Reviewed: January 4, 2003
Released: November 19, 2002
“A Long Time Ago…In A Galaxy Far, Far Away”
Over 25 years ago those words impacted the world of motion pictures and have prefaced eight movies – soon to be nine (yes – I’m counting the three special editions), and countless video games. Those familiar words have once again returned to the Xbox in Lucasarts' latest release, Star Wars Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast.
Jedi Outcast is the latest title to add to the already overwhelming flood of FPS games being released since the genre was born. While it brings nothing new to the genre, it does offer several things lacking in most of the FPS titles currently available for the Xbox.
First and foremost, Outcast offers up a story that is worthy of a movie screenplay. Told through numerous cutscenes – some pre-rendered and others using the game engine graphics, you are held captive throughout the entire game by the engrossing narrative. The acting is topnotch despite the obvious absence of Mark Hammill, and it won’t take long before you are immersed in this game so deep you won’t be able to stop until the closing credits.
But everything isn’t just quite perfect in this new saga. Along the way you will fall prey to several pitfalls that the design team didn’t manage to avoid when making this title. Some of these are puzzles that are simply impossible to figure out while others are rooted in sinister level designs, and others are as simple as the eternal curse of playing an FPS game using a gamepad.
What can you say about the gameplay that hasn’t been said a thousand times before? Jedi Outcast does offer you the ability to play in either first or third person modes, which softens some of the controller issues by allowing you to approach the game from an action or FPS perspective. The default is first person until you equip the lightsaber at which point the camera automatically switches to third person mode. You can override this setting if you wish and slash your opponents face to face, but I found it much too difficult to move and fight in this view.
Controls are pretty good and every button on the Xbox controller is used in some fashion. The black and white buttons can be used to assign Hot Key Force Powers so you don't have to cycle through menus in the middle of combat. The D-pad scrolls through inventory and Force Powers while the triggers handle primary and alternate weapon fire. A jumps, X interacts, and B draws your saber and changes fight style while Y is the inventory activation key. It's not as intuitive or configurable as a keyboard but it gets the job done.
Level design is pretty standard stuff with complicated maze-like interiors and vast outdoor levels. Everything is linear. You are guided around by a series of locked doors, dead end canyons, etc. that keeps you from straying too far off the beaten path. This takes away from the freedom of exploration, which makes finding all those hidden secrets that much harder.
The first several levels of the game are very reminiscent of the previous Jedi Knight games. You are fighting a lot of storm troopers with a variety of laser weapons. Most weapons have primary and secondary functions and your arsenal is amazingly large and diverse. Of course, around level three you reclaim your lightsaber and if you are like me, you won’t even use those other weapons again with the obvious exception of the sniper rifle.
This is perhaps my biggest complaint about the entire game. The lightsaber seems to create a very imbalanced combat situation in almost every encounter from the time you get it until the end of the game. Sure there are exceptions like the boss battles, or when going up against walkers, but in normal ground level combat, nothing beats your saber.
Your energy blade has the uncanny ability to deflect most incoming fire, and while many of these deflected blasts bounce into walls, many will hit the person doing the shooting resulting in their demise with you doing nothing more than standing there. Security druids that take dozens of laser blasts to kill are destroyed with a single boomerang toss of your lightsaber.
Your lightsaber becomes even more devastating once you start combining it with your Force Powers, especially when you use the Force to warp time so that you are exponentially faster than your enemies. You can zip into a room and lay waste to an entire squad before they even know what hit them. The effect is much like the "bullet-time" effect in Max Payne, and is also used to show slow-motion death sequences in saber duels or whenever Kyle dies. The effect can be toggled in the options.
There is nothing so wickedly satisfying as using Force Pull on an enemy to yank him up close then swiping him with your saber, or pulling a weapon from a storm trooper’s hands then striking down the helpless drone. I often questioned Kyle’s possible flirtations with the Dark Side as he would electrocute an entire room of storm troopers with bolts of energy, much like those used by the Emperor in Return of the Jedi.
Of course combat is only about 80% of the game. Jedi Outcast features puzzles that range from mildly annoying to “where can I download a walkthrough?” Nothing in Outcast is obvious. You are given very broad objectives at the beginning of each mission and that’s it. On a few occasions Kyle would voice a “clue” that was about as vague as the puzzle itself.
Perhaps one of the hardest puzzles was the Communication Array on the Doomgiver. You had to enter a 3-symbol code to solve the puzzle. Each code was a different color and the terminals to enter these codes were in pod-like stations suspended in a bottomless pit. Picture a 9x9 grid of pods – much like a 3D tic-tac-toe board. Only a few pods are connected on each level, forcing you to make daring and precise leaps from pod to pod and level to level to find and flip the correct switches. To add additional insult is the placement of officers in many of the pods who logically have NO WAY of getting there. It took you a level 2 Force Jump to reach that pod.
My second biggest complaint is the sheer amount of jumping puzzles in this game. Come on guys – this isn’t Mario Brothers! If the aforementioned Communication Array puzzle isn’t bad enough, there is another puzzle where you are riding a hover-platform around the side of a circular chamber. Two storm troopers with rocket launchers are shooting at you from above and no matter how hard you try and how fast you snipe them, they will ALWAYS manage to blow-up your platform forcing you to jump to the anti-grav devices on the wall then make daring leaps to the opposite side of the chamber.
My only other serious complaint about Outcast is some of the quirky levels. I can think of at least a dozen locations where I was totally stumped and didn’t know where to go. Only after consulting the notes that came with my review copy did I realize “there was a ventilation grate I should have shot 6 rooms ago and gone through a vent to get a password”.
