Jedi Starfighter Preview
We go hands-on with a near final build of Lucasarts' Starfighter sequel.
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In the past, Lucasfilm has been notoriously secretive about current and upcoming projects, guarding all information about them like they were military secrets and only releasing tidbits here and there to sate fans' seemingly endless appetite for information. In that regard, Star Wars Jedi Starfighter is an exception to that rule, as the game takes place in the same time period as the upcoming Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones film, but it's slated for release a few months prior to it. Indeed, there will be a novelization of the movie that will hit the shelves before the theatrical release as well. While the book will obviously reveal all the details of the film, Jedi Starfighter elects to follow the paths of two unique characters who won't appear in the movie. In that regard, Jedi Starfighter isn't a true Episode II game, as the characters won't play a part in or affect the outcome of the film's storyline. Instead, they will follow their own paths, which will place them in or around some of the major events that take place in Attack of the Clones. Fans who are concerned that the game may reveal too much really shouldn't be, although those hoping for a glimpse of what's to come can piece together clues in the game and draw a few conclusions without learning too much.
For those who aren't familiar with the series, Starfighter was initially one of the early releases for the PlayStation 2, and it has since seen a spiced up release on the Xbox in the form of Starfighter Special Edition. Even more recently, a PC version of the PS2 title was released. The original Starfighter game followed three different characters through their adventures. The primary human character, Rhys Dallows, was the young hotshot pilot of a Naboo Fighter. Nym, a space pirate, was a member of a species created by LucasArts specifically for the game, and Vana Sage, the second human character, was a gun-for-hire type who found herself aiding the other fighters out of necessity. In Jedi Starfighter, the number of selectable characters in the single-player mode has been narrowed down to just two (although Vana Sage does make a cameo appearance). Nym, who was popular enough to receive his own finite comic series from Dark Horse Comics, has returned for a second go, and a new character, Adi Gallia, represents the Jedi in the game.
Visually, the game is an improvement on the first, with many more enemies to obliterate in each mission and a generally more polished look. The first game was criticized for its spotty frame rate, and LucasArts hopes to correct this problem in Jedi Starfighter. The build we received still has some issues, but if the first few missions can be used as a measuring stick, 30fps will be the lowest frame rate you'll encounter, and even then that will only happen when the action is hot. There will be the occasional jump to 60fps when there is less action on screen, but for the most part, the game hovers somewhere in between.
One thing that everybody can pretty much count on in a Star Wars title is great sound and music. Jedi Starfighter sounds like it will uphold that tradition, with selected themes from Episode I, as well as new music, presumably from the Episode II score.
As far as gameplay mechanics are concerned, Jedi Starfighter doesn't stray far from the first game's gameplay. The button layout has remained largely unchanged, and the physics feel the same. The changes are mostly felt in the presentation, as well as in the introduction of a wider variety of secondary weapons. In the first game, Nym had bombs at his disposal, in addition to his basic-but-effective laser weaponry. In Jedi Starfighter, his bombs are still available, but three more-specialized weapons will round out his new arsenal. For the more intense aerial battles, there are short-range cluster missiles that have a limited homing ability. These are especially effective when enemy ships are flying in formation or when groups of droid fighters are emerging from frigates or bases. One well-placed volley can literally wipe out entire squadrons. One of the complaints about the first game was the unavoidable need to locate large targets such as Trade Federation frigates and pelt them with laser blasts for an abnormally long period of time. This annoyance is remedied with Nym's power missiles--a trio of projectiles that causes a large amount of damage on impact. Nym also has a stationary but similarly powerful mine that will detonate when an enemy collides with it. Players will get used to these new additions rather quickly, and they'll be able to use them to devastating effect in the right circumstances. The basic bombs will recharge fairly quickly, but the other weapons recharge at a much slower rate. This makes selective use a must, and it forces players to think out their method of attack, rather than flying in with all their weapons blazing.
Not to be outdone by her pirate counterpart, Adi Gallia also has her own powerful arsenal. Unlike Nym, who generally uses missile weapons, Adi has the power of the force on her side, and she can manifest that power in four different ways. These abilities are not all available from the outset--when you start the game, Adi has yet to master the power of the force, but by the time you reach the latter portion of the game, you'll be using all four abilities off and on throughout each mission. The first power available is most effectively used in the game's dogfights. Force lightning, as it is aptly named, does exactly what the name might imply. Triggering this weapon while in range of an enemy causes a bolt of lightening to arc from Adi's ship and strike anything nearby. The lightening will also jump from enemy to enemy if they are in close proximity to each other, making it a powerful weapon to use when in close-quarters combat with a number of foes. The drawback to this is that only a few enemies are susceptible to damage from this attack, primarily the smaller attack craft such as droid fighters. Heavier craft are essentially immune, as they are larger and therefore more insulated.
