Finally, two years after Dark Forces originally wowed its public, its sequel, Jedi Knight: Dark Forces II, has finally materialised, sporting a clever 3D engine, fully polygonal characters, those ludicrous light sabres from the films, and much guffing about The Force. In the first game, Kyle Katarn was a good-for-nothing scoundrel, eager only for money and adventure, hired by the Rebels to infiltrate the Empire and their dastardly plot to create Dark Troopers. This time, Kyle discovers he has the Force gene and decides to follow the way of the Jedi. As the story unfolds, we find that a band of Dark Jedis, led by balding, snarling Jerec, are searching for the mystical tomb of the Jedis, wherein lies much power and few parties. Unfortunately, Kyle's father holds the key to the location of the tomb, so he is soon bumped off leaving Kyle to cavort around the galaxy, chasing and attempting to eliminate the Darkies before they get all the glory.
The 30 or so levels follow the plot, with cut-scenes popping up instead of mission briefings to flesh out your mission in the next map. You start off in Coruscant, the imperial capital, journey through various inside and outside locales, and through Storm Trooper laden fortresses. Typically, apart from chopping people up and getting lost, you have a few tasks to perform in each section. Every eight levels or so you get to face a Dark Jedi or two in combat, preparing you for the ultimate confrontation with the mighty Jerec.
On the face of it, Jedi Knight is Dark Forces I, recast in true 3D. It has almost exactly the same feel, which is good. You get into the same scrabbling blaster fights and pick off the same Storm Troopers from miles away, which is also good. It has the same head-up display map and intensely spacious architecture which is still good. But, of course, it introduces a bunch of incredibly cool new stuff to bring it in line with the Quakes, the Hexen IIs, and the Tomb Raiders. Which is, you know, good.
I have felt him, my master
First off, on the big innovation front, are the visuals. They are all 3D, all perspective-correcting, all dynamically lit, and all texture-mapped to buggery. Bitmaps have been replaced with fully-animating polygonal characters. Looking up and down is now a smoothly panoramic, mouse-controlled experience and there's even a Lara Croft-esque, third-person perspective view for those who would like to ogle Kyle's botty, deal with multiple assassins in a light sabre fight, or swim Mario-like through tunnels.
Next is character development. Unlike the faceless marine in Quake or the strapping young Troll (or whatever) in Hexen, Jedi Knight gives you a character you can work on. Okay, he has a beard and vaguely resembles Mark Hamill, but it's a start. Apart from a few spoken in-game asides; 'Long live the Rebellion!' and 'Locked', most of the personality building revolves around the Force powers.
At the end of each level you are awarded stars for your performance; finding secrets, weapons accuracy, good deeds, and your restraint in not saying 'Your powers are weak, old man' every time you slay somebody with the light sabre. Particularly swotty players may earn four or five stars a level which they can then stick to their swot chart of Force powers, on either the Neutral, Light, or Dark sides.
Neutral is mainly acrobatic, with big jumps and extra running speed. You can 'pull' (to grab far away opponents' weapons) and 'see' (to clock nearby secrets and monsters). The Light Side's powers, as you would expect from Yoda's rather pious attitude to life, are boring and defensive. 'Health', 'Absorb' and 'Protection' are all self-explanatory. 'Persuasion' makes people your friends and drone-like slaves (oh to have had that at the school disco), while 'blinding' makes your opponents stumble, hands-scrabbling, into blunt objects (especially useful during Careless Whisper).
The Dark Side
Evil is, of course, mondo cool. 'Throw' bungs your opponents into orbit. 'ThunderBolt' chucks a flaming explosive bolt of the type masturbated over by Jeffrey Dahmer. 'Destruction' is just sheer death. And 'Deadly Sight' is a more painful version of blinding. To stop you going overboard and rampaging around the galaxy, all the powers are limited by a well of strength (ie an energy bar).
You can stick your stars anywhere from Vader-wards to Kenobisville. But be warned, Jedi you are not. Too many points on the Dark Side and towards the end of the game, you are faced with a choice: kill your voluptuous, but irritatingly captured sidekick, or attempt to save her and in so doing, choose your destiny.
He's holding a thermal detonator
When not farting around with The Force, you naturally use a range of high-class laser weaponry. Starting off with the Bryar pistol (slow firing rate, but accurate), you swiftly upgrade to the Storm Trooper pistol (fast firing but inaccurate) while collecting a few egg-boxes of Thermal Detonators (grenades to you). Beyond that, there is the Repeater, a pellet-based machine gun with a three-barrelled alternate fire. The BowCaster, as sported by Chewie in the films, is deadly at close range, but tricky to aim. The Concussion Rifle, as carried by bounty hunter Bosk, lets rips its own little mushroom cloud. Then, on the pyrotechnic side, you can toy with IM Mines, proximity or timed, and a devastating rocket launcher. And then, three levels into the game, you will finally receive your father's light sabre.
