Awesome Forgotten Noughties Games: Star Wars Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast

With all the recent (justifiable) hysteria surrounding the revival of Star Wars, it’s interesting to speculate on how much the new films will draw from spin-off material that advanced the plot beyond Return of the Jedi. Several novels, comics, games and other articles of media told stories about the exploits of Luke and co. after the destruction of the second death star. There are reams of wiki pages dedicated to compiling the information. The Jedi Knight series was one of those sources and although none of the story is likely to appear anywhere in the new film (apart from, perhaps, Luke Skywalker founding a Jedi academy on Yavin IV), it’s still well worthy of recognition. All 5 installments are excellent but the standout is Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast (which is actually the 4th game in the series).

The first couple of titles were more geared towards a typical FPS layout, as was the style at the time. Also, memorably, the cut scenes were all shot with real actors, also the style at the time. Thankfully, Jedi Outcast used in-game cut scenes. The central protagonist was Kyle Katarn, a defected imperial turned mercenary turned Jedi turned ex-Jedi turned Jedi again (and breathe). In Jedi Outcast he has distanced himself from the order, but an appearance by the imperial remnant, led by a would-be Sith lord named Desann (basically a grouchy monitor lizard with a serious vendetta against Luke Skywalker) puts him back on that path. As it turns out, Desann has found a way to build himself a force-wielding army and revitalise the Sith order. It’s nothing ground-breaking but it’s enough to keep you engaged and there are a lot of colourful characters along the way. Desann’s subordinate, Admiral Fyaar is a highlight, mostly because he’s played by the voice acting legend Steven Blum (Cowboy Bebop, Mass Effect 2, Final Fantasy: Advent Children and about 10,000 other things). Billy Dee Williams is also in it, I felt like I needed to point that out.

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The gameplay was the really interesting part. The FPS DNA is still present and correct, but since Kyle goes all Jedi about 1/4 of the way into the game, a 3rd person mode is on hand to make the lightsaber fighting easier. You’re given 3 different saber fighting styles: speed, strength and balance and can mix them up on the fly, depending on how you like to fight. You also have an RPG-style leveling system to manage the force powers. As well as your standard push, pull and saber throw techniques, you get the darker ones like lightning and choke, a speed enhancer, healing, a mind trick ability and enhanced jumping capability. Once fully powered up the latter is particularly good fun, since it allows you to airwalk across the levels like you’re in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. This style of gameplay was, in many ways, a blueprint for the enjoyable but deeply flawed Force Unleashed games.

You spend most of your time contending with the standard rogues gallery of storm troopers, droids and gangsters, but in a nice touch, if you get the drop on them you’ll often hear them chatting to each other, unaware of any immediate danger, which is always funny. Later in the game you are regularly pitted against force-imbued foes such as ‘Reborn’ and ‘Shadow Troopers’, the latter having the ability to turn invisible. These confrontations are the highlights of the game, as you leap around the environment firing off force attacks, hammering the mouse during saber-to-saber face offs and rejoicing when you’re finally treated a Max Payne style slow-motion view of your enemy’s head flying off. The powers are equally fun to break out against normal enemies too, my favourite game was mind controlling some random pleb, having him blast all his dear friends to ash and then forcing him to hurl himself off a ledge. Therapy is going very well, thank you for asking.

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The other weapons are good for a laugh (the sniper rifle disintegrates people well fully charged) but once you get all Jedi’d up they only really serve as a reprieve between decapitation-fests. The areas you visit are varied and interesting, from criminal dives to hulking imperial cruisers, swamp planets and a gangster-infested Cloud City. Ultimately you end up back at the Jedi academy, facing down Desann and his recruits with a battalion of Jedi knghts behind you in a huge, ancient temple. Graphically it was impressive for the time and holds up fairly well now on PC, but the Gamecube and PS2 versions remain clunky, ugly ports. You also can’t use the cheats on those versions.

Don’t misunderstand me, I’m not suggesting that enabling God mode or noclipping around the maps at will enhance the game in any way, they don’t, but Jedi Outcast had one little switch hidden away that definitely did. If you enabled cheats and then input ‘g_saberrealisticcombat 1’ into the console, something marvelous happened. Rather than just the odd hand or head dropping off in a pre-rendered death animation, any limb or appendage that you met with your lightsaber would be liberated. This meant that you could reduce any enemy to a smouldering torso with just a few well-placed swings. It looked ridiculous but it was undeniably visceral, and given how marred by age-rating most Star Wars games have always been, it was almost like a taboo indulgence. The glitching made it even funnier, one time I chopped a trooper’s head off just as he had been launched into the air and his body carried on flailing there, suspended by an invisible string. Naturally I chopped the rest of him up, leaving nothing but a pelvis rotating wildly a few feet off  the ground. THERAPY IS GOING FINE THANK YOU.

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There was a multiplayer mode as well, but it wasn’t really up to much, it was just a blueprint for the better, more rounded component that featured in the sequel: Jedi Academy. Some would argue that Academy is a stronger game, since it involves a much deeper leveling system, character creation and the ability to use either a double-edged lightsaber or dual-wielded blades later on. As much as I liked it, I found it to be a bit too cluttered, it also had a moral choice system, eurgh. The ration of good to bad in Star Wars games still falls heavily in favor of bad, but this remains one of the highlights, Force Unleashed was in some ways a spiritual successor but not a worthy one. Hopefully we’ll get one now that the franchise is being reborn.

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