Perhaps the single worst flaw in level design logic was the first mission in the Yavin swamp. I had just cleared out the first landing pod and had no idea where to go. Even after consulting my notes/hint sheet, which spoke of a “small waterfall in the rocks”, it took me nearly 20 minutes to find the tiniest of trickles coming from the cliff with a submerged passage underneath. Perhaps finding this would have been easier if I hadn’t been using my lightsaber. It is nearly impossible to see anything underwater in the third person camera view.
There is a bit of variety in the gameplay. On a few occasions you get to take over gun turrets, both on the ground and on ships. You will get to take control of maintenance droids and R5 units and take them into locations you cannot go yourself. There is even one level where you take command of your own ATST and lay waste to a canyon full of enemy troops. These little diversions are spread out just right and break-up what would otherwise become a monotonous game after 10-15 hours.
Jedi Outcast looked great on my PC, and the Xbox version manages to keep much of the quality intact despite the lower resolution. The CPU in the Xbox is about half of what my PC has and this lack of power showed itself several times with some jerkiness, especially in the larger outdoor levels, big battles, and Jedi Arena matches. The models and textures are perfect and look like they were taken straight from the Lucas archives. I was stunned the first time a saw the detailed storm troopers walking around in fluid motion. When you shoot them they die in a variety of spectacular animation worthy of any professional stuntman.
Rooms range from tiny cramped crawlspaces to enormous chambers filled with pulsing generators and glowing lights. The carbonite chamber on Bespin is perfectly recreated and I was expecting to hear the hiss of Darth Vader when I first entered. The real-time lighting is stunning casting colored glows on you and other objects. I was surprised that my saber didn’t light up more of the surrounding area, but I guess that is what my night-vision goggles were for.
There are tons of special effects including some of the best particle effects I’ve seen. There is nothing more amazing that seeing some of the final lightsaber battles with a dozen Jedi all swinging multicolored lightsabers at each other. There is just an amazing wealth of subtle detail put into this game.
One particularly distressing note were the cutscenes. These movies were beyond gorgeous on the PC but now they look like filtered or compressed MPEG video, very grainy and not nearly as nice as the PC version. Many of the movies splice right into the gameplay so when the high-res game graphics "pop in" you realize just how bad these movies really are. I have no idea what happened during the port to the Xbox. Fortunately, these quality issues are confined to the movies and the game doesn't suffer, but it's still a shame and somewhat of a shock considering Lucasarts reputation for excellent visuals.
The sounds effects are taken right from the libraries at Skywalker Sound and you will instantly recognize the hum of a saber or the distinctive sound of an E11 blaster bolt whizzing by your head or the metallic crunch as the giant foot of an ATST stomps down near you. One of the most amazing effects, perhaps due to its sheer subtlety, is the hiss off the raindrops as they strike your saber in the outdoor swamp level.
The dialog is excellent in both the cutscenes and the ambient chatter during the game. I highly recommend that you restrain yourself from barging into areas with storm troopers and hide around the corner listening to their conversations. There is some truly excellent and humorous dialog to be found if you take the time to listen.
I was surprised to learn that Billy Dee Williams returned to voice his Lando character, but not nearly as surprised to learn that Mark Hammill did not. The character of Luke Skywalker plays a substantial part in the narrative of this game, and the fact that Mark has become known for his voiceover work on computer games as well as animated television, it was mildly disappointing to say the least. I will give props to the actor who did do the voice of Luke. He nailed the timing and tone of the Skywalker character to near perfection.
The music is pure Star Wars from the opening theme to all of the musical sequences that are cued to the action in the game. It’s pure John Williams’ magic, and it never gets old no matter how many times I hear the Imperial March or the triumphant music during the closing credits.
Jedi Outcast took me about 18 hours to finish. I'm sure that playing the PC version last year helped me get through the game a bit faster than first-time players, but there is still plenty of gameplay to be had with this title. Your mileage may vary on the single player game depending on your skill and the difficulty setting you choose. I played at the normal level but look forward to returning as a Jedi Master soon. Everything is linear and the story unfolds the same way each time, so the only thing that will change will be the challenge. As a bonus for Xbox gamers, you now get to explore Alzoc III, an all-new level just for console owners.
The multiplayer modes of Jedi Outcast are severely lacking when compared to the PC that allowed 16 Jedi to battle it out over the Internet. With Jedi Outcast releasing nearly simultaneously with the Xbox Live, this would have been the perfect title to compliment the new online gaming service. Instead, we are left with a two-player game and all the traditional modes we've come to expect from other games in the genre. Thankfully, the use of intelligent bots allow you to add up to 14 more Jedi into the mix, so the scale of the PC game is maintained; you only lose the human factor.
The standard Deathmatch and CTF modes are present as well as Free For All, Jedi Master, and a Duel Mode that allows two Jedi to exchange saber swipes. Holocron is another great game that starts players off with no Force Powers and you must run around and locate the Holocron cubes containing the various Force attributes.
Force powers can be selectively “purchased” before each game and there are special multiplayer-only Force powers you will not find or be able to use in the single player game. You will have as much fun using these, as you will your lightsaber.
The multiplayer modes for Jedi Outcast is sure to breath some extra life into this title, even if you play it alone against the computer. It’s worth it just to play around with those extra Force powers and check out the multiplayer exclusive levels like the Death Star!
Star Wars Jedi Knight 2: Jedi Outcast is an excellent game that features an incredible story, amazing action and varied gameplay. It it doesn't push the Xbox as far as it could have, it is still an excellent port of an amazing PC original. Admittedly, your best experience will be found on the PC version but you are going to need a rig with more than twice the power of an Xbox to enjoy it. If your PC isn't up to the task or you simply want to play this game on the Xbox, you won't find a better Star Wars experience than Jedi Outcast.