Star Wars Jedi Knight: Jedi Academy
I am a big time Star Wars nut. Iíve held epic plastic lightsaber duels with friends, the furious clashing of our glowing weapons providing the only illumination in the pitch-black country night. Iíve driven through a Taco Bell drive-thru wearing Darth Vaderís helmet; my three other buddies in the car also sharing in the moment by wearing Stormtrooper, Scout Trooper and Boba Fett replica helmets (yes, they actually gave us our food). One of my friends even super-glued a three inch tall Yoda figurine to the hood of his Subaru, nearly causing a rubber-necking passerby to smack into the vehicle ahead of him. Amazingly enough, these are only a few of the numerous occasions where Star Wars made us do things that our Grandmothers surely wouldnít approve of.
Ideally, right here is where I should smoothly segue into discussion of LucasArtsí Jedi Knight series and how the newest edition, Jedi Academy stacks up to the rest, but Iím feeling a bit too uninspired for that. Maybe my lack of inspiration is just a flimsy cover up of the fact that there really isnít any connection between my past Star Wars antics and the latest Jedi Knight game. Maybe college-related sleep depravation is the cause for my acute lethargy. Good choices those, but the most likely culprit for my lack of motivation is the actual Jedi Academy game itself, which, unfortunately, is decidedly dry and uninspired when compared to its fantastic predecessor, Jedi Outcast.
Initial perusal of the boxís rear cover can mistakenly lead one to believe that Jedi Academy is actually a big step up for the Jedi Knight series. ìCustomize your character by defining both look and genderÖî the box boasts, ì(experience a) unique level selection system (that) allows you to choose your own missions and adventures.î Sounds great, but thereís just one little problem: both of these features are poorly implemented. Do you have grand ideas of creating a Wookie Jedi who is famous for his heart stopping battle roar? Or maybe you would like to create a Yoda look-alike so you can open up a can of Episode II style whoop ass on some bad guys? Sorry, canít happen. The gameís ìrobustî player creator only allows you to pick from five different races: Humans, Rodians, Twiílek, Zabrak and Kel Dor. Even worse, you can only choose gender when selecting a human; the other races automatically assign you one sex or the other (i.e. Twiílek are females, Rodians are males, etc). For a game that is trying so hard to provide a nonlinear Star Wars experience, Jedi Academy completely drops the ball here.
The ìunique level selection systemî that the game brags about isnít up to the task either. Essentially, there are three times in the game when you are given the option to select one of five separate missions (they can be played in any order) before moving on to a larger story-driven level. These ìacademy trainingî levels will take you to wide variety of different Star Wars locations, like Tatooine, Byss, Nar Kreeta and Corellia, and even meet you up with a few familiar faces such as Chewbacca, Boba Fett and Wedge Antilles. Unfortunately, these good points are completely overshadowed by the fact that most of these levels are very short, have hardly anything to do with the main story and are often victim of shoddy level design. One of these selectable missions, which takes place on Zonju V and consists entirely of racing around on a swoop bike, is plagued by atrocious vehicle controls and extensive fogging, pop-up and framerate problems; Iím shocked it was even included in the game. Most of the missions arenít as bad as this, but when compared to those found in Jedi Outcast, many of them just feel rushed and unimaginative.
The game also tries to be more open-ended than its predecessors by giving you the choice of traveling down the path of light or the path of dark, but it just doesnít work well enough to be a truly worthwhile feature. Basically, you choose your Force alignment by selecting what powers to level up after completing training missions. So if you choose light side Force powers like heal and protect, your character will be good. If you choose dark powers like choke and lightning, your character will succumb to the dark side. Thatís it. Thereís no elaborate Force point system that weighs your actions in the game world like in Knights of the Old Republic, just a simple menu where you choose what Force powers youíd like. And really, the story is the same whether you are light or dark until the very end, and even then the differences arenít so great that you are compelled to play through again on the opposite side.
