Reviewed: December 28, 2003
Released: November 18, 2003
Hey! Didn’t I already review this game last year? Oh wait…that was Jedi Outcast. But then again not much has changed in the past 364 days since that game released. Raven is still milking the aging Quake engine for every last drop of graphical goodness, but despite their wizardry you just can help but feel this game’s time has come and gone.
Perhaps my tolerance of the entire Star Wars franchise is starting to wear thin. After all, I recently came off a 120+ hour, three-month gig with KOTOR, so my Jedi cravings were more than satiated. Even so, I was as giddy as a Padawan going before the Jedi Council as loaded my copy of Star Wars Jedi Knight: Jedi Academy.
Raven has taken the Jedi Knight series in a slightly different direction, or rather more of a detour from what we’ve come to expect from the previous games. Our long-standing hero, Kyle Katarn is no longer the lead in this melodrama, but merely a supporting character much like Luke Skywalker. For this galactic adventure you pick, or rather create, your own custom Jedi choosing from a minimal selection of races, heads, upper and lower body parts.
You are then given a bogus story about how you are some Jedi savant who crafted your own lightsaber with no formal training and were subsequently recruited for the Jedi Academy on Yavin. I guess the story isn’t too bogus since you actually do create your lightsaber in the setup screen – even if it is only picking a hilt design and a beam color.
Once you have your character ready to go you are whisked away on a shuttle to being your adventures at the Jedi Academy, or what I like to call, Jedi Knight 90210. After a brief intro movie that gives you minimal background info on your character your shuttle is shot down and you are forced to make your way to the temple on foot. This serves as your introductory training and once you reach the Jedi Academy Luke and Kyle will give you some advanced lessons and the game begins.
Many of the problems I had with the PC version still exist on the Xbox starting with the story, or rather lack of one. Rather than creating an intricate narrative that carries you from start to finish there is a loose underlying plot that is diluted with a lot of random missions you must undertake to continue the main story. You are free to choose the missions in each grouping and do them in any order. You can even skip one in each group if you wish, although no self-respecting Jedi would ever consider this.
When you have completed the requisite number of missions the story advances and you are given a fresh group of assignments. While this lack of narrative may appeal to the anxious Jedi’s craving exciting and instant action, as Yoda would say, “A Jedi craves not these things”. A lack of any cohesive or driving plot really hurts the overall enjoyment of this game.
The positive aspect to this cobbled mission structure is that you are now given the chance to visit a lot more locations all over the galaxy – many more than Jedi Outcast, and most are more creative and original in their design. I’d still like a better reason for being in these futuristic environments. Most of the time I felt I was just completing missions because I was told to do so – almost like doing homework assignments.
My second biggest gripe is one that was born from the last game. Once your character has a lightsaber the gameplay becomes very unbalanced. Jedi Academy starts you off with a lightsaber, which is basically invoking “god mode” from the beginning of the game. Unless you really suck at these kinds of games you are going to walk all over this title unless you crank up the difficulty to the highest setting. Even worse, you really have no real incentive to use any of the other weapons in the game since you are wielding a blade that can deflect and take down most enemies in one or two swipes. The only time I was ever compelled to switch to a ranged weapons was when my target was too far away for a saber attack.
Granted, there are several exceptions where you will want to break out the sniper rifle or lob a few thermal detonators into a group of enemies, and the boss battles will take some extra effort but for much of the game you can simply run, dodge, and swipe and leave a trail of fallen bodies in your wake. Some of the best challenges are when you face off against other Jedi and have to actually do a bit of sophisticated dueling with blocks, parries, and thrusts. You will also get to improve your character including choosing new fighting styles and upgrading your weapons to dual lightsabers or a double-bladed saber.
Even though you will seldom sheath your lightsaber in favor of another weapon the game makes a pretense of allowing you to select a few weapons at the beginning of each mission much like a Rainbow Six setup screen. This is fairly worthless since no matter what you pick you will likely find all these weapons and more during your trip through the level.
Force powers are back and they are bigger, better and there are more of them, enough to satiate any crazed power-hungry Jedi. Push, pull, zap, choke, jump, you have the full array of Dark and Light powers and you can increase their potency between levels by assigning Force points RPG-style. Oddly enough there is no “alignment” bar as in past Jedi Knight games, so you are free to wield both Dark and Light powers with no repercussions to your morality. Late in the game you will have to pick a Dark or Light path, but it is a very clear decision point and has no bearing on your past actions.
