Throwback Thursday – Star Wars Jedi Knight: Jedi Academy

•February 23, 2017 • Leave a Comment

The quality of the Star Wars Dark Forces/Jedi Knight series is akin to a ride on a roller coaster. It starts out flat, goes extremely high, dips extremely low, extremely fast, and then goes high again. So it should be no surprise that the final game in the series, Star Wars Jedi Knight: Jedi Academy, is a great dip from its predecessor Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast.

Similar to the Jedi Knight expansion, Mysteries of the Sith, series protagonist Kyle Katarn is not the primary playable character in Jedi Academy. In fact, he is not playable at all. Jedi Academy instead tasks players with creating their own Jedi student. The character creation isn’t super robust but does offer both male and female models, along with a selection of classic alien races, clothes, and colors to choose from. Having your own character is neat but the really cool part of the character creation is being able to design your own lightsaber. I was able to choose my style of hilt and blade color, which really invested me in my character.

To work within the story that Jedi Academy tells, the character you create is named Jaden. On the shuttle to the Academy to begin training as a Jedi, you’ll be befriended by another new student Rosh. Rosh is kind of a dick and his behavior often puts you at risk. You’d think that Luke Skywalker would have had a better vetting process after the last asshole he brought in to the Academy ended up turning to the darkside and causing havoc for everyone involved. Speaking of Dessan, the main villain in the previous game, his right hand in that game, Tavion, has returned with some Jedi artifacts that suck Force powers out of old relics. She has this crazy idea to resurrect a long dead Sith and end the Jedi once and for all.

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Longtime series protagonist Kyle Katarn, newly restored in the Jedi order, is given the duties of training both you and Rosh. This training involves a Force obstacle course and then a series of missions to complete. These missions are chosen from a galactic map and offer short excursions to a variety of locales. Each of the missions has a different feel to them. Some are standard first person fare of kill all the enemies. Others have you rescuing prisoners from a dangerous rancor pit, racing a speeder bike through temple ruins, setting explosives at a Remnant facility, and many more. The idea behind these missions is often quite good but their execution often leaves much to be desired. Most of the missions are super short, with little variety, and even less challenge. Well, at least for the first half of the game.

The game has a very obvious difficulty jump about halfway through. As in most games, as you become more powerful you’ll face more powerful foes. Jedi Academy throws dark Force users at you in the back half with alarming frequency. And the reality is, that they just aren’t that fun to fight. You’d think that fighting force users and having lightsaber battles would be the highlight of the game but when the game starts throwing two and three of them against you at a time and they can kill you easier than you can kill them, it can become a frustrating slog from encounter to encounter. Frustrating is not a word I like to associate with Star Wars.

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I appreciate trying something new, and the less linear approach to the game’s structure was good in theory, but in practice it really hurts the narrative of the game. Much of the story progression happens off screen and is relayed to the player in briefs and debriefs. Those static mission briefing screens are not equal to a well scripted cutscene and they also fail to develop the characters very much. Aside from Kyle and Luke, characters that players will know from outside this game, none of the characters’ motivations are well cast. Why is Tavion trying to resurrect a dead Sith lord and destroy the Jedi? Why is Rosh such a dick? And why does Jaden keep referring to him as a friend, especially after all the bad shit the guy has done to her? These are all mysteries the game doesn’t really explore or have time to explore because of the way the story is spooned out.

The fact that developer Raven was only given a year of development time on Jedi Academy really shows. Everything in the game just feels thrown together and not crafted to the same level that Jedi Outcast was. It doesn’t reach the levels of disappointment that I had with Mysteries of the Sith but Jedi Academy is still a big let-down.

Originally published at Critically Sane on 23 February 2017.

Throwback Thursday – Star Wars Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast

•February 16, 2017 • Leave a Comment

Coming four years after the release of Star Wars Jedi Knight: Dark Forces II, Star Wars Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast does away with the Dark Forces name that started the series off. It’s probably for the best as because, let’s be honest, calling this sequel Jedi Knight II: Dark Forces III – Jedi Outcast would have just been absurd.

Awkward naming aside, Jedi Knight II picks up a couple years after the events of Mysteries of the Sith, the expansion to the previous game. Series protagonist Kyle Katarn has given up being a Jedi due to his twisted experience with the dark side of the force and has returned to his mercenary roots running missions for the New Republic. He and Jan meet up with a dark Jedi named Dessan that is intent on restoring power to the Empire and taking over as a new emperor. Of course, Kyle will have to take down Dessan and his Remnant faction, but this time he’ll get a little help from the likes of Luke Skywalker and Lando Calrissian (voiced by none other than Billy Dee Williams).