As Adi matures, she will gain a power called force shield that temporarily deflects enemy laser attacks and can even bounce those attacks right back at them. The other two powers, force shockwave and force reflex, are no less dangerous to the enemy. The shockwave triggers a circular blast that radiates from the ship's hull in all directions, damaging all enemies in the immediate vicinity. Force reflex is easily the most useful skill, and therefore it doesn't become available until late in the game, when the missions are more hectic. This power allows Adi to greatly speed up her reflexes, which essentially slows the surrounding events to a crawl but allows her to go about her business unhindered. With this power in effect, her laser fire speeds up to a point that it can tear enemies apart at an alarming rate. All four of the powers can only be used when her force meter has been fully charged, however, and only one can be used at a time. Consequently, this means that all four are basically available for unlimited use. In this way, force reflex becomes an invaluable tool, as the meter is often almost fully recharged when the effect wears off.
One of the shortcomings of the first game was its length. Many felt that, while the game was fun while it lasted, it certainly would have benefited from a few more missions. Jedi Starfighter exceeds its predecessor (or prequel, if you will) in that regard rather nicely. There are more than 20 missions in the single-player mode alone, compared with 14 in the first game. The earlier missions are somewhat short, but as you progress, they will get increasingly more involved. Each mission has a number of objectives that are divided up by priority. Some of the later missions begin with only two or so objectives, but events will take place during the mission that bring about even more objectives to complete. There are also bonus objectives and secret objectives lurking in each mission that can unlock new ships, new multiplayer levels, DVD-style extras, and more. There are nine hidden craft that can be unlocked for the single-player mode by accomplishing these objectives. Many of these ships are new to the game and the Star Wars universe in general, while others are old favorites. Indeed, a few ships technically don't exist yet in the Star Wars timeline, but they'll certainly please longtime Star Wars fans. Other hidden goodies require more perseverance than merely completing a goal or two, however. Expect to be amply rewarded for completing all the objectives in every mission.
LucasArts has also stepped up the challenge. Some missions can be downright difficult, as they will require you to do more and more as events come to pass. A few missions even culminate in boss fights, which can be quite grueling after battling your way through wave after wave of fighters, tanks, missile frigates, and whatever else the enemy decides to throw at you.
The multiplayer game has also been enhanced to add even more value. Players will be able to play through the game in a cooperative fashion, though doing so won't affect the outcome. In an interesting twist, two ships will only be immediately available in the co-op mode to further entice gamers into bringing a friend along. The two ships in question are the Zoomer, a stout craft piloted by a quirky Toydarian named Reti, and the Freefall, a ship that can unleash small groups of drone craft to fight and is piloted by Jinkins, Nym's trusty sidekick from the first game. It also seems that Nym's ship has undergone even further enhancements and has acquired a turret that can be manned by a second player, effectively allowing both players to fight in tandem.
As mentioned in the opening of this preview, the game takes place during the events of the upcoming film. Most missions take place on the fringes of these events, while others will thrust players into battles that will take place on the big screen. While we're going to leave the details of most of these missions for you to discover on your own, there are a few tidbits that we can share. One of the highlights is a short but explosive encounter with one of the primary villains of the movie, the bounty hunter Jango Fett, who is, of course, piloting the Slave 1, a fan favorite.
There are a wide variety of missions in the game. Rather than sticking to strafing runs and dogfights, players will find themselves fending off missile attacks, escorting commandos on foot, and disarming large craft to prevent them from damaging allies. Ironically, Nym, who is a space pirate, didn't get much of a chance to utilize his shadier skills in the first game. You can be sure that he will be allowed to ply his trade in Jedi Starfighter, though, and the rewards that are reaped from this will be quite useful later on. One such reward comes in the form of a planetary cannon that is boosted from the Trade Federation in one mission and used to devastating effect against them in another. This weapon is highly entertaining, as it ties in with the secondary weapon interface. One simply needs to find a slow-moving target and call out the shot, and a tremendous blast from the orbiting cannon will vaporize any ships unlucky enough to find themselves on the business end of the weapon.
All told, we've been pretty pleased with what we've seen in our time with Jedi Starfighter. We've had a chance to play through all the single-player missions (with the exception of the training missions, which are not currently available), and we have a good idea of what to expect from the robust multiplayer game. Players who enjoyed the first game are likely to enjoy the sequel as well, and fans of the films who are itching for more information about Episode II will likely get a kick out of catching a sneak peek or two. Star Wars Jedi Starfighter is slated for release in early March, so keep an eye out, and don't forget to check back with us at that time for a full review.