Monday 4 April 2011

What Do You Mean You Never Played...

Star Wars games as a whole can be a source of divisive fury among the gaming community. For some, a worthy addition to the canon, especially in recent years with franchises like The Force Unleashed, and for some a constant source of bugbears (See my post on Star Wars: Galaxies for an idea of why). However, for every game that gets deservedly praised, there’s one that falls completely by the wayside and gets forgotten about. In this case, the game was highly praised at the time, and yet pretty much fell by the wayside until a Steam re-release in 2009. What’s more, it brought in characters who have gone on to either be included in the entire universe in other media such as novels or subsequent games, or at least highly regarded in terms of their status in the history of Star Wars games. In this case, I speak of 1997’s Jedi Knight: Dark Forces II.

The sequel to 1995’s Dark Forces, Jedi Knight continued the journey of Kyle Katarn. Katarn, for those who aren’t familiar, was a former Imperial mercenary who defected over to the Rebel Alliance as a soldier of fortune. The first game saw him deal with the secret Imperial weapon known as the Dark Trooper, which made appearances in a few canonical elements later on in time. In the sequel, Katarn is after more information on his father’s fate which leads him to discover that actually he comes from a long line of Jedi Knights, and that his father was actually killed by a Dark Jedi named Jerec.

What sets my mind off in waves of nostalgia is thinking back on how I found out about the game. One of the best things about growing up in the late 1990s as a gamer was that you had no other option but to read video game magazines in order to get your news. Long before the days of the freely available Internet sites giving previews and news all day long, trade magazines were the only source of screenshots and demos for new games. In fact, I still find myself buying the odd magazine out of pure nostalgia, and on the unlikely off-chance that the Internet goes down and we are forced once again to live like savages. Well, maybe not savages, but imagine how different life would be without self-obsessed whining ponces on Facebook complaining about how their life didn’t turn out the way I wanted it to. They wanted it to. Fuck.

The story of this game, first of all, was one of the finest of any game of its time. At the time, your options in the first-person shooter genre were pretty much limited to Doom-style games and Duke Nukem 3D, which for all its awesomeness had a paper-thin plot. The original Dark Forces game made some significant progress in this genre, and in fact nowadays it’s almost impossible to find a game without some sort of plot even if it turns out to be failtastic.

Jedi Knight’s story was a serious departure from the usual bumpf you could expect from the time period. Taking you from Nar Shaddaa to the Valley of the Jedi, the location of which was the objective of the game ultimately, the levels always looked sufficiently varied to make you feel like you were travelling round the universe. Granted, some of those levels could be infuriating in their difficulty, but it was excellent as an experience.

In fact, one of the first things I loved about this game was the scale of it. It wasn’t amazingly apparent in the first few minutes, but once Nar Shaddaa opened up you couldn’t help but be impressed by the sheer size of the levels, which seemed to go on forever, depressingly so if you fell. What was also good was that the scale of the game didn’t allow you to just look at these immense sights, you spent a fair bit of time exploring them in a decent amount of depth, as well as taking on such firepower as an Imperial AT-ST.

At the time, the game’s graphics were cutting edge, and the game looked utterly fantastic. Another thing it did really well was the use of full-motion video scenes during the game’s cinematics. Some trivia for you, incidentally, the game’s cinematics were the first lightsaber cinematics filmed since Return of the Jedi. The entire game, indeed, was pretty cinematic, with an authentic John Williams score to help the game along. Gameplay wise, the game was a solid first-person shooter, as was the first game.

The addition of lightsaber combat, however, was a masterstroke, and the game was the first to offer any sort of combat such as this. The Force powers, however, were what separated this game from its competitors. Force powers were divided into three categories: Light, Dark and Neutral. Understandably, the powers fall into obvious divisions; Heal powers were in Light, Lightning was in Dark and Push was Neutral.

What you did with them, however, was the key to the advancement of the game. Use too many dark powers, or kill non-enemy characters, and you’ll unlock the Dark ending to the game. That’s right, this game had two endings; unheard of at the time. Light powers and not killing non-enemies would give you the Light ending, where you spared your partner and stopped Jerec in order to bring peace to the galaxy. The Dark ending by contrast would see you killing your partner and go on to become Emperor when you finished the game.

This game was a number of things: a great first-person shooter, a technical achievement that has since been eclipsed by undoubtedly incredible technical prowess shown by a number of developers, one of the first games to do alternate endings. What was most important about it, though, was that this game felt like Star Wars. Playing through it, experiencing the visuals and audio, the whole thing felt like a legitimate entry in Lucas’ grand vision.

Jedi Knight: Dark Forces II is available now from Steam, priced at £3.49

1 comment:

  1. Top quality game, and I've very fond memories of it. Along with Quake 2, this was the first game I played on my 1st-gen 3D graphics card (an Orchid Righteous 3D for long-memoried nerds)!