Jedi Knight: Jedi Academy Review
Raven Software put together an arguably great game with Jedi Knight 2, their follow-up in the long-running Star Wars first person shooter franchise. And only a year and 3 months later, they have belted a new sequel out: Jedi Knight: Jedi Academy. While the series' main character, Kyle Katarn, plays a fairly big role in this game, you actually play as a new Jedi student. The question is whether Raven has added enough gameplay to warrant another $50 purchase.
Raven Software has been using the Quake 3 engine literally for years, and I hope that this is their last game using it. You can just tell that this game was made as quickly as possible, as many things haven't changed - I'm also guessing the decision for a quick sequel was a major factor in going with the same engine again. The game engine also includes no major new graphical features for Jedi Academy, which is disappointing considering the visuals we are seeing in other games today.
Raven has pushed the engine farther than they ever have with Jedi Academy, which is good, but of course this means higher system requirements over JK2. For an engine that looks as drab as this, I really expected better performance overall. At the very least, Q3 is a very stable, compatible engine, so you won't have to worry about constant crashes or the like.
The official site's FAQ mentions all kinds of new engine enhancements, few of which seem to make the game look much better at all in my opinion. Ragdoll model support is at least in here, and is used just lightly enough on character models to make it worth having. Some games go overboard with the ragdoll thing, making characters fall totally limp as soon as they die. There are also burn marks that can show up anywhere on a character if they get hit by a lightsaber, which is actually a nice touch.
If you really want, you could run this game on the minimum possible requirements, but I really wouldn't suggest it. Even at the lowest possible settings, I found the game hardly enjoyable on my old P3 600Mhz with 256MB RAM and a TNT2. Then again, I am expecting more than 30fps with at least somewhat decent visuals; someone with a computer like the one listed above is probably a little more forgiving. Despite that, I think a GeForce 1 and an 800MHz CPU would be a better minimum system.
The most obvious interface change that Jedi Academy offers over its predecessor is the ability to customize your character and lightsaber. You get a choice between male and female characters, and also between several races (Human, Rodian, Twi'lek, Zabrak, etc). On top of that, you can choose your lightsaber hilt & color when you start. When you progress partway through, you can pick between the Heavy & Fast saber styles, which is a nice change from JK2 which automatically gave you Fast and then Heavy. There's more than that as well; we'll get to that later.
If you've played a Quake 3-engine game before, you can probably guess what the controls are like. The gameplay does include some new moves over JK2 that you'll need to master to punch through difficult enemies' defenses, so get a little practice. Otherwise, there is one notable removal from the last game: there are no longer items that you can pick up and use later. This is a welcome simplification to the game in my opinion, as one already has to juggle all those force powers and weapons as it is.
If you turn the texture quality all the way up, Jedi Academy looks almost decent albeit with a pretty low polygon count and ugly outdoor scenes. As you can expect, the Quake 3 engine does great with indoor scenes, but go outside and you'll get lots of fog in the not-too-far distance and some very simplistic environments. Thankfully, Raven only use the large outdoor levels as a change of pace, so most of the game is in closer quarters where the engine looks best.
Many of the game's weapon and character models are recycled from JK2; Luke Skywalker, Kyle Katarn, the stormtroopers, and a few other characters look exactly the same as last year's game. While we do get a couple of new weapons, all the old ones are unchanged (as well as their special effects).
The game will have you traversing many levels that aren't physically connected to the previous one; since the whole thing is structured for the player to planet hop and do quite a few one-level missions, you will be visiting plenty of unique locales. Some of these work very nicely, while others (like the Hoth outdoor level) are very disappointing from a visual perspective.
Unlike the highly linear JK2 storyline, Jedi Academy allows you to choose your missions, at least to a certain extent. For most of them, you get to pick which ones come first, and can even skip one out of five missions when sent out on assignment. You can also use any combination of light side or dark side powers, just like Kyle did in JK2, but now you get to choose which specific powers come first.
You eventually will have to pick a side permanently for the plot's sake, but it seems to have no effect on how your force powers are used. You're also not forced to choose a side until near the end of the game and it really doesn't change the gameplay all that much. Either way, you'll still have to do the same levels no matter how you configure your character.
On top of this, the missions are set up in a tiered style; you'll do a level or two that ties in to the central plot, then run off on 5 missions you get to choose from, then another mission or two that you have to do. This goes on for three total tiers; it's a pretty cool system that gives a little freedom to the player not usually seen in an action game. And unlike previous Raven games, this gives you freedom without forcing you to backtrack through previous levels (which is rarely any fun). Each level itself is pretty linear, though, so don't expect being able to get through certain areas in multiple ways.
Raven noticed that few people enjoyed the first several hours of Jedi Knight 2 - it forced you to go without a lightsaber for hours while you picked off an army of Stormtroopers with only a couple of standard Star Wars guns. It was only after the threat became big enough that Kyle ever bothered to pick up his lightsaber, which was frustrating. Well, here, you play a special-case Jedi trainee that has already built his or her own saber before even going to the Academy; sure, it diverges from the usual Star Wars conventions, but at least you get to use a lightsaber for almost the whole game.