Like Mysteries of the Sith, Jedi Outcast has no live-action cutscenes. However, unlike the Jedi Knight expansion, Jedi Outcast has well cut-together in-game scenes, decent voice acting, and a relatively solid story to experience. By today’s standards, it probably wouldn’t pass muster, but for a 15 year old game, it does the job and mostly held my attention.

With Jedi Outcast, Raven Software took over development duties of the franchise and as such, this game plays a bit differently than the LucasArts-developed titles. The biggest difference in this game is the speed at which the game moves. In the past three entries of the series, the game played super fast, like a Doom and Quake clone. Jedi Outcast is noticeably slower, and, coming directly from Mysteries of the Sith, it took some getting used to.

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The slower pace actually has benefits when Kyle begins to utilize his lightsaber. In Jedi Knight and its expansion, lightsaber fights were spastic encounters that didn’t feel particularly great even if they were fun. Jedi Outcast makes lightsaber fighting feel like a strategic battle that generally can’t be won by attacking by button-smashing.

Getting Kyle’s lightsaber takes a little while as he has given up being a Jedi. About 20% of the game actually is played without a lightsaber or force powers. Once Kyle has his powers and saber back, things pick up. He’ll face off against the standard assortment of scum and villainy but also dark side force wielders that will put his lightsaber and force power skills to the test.

At times Jedi Outcast goes a little overboard on these force enemy encounters but their inclusion is a welcome adjustment after the virtual lack of them in Mysteries of the Sith. And they provide ample opportunity to really play with your lightsaber, something that even Jedi Knight didn’t do expressly well outside of its unique boss fights.

Jedi Outcast doesn’t have as many memorable boss fights as Jedi Knight, yet but there are a couple that do work well and are generally more fun to play than those in Jedi Knight. Some of this is because the mechanics that Raven has introduced for lightsabers and force powers just work a little better than its older siblings. But I think most of it lies in the fact that Raven’s design doesn’t ever feel cheap and unfair and they are all designed around making Kyle, and by direct control, the player, feel powerful.

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This feeling of solid design to empower the player extends to the game’s level design as well. Jedi Outcast is by far the most straight-forward of the series so far. This isn’t to say there aren’t puzzles to be solved that might leave you scratching your head, but none of them feel illogical once you do solve them. It seems to be the right mix of guided experience and smart challenge.

A lot of this is an improvement in every way over the past entries in the series. One area that I found disappointing was how it handled series mainstay Jan Ors. Jan has, since the beginning with Dark Forces, been Kyle’s partner. She’s been a strong character throughout and in many ways his equal. Jedi Knight saw her become a damsel that needed saving, which to a large degree rubbed against type. But this is a pretty common trope in games and it didn’t really bother me at the time nor on my recent playthrough. However, Jedi Outcast again sees Jan being cast as a plot device rather than as the strong character she is. Frankly, it is lazy writing.

That laziness with the narrative holds back Jedi Outcast from being the best game in the series. Still, it is a super strong entry in the series that might actually be the easiest one to recommend to newcomers to the series due to its better compatibility with newer computers.

Originally published at Critically Sane on 8 February 2017.

Throwback Thursday: Star Wars Jedi Knight: Mysteries of the Sith

•February 9, 2017 • Leave a Comment

A long time ago, in an age before games were monetized in 88 different ways before they even hit gamers, the way developers (and publishers) stretched the life of their game was to release a little something called an expansion pack. Expansion packs often required the original game to be installed on one’s computer but were often substantive stand-alone experiences that either continued the story of the base game or provided a side adventure in the same world. Today they call these experiences sequels.

Star Wars Jedi Knight: Mysteries of the Sith is the expansion to the highly successful Star Wars Jedi Knight: Dark Forces II. It takes place five years after the events of Dark Forces II. It starts off with Kyle Katarn, now a fully fledged Jedi Knight, training his apprentice, Mara Jade. Jade is one of the most beloved characters in the pre-Disney Star Wars extended universe (that is now referred to as Legends). Created by legendary Star Wars novelist, Timothy Zahn, Jade has a checkered past that saw her serving the emperor directly before his death, then working for a smuggling cartel before finally joining the New Republic and developing her strong force talent.

The New Republic base that Katarn and Jade are at is attacked by Remnant forces and Kyle, controlled by the player, heads off to take them on, ordering Mara, for whatever reason, to stay behind. These first few levels are all played from Kyle’s perspective as he attempts to take out a pair of asteroids outfitted by the Remnant to be orbital attack bases.

