So, you've been doing battle with imaginary Sith Lords since you were old enough to swing a broom handle and make lightsaber noises. You still dismiss your friends with a wave your hand and some inane variation of the "these are not the droids you are looking for" line, even though they stopped laughing at it twenty years ago. And you get choked up when you recall how Yoda was like a father to you. In other words, you have wanted to be a Jedi for as long as you can remember. Well, fear not fellow console owners. Although Obi Wan on the Xbox didn't quite cut it, there is another. Its name is Jedi Outcast.
Star Wars Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast is a port of the popular PC game. In it players continue the adventures of Kyle Katarn, a Jedi whose quest for revenge nearly led him to the dark side of the force. As a result, Katarn has disconnected from the force and taken up the life of a smuggler. During the course of the game Katarn and his partner (and love interest) Jan Ors discover a nefarious scheme to mine crystals that have the ability to generate synthetic force powers within certain life forms. This leads them to the evil Desann and his apprentice, Tavion, who wish to create an army of the "Reborn" and lead them against the Jedi. None of this is really the concern of two smugglers until something ugly happens to Jan. Katarn then sets out to reconnect with the force and avenge his love.
Interesting, then, that you begin one of the greatest lightsaber-toting Star Wars adventures as a reluctant Jedi whose grief has caused him to separate from the power of the force completely. The story then becomes a revenge tale as Katarn takes up his lightsaber once again with anger in his heart and murder as his goal. This, of course, is the path to the dark side. Katarn may be the most sympathetic character I have encountered outside of the films because he is always walking that fine line between good and evil. We know his pain and understand his weakness. I mean, come on, how many of us could live up to the Jedi code?
The game is a blend of third and first person action. Your point of view changes according to the type of weapon you are using. While wielding a lightsaber the game is presented in third person, perfect for dueling and reflecting blaster fire, as well as exploring and performing more precise athletic moves like crossing narrow walkways and jumping over chasms. Draw your blaster, however, and the game immediately switches to first person, performing much like other popular console FPS games such as HALO and Red Faction. The more games mix POV in order to create a more varied or more precise style of gameplay, the more I see its potential for greatness. Jedi Outcast is a great game because of it.
The first person aspect, while not as solid an experience as the masterful HALO, gives you precise control over your projectile weapons and allows for up-close scrutiny of your surroundings. There are a variety of different weapons in the game. Among the blasters are Katarn's Bryar Pistol, the traditional Storm Trooper E-11 Blaster, Chewbacca's Bowcaster, and others, including heavy cannons and zooming sniper-style guns. There are also explosives like remote and trip mines, even the thermal detonator made famous in the films.
The third person combat offers players a much more intense and satisfying experience than the limited action presented in either Obi Wan or the previous Jedi Knight PC game. Katarn has a slew of moves at his disposal. There are various rolls, flips, spins, jabs, swings, and parries. He can run horizontally along a wall, leap from it in mid stride, flipping over an enemy, all while using his lightsaber. You can even spin your saber around and stab behind you (think Qui Gon taking out the battle droid standing behind him without even looking at it during the "negotiations" in Episode I). As you progress through the game, you will master three diverse styles of lightsaber combat. Medium, your initial style, allows you to link three to five moves of decent range and damage together. It incorporates some spins and even contains a prolonged flip in during which you can actually engage your enemy with your lightsaber while inverted. That is freaking cool. For Fast Combat Style, think Yoda in Episode II--I kid you not. This is the one you want when you are attacked by multiple opponents. You spin, flip, and swing away like a madman, on crack...with the force. Strong Combat Style is slow and cumbersome, but often results in an instant kill. It is, however, hard as hell to use unless your opponent is incapacitated.
Then there are the Force powers. Force Pull allows you to rip weapons from the hands of your enemies, move objects, and manipulate switches from a distance. Force Grip enables you to incapacitate your foes by choking them. Force Lightning emits a continuous stream of electricity, ala the Emperor. Force Push repels enemies or objects, knocking them onto the floor or off of ledges. You can use Force Jump to increase your leaping ability, Force Speed to give you an edge in combat, and Force Heal to recover from wounds. Perhaps most interesting is the Jedi Mind Trick, which allows you to make opponents see or hear things that aren't there. Force powers are limited in use by a Stamina Meter, and each power grows in strength as the game progresses. At its most powerful, the Jedi Mind Trick can turn an enemy into an ally who will fight by your side.
All of this is handled surprisingly well on the Xbox controller. The left stick moves your character, the right your line of sight, both in first and third person. The right stick also aims your lightsaber in third person, and balancing your weapon and line of sight can be tricky at first, but you will come to find it necessary during battle. The triggers and buttons are used to attack, jump, use items, and so forth. You scroll through your weapons, inventory, and force powers with the directional pad. Black, White, and L3 buttons can be set as hot buttons for the force powers you use the most. These controls haven't been adapted nearly as well to the Gamecube controller, however, and it comes up as that version's biggest flaw. First of all, the hot buttons are gone, forcing you to scroll in the heat of battle. This is unbelievably frustrating. Then there is the GC C-stick which just isn't as handy for this type of game as a normal thumb stick.
