The Star Wars based Dark Forces PC video game franchise has been a top seller for almost 10 years now, and that really shouldn't be a surprise. From the very start, these first person shooters have been innovative and original, successfully capturing the essence and magic of Star Wars in a video game format. With the penultimate release of Jedi Outcast last year, we saw the Dark Forces series of games hit its highest plateau ever. Its' graphics (including the reworked light saber and characters models) finally reached a drool worthy level, the problematic force power scheme and mechanics that plagued Dark Forces II had finally been overhauled and actually made useable, and the improved saber combat techniques that were implemented were singularly impressive to boot. The makers of the game, Raven Software, also improved upon the storylines and writing from the Mysteries of the Sith/Dark Forces II era, giving the experience a more Lucas like feeling in its approach, and (thankfully) dropping the cheesy blue screen live actors bits that were just lame.
So just under a year since the release of Jedi Outcast, Raven Software and Lucasarts opted to continue the Dark Forces saga by releasing Jedi Academy for the PC. Not only were we surprised by all of the hush-hush surrounding the development and release of the game, it was even decidedly more odd that this game hit the shelves of the stores at the same time the eagerly anticipated Star Wars inspired RPG title Knights of the Old Republic was supposed to be released (it was held back thanks to X-Box and Microsoft *grimace*). Another oddity surrounding Jedi Academy lies in the fact that it is a stand alone game, and not another add-on pack like Mysteries of the Sith was a few years ago to Dark Forces II. Again, to put out another full fledged title from the same series of games in under a year might seem a little like overkill, making dedicated gamers think that the gaming production companies are out to fleece us for every penny we have. That is unless the makers of said game can actually produce another worthwhile piece of software that not only continues the tradition set forth by the previous Dark Forces incarnations, but also give us a whole new set of reasons to buy the game. Jedi Academy does merit positive attention in this matter, thankfully, giving Star Wars PC gaming fans some interesting new twists in the overall game play. Still, after giving this game a long hard look, I still have to say that I was left wanting something more substantial and grandiose from this beloved series of PC gaming.
For the majority of the game, Jedi Academy plays almost exactly like its predecessor Jedi Outcast (check out our full review of that particular title in The Laser's archive section). Pretty much all of the elements that made last year's release a success can be found in this latest outing from Raven Software, including the control system, force commands, and weapons. We're not looking at a complete rehash with Jedi Academy, however. The developers of the game threw in a few new elements into the mix in order to entice Star Wars gaming fans back into the Dark Forces fold: whether they worked or not is still up in the air. The first new change old hats to the game will notice right from the start is a character generation engine. Different from previous incarnations of the series, this new feature allows you to create a unique character in order to play the game…well, sort of. We were disappointed to find out that only a relative small amount of skins could be used to tailor your character, including a Human male, Twi'lek female, Zabrak female, a Rodian male, and a Kel Dor male. Basic features such as clothing and skin tones could be altered to a certain degree, however that didn't make up for lack of diversity in the main character. It was odd to not portray the mainstay of the Dark Forces series, Kyle Katarn, but then again things must change in order to grow…that, and it really is only a game, folks!
Players will also find that they can have a hand in creating their own customized light saber that is used in the game. Around 10 different hilt designs are available to choose from, as are multiple colors for the blade itself (green, blue, red, etc.). Again, nothing really stands out from this light saber creation system: basically, it's all about aesthetics and has nothing to do with the initial levels of the game (though I did find myself mulling over my choices for some weird reason). The really cool part about the saber design system comes later on in Jedi Academy, when players are able to advance and improve upon their combat styles and stances. You'll also have the chance to change from a single blade version of combat to either the dual blade fighting system (as seen in the film Attack of the Clones) or to the really cool double bladed light saber combat form (used by Darth Maul in The Phantom Menace). Each version of light saber combat has its own set of unique combination moves that are not only cool to watch but also very detrimental to your opponents well being. A far cry from the more basic light saber combat moves found in the earlier Dark Forces games.
The character generation system wasn't the only change made to Jedi Academy. Raven Software threw in a few other surprises for us, including the addition of rideable mounts and vehicles. In previous Dark Forces titles, we were privileged to be able to take a ride in the ever fun Scout Walker (also known as the AT-ST) throwing waves of laser laden fun at Imperials and other bad guys. This time around we're given the chance to take the reigns of smaller beasts and machine alike, including the furry/stinky Taun Taun of planet Hoth and the ever cool speeder bike. An added treat as well as a break from the normal FPS gaming action that takes up most of action found within Jedi Academy, the riding sequences added a surprising bit of dimension to the title. Not only can you use your normal side arms while mounted, you can also utilize your light saber as a form of javelin, slicing and dicing as you ride along. Believe me, nothing is quite as fun as swiping at your enemies while running past them on a Taun Taun..
Another big change returning players will notice about this game is the way the story progresses and the lack of the standard linear progression of the action that follows along with it. Jedi Academy allows players to choose from a set of given missions that range in difficulty levels as well as location. It's entirely up to you which mission you'll take, where you go, and what you'll do when you get there. Players will find themselves hunting down evil Dark Jedi agents on backwater cities of Dantooine, searching for clues in the sprawling cities of Coruscant, and even battling Wampas and the remnants of the Empire's minions on the ice world of Hoth (my favorite map, by the way). While most of the in-game missions are a purely solo affair (no pun intended), others will allow you to take back-up characters in order to help you overcome the overwhelming odds, giving the game a minor team based form of gameplay. Each completed mission takes you one step closer to becoming a full fledged Jedi Knight, granting you advanced force powers in the core abilities, as well as giving you points to spend in the other force attributes (including dark and light powers). Simply put, the further you progress in the game, the more adept you can become with the power of the Force.
Last but not least, Raven Software also upped the ante in the graphics department. Taking a cue from the hordes of independent skin designers and modelers, the developers of Jedi Academy really did a good job of giving the game's characters a much more realistic design. While some of the characters, like Luke Skywalker and Kyle Katarn remain relatively unchanged, there really was a marketed improvement with most of the other character found in the game. Especially of note were the Snowtrooper and Wampa designs found on Hoth: both were just extremely well designed and great to look at. The re-vamped Dark Jedi models were also nice to see, adding a few more designs to the fold instead of the same hooded model that popped up constantly in Jedi Outcast.
in all, I have to say I had a good time with Jedi Academy even if a majority of
the game's features and gameplay were identical to its predecessor from last
year. The upgraded graphics, new set of locations and scenarios, and especially
the revamped light saber fighting structure was well worth plopping down the
cash for. The only real issues that I could find with the game was its short
length and relative ease of play. Even on the 'normal' gaming setting, I was
hard pressed to find any real challenge from most of the bad guys thrown at me
in the game (save for the appearance of a certain notorious bounty hunter, who
will go unmentioned). Still, for those of us addicted to Star Wars FPS games,
Jedi Academy still ranks up there with the best of them and is definitely worth
playing. In the back of my mind, however, I'm still hoping that if Lucasarts
decides to continue with the Dark Forces/Jedi Knight series of games, they'll
decide to really dig into it and gives us something a little more fresh and
unexpected next time.