This is the cynic in me talking, but I feel like Dark Forces‘ Han Solo-a-like protagonist was defined mostly by trying to do a Star Wars version of Doom. Doom was about guns, first person shooters are about guns, so if we’re doing a first person shooter then we’ll need to create some gameplay based around guns. To me though, this ended up being one of the best parts of the game – being a dashing mercenary is so comparatively underused in the Star Wars ‘verse that it actually felt fresh. At the very least, it wasn’t another game about the miraculous wizardry of the series’ famous space monks.
That same cynic highly suspects that one of the first goals for Dark Forces II was handed down by Sales and Marketing: “Put some fucking lightsabers on that cover.” Thus, faster than the speed of sense, the sequel has Kyle Katarn discovering his father’s secret past as a Jedi, his own latent Force powers, and his never-before-even-hinted-at destiny to defeat some dark Jedi before they can tap into the power of an ancient Jedi burial ground. Further, this all takes place in the post-films “Expanded Universe,” so unknown chief villain Jerec somehow has access to a ship bigger than Vader’s, battalions of stormtroopers at his command, and a corps of engineers that can build an elaborate facility around the Valley of the Jedi in just days of finding it. I guess there was a lot of military surplus just lying around after the Emperor died.
Fortunately, the series’ transition to full 3D is a little smoother. The core ideas in level design and mission structure that were so successful in Dark Forces are back here in full regalia. Rather than the frequently bland dungeons and mazes of Quake, significant effort has been put into making Jedi Knight’s levels represent functional places. Rivers have sources, machines have moving parts and purposes, and lifts aren’t level transitions, but instead occupy real space.
You’ll see this most clearly when redirecting fuel lines to board a starship, moving a large crate in place as an impromptu bridge, finding a secret cache under an elevator, or activating a series of cargo lifts to enter new areas. Many a puzzle is based around logical manipulation of working machines, so you’ll need to drain the right amount of fuel from a tank to cross through it (with computer displays helpfully tracking your progress), move a bridge around a central core, or shut down a series of fans at the right times to proceed safely. It feels like you’re actually manipulating some believable tech, and poking around inside dangerous mechanical guts that you shouldn’t be in.
Levels are also dramatically vertical, and you’ll get plenty of tense moments where you’re required to hop between beams on an elevated bridge, jump between lifts inside an elevator shaft, or even time a jump to enter the air stream of a massive fan at the peak of its cycle, so that it will blow you across a large gap. Low gravity areas appear as well, along with a particularly neat level where you have three minutes to escape a tilting starship while avoiding explosions and shifting cargo crates. The game engine and design are both perfectly capable of playing with ideas of gravity and perspective.
Overall, there’s a great sense of both logic and thrills. Puzzles just simply make sense. You certainly have some key hunts, and a few hidden-but-necessary areas, but most are solved just by doing what you would expect to do in reality. For thrills, there’s plenty of moments of vertigo, seemingly impossible paths, and “I barely made it!” jumps and timing challenges to keep you on edge. The new ability to quicksave helps immensely here, and reduces potential frustration to practically zero. The game won’t automatically save at the start of a new level though, so don’t forget to plant one before leaving the game.
These design points make Jedi Knight very much a true sequel to Dark Forces in a new 3D world. If that’s what you’re looking for, signing up is an easy choice. And while a new DF campaign is worth the journey on its own, it is a little disappointing that the new additions in the sequel aren’t as refined.
First, the lightsaber. You’ll earn your laser blade after the third level, and it will indeed kill most any enemy in one hit – sometimes hacking off limbs in the process. You also quietly get more skilled at deflecting shots as the levels go on, so charging enemies with guns becomes a more viable option. Simply aim in their direction, and Kyle will automatically adjust the saber to reflect some bolts back. You’re still vulnerable from the sides though, and the aspect of random chance never makes this a foolproof replacement for the standard shield/health pickups.
Alas, it’s a melee weapon in a laser gun world, and sticking relentlessly to it will get you into trouble more often than not. The saber does nothing against rocket launching foes, and you’ll need explosive weapons against the turrets or walkers you’ll sometimes encounter. It is infinitely fun to use Force Pull to yank guns out of troopers’ hands, then slash them as they run around helplessly, but overall, you don’t get enough Force powers to make up for your weakness at range. Not to mention, the saber itself is fairly inelegant, and not much different in practice than the traditional FPS “no ammo” punch or knife. While you might get lucky and sweep two enemies at once, it’s mostly a lot of rushing up and flailing around until something falls.