Up to this point Iíve painted a fairly dreary picture of Jedi Academy, but yet, I give the game a respectable seven out of ten overall. The reason for this is there are some good points that Iíve yet to mention that nearly redeem the game as a whole. The first of these positive points is the simple fact that the core gameplay of Jedi Academy is taken directly from Jedi Outcast. Great moments like casting a handful of Stormtroopers off a massive cliff with a well-timed Force push and slicing off a Dark Jediís hand during a heated duel still happen quite frequently and are just as fun as they are ever were. The game even steps dueling up a notch by allowing you to brandish two sabers at once, or even wield a coveted lightsaber staff. Clashing sabers with Dark Cultists, especially alongside some AI Jedi Knight teammates, really does provide an adrenaline rush that is rarely equaled in other action/adventure titles.
And then thereís the multiplayer, which is now playable online via Xbox Live. All of those great game modes like Duel, Capture the Flag and Free For All are there and accounted for, and LucasArts even threw in a hefty number of slick new multiplayer maps over a wide variety of authentic Star Wars locations to keep things feeling fresh. Also, two completely new multiplayer modes were added: Power Duel and Siege. Power Duel pits two weaker opponents against a single stronger one and is an absolute blast to play online, especially because lag rarely rears its ugly head. Siege is a mode that has an attacking team attempting to complete objectives against a group of defenders, with teams broken up into individual classes like Demolitions, Scout, Tech, Jedi, and more. The maps for Siege are massive and have plenty of interactive elements, like drivable vehicles (swoop bikes, AT-STs) and roaming creatures (wampas, a rancor pit monster), but all this activity means some serious lag. Siege is a great idea on paper, but itís much better suited for stable servers that would allow for some lag-free 16+ player skirmishes. On the very rare occasions that you can get a stable 8 player match going, Siege can be one of the better Xbox Live experiences out there.
Visually, Jedi Academy is fairly appealing, but the Quake III-based graphics engine is definitely starting to show its age. Nifty touches like reflective texturing and dynamic light sourcing make return appearances and some new visual effects have been added for Force powers like Push, Pull and Heal, but Raven Software (the gameís developer) didnít do much to make the game look better than Jedi Outcast. The environments are still angular and covered in N64-quality textures in many places, and small blemishes, such as flickering shadows, twitching cobwebs and clipping, mar the gameís overall visual presentation. And, oddly enough, some levels look much better than others. Missions that take place on Hoth, Vjun and Yalara, for example, look great, but framerate issues, glitches and various other flaws tarnish many of the others. Thankfully, the character animations for lightsaber fighting are mostly smooth and help accentuate that part of Jedi Academyís gameplay extremely well. Also, the strange orange tint that discolored the cut scenes from Outcast has been totally remedied.
Of course, as is the case with all Star Wars games, the soundtrack is stellar from start to finish. John Williamsí score is just as potent as it ever was and does a fantastic job getting you juiced up for some kick butt lightsaber dueling. If thereís anything bad that can be said about the soundtrack, itís that it is almost entirely recycled from Jedi Outcast. The voice acting in the game is mostly good quality (especially for the gameís protagonist, Jaden), but there are a few characters that seem a little too lifeless for my liking. And I really wish they would just get Mark Hamill to do Luke Skywalkerís voice if they are going to keep bringing him back in future Jedi Knight releases. All of the lightsaber crackles, blaster shots and other classic Star Wars sound effects are lifted straight from the films, so thereís nothing to complain about there.
Jedi Academy is an entertaining game, but itís more of an expansion pack for Jedi Outcast than a direct sequel. I get the feeling that Raven Software rested a bit too much on their laurels instead of giving gamers a refreshing new Jedi Knight experience. Star Wars nuts and followers of the series will likely enjoy the gameís limited new gameplay features and online play, but casual fans may not be so easily wooed. Hereís to hoping that the next Jedi Knight game ditches the crusty old Quake III engine and is imbued with some invigorating new gameplay elements.