You can almost always forego the guns if you like in Jedi Academy - just about the whole game can be done with just your saber, with only a couple of exceptions. You could also go through a decent amount of it with guns only, which is a pretty effective handicap if you're looking for a good challenge. Speaking of those, the game only includes a couple of new guns, neither of which are really that much fun to use. The big guns are handy against specific, heavily armored enemies, but that's it; as usual, saber-wielding opponents are pretty much untouchable with guns.
Yes, this basically means that the lightsaber is by far the most powerful weapon in the game - I think few would argue that it should be any different. One issue with JK2 was that some areas included a ton of distant enemies using the Disruptor Rifle, a sniper weapon whose shots weren't blockable with the lightsaber. This resulted in lots of frustration for players, and the game never mentioned that the Force Speed power would almost always make enemies totally miss. Jedi Academy only has the occasional sniper now, so it seems Raven has given players what they wanted in this respect.
Jedi Knight 2 did include a rudimentary double-bladed saber like Darth Maul had in Episode I, but it didn't work correctly in game and had to be enabled with a console command. Modmakers did get it working to some extent, but it still didn't feel right in my opinion. Well, Jedi Academy has both the double-bladed saber, as well as the ability to wield a pair of normal lightsabers. Both of these variations require their own style which isn't configurable: there's no Heavy or Fast variations for these weapons. Still, they're designed almost to be a unique style on their own, and they're fun as hell to use in game.
These new weapon styles include their own special moves you can perform - even a few moves that enemies did in JK2 but players couldn't do. These new sabers, which you get after you get most of the way through the game, are a welcome addition and a great example of Raven giving players what they want. The only issue I find is that once you pick a double-bladed saber or the dual-saber style, you can't switch back and forth. You also don't get a chance to practice with either of them, nor do you get any training on all the special moves each affords. The best way to decide is to make a quick multiplayer game and try each out before you choose.
Puzzles aren't nearly as frustrating here as they were in JK2, although you will still find a few here and there. The level design is sometimes confusing, making one think there's a puzzle to be solved when there isn't. A nice addition is the ability to use Force Sense, an enhanced version of Force Seeing from JK2, which can help you figure out what you need to press. I still think that they could have gone completely out with some of these "find the hidden button to push" puzzles, but maybe that's just me.
We do get some new vehicles in Jedi Academy, which are generally higher speed than the ones in JK2, and they also allow you to traverse larger areas. These levels act as a nice change of pace, although the vehicle support still seems rudimentary at best compared to other games. I think more work needed to be done on these levels to make them stand out, at least when compared to the usual lightsaber action.
As far as the quality of the plot, Jedi Academy is about on par with the one in Jedi Knight 2. It's more loosely defined and is not near as engaging as the one in the recent Xbox RPG Knights of the Old Republic, but then again, not many games have a plot that good, period. The final choice between the light & dark side is pretty boring overall, and it's the only time you'll ever have to decide - in KOTOR almost everything had a good guy and a bad guy solution. Still, Jedi Academy winds up being more fun than JK2, but I find that a few too many things are rehashed from the previous Jedi Knight games.
Multiplayer has been mostly redone and streamlined, with support for all the new lightsaber stuff, all-new maps, and some new gameplay modes as well. Gone are a couple of the less-popular JK2 multiplayer modes; they've been replaced by other superior modes that require improved teamplay. There's Siege, which is similar to modes of the same name in other games; here, though, there are multiple classes, some of which aren't Jedi. There's also the Power Duel mode where it's 2-vs-1 - I guess that's handy when you become good enough to need a handicap for internet play. In the end, multiplayer in JK2 was a pretty fun distraction once the single player game was completed, and it winds up mostly the same with Jedi Academy.
The new maps are mostly based on the levels that are in the single player game, which is just fine with me because some of them are a blast to play. Raven Software has already released mod tools for creating new skins and models for the game, and as long as we can get a full-on editor and complete toolset in a reasonable amount of time, I foresee plenty of cool new mods and the like for Jedi Academy.
We do get quite a few new sounds in Jedi Academy, but you'll hear a ton of familiar ones from previous Star Wars & Jedi Knight games. The random conversations between Stormtroopers and other enemies are somewhat interesting, and a few of them are pretty funny to listen to.
The music contains the expected original John Williams soundtrack bits, as well as some new tunes that usually fit in well enough with the theme. The voice acting is better than average (about as good as that in JK2); Kyle Katarn and Luke Skywalker both look and sound identical to how they did in the previous game. Your own character's voice is either male or female - considering all the races you can pick from, a few more variations would have been nice. It's weird seeing some of the more exotic-looking races, who never spoke English (Basic?) in any other Star Wars game or movie, speaking it fluently here.
Jedi Academy is an evolution of Jedi Knight gameplay with more customizability, cool new sabers, and plenty of fun to be had. The Quake 3 engine is really holding the game back, though, so let's hope this is their last game using it. If you liked Jedi Knight 2 and wouldn't mind a bit more, you can't go wrong with Jedi Academy.