Jedi Knight II
Jedi Knight II (JK2) is a strong sequel to the previous games from Lucas Arts featuring Kyle Katarn, which were released some years ago. To be forthright from the outset, I never played those games. I did play demos at the time, but they came out when I was having too much fun with other games. For whatever reason, the demos just didn't grab me, and I'm kind of sorry now that I missed out on what must have been a real blast in light of how good JK2 is.
The visuals in JK2 are excellent, save for a few flaws. The Quake III Arena (Q3A) engine powers the game, so the basic pedigree is solid, but Raven seems to have made some odd choices with the modeling and skins. To be more specific, while I recognize how much the dynamic mouth movements, eyes blinking and so forth add to the realism of the actors, they come at the cost of some visual ugliness. Kyle Katarn, for example, has some truly bizarre polygonal artifacts to his face, and where Jan Ors is concerned, well, she's a digital babe until she starts talking; then I just can't stop staring at the strangely pronounced teeth she sports. Frankly, Jan's teeth scare me. Fortunately, the stormtroopers and other enemies don't have these kinds of problems, but I thought it unusual, to say the least, that the main characters would have such noticeable defects.
Aside from those minor flaws, though, JK2 is a visual feast. The environment textures are very well done, and I particularly liked the myriad of very functional looking computer consoles throughout the game. Ok, it's obvious I'm a geek. I've always found computer readouts done very poorly in other games, however, and JK2 avoids cheesy, static readouts. Similarly, the modeling and animation are quite compelling. They sure take me back to the days of my youth and the classic Star Wars films with the R5 unit and other droids, the various alien races, etc.
The pre-rendered cut scenes are as exciting as they are well done, though it would be kind of nice if they played back at a bit higher resolution. I played through the game at 1280 x 1024 x 32 bpp, and the cut-scenes were a bit chunky compared to the in-game action/cut-scenes. The way I see it, that tells us one of two things. It might provide testimony of how far visuals have come in the last decade, or it might tell us that the developers didn't care much about doing good work. Given their reputation for great games, however, I think only the former will do.
The visual effects are also very good if not downright stunning at times. In some of the final levels, for example, Kyle finds himself outdoors on Yavin in the rain, and the developers even thought to include a lovely little effect for rain drops hitting the light saber. How's that for attention to detail? It's a pity, I suppose, that this isn't generally true of the saber's other interactions with water, but it's nevertheless a nice, albeit inconsistent, touch. If the water effects are a bit lacking, the fire, force, weapons, and other such effects easily make up for it. In short summary, almost everything in the game looks great.
The audio is even better than the video in JK2, though this probably has something to do with my near-rabid appreciation for John Williams' music. Star Wars was the first movie with music so gripping I simply had to know the composer's name. I bugged my parents almost unceasingly for the soundtrack, and I literally wore it out when it came—on a vinyl album, no less, which should tell you something about how old I am (grin). The same, wonderful John Williams music is served up consistently throughout JK2. It's truly a treat for the ears with the high quality settings enabled. The "Imperial March" is just as stirring as it was all those years ago, and some of the newer pieces arguably surpass it in conveying a mood. The positively religious strains used during the final sequences at the Jedi Academy come to mind, for example.
Further, the sound effects are just as good as the music. They are all simply perfect. Sure, they've been done before, but this is Star Wars we're dealing with. Why fix what isn't broken? All of the weapons sound just right, the ambient noises lend great atmosphere to the environments, and the technical details are about as clean as one could imagine. I am easily bored by repetitive weapon sounds in video games, but JK2 didn't bother me a bit. JK2 is an aural, as well as visual, feast for the senses.
The interface is a little bit awkward by default, I think, or perhaps I'm still not accustomed to it. The HUD does a good job of conveying most information, for example, but a positively bizarre omission is the absence of any indicator for the currently-selected force power or inventory item. It's useful to know one's health, shield status, current saber style, etc., but I can't tell you how many times I screwed up triggering the wrong force power or accidentally using some inventory item because I didn't know what I had selected.
Further, the default settings for the interface strike me as odd. I haven't a clue which Jedi out there are dexterous enough to reach accurately for the function keys in the heat of battle, but I doubt there are many. In my case, I was able to accustom myself to using F1 for Force Push, so that I could keep other powers available elsewhere, but I ended up binding specific, handy keys to the powers I used most frequently. It sure does work better than madly pressing the previous/next force-power keys while trying desperately to dodge. I've since bound push and pull to the fourth and fifth buttons on my mouse for even faster access, and that seems to work best.
