth level Kyle decides he needs the Force (for reasons I won’t mention here). A quick trip to the Valley of the Jedi, and then a little groveling to Luke Skywalker to get your light saber back, and you’re back in business. As such the sixth level is really a tutorial, introducing you to the force powers push, pull, speed, and jump, and the use of your light saber (you don’t get to pick which force skills you get, or your level of proficiency with them as in JK). As a tutorial, this level is really deficient. Using pull and push on an opponent in combat is very different than using it on a switch or box, and jumping around with the light saber like a retard in the Jedi temple isn’t going to give you the slightest feeling of what it is like to fight with one.
Ah, the light saber. Let me deviate a moment to cover this, the most significant improvement in this game from JK, and possibly in the whole FPS genre. In JK, the light saber was almost gimicky. You could use it to deflect weapons fire, and do some saber combat with other Jedi, but the saber combat in general was kind of lackluster, and felt nothing like the thrill of Luke and Vader dueling as Palpatine watched in Return of the Jedi. An entirely reworked light saber combat engine in JO makes the saber the most amazing weapon you can wield. When you draw your light saber, the game pans back into 3rd person mode, allowing you to perform jumps and summersaults that would make you yak into your keyboard in 1st person view. You have a whole slew of different attacks and acrobatic moves available to you. The light saber can still be used to deflect (most) weapons fire, and it can now be thrown to strike opponents or objects at range, returning to your hand automatically at the end of the flight. Light saber combat is fast, maybe almost too fast, and in my opinion has elements of skill and luck, hack and slash mixed in equally, but regardless, it’s a ton of fun.
Which bring me back to the game at level seven. I’ve got my light saber, and a host of new skills, and the first thing the game drops me into is a massive bar brawl. I get slaughtered because the tutorial level left me so poorly prepared for actual combat. Where is an amateur Jedi supposed to learn the fundamentals around here? Fortunately, there’s multiplayer and a bunch of bots provided to try and take up some of the slack. Various deathmatch incarnations are available, and you can restrict the weapons and force powers that the combatants can use. There is also capture the flag, and a variant of that called capture the Ysalamiri. A Ysalamiri is a creature, which to my knowledge does not appear in the movies but does appear in the Timothy Zahn books and other places, that naturally repels the force. Jedis in the vicinity of one lose their force powers for as long as they are nearby, so in a capture the flag format, the guy carrying the beastie is force powerless. That’s a pretty nifty spin on an old mod. One thing you very quickly learn is that with the standard FPS movement binding (wasd), the default keys for the force powers requires the reach and dexterity of a concert pianist (a 12” pianist – old joke). Even remapping them takes more than a little thought, and you really have to find something you’re comfortable with because they are critical to the game. It takes some real time (or did for me at least) to become proficient enough with the light saber and powers to use them effectively in the single player game.
And the game goes on from there. You get to visit all kinds of wonderful Star Wars places such as Bespin City and the Yavin swamp, with that distinctive Star Wars architecture that seems to consist primarily of narrow catwalks without railings over 10,000 foot drops. Force pushing or pulling some poor slob off of one of these is good for a sadistic laugh. At certain points in the game you gain a new force power (grip, heal, lightening, and mind tricks) or improve the level of one you already have. You don’t get to choose which power to get or improve as in JK. Low level Jedi powers are kind of weak, gaining in effect and range with increasing level. Force pull, for example, lets you knock a guy off his feet if you are close to him at level one, steal his weapon away at level two, and pull a whole roomful of people and their weapons at level three. Your saber throw is just a little toss at level one, a longer toss that you can english a little using the mouse at level two, and practically a homing missile for your enemies at level three. Oh, and Force speed is just like Max Payne bullet time, making the rest of the world slower and slower with increasing level. There is the usual FPS array of other weapons in the game, all with a Star Wars flare. There’s the basic blaster, and blaster rifle, Wookie bowcaster, thermal detonator (grenade), flechette (more or less a doubled barreled shotgun), trip mines, etcetera, etcetera. The weapons all have primary and secondary modes of fire – the blaster rifle, for example, has single shot and automatic fire modes. Frankly, once you get the light saber in your sweaty little paws and gain some skill using it, you’ll find that you don’t use any of the other weapons much.
The game looks great, sounds great. As soon as I get that aromatherapy peripheral for my computer, it will probably smell great also. Light saber combat looks especially smashing, throwing off sparks and flashes of light, even when you’re around the corner from one. I do find that I have some frame rate troubles outside, even if I turn all the graphics bells and whistles off. Inside, I’m OK, unless there is lots of stuff moving at once. Still, with an older machine like mine (P3-500), you’ve got to expect some performance falloff.
Any problems? Oh, there are a few. For one, enemy AI is all over the board for smarts. Sometimes enemies will run and get help or find cover or strafe you in an intelligent fashion, but sometimes they’ll run right down your blaster fire heedless. When two guards are standing side by side you can, admittedly rarely, blast one without the other one noticing. And the AI seems almost incapable of dealing with the narrow catwalks, enemies frequently falling to their death without any prompting on my part at all. Also, one final gripe, level load times are a little long, and when you die, the reload time is little better.
Still, the saber combat model alone is really enough to give this a gamer’s choice award. Add in a solid single-player campaign, even one with more jumping and switch-flipping puzzles than I’m generally comfortable with, and some groovy multiplayer action, and this is easily the most satisfying FPS that I’ve played this year.