Level design is creative and fits the Star Wars mythos with plenty of locations faithful fans of the franchise will recognize and others will enjoy for their sheer attention to detail. Aside from a few troublesome jumping puzzles (including one level full of jumping – damn you Raven) the environments are quite challenging and logical. Puzzles are integrated into the levels and stand out well enough. If you have trouble finding them you would be well advised to develop your Force Sense and key trigger items will be highlighted for you.
Having previously played this game on the PC and now on the Xbox I was surprised to see how much better the game actually played out on the console. Something had been nagging me the entire time while playing on the PC and only three missions into the Xbox version I suddenly realized, Jedi Academy is a "console game". Even though the PC version predates the Xbox by nearly two months it's quite easy to see this game is much more playable (and fun) on the Xbox. The third-person view, the action-based controls, and the twitch gameplay are much more at home on the Xbox and a gamepad.
While Jedi Academy doen't begin to look as nice or as detailed on the Xbox as it did on the PC the Xbox version also doesn't suffer from the horrible pop-up and framerate issues of the PC. The Xbox is using more modest textures and a lower overall resolution than you probably would use on the PC but as an Xbox titles Jedi Academy looks outstanding. The game also supports HDTV 480p mode so those of you with hi-def rigs can enjoy crisp progressive scan images that will look as good, if not better, than a PC running at the same resolution.
Extra attention has gone into the real-time color and lighting effects from your lightsaber, which now casts colored glows on your character and any surrounding architecture. The game also creates realistic shadows based on real-world light sources. Other subtle touches include the very nice rain effect (used in the previous game) where the rain actually hits and hisses on your saber beam, and the glowing scorch marks on walls and objects that your saber touches are back. Particle effects and lots of flash Force power effects give the game an almost magical aura.
The character models are all very nice and you will easily recognize cast favorites like Boba Fett, Chewie, and just about every significant alien race that has ever appeared in a Star Wars movie. They are all animated quite nicely and even though they have some nice duck and roll animations their AI isn’t really smart enough to use them effectively.
The music is pure gold and borrows heavily from the John Williams themes from the movies along with some new compositions. All the music flows through the background and movie segments and during the gameplay it cues up to the events driving the action creating a tense emotional backdrop.
The voice acting is good but regrettably takes a backseat after you have listened to a hundred hours of recorded dialog, both Basic and a variety of alien tongues in KOTOR. Everyone speaks Basic in this game, which eliminates the need for captioning but doesn’t make it very exotic either. Your character, Jaden, has the perfect voice to fit his human form but if you go for one of the more exotic races you will still speak in that blond macho “human” voice which just sounds “creepy” coming out of an alien head.
Sound effects are solid including all the familiar sounds from the movies including recognizable blaster fire, the hum of the lightsaber and the unmistakable sizzle when sabers lock in dueling combat. You also have plenty of environmental sounds like winds, rain, trickling water, and other effects to breath life into the levels. All of this is presented in a stunning Dolby Digital surround mix that envelops you in aural goodness.
Experienced Jedi’s will walk through this game in 10-15 hours on the normal skill level. The lack of any challenging AI, the unbalanced gameplay (in your favor) thanks to brandishing a lightsaber from the very start, and the short mission structure offer only a minimal challenge. While you are free to play the missions in any order the end result is always the same so there is no real reason to replay the game. You can choose your Dark or Light path near the end but you can explore both of these options by saving your game at the branch – no need to replay the entire game.
The multiplayer support is back for both online and system link competition, but Raven has removed some of the weaker modes and replaced them with some very interesting and challenging games. You have your standard deathmatch and duel modes but the new Siege mode will quickly become every Jedi’s favorite. This mode relies on strategy and teamwork and is great fun. I was hoping for some new content downloads like multiplayer maps, but this doesn't seem to be an option this time around. Even so, there is enough multiplayer content to keep you busy long after the single-player game is over.
Some of you may be confused with my final score as it relates to what is primarily a negative review. Despite the graphical flaws, poor mission design, and lack of a compelling story I still have to admit I had “fun” playing this game, actually more fun than I did on the PC. Sure it was easy, sure I finished it in record time, and no, I probably won’t be going back and playing it again anytime soon, but it is still a fun game and after all, it is "Star Wars" so there is an undeniable fan base who will play this game regardless of what I have to say.
Star Wars Jedi Knight: Jedi Academy is probably not a full-price purchase, but once the price drops to $30 or $40 it’s definitely worth picking up. I’m not entirely happy with the direction Raven has taken with the design on this series and please let the Quake engine die a graceful death. Stop flogging us with a four-year old game engine that has had more bodywork than Demi Moore. We're already seeing much better games on the Xbox, and discriminating gamers won't have the patience for rehashed gameplay and last year's graphics the next time Jaden wants to save the galaxy..