In the series’ first game, Dark Forces, level design was often confusing and required doing awkward and illogical things to navigate and progress. Jedi Knight: Dark Forces II however, improved on this a lot and the game was far less frustrating for it. Mysteries of the Sith is a regression in every way. Back are the awkward and illogical progressions in levels and, additionally, much of the game is super dark, requiring you to use Force Sight extensively just to navigate through them.

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After Kyle takes out the asteroid bases he heads out to check out a mystery temple related to the Sith. With Kyle heading off on his own, Mara becomes the playable character for the rest of the game, and she is immediately tasked by New Republic command with heading to work a deal with a Hutt for some supplies. Things obviously don’t go as planned and Mara is forced to fight her way through the Hutt’s palace. I honestly don’t remember much of the narrative of Mysteries of the Sith because all of it, except for the last level, is non-essential.

This is a huge downer for me, especially coming off the strong, if very cheesy, main game. Mysteries of the Sith attempts to tell its story with in-engine cutscenes, which on many levels makes sense, but the lack of live action and the abundance of goofy animation with outright bad dialog is a problem the expansion can’t really get past. It also doesn’t help that Mysteries of the Sith presents a terrible portrayal of Mara Jade. She starts out as a petulant child instead of the strong independent woman she is, and never really gets much better through the course of the game.

Doubling down on its regressions, Mysteries of the Sith also nixes one of the more unique things in its parent game: the lightsaber boss battles. Aside from a frustrating final battle, Mara doesn’t really get to wield her saber against equal foes. Granted the game isn’t focused on a band of Dark Jedi, as Dark Forces II was, but without these encounters, Mara hardly feels like a Jedi. In a game called Jedi Knight that seems like a misstep.

None of it really feels like Star Wars. It’s more like someone was trying to emulate Star Wars but did a half assed job. Sure, there are stormtroopers to kill, spaceports to visit, and lightsabers to wield but just having those things in the game doesn’t just miraculously make it Star Wars. It is all a big disappointment.

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Also disappointing is that this expansion is called Mysteries of the Sith. Aside from the final level, which is both the best and most frustrating thing in the game, there is nary any Sith-related activity in the game. And I’m not sure there were any mysteries, either, at least in the game’s narrative.

I did, however, come across a huge mystery as I played Mysteries of the Sith. Getting Mysteries of the Sith to play was an ordeal that required me to abandon my Steam-purchased version in favor of getting it from GOG. The GOG version was not a perfect running version and came with plenty of its own quirks, but at least it was playable. Most of the issues I experienced, I could at least understand. However one still has me scratching my head. Randomly, the game would play some music but not from the game’s soundtrack. What I would get was random tracks from Jessica Simpson’s 2004 Christmas album, “ReJoyce: The Christmas Album”. Who needs John Williams phenomenal and iconic score when you could have “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus”?

It is funny how nostalgia clouds things because, coming into Mysteries of the Sith, I was pretty excited to experience it again. I remember very clearly enjoying it quite a bit when I first played it nearly 20 years ago. But even if I throw away the technical issues I encountered trying to get it to run, Mysteries of the Sith is a bad game. So I’m trying at a loss to explain how and why I perceived it with such strong favor for all these years. Maybe it was because I associated it with its parent title, which after replaying I still really enjoy. Or, maybe, I just fondly remember the multiplayer, which I did not return to here (or with Jedi Knight). Regardless, I can’t recommend returning to Mysteries of the Sith for old fans: it just isn’t good.

Originally published at Critically Sane on 1 February 2017.

Throwback Thursday: Star Wars Jedi Knight: Dark Forces II

•February 2, 2017 • Leave a Comment

When I first played the follow-up to Dark Forces, Jedi Knight, in 1997, I was amazed at the look of the game. Dark Forces look good at the time but Jedi Knight blew it out of the water. It felt so much more real. A lot of that feel probably came from the live action cutscenes, which were a couple years before The Phantom Menace and the closest thing I had gotten to a Star Wars movie in fourteen years.

Going back to it now, twenty years and five official Star Wars films later, Jedi Knight’s live action cutscenes come off as a low rent fan film. That isn’t to say that there isn’t a lot of charm to them or that the game itself isn’t a ton of fun though. Because it does and it is, and it’s still one of the crown jewels of Star Wars videogames.

