LucasArts often finds itself in a dual-edged situation concerning Star Wars. Here they are, sitting on one of the biggest licenses in the world, utterly teeming with creative possibilities and commercial opportunity. The problem lies in the fact that they don't have any control over the development or writing of the Star Wars saga, and so anything they write or conceive isn't considered canon by any means.
For instance, as was revealed to us in Attack of the Clones, Count Dooku and Darth Sidious are together designing the Death Star. According to documentation accompanying the 1998 strategy title Rebellion, the Death Star was actually developed by an Imperial special weapons researcher named Bevel Lemelisk. Also, during the development of Force Commander, LucasArts had to suddenly scrap and redo some existing work they had finished to account for changes made during the writing and shooting of The Phantom Menace.
Finally, we have poor old Kyle Katarn. In the original Dark Forces, Kyle was a mercenary hired by the Rebel Alliance to conduct Operation Skyhook, the theft of the plans for the Death Star. With one episode of Star Wars remaining, and the construction timeline for the Death Star placed squarely within it, there's a significant chance that Lucas could single-handedly overwrite the entire backstory created for the Dark Forces series. With that in mind, it's understandable to consider that the fate of this series could be in question.
Even so, LucasArts went ahead with plans for a fourth entry into the series, Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast. Jedi Outcast has quite the legacy to live up to, as both Dark Forces and Jedi Knight were not only excellent games, but they also managed to satisfy a rabid Star Wars fan crowd. Can Jedi Outcast rise to the task?
As was mentioned on the last page, Dark Forces introduced Kyle Katarn as an opportunist mercenary who was commissioned by Mon Mothma to retrieve design layouts for the Death Star. Following Operation Skyhook, Katarn continued to provide support for other Alliance missions, including the rescue of Crix Madine from an Imperial prison and the destruction of the Dark Trooper project, aimed at creating stormtroopers with incredibly strong exoskeleton armor and shielding. Jedi Knight fast-forwards several years into the future, where Kyle is charged with defending the New Republic from being terrorized by the sudden appearance of Dark Jedi, seeking ancient relics of the Force in the Valley of the Jedi. And finally, in Mysteries of the Sith, you follow the path of Mara Jade, seeking answers from the Force after having served for so long as the Emperor's Hand.
Jedi Outcast, as the name implies, begins after the battle at the Valley of the Jedi. Kyle, seeing what the Force is capable of on both sides, chooses to hand over his lightsaber to Luke Skywalker and allow his Force training to wane, lest he tread on the path to the dark side. Not willing to be overcome with grief over his father's murder, Kyle continued to serve Mon Mothma and the New Republic, for the usual fees, of course.
Kyle is contacted by Mon Mothma, who alerts him of an Imperial Remnant transmission that was intercepted which originated from an old Imperial surveillance post thought to have been abandoned. Mon Mothma is particularly concerned because the garbled transmission makes reference to the Valley of the Jedi, and so far as they are aware, only Kyle and his partner Jan Ors know of its location. Kyle sets out to investigate the discovery, only to uncover a rather large Remnant force looking to regain control of the galaxy by reviving the Dark Trooper project, this time by artificially imbuing test subjects with Force powers, and furthering development of the Phase III Dark Trooper exoskeleton from Dark Forces. The new developments force Kyle to eventually look back into parts of his past that he's shut away, and to deal with the pressures and responsibilities given to him by his Force training.
Comparatively speaking, Jedi Outcast's story is actually very good, and makes for some excellent novelization material (Are you reading this, Timothy Zahn?), but taken as it comes, it actually becomes very predictable and annoying at times. The fault for this lies not so much with the script, as much as other factors, which I'll touch on later.
You're likely already familiar with either of Jedi Outcast's predecessors. If you've played Jedi Knight, then you'll feel right at home. Much of the controls are identical. Unfortunately, this also includes lightsaber combat, which is really across the board. Jedi Outcast is switchable between FPS and over-the-shoulder FPS, so you've got your standard mouse/keyboard combo. If you've got something like a Ferraro Designs Claw or a Microsoft Strategic Commander, then you're likely to be in luck - With plenty of force powers and weapons at your disposal, keypress convenience is a must. I was able to juggle five force powers reasonably well using the default ASDW layout the game comes with, but it really depends on your gameplay method.
Jedi Outcast uses a variety of weapons, many well known in the Star Wars universe, and a few of its own unique varieties. You start with your standard Bryar blaster pistol, and almost immediately trade it out for an Imperial E-11 assault rifle. Other weapons making appearance include the Wookiee bowcaster, the Tenloss Disruptor rifle (with sniping sight), the Golan Arms flak cannon, and everyone's favorite noisemaker, the Thermal Detonator. All in all, the weapons are pretty good, though several seem like rip-offs from Half-Life (especially the explosives). They're reasonably varied, and have different effectiveness ratings based on what kind of enemy you're attacking, instead of just doing a fixed damage number. By and large, though, I really stuck with the lightsaber, saving the Tenloss Disruptor for sniping situations. The other weapons were just unnecessary at that point.