The sabre's control system is cool. You repeatedly press fire, waggle the mouse in an obvious direction, and the sabre will perform an appropriate move, whether it's a chop, parry or thrust. Most opponents will be felled by a couple of swipes from the old green lolly. And if they're distant, and depending on your Force well and star rating, old Kyle will automatically intercept and repel blaster bolts. The best deal here is to step outside your body and avail yourself of the third-person view, where you can see Kyle dancing about, crouching, leaping and poncing around like Wayne Sleep. With fire pressed down, up and down mouse movements intuitively shift the camera around so you can see the action and deliberate your next move from a canny camera angle.
The sabre is pretty much rooted in your hands. You can't throw it, Vader-style, as was rumoured in some previews. But you can use it to light your way.
In time, you will call me master
The Jedi engine is impressive. It handles most of the stuff that Quake can. It has dynamic lighting, so projectiles and explosions illuminate their surroundings. It has transparent water, which is hilarious when watching your opponents being dragged helplessly by the current to their doom. It's fully texture-mapping and perspective-correcting, so your view doesn't shear and distort when you look up and down. It doesn't have the level of detail which Quake architecture can achieve, with very few of the archways, balustrades, dappled shadows, ribbed walls and little touches which make a Quake level. Instead, the Jedi Knight maps are very much in the style of Dark Forces, huge, boxy, and meandering.
Gameplay can become a tad repetitive as you wander around the mostly vast, empty sets collecting shield upgrades and health, operating the odd huge piece of machinery, and scrapping two or three baddies. But the levels are really huge and, more endearingly, they bounce into real-life locales; market places, factories, aqueducts, palaces and cruiser ships which any Quake-powered game would be hard-pushed to emulate.
You can never quite predict where you're going to end up either. A level may start you off in an industrial complex, then drag you through a rocky mountain pass to a high-rise aqueduct system, and then to a warren of rooms inside a palace. It's like having four Quake levels sellotaped into one. And then a lot of the cool touches which made Dark Forces so memorable pop up to disrupt the rhythm. There's a roof-top map, for instance, where you're bombed repeatedly by a fully-rendered TIE Bomber. It swoops over the area, dumping napalm on you, while you scurry around looking for a way out. Then there's a superb map set inside a crashing Corellian cruiser. You have to race through the labyrinthine interior, desperately searching for the escape pod before it hits the surface of a planet. But the ship is rotating as it falls, so the ceiling becomes the floor and the nice little tunnel you're traversing can suddenly turn into a 700-metre fall. It's worth just stopping to watch panicking R2 units sliding around squealing.
Take it and strike me down
The gameplay is exciting. There are tons of atmospheric touches and the sound is fantastic, ripped straight from the film. The Gammorian Guards squeal when they die. The light sabre hums and distorts accurately when you wave it in the air. The blasters, er, make that blaster noise. And of course, you have the dynamic Star Wars theme streaming off your CD-drive to add to the wraparound Jedi fantasy.
The artwork is great. The animation is fantastic. If you get bored wandering around you can take a pop at an R2 unit or power droid, which keel over most satisfyingly after several blaster hits. The Three-Eyes, Gammorian Guards, Bosks and Gredos all have multiple death animations, and clutch excellently at their perforated bodies as they sink to the floor. Storm Troopers and Imperial Guards all crumple nicely, dropping their weapons properly, so they either skid across the floor or fall out of their hands as they sink to their knees.
There are problems, however. Some of your opponents are pretty dumb. Light sabres, although a canny addition to the armoury, are a bit too automatic. And the cut-scenes look fantastic, simmering in true DirectX 5-o-vision, but are pretty averagely edited and blue-screened against a bunch of snoozy backdrops.
The Dark Side
The environments lack interactivity. Sure you can blow up the odd box, chop at grills with the light sabre, and push buttons to open doors and operate machinery. But Jedi Knight lacks the interactivity of, say, Duke Nukem. Sure there are non-player characters floating about you can talk to, but all they seem to say is 'leave me alone' and 'no blasters' (which is obviously a Light Side Force test to see if you can stop yourself whipping them about the head and shoulders with your sabre). It also lacks some of the mod cons of its 3D contemporaries, namely Hexen II and the forthcoming Quake II. Particle effects, for instance, are at a minimum. And some of the weapons feel upsettingly weak.
But then it boils down to a style issue. Jedi keeps its head above water in a sea of Quake-powered, Quake-style games. Just because X and Y have blow-up-able walls and object location puzzles doesn't mean Jedi Knight has to. LucasArts have cleverly opted for a particular style and feel, taking the positive elements from Dark Forces. You can explore, run around, marvel at the architecture, and feel immersed in a story's style. They have obviously looked long and hard at Tomb Raider too. And it's worked. Above all, Jedi Knight feels refreshing to play. It's not just another Quake clone and the fact that LucasArts have developed their own 3D engine obviously has a lot to do with this.
Your journey is almost complete
With a gradual accumulation of Force power, achingly huge levels, some incredible theme levels and spot effects, deathmatch, a spankingly true 3D engine, and wall-to-wall Star Wars-iness, Jedi Knight: Dark Forces II is everything we want. No, it's not Quake<>/I>. It's Dark Forces, in a brilliant little genre of its own.