Star Wars Starfighter went down very well with PlayStation 2 owners when the game hit last year. The game was one of the stronger titles available at the system's launch. Featuring a story that wove in and out of events seen in Episode I, the game offered a compelling narrative, strong visuals, and solid gameplay that provided a good showcase for the PS2 hardware. LucasArts has chosen to stick to the Starfighter gameplay formula and refine it for the sequel, Star Wars Jedi Starfighter. We had a chance to spend some time with an early build of the game and were able to try out the single-player and multiplayer modes, including the new cooperative modes.
Jedi Starfighter will feature a story that moves in and out of events from the upcoming Star Wars movie, Episode II, including the movie's hectic final battle. You'll play as Adi Gallia, a Jedi master first seen in Episode I, and Nym, a returning character from the previous Starfighter game who has switched careers from space pirate to rebel leader. The characters will find themselves opposing a new foe, Captain Cavik Toth and his Saboath Squadron, as well as the familiar evil of the Trade Federation. Adi Gallia moves to stop a plot that could mean the destruction of the Jedi (if she only knew), and Nym fights to reclaim the home planet the Trade Federation drove him from in the original Starfighter. The tale will be told over the course of 15 levels that will have you alternating between characters as in the original game. An optional mini-campaign will be available to serve as a tutorial that will familiarize you with Nym and Adi Gallia's crafts before jumping into the game proper. You'll also find bonus missions to unlock as before.
While the game has the same structure as the original Starfighter, there have been some noticeable changes and additions to the gameplay that keep things interesting. The most obvious addition is Adi Gallia's ship, a Jedi craft that offers a first glimpse at an Episode II vehicle. The snub-nosed craft bears a resemblance to the A-Wing fighters seen in Return of the Jedi and possesses some very special abilities. In addition to having the standard assortment of blasters, the Jedi starfighter will let you use force powers during battle, which changes how you'll battle your foes. As you progress through the game, you'll eventually gain access to four abilities: force lightning, force shield, force reflex, and force shockwave. Force lightning is an area-affect attack that damages enemy craft. Force shield grants invulnerability that deflects enemy weapons fire for a limited amount of time. Force reflex is a Matrix-style bullet-time effect that slows other craft around you and increases your rate of fire and turning speed. Force shockwave is a multidirectional shockwave that emanates from your ship and damages any craft around you.
While the force powers are triggered like the secondary weapons on a normal craft, you'll find they require a bit of skill. Unlike a torpedo or bomb, the force powers can be more effective if you time your button press to a visual cue. Energy particles begin to "coalesce" in front of you as you trigger the power. If your button press happens at the right moment, the force effect can be far more powerful. There are three levels of success when triggering a power: force clarity, which is the most effective; force connect, which is less effective; and force disconnect, which is the least effective. The difference between clarity and disconnect is noticeable--when triggering force lightning, for example, a disconnect attack will damage one ship, while a clarity-enhanced attack can take out several craft in one hit. To keep the powers from being overused, LucasArts has tied the attacks to a force-power meter shown onscreen. You'll be able to pull off only one attack at a time before having to let the bar regenerate. The force-meter limitation forces you to use them carefully and use them in tandem with your piloting and shooting skills, which keeps the battles engaging. While Nym's craft, the Havoc, returns from the original Starfighter, it's been upgraded to keep it from being overshadowed by the Jedi craft. You'll now have access to cruise missiles, cluster missiles, and proximity mines when piloting the Havoc on missions.
Another new feature in Jedi Starfighter is cooperative play. Rather than offer a basic multiplayer mode, LucasArts will let you play any level of the game in a split screen with a friend. You'll be able to take the role of one of two supporting characters in the game. Reti, a Toydarian, the same race as Episode I's Watto, will pilot the Zoomer, a fighter equipped with laser cannons and a chaingun. The second character, Jinkins, should be familiar to players of the original Starfighter, as he was part of Nym's forces. Jinkins will pilot the Freefall, a craft that boasts laser cannons and a number of drone fighters that can be used in combat. In addition, it's also possible to have two players playing a mission in the Havoc, with one player piloting the ship and handling one set of weapons while a second player mans the ship's turret.
Thanks to the gameplay tweaks, this game handles a bit better thanthe original game The interface for the force powers has been integrated effectively into the existing control setup. You'll still maneuver your craft with the left analog stick. The triangle button will cycle through existing targets, while the square button will let you manually target craft in your crosshairs. The X button will fire your craft's main weapons, while the circle button will fire your selected secondary weapons or force power, depending on whose craft you're piloting. An onscreen cross-shaped menu, exactly like the wingmate command menu from the first game, will display your available secondary weapon and force powers, and pushing a direction on the D-pad will let you choose one. You can also use the D-pad to select wingmate commands as before by holding down the L1 trigger and making a selection. R1 will zoom your view, while R2 and L2 will control your craft's boosting and breaking.
In addition to control tweaks, some work has been done on the game's onscreen HUD. The weapon and targeting interface is now on the lower left side of the screen and features a force bar in addition to a shield bar. Targeted craft still appear onscreen as before but now offer visual displays for their shield status, via a green bar, and overall damage, via a red bar, incorporated into the targeting cursor around them. The new information will help you keep track of which enemies are closer to destruction than others. The onscreen cursors that track the positions of all enemies in the area have also undergone a tweak, in addition to showing you the position of all craft around you mission-critical or friendly craft will show up as blue to help you keep track of them when the action heats up.
The graphics in Jedi Starfighter have also seen some tweaks. The Starfighter engine has undergone some refinement to allow improved performance over the original. While the build we saw was early and featured some rough spots in its frame rate, it seemed to be shaping up quite well. We were able to try single-player missions as Nym and Adi Gallia, as well as cooperative missions in the Havoc and split screen. The combination of refined graphics and what looks to be a wider and more-subtle color palette in the game, along with a variety of new special effects, definitely showcased the game's new look. When we played an Adi Gallia level on the water planet Maramere, the clean textures, detailed ship models, and water effects were looking sharp. The level also showed off some of the new enemy craft in the game. In addition to fighter-sized craft, you'll find a larger number of capital ships in the game. In one of the space levels we found ourselves maneuvering around a very colorful nebula. The space level also let us check out a new feature on larger craft: deformable pieces that can be shot off in a fight. If you're quick, you'll find you can render some craft helpless by blasting off their weapons. The game's in-engine cutscenes were well done and showed off a cinematic flair, which helped set the tone for the levels that followed. You'll still find some PS2 jaggies, but they aren't quite as jarring as before. As mentioned, the frame rate took a few hits when things got busy onscreen and when we used our Jedi powers, but it didn't bog down too badly. Fortunately the game's release is still a ways off, which should give LucasArts time to do some optimization.
Sound in the game is already quite good, thanks to excellent sound effects. Sound effects during combat work very well and suit the onscreen action. Com chatter from your wingmates or characters you're assisting was solid. The game's use of music really stood out. When playing as Adi Gallia, you'll hear the familiar John Williams score we all associate with Star Wars. However, when playing as Nym, you'll hear variations on an original theme scored for the character. It's a small touch, but the alternating music is a good way to set the tone for the characters and levels as you play the game.
Our time with Jedi Starfighter left us suitably impressed. It manages to build on the original game without breaking it. The refinements and additions to the gameplay and graphics are well implemented. The Jedi powers were a breeze to pick up after a few minutes of experimenting with the timing and visual cues. The cooperative modes also worked very well and left us looking forward to the game's release. Star Wars fans eager for a taste of what's to come in Episode II or anyone looking for a solid space combat game for the PS2 will want to be on the lookout for the game when it ships this March.