Designing a game set in the Star Wars universe seems like a no-brainer. The look and sounds of the game - from the Imperial gray of walls, to the elephantine squeal of a TIE Fighter engine, to the squeaky "pew, pew" of a blaster shot - are already set in stone, so designers just need to think of a genre and use the existing elements to build a game. This formula has been both successful (as with X-Wing, TIE Fighter, and Dark Forces) and not so successful (see Yoda Stories or Shadows of the Empire). Jedi Knight falls squarely into the former category, and is LucasArts' first truly great Star Wars game since TIE Fighter. The designers have done a commendable job of creating an immersive environment and have come up with what is arguably the best single-player first-person shooter since Doom.
Jedi Knight dispenses with many of the negative traits of its predecessor, Dark Forces. The game is longer (though it still feels a bit on the short side), you can save your game at any point and not just in predetermined areas, and LucasArts has corrected the single most criticized aspect of Dark Forces by adding multiplayer options to the sequel. But the gameplay in Jedi Knight is very similar to Dark Forces and borrows heavily from console games. Jumping from one small platform to the next is as important as blowing away Stormtroopers and Imperial Guards, and there are plenty of bosses to fight along the way.
The bosses in this case are Dark Jedi, a group of diverse baddies trying to help a super-evil Jedi named Jerec (who, conveniently, also happens to be responsible for the murder of your father) find a place called the Valley of the Jedi, where he will be bestowed with unlimited power. You once again take on the role of Kyle Katarn, who has now learned that he is a Jedi. As Katarn you must follow Jerec and his henchmen across a good deal of territory, from Imperial bases to your father's house and, ultimately, to the Valley of the Jedi itself. Along the way, you'll encounter the regular collection of Star Wars creeps, including Stormtroopers, Imperial Guards, Bounty Hunters, and the like. The decisions you make during the course of each level help determine your fate, and a point comes late in the game where you become aligned with the Dark or the Light side of the Force, and the storyline unfolds from there.
The branching between Light and Dark isn't as significant as early reports promised, and the storyline is a little cliched, but it does a fine job of providing links between the levels - and that's where Jedi Knight really excels. The majority of the levels are massive, both in size and scope. They contain enormous environments and some truly dazzling feats you must perform. For instance, at one point you must run across the top level of a huge space station, avoiding TIE Fighters trying to take you out with bombing runs. You make your way to the top of a large beam, where the only apparent exits are huge gaping air shafts that lead down hundreds of feet into nothingness. In one of these shafts, you can barely make out a small ledge. You must slide down to that ledge, then make your way through air ducts into the station itself. Another level has you trying to run through a falling cargo ship to the docking bay and escape, all the while trying to keep your balance in the unsteady environment and avoid the huge crates sliding around the hull. The game is full of these exhilarating moments where you think to yourself, "I can't believe I have to do that."
The level design makes you feel as if you are in a real environment, and the game is given an even more realistic sense by the incredible sensation of control you have over the character and the intelligent behavior of your foes. For example, when you jump, you actually feel like you are jumping (and not the sort of wimpy, twelve-inches-in-the-air jump of Quake or Hexen II) and when you walk backwards, the rate of movement changes to a slower, more cautious gait. Together, the level design and excellent control combine to give you the feeling that you can go pretty much anywhere you want in a level without artificial constraints. Enemy behavior also adds to the suspension of disbelief. While it doesn't necessarily make them any harder to kill, enemies will gang up on you and run for cover as you fire at them. The Tusken Raiders even do a little victory dance when they kill you, throwing their arms in the air and roaring with glee.
But not everything is new in Jedi Knight. The weapons selection doesn't vary much from Dark Forces. You have the basic blaster and the Stormtrooper rifle, as well as more powerful weapons such as the rail gun and the concussion rifle. But the introduction of the Jedi elements, which bestow a host of new abilities on your character, makes it a very different game. You have the assortment of various Jedi powers at your disposal, which become stronger and more numerous as you gain experience. There are twelve powers in all, four basic, four advanced for the Light Jedi, and four advanced for the Dark. The basic powers add to your movement, allowing you to jump higher or run faster. Advanced powers give you various offensive and defensive abilities, depending on the road you choose. Light Jedi powers include healing and protection, while the Dark powers allow you to strangle opponents, throw objects, or fire lighting bolts. Then there's the Lightsaber. It's amazing that a melee weapon can be so useful in an action game. Once you gain experience and become more proficient at blocking enemy shots with your saber, it will likely become your weapon of choice.
There are some elements that will inevitably put some off, mostly in the aesthetic arena. The choice for full-motion video cutscenes is perhaps the most obvious complaint and seems like a misguided decision. While the rendered aspects of these scenes are great, the acting is typically mediocre and often just plain, old-fashioned bad. The actor who plays Katarn, with his beauty parlor blow-dried hair and too-neatly-shaved beard, looks less like a Jedi Master than the Marketing Director for The Force (tm). The wall textures range from bland (the gray walls of the Empire, hardly the designers' fault) to downright ugly (the grass textures in level three are the most notable example). The 3D accelerated version looks fine (Jedi Knight is Direct3D compatible), but the unaccelerated version can't compete with Hexen II or even Quake.
Many will also be disappointed to learn that the distinction between the Light and Dark sides, once the choice has been made, is not as striking as one would hope. Which side you take is determined by your actions, with the rampant killing of non-enemies being the quickest route to the Dark Side. The Light Side is obviously the path you are supposed to take - you get more cutscenes and more narration throughout the last few levels. But apart from this and the different Force powers at your disposal, choosing the Dark Side only leads to one really shocking plot element, a slightly altered level, and a completely different ending (which is, in many ways, far more satisfying).
On the graphical upside, the character animations are great, and provide a great deal more than in other first-person shooters. The game can be played from a third-person or first-person point of view (and switched on the fly). With the external camera, Katarn's movements match the action, and it's a nice touch when he reaches out to push buttons or actually appears to be swimming underwater. The sound effects are equally appropriate, and a remixed version of John Williams' Star Wars score provides a suitably epic backdrop for the action.
The only other notable complaint is the somewhat mediocre multiplayer implementation. Early reports have declared the game virtually lag-free, but the combination of Force powers and high-powered range weapons often make for a strong imbalance (though this can be fixed by limiting the available weapons in the set-up screen). More frustrating is the limited number of multiplayer levels and the inability to use the single-player levels for multiplayer games.
But harping on these flaws is a little unfair because, as a single-player game, Jedi Knight simply can't be beat. The level design is great and the sense of control is unparalleled. From the third-person perspective, it plays like a more action-oriented Tomb Raider, and from the first-person view, it's a more puzzle-oriented Quake. And either way, it's an amazing experience.