In contrast to the minor annoyances with the default keyboard layout, however, the mouse works better than I expected, particularly in the third-person view when wielding the saber. Initially, I found the third-person view a bit odd, and not because I haven't played other such games; my all-time favorite game to date, for example, is Blade of Darkness (BoD)— click here to check out my fan site—which is played entirely from a third-person perspective. For some reason, it took me a while to get the "feel" for the JK2 third-person control. Once I got it, though, I loved it.
Still, I do have two complaints that must be levied against the third-person interface. First, the automatic camera angle is not always helpful. There were a few occasions when I found myself fighting in relatively close quarters while struggling to see what was happening because the camera was stuck in a strange place. BoD does a better job of handling the camera when using melee weapons in tight spaces. Perhaps if JK2 is patched this will be fixed.
Second, there were times when the third-person interface makes it impossible to aim. When driving the AT-ST, for example, there were plenty of times when I couldn't shoot stormtroopers right in front of me because the body of the machine was blocking my view. This wouldn't have been so onerous if I could switch into the first-person view, but this was disabled while driving that beast. If you're going to deny me the first-person view, Mr. Game Developer, then you really need to ensure that I can see what the heck is happening!
This is one of the places where JK2 really shines. Everything works perfectly. All of the weapons are responsive, interesting, and a joy to use. The light saber, in particular, is utterly wonderful, as one might expect of any game focusing on the Jedi arts. If I can think of anything about which I would complain along these lines, it would be that one doesn't find the light saber soon enough! Once that baby is available, the bad guys just don't stand a chance for the most part. Sure, the occasional reborn Jedi might provide a little challenge, but fighting them is largely a blast, opening multiple cans of Jedi-flavored whoop-ass! The game really delivers the feeling of being a Jedi, and that's a pretty neat thing to experience.
I think what amazes me most about the game mechanics is that it's all so seamless and intuitive. Wanna swing to the left? Click the strafe-left key while attacking. Gee, that was easy. Wanna nail some guy in the head while you jump over him? Hit the attack key as you jump. Gee, that was easy too. Wanna take that poor stormtrooper you're holding with Force Grip and smash him into walls? Just wave the mouse around while holding him. Gee, it just keeps working precisely like one would expect. From my own experience developing software, let me observe that such intuitive functionality rarely comes without prolonged effort. The guys at Raven have done a fantastic job of making sure the user spends his time playing, making stuff happen, rather than trying to figure out how to do what he wants to do.
My only real gripe with the game mechanics is that the light saber fighting needed more attention. I fell in love with BoD because it was the first game I'd seen that really made melee-weapon combat worthwhile. In that game, each weapon had its own, powerful combo move, just as every different character had some special abilities that could be used with various weapons. All of the basic fighting moves are there in JK2 along with some really cool extras (e.g., running up and back-flipping off a wall, the jump/attack combo when vaulting over someone's head, running sideways along a wall, etc.). But the light saber combat just wasn't that deep. I realize that three different, nicely-varied combat styles are available for the weapon, but they just don't give the same thrill as watching Kyle perform some incredibly cool move. If the designers had just included even a handful of "hidden" combo moves for players to discover, that would have added a great deal to the light saber fighting.
The story is a tough call for me. On the one hand, it has a semi-familiar feel insofar as many of the elements are predictable. You know how it goes; a reluctant hero wrestles with past demons, a bad guy uses the hero's tragic flaw to acquire/accomplish something of grave import, the buddy/sidekick/girlfriend dies, the buddy/sidekick/girlfriend is found alive, boy gets girl, etc. All of those elements are present in JK2. It's a bit tired, but the story really does suck one into the game in a powerful way despite the familiar elements.
Seriously, when Jan was taken by Desann's hench-maiden and "killed", my heart hit the floor. It's not that some huge background is given on her relationship with Kyle or anything like that, mind you, it was just that her death was so... meaningless. It was so sad. Getting thrashed by Desann immediately thereafter didn't help my mood either. That focal point in the story was enough to make me want to drive onward to the end of the game just to kick that scaly lizard's ass! I know this might sound odd, but when I finally got a chance to face Desann's assistant one on one, that was a sweet bit of payback.
JK2 also distinguishes itself in this department with an ending as happy as it is rewarding. One of my complaints with the story for Deus Ex was that I didn't want to choose any of the endings. Let's see, I can (A) return the world to an a but backward dark age, (B) rule the world from behind the scenes as part of the Illuminati, or (C) rule the world as some bizarrely pseudo-godlike, man-machine hybrid. Gee, I think I'll pick.... (D) none of the above. Too many games have depressing or overblown endings, while JK2 ends on a nicely positive note. Kyle and Jan are together, and happily so it seems, the tension between Luke and Kyle is resolved, Kyle has dealt with the demons of his past, and it is implied that he'll be back at the Jedi Academy before too long. In short, the game has a really rewarding ending, and it gave this player, at least, a sense of accomplishment.
