A good first impression is always important. Surprisingly, LucasArts and Raven Software's Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast doesn't really give one. Instead, the third game in the long-running Star Wars-themed shooter series initially gives the impression that it's a flashy but basic action game that isn't as ambitious as its highly acclaimed predecessor, Jedi Knight. However, Jedi Outcast soon transforms from a typical first-person shooter to an exceptional Star Wars action game that contains some of the best combat sequences since Half-Life, the most distinctive control mechanics since Max Payne, and the most involving plot in a Star Wars game since Jedi Knight.
As in the two previous games in this series, Jedi Knight II casts you in the role of Kyle Katarn, a gruff mercenary who lends his smuggling skills to the Rebellion during its uprising against the Empire. Katarn has a storied past that has been well chronicled in the original Dark Forces and its sequel Jedi Knight, and fans of the series will be glad to know that his moody manner and subtle pessimism remain intact in Jedi Outcast. The force is strong in Katarn, and he's no slouch with a lightsaber either, but after nearly falling to the dark side during the events of Jedi Knight, he's chosen to shun his Jedi ways in order to return to his life as a smuggler and mercenary for the Alliance. The game opens with Katarn and his trusty pilot, Jan Ors, on one such mission. They receive an urgent call from Mon Mothma telling the pair to investigate a distress call from the surface of a planet that was thought to be uninhabited. There, Katarn and Ors uncover a plot by the remnant Imperial forces to create an army of dark warriors who are technologically infused with the force.
In your quest to put a stop to this army of cybernetic soldiers, you'll fight your way through 24 single-player levels that span eight different environments. The single-player game is relatively long compared with the single-player modes in recent shooters, and it's also quite tough at the default difficulty. Some of the exotic locales you'll visit, like Yavin and the cloud city of Bespin, will be very familiar to Star Wars fans. Other levels are quite new, such as a mining facility on Artus and the innards of a massive capital ship called the Doom Giver. You'll also run into many new faces, as well as a handful of familiar ones who will undoubtedly please fans of the source material. Included in this notable cast of characters are Luke Skywalker and Lando Calrissian, the latter voiced by none other than Billy Dee Williams himself. The story moves along through the use of good-looking prerendered cinematics, as well as in-game cutscenes that tend to focus close in on characters' faces, most of whom make use of believable facial animation and lip syncing.
Of course, not all the characters you'll meet in Jedi Outcast will be friendly. You'll encounter swarms of angry rodians and other assorted bounty hunters. And storm troopers--lots of them, especially during the first five missions. In fact, save for a handful of interrogation droids and a pair of AT-STs, the only enemies you'll run into at first are storm troopers, and the repetitive task of gunning down these white-clad soldiers will quickly wear thin. Kyle doesn't start the game with any force powers, nor does he initially have his lightsaber. Instead he'll usually be stuck with the Imperials' own inaccurate assault rifle. Furthermore, the first levels of Jedi Outcast are practically brimming with key-hunt puzzles and platform-jumping challenges. While there's a third-person view to help you time such jumps better, you'll invariably get frustrated early on at having to do so much jumping around, all for the sake of opening a door. Your gun-toting enemies will also exhibit some strange behavior during these early stages.
If you can weather the first few of hours of Jedi Outcast, you'll note that it takes a sharp turn for the better. Suffice it to say that Kyle regains his force powers and lightsaber, the combination of which makes for some very satisfying and original action. There's nothing quite like walking into a room of storm troopers and sending them all crashing to the floor with a force-filled flick of your wrist, or fending off a cantina full of pistol-wielding drunks with nothing other than your lightsaber. The game departs from Jedi Knight's open-ended character advancement system. In Jedi Outcast, you'll earn your force powers linearly. Every time you complete a mission, you'll be imbued with a specific new set of force powers, and as you progress through the game, your existing force powers will increase in strength. Each of your force powers has three levels, and by the end of the game, you'll be doing backward flips onto catwalks, choking the life out of bad guys before tossing them off ledges, sending arcs of searing electricity from your fingertips, and generally feeling like a bona fide Jedi master.
The game has eight force powers, most of which are taken from Jedi Knight. New powers include a Jedi mind trick that confuses enemies and causes them to do things like shoot their comrades and open locked doors for you, as well as force speed, which causes everything and everyone around you to move in slow motion in an effect that's very similar to bullet time in Max Payne, only Kyle continues to move at normal speed while his foes are trapped in slow motion. The game's default control scheme makes accessing these force powers a little awkward, but by remapping some of the keys, you'll be able to cycle through these powers as quickly as you can cycle through your collection of weapons. Actually, besides the lightsaber and the force powers, you'll also find a number of new weapons as you proceed onward, some of which are extremely powerful. But you'll have so much fun using your lightsaber and force powers that you'll rarely have the desire to use any of the game's other weapons.
The lightsaber is excellent--never before has melee combat in a shooter been so effectively executed. You can fight effectively from either a first-person or third-person perspective. In addition to gaining force powers, Kyle is also able to advance his lightsaber technique. When you first get your saber, you can block a certain percentage of incoming shots with your saber automatically. You can also throw it in an arc like a boomerang. As the game progresses, these two skills will improve, so that at their fullest potential, you'll be able to deflect virtually all blaster fire and actually control the saber as it weaves through the air. Beyond that, the saber combat in the game is surprisingly deep. The type of swing that Kyle takes is dependent on his movement direction and the location of the nearest enemies. So if an enemy is behind you, and you hit the backward key as you swing your saber, Kyle will stab backward. Time your strike at the apex of a jump, and Kyle will swing his saber downward in a deadly arc.