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Taking place after the events of Return of the Jedi, Kyle Katarn is on the hunt for the murderer of his father. This hunt takes him to Nar Shaddaa where he finds out the person he is looking for is the Dark Jedi Jerec. Jerec has plans to rebuild the Empire by utilizing a long hidden power nestled within the long lost Valley of the Jedi. Kyle takes it upon himself to stop Jerec and avenge his father.

As a direct sequel to Dark Forces, Jedi Knight is primarily set from the first person perspective. But there is also the option to play in third person. This perspective change is because Kyle eventually learns that he is force sensitive and on his path to become a Jedi, he will wield a lightsaber. Trying to lightsaber battle in first person is less than fun, and while third person isn’t exactly great, at least you can see around you as you battle.

At the time I didn’t think anything of the Jerec’s abnormally large band of Dark Jedi wielding lightsabers and force powers so shortly after the death of the Emperor and Darth Vader. It just seemed fun. Looking at it now in conjunction with Kyle’s ascension to the role of Jedi Knight, the whole thing is absurd. Where did all these Dark Jedi come from? Was the Emperor aware of their existence and they were just never mentioned in the films? Why is Kyle able to become a Jedi Knight by watching holovids of his Dad? Was his force power dormant and turned on by the holovid because he didn’t do anything remotely force powered in Dark Forces? Thankfully Disney wiped away these questions when they took over the franchise.

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Jedi Knight’s level design is smarter and more layered than the obtuse and often times frustrating design of Dark Forces. There are still the odd environmental puzzles that don’t make a whole lot of sense and will leave you scratching your head, but in general it’s a better flowing game. Because the level design is better, the combat is able to take center stage. With the added ability to utilize force powers and a lightsaber, combat is more dynamic. It is still great fun to shoot stormtroopers and other agents of the Empire with a blaster or blow them up with a thermal detonator. But nothing quite beats deflecting a pair of incoming blaster bolts and moving in to chop off the arm of an enemy.

While the gameplay is a blast, the charm of the game comes from the low-rent fan film feeling live action cutscenes. Somehow though, and maybe this is the magic of LucasArts, Jedi Knight: Dark Forces II feels decidedly Star Wars. And that is the most important aspect of a Star Wars game, it has to feel right. If it doesn’t the illusion breaks down and the questions begin to creep in and take hold. For as goofy and over-the-top as it is, Jedi Knight never breaks that illusion. You feel like a Jedi Knight by the end and I can’t think of a better endorsement than that for a Star Wars fan.

Originally published on 25 January 2017 at Critically Sane

Throwback Thursday – Star Wars: Dark Forces

•January 26, 2017 • Leave a Comment

I got my first Windows PC in 1996. I remember it was a custom built Gateway and cost my parents about $3000. It ran Windows 95, connected to the internet via an internal modem, had a Pentium processor, 3dfx Voodoo graphics card, and a hard drive capacity that base model Xbox One’s and Playstation 4’s would laugh at. Aside from that I don’t remember much about it, except that it played games.

Until that time my gaming was relegated to home consoles (not a bad thing) and my mother’s Mac from work, which if you know anything about gaming on a Mac, it meant pickings were slim. The PC however, opened up all new avenues of gaming for me. Adventure games, strategy games, first person shooters, flight sims, you name it, the PC had it. Of course being a huge Star Wars fan, I immediately gravitated towards the stellar output coming out of LucasArts. Games like X-Wing, TIE Fighter, and Dark Forces all got tons of play time on my family PC. I remember all of them quite fondly.

With 2017 being the 40th anniversary of Star Wars, I decided that this year would be a great time to look over some of the Star Wars gaming catalogue and the first game that came to my mind was Dark Forces. For one, Dark Forces seems timely coming off the heels of the latest Star Wars film, Rogue One. For another, I had this weird copy of Dark Forces on the Playstation that I had never played.

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It should be noted that none of the events of Dark Forces, or any of its sequels are considered canon Star Wars lore. All of that, and more, was wiped clean when Disney bought Lucasfilm and its subsidiaries from George Lucas a few years ago.

Dark Forces, which debuted on PC in 1995 and Playstation in 1996, was a first person shooter, or a Doom clone. It featured the rogue Kyle Katarn travelling the galaxy tracking down information on the Empire’s Dark Trooper project. What makes it timely in relation to Rogue One though, is that the first level of Dark Forces, has Kyle infiltrating an Imperial base and stealing the plans to the Death Star. This just so happens to also be the exact premise behind Rogue One.

When I originally played Dark Forces, I played it with mouse and keyboard. The Playstation has no such option and being a game from 1996, it also doesn’t have analog controller support. Dark Forces on the Playstation was a D-pad control game, with some button tricks to allow free look and strafing. Let’s just say, it’s not the ideal control scheme to play with.