Would the word 'stunning' be overkill for the first sentence? JK2 is easily one of the best games I've played of late in terms of its content. This is not another Star Trek Voyager: Elite Force (STV:EF), which I finished in maybe twenty hours of play. This is not another Medal of Honor: Allied Assault (MoH:AA), which I finished in roughly seven hours. No, JK2 has some scope. Before you finish, you'll investigate Imperial outposts, trudge through the jungles on Yavin, marvel at all the cool stuff happening at the Jedi Academy—and come back later to take part in it yourself—explore the inside of Desann's and other ships, visit the cloud city on Bespin, and on and on. The game isn't enormous, but it packs a lot of content between the start and finish.
Better still, the vast majority of it is high-quality content. Some games (e.g., Rune comes to mind) can boast about having a huge number of levels or maps, but many of them are so similar it becomes an exercise in monotony. JK2 really doesn't suffer from this problem, in my estimation. About the time the Imperial outposts are getting dull, it's time to head to the Jedi Academy. The trials that follow are all as interesting as they are useful in illustrating the power of The Force. Once that's getting old, off we go to a bustling city—complete with the obligatory bar brawl!
The variety of environments, puzzles therein and neat twists to the gameplay really kept me playing and playing and playing. The first night I opened up JK2, for example, I played for five or six hours straight until 01:00 the next morning. For the record, I hate to be up that late, but my sleep-deprived suffering the next day was well worth it. True, I had the same kind of experience with MoH:AA, but with JK2 I still had days of play left in the single-player game, not mere hours.
Regarding the weapons, I've played far too many first-person shooters (FPS), and as such, even the newest and most novel tend to feel a bit stale. In some ways, I can pretty much predict how my experience with any given new FPS will unfold. OK, let's see here... I've begun with a near-useless, wimpy weapon that will be some sort of pistol. Could somebody please tell me why action heroes, the very sort of persons who keep finding themselves having epic adventures saving the U.S./Earth/Galaxy/Universe/etc., go through their everyday lives carrying pea-shooters so weak they're barely sufficient to defeat a hostile mold culture? Sheesh. In pretty short order, I'll find my "bread and butter" rifle, a sniper rifle, a flak/flechette/shrapnel gun, a rocket launcher, blah, blah, blah...
Despite the fact that JK2 pays obeisance to these by-now-clichéd categories, it all somehow "feels" fresh, and with God as my witness I don't know why. Perhaps it's the heavy focus on the light saber and force powers? I honestly can't say. What I can say with certainty is that JK2 is tremendously refreshing in its overall layout of implements/abilities of destruction. While they're not as nicely balanced as, say, MoH:AA, they're all useful to have around and add a lot to the fun of the game. My only real complaint with the weapons is that they're just about completely useless against anybody wielding The Force. Perhaps that should be expected, but even Luke Skywalker got nailed with a blaster in Return of the Jedi, right? The Force-wielding opponents in JK2, in contrast, were essentially invulnerable to any normal weapons.
JK2 also deserves praise for its AI. Even the lowly stormtroopers are somewhat clever; i.e., they retreat when overwhelmed, they call for backup, they take advantage of cover, and so forth. Frankly, given what I've seen in other games, I was pretty impressed with the way they behaved. There were a few glitches, however. I never understood why so many stormtroopers with ranged weapons would want to close distance before firing, for example, but maybe that's what they're taught at Darth Vader University! I can overlook such a flaw in light of the overall package.
Better yet, not every enemy with a gun behaves like a stormtrooper! The developers actually took the time to craft pretty well distinguished behaviors for the various opponents, which isn't always the case in video games. It was a little irritating after a while that virtually every alien I saw would be carrying the same weapon as every other alien of that race—would that be an example of alien racism?—when even the stormtroopers had the good sense to carry different loadouts, but that's another minor complaint. Maybe I'm expecting too much of the villainous, alien scum who populate the levels in JK2.
Also, the force powers are wonderful, hands down. They, along with the other game elements, really lend the genuine feeling of what it must be like to be a Jedi. After one gets past the interface woes, it really does become second nature to employ The Force as one's ally, and that's a blast. Confrontations that would have been completely impossible in other games were rendered exciting and utterly gripping in JK2. I tend to be rather reserved in playing FPS games because I never know when I'm going to need that last round of ammunition. With JK2, however, I found myself charging through the areas, leaving a swath of destruction in my wake. Sure, I got into a few tricky spots now and then, but overall the ability to use Force Jump, Force Push, Force Lightning, Force Heal, etc. all made me into much more of a risk taker, which just pulled me into the game all the more.
