Star Wars Jedi Knight: Dark Forces II

Developed and published by LucasArts
Released in 1997 for the Personal Computer

The sequel to Star Wars: Dark Forces looks like the ultimate Star Wars power fantasy, supporting a solid 3D engine (that’s admittedly aged terribly), larger levels than its predecessor, new gear, more enemies, lightsaber melee combat, a large array of Force powers, a somewhat ambitious overarching story that promotes player choice between Light/Dark Side with two endings, and multiplayer with several game modes and options. On top of this, it’s simply more accessible, with proper mouselook and extensive key bindings.

How the story plays out is the most delightful thing about Jedi Knight; protagonist Kyle Katarn starts out only with firearms, and much like Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, you only get the lightsaber after several lengthy missions. Upon receiving the fabled weapon, Kyle gains an affinity for the Force, and the player will receive experience points every other mission or so to distribute to Force abilities as they see fit. Their decisions culminate to a turning point and determine Kyle’s moral identity, though the two different “paths” share almost identical missions. The atmosphere is pretty nice to boot; the creators drew a lot of their inspiration from the comic books set in the Star Wars universe, and though much of it can be hampered by poor acting, ridiculous costumes, and somewhat hokey special effects even for 1997’s video games, it still manages to recapture the “Space Opera Epic” feel of Star Wars fairly well.

But some things will almost never change for the traditional first-person shooter formula: It’s all about level design, which happened to be the greatest asset of the original Dark Forces. Many of the most memorable and elegant levels of that game often happened to look circular on the auto-map with puzzle elements working down to the core. They usually were pretty linear in terms of what objectives you’d have to complete, but there was a lot of enriching convolution in the environments, not to mention the secrets. (Though Jedi Knight still includes secrets, mind you!) Oftentimes, I would feel comfortable in calling those levels expansive. Jedi Knight has much larger levels, but rarely would I ever feel comfortable calling them such. They sure look it at first sight, but upon closer investigation, it turns out there’s a lot of huge empty space in the more vast levels, and rather damningly, the maps in this newer game actually feel pretty linear—it’s noticeable now.

Jedi Knight has traded much of the intricate level design and puzzlery in favour of mostly barren rooms or occasional outright hallways with many enemies and will often just throw a force field or a key/switch/locked door at you to attempt to break up the monotony. An interesting thing about Dark Forces was that the missions had briefings before them, detailing everything you should know going into it. Jedi Knight truncates this information within a “Mission Objectives” menu, which while isn’t a bad thing in and of itself, unfortunately seems to be a symptom of generally dumbing down player interaction to basic switches and locks in maps. Collect shit and push shit, don’t think twice about it. There are occasional flashes of far more interesting and better level structure, namely in the first couple of missions—but the offerings are on the whole too little to satisfy.

The above obviously wouldn’t be an indictment on its own if fairly straightforward levels were used to foster better enemy placement and enhance combat—much how Quake remains interesting despite downplaying the platforming elements found in Doom II, but interesting combat is limited due to various bottlenecks present in Jedi Knight. The returning weapons from the original Dark Forces have been retooled a bit and the new entries include a hefty crossbow, a rocket launcher that can also “sticky” enemies on the alt-fire—probably the best addition to the game—and of course the game-changing ‘melee-booster’ that is the lightsaber, a surprisingly welcome addition until it comes time to duel bosses with it.

As for Force powers, what could have been a fantastic addition to the game are underwhelming due to being completely optional—a pessimist might even say that they’re nothing more than soft-hacks that can break an otherwise balanced game, as it’s possible to beat it with weapons exclusively. Though this also isn’t inherently an issue, there’s no consequence or trade-off in dispensing these points and you’re given them for free. Having such a “do what you want, hands-off” approach isn’t a problem if the game includes appropriate consequences for one’s decisions—Deus Ex is a strong testament to that—but the level design simply doesn’t take Force Powers into account. Rather than having a system where one route here may have been better suited for some “Force Persuasion stealthing” versus another path better suited for some clever placement of Proximity Mines, you have situations where you can use your Force Jump to clear “that pesky level design” or use Force Healing to almost completely ignore resource management of portable medkits.

It’s really amazing how the greatest pre-Quake first-person shooters almost invariably have stupidly slow and seemingly incapable AI, and yet they still manage to be a threat on high difficulties; it’s all in the level design. The original Dark Forces generally handled enemy placement well, compensating for their slow movement and simplistic tracking, and consequently, the enemies kept good pressure throughout, even if it withheld its enemy types for a few missions too many.

Jedi Knight fixes that issue yet still manages to have dissatisfying combat that might be better described as overwhelming. (Hear me out before calling me a baby—I played all the way through Hard mode!) AI almost seem to possess a far-reaching field of vision greater than 90 degrees, and if that doesn’t catch you, then their “spidey-sense” enhanced ears will likely hear the smallest mouse fart you might make. Their reaction time just feels too fast on top of it, and due to this, enemies almost end up reacting the same way in all instances: blasting you before you hear so much as a “Stop Rebel scum!”. Other AI improvements such as being able to run and melee with weapons, well, it all comes together to discourage a player from direct confrontations and instead encourage sneak attacks, flash-bangs, “sniping” (though there’s no ‘scoped’ weapon at all) and luring enemies out in a game that was never designed for any of these purposes. You can scarcely open a door without being greeted by blaster fire, eating away a sizeable chunk of your shields—and while, yes, there are ways to counter and recover after the surprise, the point is the feel of it would be much better if the AI wasn’t so impossibly twitchy.

Lightsaber duels can be a little underwhelming as well—not conceptually, of course, but functionally: It’s possible to block saber blows by simply facing the enemy and ceasing your attacks, but there aren’t any dodges or parries, nor are there a whole lot of ways you can strike with the saber, so dueling can often feel analogous to flailing and running in circles if you don’t occasionally stop to pepper the opponent with Force powers. I can’t really think of any 3D ‘fencing simulators’ at the time that would have handled these kinds of things much better, but I still can’t shake the feeling that this cool concept was more or less forced into an engine that was never designed with it in mind. [Worth noting that Dark Forces II is two years removed from the release of Maken X. – Ed.] So all told, if levels lack the puzzle and cognitive variety, what’s there left to show for if the various forms of combat feel so wild, somewhat random, and loose?

I need to stress that Jedi Knight is not a bad game because it’s not Dark Forces, nor is it really a bad game in general, it’s rather of a fairly average pedigree. But almost every core addition wasn’t thought out well enough to reach its full potential and what unique assets there are simply don’t set it apart as its own class of quality—not by a long shot. But the fact that the developers had a really solid blueprint to build on top of—and somehow didn’t exactly follow through with it—leaves it as a fairly disappointing one. I’d really only recommend this one if you want to see the series through—so for historical purposes basically.