Blog 883: Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast

And so we finally come to where it, for me, all began. 2002’s Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast was my very first Star Wars game, so it’s probably wise to concede that there may be some bias approaching. I first played this game having just bought The Best of Ultravox and Gold: The Greatest Hits of Spandau Ballet, so please play those in your head while you read this too.

Jedi Knight II is quite a departure from the previous entries in the series. Developed by Raven Software rather than solely in-house at LucasArts, and built off the Quake III Arena engine rather than their own tech, it’s something of a fresh start in almost every way.

Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast

Of course what actually happened is that I played the demo first. JKII‘s demo is a completely stand-alone mission that does not appear in the final game, which was in itself slightly mind-blowing at the time. (Warcraft III did the same thing, offering a demo comprised of the two real tutorial missions followed by three further unique levels. They eventually provided these as a Custom Campaign with The Frozen Throne… but without the voice acting for some reason.)

The demo is comprised of a single very short level. Although the intro states that Kyle has forsaken the Force at this point, he gets the lightsaber and a suite of powers… well, it is a demo after all, they had to show them off. It is however long enough to let us mow down hordes of Stormtroopers with the blaster, and it packs in a dramatic shield generator with ledges to push them off… Plus a final battle with one of Desann’s Reborn, who… shouldn’t exist yet? Well, whatever. It definitely made me want the game.

The full game doesn’t even have a snowy level!

Luckily, being built on a stalwart idTech engine means there are no compatibility problems here. It all just works.

We are now eight years past the Battle of Endor. After falling to the Dark Side and being saved by Mara Jade in Mysteries of the Sith, Kyle Katarn has given up his connection the Force and reset the status quo back to Dark Forces: he’s just a really good special ops trooper with a load of guns again. The New Republic still needs special ops troopers, so he’s just out and about doing his thing with Jan Ors… Until somebody mentions the Valley of the Jedi.

What follows is more of the same, but in much higher fidelity: a pitch perfect adventure tour of Star Wars. Shoot your way through armies of Stormtroopers and gangsters. Get a lightsaber and start pushing them around. Decipher obtuse Imperial security systems. Meet celebrity characters and visit famous original trilogy locations. Save the galaxy from yet another crew of maniacs and their nasty experiments. All the good stuff!

An Imperial base that’s full of mysterious experiments involving crystals? You don’t have to ask twice!

The levels in Jedi Knight II aren’t necessarily as big as in previous games, but they do seem to twist around themselves a lot more. You’ll frequently find yourself in a hub area with all the doors locked but one; working your way through that single open corridor will lead you back to unlock the other doors from their other sides.

That’s not to say the game is entirely composed of backtracking; frequently you can peek your head through those doors and go “oh, I’ve been there before” and then keep on trucking. Mainly it provides a better sense of place, because of course in a real military base all these areas would be sensibly connected rather than laid out suspiciously linearly… It makes JKII feel a little more dense than maybe its predecessor did, which I think is overall a positive change.

The opportunity to scavenge health packs and ammo you didn’t need the first time round never goes amiss either.

I mean, as soon as Lucas said that midichlorians were microbes in Episode I, the natural conclusion is that they can be transfused… (I much prefer JKII‘s woo-woo crystal approach. I think it fits the general tone of Star Wars better.)

Of course it wouldn’t be a Jedi Knight/Dark Forces game without a few shades of infuration in the level design. The puzzles are less obtuse and more clearly signposted, with anything that will respond to a Force power getting a whirly highlight on the cursor, though they’re also extremely prescriptive: a block that needs to be Force Pushed, for example, will never respond to be Force Pulled from the other side.

Then it makes you play through Nar Shaddaa. This level is spectacular — it’s all leaping between balconies and catwalks and throwing gangsters off them on your way through the most populous, built-up hive of scum and villainy in the galaxy. It has just one problem: the Tenloss Disruptor Rifle.

Desann is just the right level of evil, over-confident and power-hungry for a Star Wars villain.

The great thing about the lightsaber, which you have just picked up, is that it can deflect blaster bolts. You’d have though, perhaps, our first level with the lightsaber might therefore be full of enemies with blasters so we could have fun while we get to grips with its new 3rd person melee mechanics. But oh, oh no.

The Tenloss Disruptor Rifle fires an instantaneous beam at insane ranges, which cannot be blocked and can rarely be dodged. Nar Shaddaa is full of Rodian gangsters armed with these rifles. They’re on rooftops and tucked into niches. They’re everywhere. Stepping out of cover has you hit from five different angles, and because they’re all so far away, it’s excruciating trying to find each one so you can snipe them back before they’ve melted your health bar.

I remember the very first time I played this level, when I didn’t have the game on maximum quality settings — some of these snipers were literally shooting at me from beyond the maximum draw distance. I had to guess their positions from the incoming beams and hope for the best.

“No disintegrations!”
“Awww, but the special effect of the enemy being erased from existence is so cool!”

This time around, there is no choice around Force powers. Retrieving your lightsaber from Luke gets you the first few obvious ones — Jump, Push and Pull — but from then on you simply obtain new powers (or new ranks in existing powers) at the start of each level.