Lest it seem like JK2 is perfect, there are some flaws worth mentioning, first and foremost of which is a complaint against consistency. After Kyle has beaten down huge Imperial AT-STs, put a dozen or more reborn Jedi to the light saber, and slaughtered countless Imperial grunts—sometimes by the dozen—he comes to the ever-increasingly obligatory stealth portion of the game. Fine, gamers like stealth. I played Thief, Thief II, Deus Ex, and some other games that require a non-trivial amount of stealth, so I'm not immune to its charms. But now, the deadly Kyle Katarn sees a measly five or six guys and says he'll never make it?!?! That line of dialogue was utterly ludicrous. Frankly, once I figured out where the alarm trigger was, I waltzed into that area like the wrath of God himself, mowing down all of the Imperials within seconds. Sheesh. Give me a break.
This may seem like a trivial gripe, but it isn't. I say that because if the alarm is triggered, the consequences are dire; i.e., the game is lost, period. Other games have handled this far better, I think. System Shock 2 comes to mind, for example, insofar as an alarm going off means more bad guys will be headed toward the player; it doesn't end the game. But in JK2, the third most frustrating point in the game involved my being stuck at a spot where no matter what I did, an Imperial officer tripped the alarm. I'll bet I reloaded thirty or forty times, trying different things, until I finally gave up and asked one of my clan mates for help.
The solution turned out to be as obscure as it was useful in providing a segue to the second big flaw in JK2, namely, that the puzzles are just too uneven. On the streets of Nar Shadda, for example, one does more jumping than Lara Croft must do in a year. Toward the end of the level, one is obviously encouraged by the architecture to Force Pull some kind of bizarre protrusion from the side of a building, then jump off the roof onto it. As soon as one does this it becomes clear the designers intended it, as Kyle says something about how some object is obviously a trash hauler, and, by golly, if we can just get to it, we'll get where we want to go. That's an obvious hint to my way of thinking.
What wasn't at all clear was precisely to what the hint referred. Was it referring to the dumpster-looking thing protruding from the side of the building, or was it referring to the flying car that had just sailed under me? At first I thought the dumpster was probably the right way to go, but after ten minutes or so of doing everything I could think of doing to get there, I gave up on that. I then spent the next ten to fifteen minutes trying to jump onto the flying car, eventually concluding that landing on it in even the gentlest of manners was instantly and unavoidably fatal. At that point, I was just stuck.
Fortunately, I found the solution by accident; I happened to notice the cursor change when looking over toward the trash bin, and I discovered that the sister protrusion to the one on which I had been standing for the last half hour could also be pulled nearer. That made the whole puzzle trivial, but the cursor placement had to be so precise to elicit the desired pulling behavior that it was a miracle I found it. I think it would have been much smarter of the game developers to allow the player to pull any part of said protrusion to move it. It sure would have made my life easier, as I found this the second-most frustrating problem with the game. The same sort of thing can be said about several of the other puzzles in the game, particularly toward the end. If only Kyle would have made a useful comment here and there, it might have saved me plenty of trouble.
Another complaint against consistency would be that some of the architecture is just manifestly silly. I swear that the Empire must employ architects and engineers from the Anti-OSHA School of Lethal Buildings, or something like that. I particularly "liked" the narrow rooms filled with conduit, around which the player must carefully walk, while it sparks and glows with evil deadliness. Or what about the huge electrified crankshaft of doom? What sense do these things make? Why is there a huge, electrified crankshaft in the middle of a ship? Is the Empire using some bizarre variant of the combustion engine to make it go? What, precisely, is that God-awful monstrosity turning? Sheesh.
Another annoying problem with the content was the uneven pacing. The very first level with the light saber, on the streets of Nar Shadda, was the most difficult level of the entire game for me. I say that because of the confluence of several factors. First, the light saber won't deflect fire from the tenloss disruptor rifle (i.e., the sniper rifle). Second, there are at least a dozen enemies carrying that thing scattered all over the city. Third, the level architecture is such that they are frequently entirely outside your "normal" field of view when you come into theirs. And fourth, those enemy snipers could shoot the balls off a gnat from a full parsec away in less time than it takes the human eye to blink.