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It’s also not the ideal device to play this game on. Now with this game being over 20 years old, my memory is foggy on how good it actually looked on the PC, but I don’t remember it looking anywhere near this pixelated and blocky when I played it. Dark Forces on the Playstation is a really ugly looking game. Stormtroopers, of which you will shoot plenty of in the game, look like someone tried to construct them using LEGO but only had enough to amalgamate a humanoid form. Dark Troopers, look like a two year old’s drawing of an unskinned Terminator. Then there’s Boba Fett, whom is just absolutely unrecognizable as a mass of uncoordinated pixels.

I expected the awkward controls, and even to some extent, the ugly visuals. That just comes with being an early FPS on the Playstation. What I wasn’t expecting was the god awful level and encounter design Dark Forces has. I honestly didn’t remember it being this bad. Maybe there is some basis to the argument that games have gotten too easy and guide us too much because I honestly don’t know how I completed this game twenty years ago.

The design is obtuse in a way that isn’t smart and fun but just frustrating. At one point I had to lower two elevators, in different sections of the level, and find a hidden panel to progress. I spent forty minutes running around this level trying to figure out what I was supposed to be doing before resorting to a YouTube walkthrough. This wasn’t the only time I was left scratching my head, there are numerous instances of design like this. Some of it can be attributed to the graphical fidelity of the Playstation version, some things just aren’t as visible as they would be on the PC but still, I count most of it as just straight bad level design that I accepted years ago because I had time, less games to play, and it was Star Wars.

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The encounter design also leaves something to be desired. There is a spike in difficulty from the general fodder of imperials and other grunt mercenaries, to enemies like the Dark Troopers or Boba Fett. The game doesn’t prepare you well for the ass kicking you are going to receive and it can be frustrating as you die over and over again. It often doesn’t feel like you’ve bested a foe with you superior skills but rather just kind of lucked out. None of these encounters is as bad as the Kryatt Dragon you need to take on with your bare hands. Yes, you literally have to punch a dragon to death and most of the encounter is spent running far enough away from it to set yourself up to punch it in the face and then run away again. This one wasn’t just frustrating, it was damn stupid.

Still, for all the bitching I am doing about bad levels and encounters, there is still something innately satisfying about shooting Imperial Stormtroopers. It helps that the sound effects and music are top notch and shooting the troopers, imperial officers, and such sounds like you would think it would based on the movies. Because it sounds right, when mixed with the blaster bolts emanating from your blaster rifle, it also feels right. Getting that Star Wars feeling right is the most important aspect of any Star Wars game. Dark Forces just feels right, and that goes a long way towards counterbalancing its myriad of issues.

Years ago, I would have said it went all the way to counterbalancing it, and maybe even counteracting it but now, with years more gaming under my belt, I can’t. Dark Forces is still a fun game because it feels like Star Wars but it’s not a great game. It is merely good, and the Playstation version of Dark Forces is less than that.

Originally published on 17 January 2017 at Critically Sane.

Favorites of 2016 – Movies Part 2

•December 31, 2016 • 1 Comment

Well this is it, the final post of my favorites of the past year. I have no more time to squeeze anything else in and as such, here are my 13 favorite movies of 2016.

13. Finding Dory
12. Midnight Special
11. Don’t Breathe
10. Star Trek: Beyond
9. Green Room
8. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot
7. Captain America: Civil War
6. The Jungle Book
5. Hush
4. 10 Cloverfield Lane
3. Zootopia
2. Rogue One
1. Arrival

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Favorites of 2016 – Movies Part 1

•December 30, 2016 • Leave a Comment

As always, while I saw a lot of movies, there were also a lot of films I missed out on. Films like La La Land, Hacksaw Ridge, Doctor Strange, Sing, and more, I just didn’t find time for. I’m sure if I had gotten to see them, some of them might have found their way on to my lists but alas we only have so much time. I know that some of the films that have made my list (both this bottom 13 and my top 13) will have some people shaking their heads but this isn’t a list of the films that I think are the best made, just the ones I liked. And I really did like Batman v Superman quite a bit, problems and all.

26. Suicide Squad
25. X-Men Apocalypse
24. Kubo and the Two Strings
23. Lights Out
22. Money Monster
21. The Wailing
20. The Infiltrator
19. Blood Father
18. Moana
17. Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice
16. The Shallows
15. Nerve
14. Deadpool

Up tomorrow: Favorite Movies of 2016 – Part 2.

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