Jump is fantastic, and so much better than the original Jedi Knight. It’s keyed off holding down the normal Jump button rather than bound to the usual Force Power key, and the length of time you keep it pressed is the amount of soaring you’ll do. It’s simple, it’s intuitive, and it makes all those platforming sections a thousand times more satisfying, as falling to your doom really does result from your own poor skill and aim rather than from battling awkward controls. It also makes for more vibrant lightsaber duels as you just instinctively leap around.

(Kyle also no longer takes ceiling damage from jumping too hard, and although falling damage is still present, the fact that it’s so much more natural to control jumping means it hardly ever happens.)

Once you get Force Pull to Rank 3, you can disarm entire legions of Stormtroopers with a single pull. Then you can just… let them wander about, harmless.

Once you meet Lando Calrissian (voiced by the original Billy Dee Williams) and he takes you to Bespin is when things start to properly warm up.

Narratively speaking, Bespin’s inclusion is a bit contrived — once again the Imperials have taken over the lower levels of Cloud City. Sure, the city is captured in amazing fidelity, it really does feel like you’re exploring that place you saw in the film… but this could have occurred in any place in the galaxy that handles cortosis. At least our visits to the delicious temples (and swamps) of Yavin 4 are because that’s where Luke re-established the Jedi Academy, a focal point for both Katarn and Desann.

Mechanically, though, I totally get it. Bespin is where you need that Force Jump to get around all the bottomless abysses. Bespin is when Push and Pull become strong enough to nab weapons out of enemies’ hands and send them flying off all of those delicious catwalks. From Bespin onward, you get to play with your food.

A lightsaber duel in a carbonite chamber, you say? Can’t think where I’ve seen one of those before…

Bespin is also where you meet you first Reborn enemy and start getting into proper lightsaber fights. Lightsaber combat is much more complicated than in Dark Forces II, though it’s probably just about as hit-or-miss. Superficially, it’s absolutely spectacular: it fluidly chains animations together as you jump and spin, and of course it makes all the right noises. Every lightsaber duel is a frantic, kinetic battle as you jump and roll to avoid their blade while trying to land a blow with yours.

The thing is that the lightsaber is a dramatically powerful weapon. You can spend ten minutes clashing blades with a single Reborn only to be cut in half by an errant swing; then you can reload your saved game and do the opposite in two hits. There are specific moves to be made, the arc of your swings dictated by which directional keys you’re pressing as you attack, but for all the manual suggests these are supposed to make a difference depending on the circumstances, it really doesn’t feel like it.

At least this time, leaping about like a god damn Jedi is tremendous fun, so losing a few rounds isn’t half as frustrating as it used to be.

Of course other times you can just lower the shield and let a hangar full of Stormtroopers get sucked into space.

So yes, it is maybe a touch more of a mixed bag than my rose-tinted spectacles would prefer. Maybe I am simply seduced by how it just looks and sounds so achingly, perfectly like the platonic ideal of Star Wars… Or it could be that I’m a sucker for Kyle and Jan’s romantic entanglements. (They kiss! … admittedly just by jamming their heads together, but, y’know, 2002 tech.)

In terms of the Jedi Knight/Dark Forces series, its design and structure are markedly different than previous entries. JKII favours more linear levels with prescribed solutions over free-form exploration of expansive sprawls, but while this reduces the amount of freedom it also cuts off (most of) those awkward periods of running in circles trying to find the way forward — it keeps the game to a much better pace. And the Force powers and lightsaber mechanics are so much more intuitively usable that… well, it’s fun to be a Jedi this time, even if duels can still sometimes be infuriating.

The ultimate accolate is, of course, that just like the other entries in the series… Jedi Knight II would make a bloody good film.

Fuck yeah!

4 thoughts on “Blog 883: Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast”

  1. Glad you mentioned the demo – I remember it got me all hyped up, and then the first four levels were Kyle running around in bases and mining tunnels not being a Jedi. And the obtuse level design… oh boy! When you realise the only way stormtroopers could get to certain areas is by doing the same magical gymnastics you have, just to change a radio frequency; then yep; you’ve got a badly contrived puzzle-based level.
    But the settings (Yavin, Bespin, Nar Shaddaa, the Imperial facility) and the saber combat make up for it. And you’re right – with all that, and John Williams’ music playing, it does feel like you’re playing through a Star wars movie!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, the communications array on the Doomgiver is utterly glorious — jumping between multiple levels in a three-dimensional 3x3x3 grid of rooms to set the frequency to send anything to anyone. The least they could have done is put some locked elevator doors on each level, to make it _look_ like somebody normal might be able to use it!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. And that’s before I get to the weird sneaking level on the Doomgiver (in a game with precisely no sneaking mechanics in the programming!)

        It’s a game with standout moments and a handful of bad ideas, and thankfully only two annoying boss fights!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Hey it had the Mind Trick, so you can confuse and sneak past… _one person_. Mind you, there are a handful of conversations you can overhear by approaching rooms slowly and not immediately going into battle, so I wonder if some older version of the game did have more immersive-sim style flexibility in it?

        Liked by 1 person

And you tell me...

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.