These four factors, taken together, made the entire level an annoying reload-fest. I would take two steps forward and disintegrate completely. Reload. Take the same two steps more slowly and disintegrate completely. Aha! So that's where he is! I could then reload and spend the next few minutes trying desperately to get off a shot before I died. MoH:AA had a similar sniper level, and I hope this isn't a trend. Here's an open note to game designers: getting wasted by near-invisible snipers from all over the place is not fun. Frankly, beating this level was harder than the entire remainder of the game with but one exception.
That one exception involves the most frustrating element of the game, namely, Admiral Galak Fyyar, the second-to-last boss. He struts through the door wearing some kind of obviously tough armor, and after an interesting in-game cut-scene, he comes after the player with some sort of tough, energy shield in place. While I wasn't certain how to defeat him, I was pretty comfortable from a long succession of games and science fiction (e.g., Red Faction, Star Trek and so forth) that I should be able to knock down that shield with a little effort. Heck, Kyle's last line of dialogue before the Admiral lets loose with a cheesy yell of rage is "Your shields will fall." Now that's subtle.
At any rate, facing Fyyar is like facing down Superman, because he seems nigh-invulnerable (Tick fans will get the joke). I thought I was pretty clever. I jumped to one of the ceiling beams for cover and started throwing explosives at him. Five thermal detonators later, his shield was down, at which point I invoked Force Speed and started slashing at him with the light saber. I figured he didn't stand a chance. I slashed through him again and again, evading his pathetically slow swings until... his shield went back up. Then I was given a nasty shock and knocked across the room. Hmph. Well, maybe I just need to do that again. I lathered. I rinsed. I repeated. Nothing. After taking his shield down for the third time, I died while slashing at him with the light saber.
As near as I could tell, I was doing zero damage to him. He even kept taunting me about how I obviously didn't understand his armor. Thus, I tried switching to conventional weapons, but I ran out of ammunition completely before he died. I was stuck again. Fortunately, I figured out (with help from a clan mate) that I apparently just hadn't hurt him enough the first time. I tried again, and after knocking his shield down three times, he finally keeled over. Now why couldn't the developers have given me some indication that I was at least hurting him? It sure would have saved me some frustration.
Unfortunately, fighting Fyyar was also the toughest point in the game. By the time I got to the final boss, facing Desann was a piece of cake. Frankly, he never had a chance. He vaulted up near me, and I switched to the strong light saber style, invoked Force Speed and cut him down in less than a handful of strokes. It was really kind of anti-climatic after facing Fyyar. Maybe I just got lucky, but Desann seemed like a real wimp by comparison. Heck, I wouldn't be surprised if Desann's own hench-chick could clean his clock. She was a much tougher fighter.
In truth, I haven't played enough of the multi-player game yet to render a well-supported conclusion, but from what I have played, I think it safe to say that this game will still be around on public servers for some time to come. Q3A's fan base has dwindled greatly—particularly compared to Unreal Tournament—and STV:EF never really had much of a fan base to begin with. But JK2 is sufficiently deep that I think it will be a big hit as a multi-player game.
The game has a solid line-up of game types, though I'm personally looking forward most to Capture the Flag. I almost drool when I consider the kind of team-focused gameplay JK2 will encourage thanks to the various force powers. The weapons are all there, of course, but it's The Force that really shines in the multi-player aspect of the game. The ability to customize one's powers, along with what is essentially an entirely new set of powers to learn makes the multi-player aspect a lot like getting a whole second game for your money. Multi-player JK2 can be a pretty deeply tactical experience from what I've seen thus far with one caveat.
That is, the only complaint I have against the multi-player game to date is that the light saber use is a bit lame. As I commented above, all the basics with a few interesting extras are present, but the saber combat doesn't even begin to hold a candle to a game like BoD. Maybe it will be more interesting as players grow more competent, but the light saber use that I've seen thus far is little removed from games like Rune, in which the order of the day is simply to click as quickly and frantically as possible.
NB: Since this review was written, the multi-player aspect of the game has been largely ruined by subsequent patches. In a series of awful mistakes, the developers or the publisher managed to reduce light-saber combat to one or two useful moves. It's a sad state of affairs, about which more information can be obtained from The Anti-Saberist Code web site. It's heart-breaking to me that this game has been so badly handled since release, but maybe someday the mod community will change that.
Despite the negative things I've had to say, JK2 is easily a must-buy game for any FPS veteran. In fact, I think it's the new king of the FPS hill. That title was held by Half-Life for years, and it was only recently that I said MoH:AA had finally bested it. Despite its flaws, I think JK2 tops even MoH:AA, largely because of its better value in terms of the single-player game, along with the depth it brings to the multi-player game. Here's hoping I'll see y'all on-line on a JK2 server soon! Perhaps it's not too late for me to pick up a copy of the original game...
Reviewed by Phileosophos