Kyle can also use three different combat stances while holding the saber, though you start with only one. This initial stance lets you inflict a decent amount of damage and string together up to five moderately fast slashes by properly timing your button presses. Later in the game, you'll learn the fast stance, which lets Kyle strike quickly and string an infinite amount of attacks together, though the strikes do less damage. Finally, you'll learn the strong combat style, which uses slow swings that do a considerable amount of damage but leaves you wide open for a counterattack. You can cycle through these stances with a press of a button, though you'll probably find one style that bests fits you and stick with it. But there's a lot to the saber control, and while you could pretty much get through the game simply by hacking away with it (or by relying more on your guns), you'll thoroughly enjoy the experience if you take the time to learn all the nuances of the lightsaber.
A handful of storm troopers or bounty hunters won't stand a chance against you once you've mastered your force powers and lightsaber. But as you make your way through some of the later levels, you'll start running into dozens of enemies at once. The game gets very tough, and dependence on any single aspect of your arsenal--weapons, force powers, or lightsaber--won't get you very far. You have to find the proper balance between all three, or at least between your force powers and saber. And even if you learn to handle roomfuls of enemies at once, the game will keep you on your toes by pitting you against a series of bosses, all of whom carry lightsabers and are well trained in the ways of the force. While some of the enemy AI of the storm troopers is impressive--they retreat when taking losses and try to flank you when possible--it's combat with these saber-wielding enemies that's the most memorable aspect of Jedi Outcast. It only takes a second or two to dispatch a storm trooper, but a single one of these dark Jedi can take up to a minute of nonstop combat to defeat. Some of the more heated matches will have you locking sabers with enemies, frantically pushing the attack button to overpower them like in the classic fighting game Samurai Shodown.
Jedi Outcast was developed using the Quake III: Team Arena engine, which is based on the technology that powered Raven's last game, Star Trek: Voyager Elite Force. In fact, some of the earlier levels in Jedi Outcast resemble those of Elite Force, though the overall look and design of Jedi Outcast's levels is far superior. Many of the levels are simply massive and constantly remind you that you're in the Star Wars universe. Sometimes the frame rate will slow down whenever the action picks up, but for the most part, Jedi Outcast runs fairly smoothly on a midrange or high-end system. All the character models are highly detailed--particularly the storm troopers, who feature very sharp textures, plenty of detail, and subtle but effective reflections on their glossy armor. The environmental effects are equally impressive. Your lightsaber leaves a scorch mark on any surface it touches and sometimes cleanly slices off the limb of a victim, and in one area, raindrops fizzle and evaporate when they make contact with it.
As you'd expect, the music in the game consists of the famous John Williams score featured in most other Star Wars games, though the music in Jedi Outcast is dynamic, so you'll hear it swell up during combat and then quiet down in between fights. Likewise, the sounds of blasters and lightsabers are done very well, though for better or worse they're the same effects that we've been hearing for over 20 years. The voice acting is superb, and Katarn's gruff demeanor really shines through during the speech.
The single-player game in Jedi Outcast is easily worth it, though there's also a lot to the multiplayer mode, which has a surprising amount of options. There are seven basic gameplay modes available, and while most of them are just slight variations on the deathmatch, team deathmatch, and capture-the-flag options that you'll find in other games, they make excellent use of the Star Wars source material. For example, while Jedi Outcast has a standard capture-the-flag mode, it also has a "capture-the-ysalamiri" mode. The rules of CTF still apply here, though with an interesting twist--the lizardlike ysalamiri has the unique power of canceling out the force, preventing its carrier from using force powers, but also preventing others from using force powers on the carrier. Multiplayer Jedi Outcast also takes an interesting approach to the use of force powers. Before starting any match, you're given a certain amount of points that you can assign to any force power you want. Higher-level powers cost more points than low-level powers, and you can either spread your points among a wide range of low-level powers or focus them on a smaller number of potent ones. You'll have to choose carefully, because in addition to the eight single-player force powers, the multiplayer game of Jedi Outcast has seven additional powers, most of which are designed with team play in mind--powers like team heal and team energize.
In all, there are 15 multiplayer maps, the majority of which are unique to Jedi Outcast's multiplayer mode and not just slight enhancements of single-player levels. The game has a built-in multiplayer server browser that makes starting and joining games a breeze, and there's also an easily accessible voting menu that lets you do things like call for new maps. What's more, when you start your own match, you can reserve a certain amount of player slots for computer-controlled bots. Each of these bots (there are 28 of them, all based on single-player characters and enemies) has his or her own set of characteristics that include accuracy and aggressiveness, and there are five overall difficulty ratings for them. It can be a lot of fun just playing against these various bots, some of which are really tough.
Jedi Outcast isn't without a few shortcomings--the game starts off slow and involves a little too much puzzle-solving for a first-person shooter. However, the game's strong points--especially its combat--overshadow whatever problems Jedi Outcast may have early on. It's a very slick game that borrows the best elements from past shooters, introduces a number of its own great twists, and them combines these elements to make something that will be highly enjoyable both for those who like shooters and those who simply like Star Wars. And if you happen to like both, then you'll be especially impressed. Jedi Outcast certainly becomes tough later on, but once you learn to master all your force powers and get a good grip on your lightsaber, you'll feel unstoppable--the sight of Katarn effortlessly cutting through, leaping over, and pushing back crowds of enemies is a sight to behold. And once you finish the single-player game, the many multiplayer options will keep you coming back for more. Jedi Outcast is simply one of the easiest games to recommend this year.