The graphics are good, providing solid character models, lush environments, and some particularly nice effects. The game comes alive in the small touches. The interiors of the Imperial craft are spot on with the original trilogy. Some effects, like the way the falling rain sparks and smokes as it hits your lightsaber are just precious. There are a lot of performance issues, however. Constant glitches with collision-detection, slow down, and jitters plague this game all the way through and are just unacceptable, especially when the rest of it was rendered with such care. The Gamecube version really suffers in the frame-rate department.
The sound effects and music are all stock Star Wars, and fantastic. The voice acting comes off well and the characters even have voices that seem to match their appearance. The soundtrack does suffer from odd pauses and hiccups, however, which are annoying and uncharacteristic of a Lucas Arts game.
Jedi Outcast contains a 2-player split screen multiplayer with up to 14 bots. Multiplayer games include Capture the Flag, Free for All, Team FFA, Duel, and Jedi Master. All of the weapons, Force Powers, and characters are available. The multiplayer games are a bit lengthy in set-up due to the all of the force power ratios you can customize, and the battles can be pretty short if someone gets in a direct hit, but they are fun nevertheless. There are also extra features, like a bonus mission called "Mission at Alzoc III" which is unlocked after the single-player game has been completed.
Star Wars Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast is the game that every drooling Star Wars fan (i.e. me) has been waiting for. References to the original trilogy abound, and all of them work. The care taken in the scriptwriting phase of this game can be appreciated when you pass a group of soldiers verbally sparring over their experiences on different Imperial craft. One Stormtrooper can even be overheard reacting to having been disciplined by a commander, saying to himself: "It's easy for him to sit there on his butt and call me incompetent. I'd like to see him put on this armor, try to see through this helmet, and find anything." I laughed as I realized that this was not only aimed at the off-screen commander, but at myself and every other fan out there who has commented on the incompetence of Stormtroopers in the films. There are so many fanboy moments to be had as well, such as when you face off against a pack of gang of Reborn with Luke Skywalker at your back, lightsabers drawn. I would often find myself getting goose bumps while playing this game.
Alas, with the good comes the bad. Jedi Outcast relies too heavily upon tedious platform elements to provide challenges between enemy encounters. Some of them do make sense in the context of the surroundings. Some are even fun. Most, however, stand out as obvious game fodder and go on forever. It isn't enough that you have to flip a switch in order to engage a force field floor so that you can cross the chasm, you have to crisscross the same area six times to get where you need to go. At times like this the only thing that rescues the game is the fact that you can save whenever you want to. And some of the layouts, although they make for a decent platform challenge, make no logical sense at all. Why would the Imperial Army place an integral computer terminal on a platform that only a Jedi with a level three force jump can reach?
There is also a severe unbalance in the pacing. According to the story, Katarn has disconnected from the force, and until a certain point in the game he has no desire to reconnect. Once he does decide to do this, however, he must make his way to the Jedi Temple. All of this takes place over the first six areas, maybe more than 30% of the game, during which the game is strictly played in first person. That's right, after seeing the trailer and all the hype about the lightsaber duels, you do not actually handle a lightsaber until area seven. This creates a huge anticipation in the player, sure, and it pays off in the end as the rest of the game is paced quite well. There are some long and monotonous platform elements, but they are always followed by one of those moments where you open a door and a Reborn is standing in shadow, fifty paces away, facing off for a duel (remember the chill you got when Qui Gon and Obi Wan opened the door and Darth Maul was just standing there-oh yeah). It also makes for a prolonged and frustrating introduction phase of the game.
This makes for an interesting discussion in terms of what we want from our interactive storytelling. The story in Jedi Outcast is told at a very deliberate pace and it is crafted quite eloquently; Katarn must go through certain dramatic elements within the story in order to become a sympathetic character. Those elements are not the most exciting of the game in terms of interactivity. So, the question becomes, if we are willing to sit through the slow, methodical build up of a film like, say, The Sixth Sense in order to sweeten the pay off (Haley Joel Osmet does not actually deliver the line "I see dead people" until 45 minutes into the movie, and it is the better for it), are we then willing to do the same for a game like Jedi Outcast? If we are going in to a game wanting to flip around and show of our skills as a Jedi, are we willing to wade through six areas of solid storytelling and character build up, told through moderately entertaining first person action, in order to make the experience even better when we get there? I think we should; we have to actually, if we want games to grow as a storytelling medium. But the pay off better be worth it. In the case of Jedi Outcast, it is definitely worth it.