Once you get your saber, you also start earning Force points. At the end of each level, you can spend them ranking up powers that unlock as you go. Force Speed, Jump, Sight, and Pull are always available, and become increasingly useful in navigating the levels. One point in Sight will also help you spot a particularly annoying cloaking boss. From there, you also have an expanding selection of Light and Dark side powers to choose from. Choose wisely though, as exactly three more levels in, you’ll be locked to one path and no longer able to use the powers from the other side.
True to the rules laid out in Empire Strikes Back, Light side powers are strictly defensive, while Dark side powers include such aggressive crowd-pleasers as Grip and Lightning. Force power recharges slowly on its own, and you gain a larger pool as the game goes on. If you have time and safety to recharge, you’ll never be without your powers. The downside here is that few powers are terribly effective. Healing on the Light side tree is by far the most useful in single player, but the rest of the Light tree are blind spells and defense to Force attacks that end up being strictly situational (and rarely at that).
Meanwhile, Dark side powers feel needlessly weak. Throw only works when certain objects are nearby, Grip chokes one guy while leaving you vulnerable to the rest, and Lightning uses up a lot of Force charge but doesn’t stun the enemies being shocked (leaving them free to shoot you). The highest Dark power is to literally kill someone with the evil eye, but again, it takes a long time to finally wear them down. Further, you will have to work hard to stay Dark side. You’ll need to kill every unarmed civilian you see, and never put points in Light powers – but Healing, as we established, is the most useful Force power there is.
When I first played Jedi Knight in 1997, I felt like I was “supposed” to use the lightsaber at the expense of everything else. Not so, and luckily, the saber is strictly optional. Nearly all the guns from Dark Forces return, and you can blast troopers merrily without receiving disapproving grunts from Yoda. The stormtrooper rifle and energy repeater continue to be as useful as they were in the first, your pistol returns for accuracy at a distance, and you can still huck grenades to clear rooms or set off mine traps. You are supposed to use the saber during boss fights, as the Dark Jedi will reflect all your shots – however, they can’t deflect the splash damage from weapons like the concussion rifle or new rail launcher. Nothing beats a good blaster at your side!
The final new additions are live-action cutscenes, and I really don’t feel the need to talk about them. They are as low budget and cheesy as you can imagine, and shot entirely in front of a green screen to save money on building sets – a fitting preview of the official prequels’ later process. They also underscore the generally weaker plot of this entry. I loved the mystery you unraveled in Dark Forces, and how one clue lead directly to the next. This is strictly a chase story. Kyle chases after his father’s map for a few levels, then chases after a cheaply-animated CG droid, then chases after an actor practically devouring the scenery while doing his best Brad Dourif impression.
Graphically, it’s better than Quake, and less impressive than Quake II (released a few months later). Both levels and characters are fairly boxy, and wimpy sprite explosions and primitive particle effects look a little silly. Still, the job gets done, levels are absolutely huge and generally active, and a solid framerate is maintained throughout. Static lighting is used, but shadows are smartly placed and look often atmospheric. The biggest disappointment is a very aggressive level of detail system that has low res textures rendered at even the other end of the room, with sharp pop-in for both textures and character models. I also don’t think it’s as pretty as Dark Forces – a trade-off for the bleeding-edge nature of polygon game engines. There’s some elaborate and beautiful design here, but limited tech to execute it.
Jedi Knight also features some basic arena multiplayer modes. While your initial thought may be “so what?” consider this – online multiplayer lightsaber duels. The very thought was enough to get excitement steamrolling, though the final delivery is a bit disappointing. Lightsaber battles work exactly like the boss fights in single player – a player not attacking will automatically deflect strikes, but is always vulnerable from the back or sides. Thus, it’s a matter of incessant circle strafing and nicking away at any exposed moment you can get. When that gets boring, unblockable Force powers and rail charges are standing by to ruin everyone’s fun.
If you can take one thing away from this review, it’s that I really liked Dark Forces. Nearly all the parts I enjoyed about that game carry over to the sequel, with an upgraded 3D engine to boot. The things that were not present – live action cutscenes, lightsabers, Force powers – don’t feel executed well, and later games certainly do a much better job of letting you play as a Jedi. At least you can stow that lightsaber, and rip through the levels with a blaster in your hand, just like my version of Kyle does. He also shaved, and he skips the cutscenes.
Excellent level design with a focus on functioning locations. Smart puzzles. Fun action moments. Great sound, as you would expect. Force powers and lightsabers are neat to play with, but also not required.
Story is bland. Cutscenes add nothing but B-movie cheese (maybe a “Good”, depending on your mood). Feels like they were afraid to let Force powers be too powerful, and so backed their effectiveness down considerably.