Force powers are back, and they're really great. As a matter of fact, once I became reasonably strong in the force, I would just use my Force powers and keep my lightsaber active for defense. All the classic ones are present and accounted for, including Grip, Push, Pull, Jump, and Speed. Nothing really new in the way of Force powers, but what is different is that Kyle's affinity with the light or dark side of the Force doesn't affect the availability of the powers. In fact, the points-allocation system is gone entirely, as the game decides when your powers get upgraded. On the one hand, this is useful for level design, since you wouldn't want your players to get stuck in the middle of a level because they don't have enough points in Force Jump. However, it does remove a really interesting component from Jedi Knight that I really appreciated, allowing you some degree of character customization.
Lightsaber combat is especially fun, but usually only when there's no real combat going on. For example, as soon as you retrieve your lightsaber, you gain the inherent Force powers of Lightsaber Defense, Lightsaber Offense, and Saber Throw. Lightsaber Defense in particular is the power that governs how well you use your lightsaber to deflect blaster shots and whatnot. As you get better with this skill, it's easy enough to just walk into a crowded room of stormtroopers and let them be their own demise. In the mean time, you can still speed up the process by using Force Push or Force Grip on them. Force Pull is supposed to be able to yank weapons from enemies when at Level 2 or higher. However, it never seemed to work for me.
On the other hand, when it came to actually swinging the lightsaber, things got much more unpredictable. To actually conduct lightsaber combat, you just keep clicking the primary attack button while moving around to change your attack angle. Just as in Jedi Knight, saber-to-saber combat becomes more of an exercise of luck and mouse clicking. It's really disappointing that this is the case, but it's incredibly difficult to get a good working lightsaber combat system that's also not incredibly slow-paced. I eventually gave up on actually "fighting" with the lightsaber, and used it for defense while I took down my foes with Force Grip and Force Lightning. This also makes the game difficulty level vary widely - a room with a stormtrooper platoon is but a nuisance, while a single Reborn can cause you reload after reload of agony while fighting with your lightsaber.
Needless to say, I didn't experiment too much with the varied lightsaber combat styles that Jedi Outcast offers. You begin with Medium, and then later earn Fast and Strong. Since I was more worried about not getting cut to ribbons and actually landing hits on occasion, I only stuck with the Fast style. Theoretically, a broadband Jedi who has obtained mastery of all three styles and switches between them frequently in multiplayer would go forth and kick a lot of ass.
Another aspect of Jedi Outcast that seems to be widely across the board is the level design. The levels themselves are very long and involved, which is fine - I never really got tired of any particular location until right as I was leaving. The areas of the game you play are very well detailed and look very authentic (for something that's sci-fantasy, anyway), and really make you feel like you're actually present in the locations depicted (the Cairn hangar and Doomgiver, in particular). The rooms themselves are cleverly designed in most cases, with some interesting stealth puzzles to work through. On the other hand, *way* too many of them rely on jumping puzzle skill, and they quickly become an exercise in futility. The poor level design is by far the most pronounced in the final areas of the game, where I struggled for a few hours trying to find the way to go. Finding a reachable outcropping that looked like the next place I should go, I started jumping up to the higher levels of the canyon, only to discover invisible walls in places and incomplete map areas in others.
The level design could also use some work in helping the player accomplish his objectives. In some places, Kyle will say something to himself that could provide a useful clue, but other times it would have been most helpful for him to utter something to tell me where the hell I was going. Or, it'd have been even better if there had been an in-game mapping function (There's not one). I had to consult a FAQ several times because I got stuck not knowing where the next location was that I needed to reach.
Graphics and Sound
While you're busy tracking down Desann, there are plenty of sights to take in. Jedi Outcast takes place in several distinct locations, including Nar Shaddaa, Cloud City, Massassi Temple on Yavin IV, and Artus. Each not only has its own environmental appearance, but the buildings on each are appropriately designed. Cloud City is almost a maze of underbelly passages and routes. Nar Shaddaa (the vertical city on the moon of Nal Hutta) has massive skyscrapers and plenty of ship traffic. The Massassi temple is solemn and quiet, and vaguely reminds me of the good ol' days of the original Tomb Raider. As I mentioned earlier, the level design is pretty good, mostly thanks to the nice textures. I just wish there had been more efforts to orient the player within the level - The layouts can be so massive that sometimes the only way you know you're going the right way is that you haven't run into a dead end yet.
The models for each of the characters and enemies in the game is very well crafted, provided that they don't have to talk. The seams and expressions on Kyle's face as he speaks are all rather peculiar looking, and the characters all seem to have an impulse to talk through the teeth of their lower jaw. The facial movements by themselves are enough to generate disinterest in the story, as I'm too busy getting annoyed at how pretty the game can look in some places and ugly in others.
The sounds are about what you'd expect within a Star Wars game. You've got your standard-fare lightsaber swishes, thermal detonator beeps, and John Williams themes in the background. Honestly, I can't say that I was pleased or displeased with the music in the game. Every last bit of it was from the movies, but somewhat strung together in a quiet medley of sorts. I'd be hearing parts of the music and I'd have the script flashing through my head. For instance, the fanfare that plays in A New Hope as soon as Luke and Obi-Wan reach the top of the mesa overlooking Mos Eisley…That plays in the game, and every time I heard it, I also heard "Mos Eisley spaceport…You'll never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy."
I don't suppose I can really complain, but on the other hand, I haven't seen a Star Wars game in some time with original music that didn't sound like it was ripped straight from the films. The last one I can think of offhand is TIE Fighter, which also had some great dynamic music. Jedi Outcast's music changes depending on your situation (injured, fighting, exploring), but it doesn't do it with the same fluidity as we heard in TIE Fighter.
Voice acting is relatively good. LucasArts managed to bring in Billy Dee Williams to involve Lando in the storyline. A good many of the other actors have their background in cartoons and other video games. Kath Soucie voiced Maureen Corley in "Full Throttle", and plays Tavion in Jedi Outcast. Mark Klastorin played in "Aah! Real Monsters" and as Torian in "Arcanum", and gives the voicing for Desann. Mark Hamill isn't in the game, despite his notable contributions of voice acting; However, LucasArts brought in its stand-by Skywalker voice, Bob Bergen, who has played Luke in four other Star Wars games (Rogue Squadron, Rogue Leader, Force Commander, and Shadows of the Empire). Even Dominic "Threepwood" Armato has a couple of bit roles in the game voices. Largely, the voice acting work is well done, but the drama and sincerity of it is often betrayed by the predictable script and the funky facial effects.
Multiplayer and More
Despite being a relative non-player in the FPS genre, LucasArts has historically done a lot of work in multiplayer innovation. "Outlaws" had "Kill the Fool with the Chicken" and Jedi Knight had some nice twists on CTF. Jedi Outcast is, in this regards, no exception. Multiplayer modes include deathmatch, team deathmatch, CTF, Capture the Ysalamari, and more. Capture the Ysalamari is not unlike Kill the Fool with the Chicken - The player carrying around the Ysalamari cannot use Force powers, but he is also immune to them himself. The longer you carry the Ysalamari, the more points you rack up.
Being built on the Quake 3 engine, Jedi Outcast also supports many of Q3's server options that make for a more manageable multiplayer experience. Bots are available for the multiplayer games, with selectable behavior personalities. Players can also call for votes in the middle of matches on map cycling, game setting changes, or to boot a particular player (perhaps one who keeps interrupting the game by calling for votes).
One of the more intriguing options available in Jedi Outcast is the Jedi Duel option. During a free-for-all or Holocron match, you can approach any other player and challenge him to a one-on-one lightsaber duel. If the challenge is accepted, then the rest of the game goes on without you as the two of you duke it out. Your combat cannot affect other players, and they can't affect you. The duel will only end when the two players put some serious distance between each other, or one of them gets skewered. It makes for some interesting spectator battles, though other players would be ill advised to stay put watching a lightsaber duel while other fighters are roaming around the map.
Multiplayer also adds some interesting MP-only Force power options. While the Force alignment doesn't really play a role in the single player game, Jedi Outcast keeps it and the Force powers allocation system in with MP, allowing players to customize their particular traits, strengths, and weaknesses. This allows for much more balanced gameplay, in my opinion. On the other hand, as Gabe from Penny Arcade points out, it does violate the Star Wars rules by a significant margin to see Lando and Rodians and Grans running around wielding lightsabers. Do I care? Not a terrible amount…though I'm very eager to see Gabe's proposed mission-based multiplayer mod.
Another useful bit about Jedi Outcast's reliance on the Quake 3 engine is that it's open-ended for mod authors to develop sweet extras to make the game even more palatable than it already is. Gabe and Safety Monkey from Penny Arcade have both put forth the idea of a mission-based modification to be developed by Josh Marotti of marotti.com. Also in the works is a class-based multiplayer system not unlike what's found in Counter-Strike and Return to Castle Wolfenstein.
Pros & Cons
I realize that if you read my article to completion, it might seem like I'm bagging on Jedi Outcast a lot. And it's true, there's a fair amount of nits to pick. Does that really make the game that bad, though? Of course not. I've enjoyed it immensely, despite its jumping puzzles and manipulation of the Force power system. Multiplayer is a real blast as well, and it'll only get better.
Many gamers were disappointed when Obi-Wan's PC release was cancelled in favor of making it an Xbox exclusive, as it was believed to have been the next Dark Forces-like title. Thankfully, this wasn't at all the case, as reviewers generally panned on Obi-Wan. Jedi Outcast isn't without its flaws, but it's certainly worth your time to look at.
Graphics & Sound: 8.5
Fun Factor: 9.0
Lasting Appeal: 8.5
Final Score: 8.5