I’m not exactly sure what naming convention these guys are going with. First there was Dark Forces, then Dark Forces 2: Jedi Knight, then Jedi Knight 2: Jedi Outcast, and here we are at Jedi Knight: Jedi Academy. Shouldn’t it have been Jedi Knight 3: Jedi Academy? Or maybe Dark Forces 4: Jedi Knight 3: Jedi Academy? I’m flustered by their inconsistency. And that’s apparently the best I can come up with for a humorous opening – I must not be firing on all cylinders today.
Anyhoo, for those of you who played Jedi Outcast, Jedi Academy is going to seem instantly more than a little familiar. With similar sound effects and only slightly modified graphics engine, JA certainly feels the same as the predecessor. There have been some small improvements, and some small detractions, and the result is a game more or less as good as the first one. I think that’s better than 90% of the games out there, but if you were looking for something dramatically different, you’re not going to find it in JA.
Having followed Kyle Katarn around for the last three games in the series, the designers felt it was probably time for a little fresh blood, so enter Jaden Korr. Is Jaden a male or a female? That’s up to you, as well as the characters general build, hair color, style, and skin tone. Selecting a man or woman makes no difference whatsoever in the gameplay, and I suppose comes down to whether you would rather spend your time staring at a male ass or a female ass. Jaden is a new recruit into the Jedi Academy (where, incidentally, Kyle is an instructor). She’s something of a rarity in the novice jedi realm in that she has already built her own light saber. What that means is that you start instantly with your light saber, rather than wading through six painfully bland FPS levels to get your light saber as you did in JO. Score one improvement point for JA.
Surviving a shuttle crash on the way to your first day of school, you come across some imperials and sith doing strange things with a staff. What could they possibly be up to? After a short tutorial (for an academy, you spent very little time in the classroom), your first missions in JA deal with investigating just that. You are given your choice of five missions in various locations around the galaxy; some of them alone, and some of them with Kyle along for the ride (one with Chewbacca). You can do them in any order, and only need to do four of them to advance in the game. This kind of free-form mission assignment may make you feel like you have some flexibility in the game, but in reality I feel that it only serves to weaken the plotline. What do you find on all your missions? Imperial activity, that’s what. It also leads to a disjointedness to the missions. I’m on Hoth, now I’m on Bis. What am I doing? I’m “investigating.” But it seems more like roaming than any actual story advancement. Subtract one improvement point from JA.
After each mission you are awarded a force point to spend to improve some force power. There are standard powers (pull, push, jump, speed, sense, um, others) that automatically advance as you progress through the game. The force points you spend on optional powers, either light (heal, protect, one more I can’t think of) or dark (lightening, grip, and drain). I like this approach better than JO, which advanced powers in an order that was predetermined. Score one point for JA. If I wanted to load up on lightening, I loaded up on lightening. I did get frequent warnings about using the dark side in combat from Kyle and Luke, but unless they put a sternly-worded letter into my student folder, nothing ever came of it. Once you have completed the first four (or five) missions, you enter into a mission that is plot specific. Here is where all the plot advancement really occurs, but once you’re done with that mission, you’re back looking at five different “investigation” missions. The entire game consists of three tiers of five with some singles thrown in between, and as such the game is considerably shorter than JO, probably lasting a good FPS player only 6 or 7 hours. Subtract one point from JA.
The largest improvement in the game, the one that I’m sure without even checking that all the forums are buzzing about, is that halfway or so through the game you get to customize your light saber. Actually, you get to pick the color and handle style at the same time that you pick your hair color, but later you get to choose if you want to use two light sabers or one double-ended saber. My only regret is that you don’t get to try both without going through the game twice. The two saber styles are very different, each having dozens of specialized attack and defense moves. It really brings the whole saber combat element of the game to a whole new level, and many of the missions near the end of the game are an endless chain of saber combats. Lopping off arms, slicing off heads – it’s all good fun. The enemy saber AI is good with one small exception. Many of the combats take place on some typically Star Wars narrow ledge over some endless chasm, and a quicky force grip or force push would often send them over the edge. You could probably call it a cheap shot on my part, but it was very effective.
I don’t think that I’m giving anything away by saying that you are again faced with the dark/light side decision in JA. In fact, you are faced with that decision before the very last mission. I think this is a little late to really let you experience the dark/light sides of gameplay, and the last mission only plays a little differently depending on which side you chose. The ending (especially the dark side ending) leaves plenty of room for at least an expansion pack, though how they are going to get the two different endings to dovetail into a single mission pack, I’m not sure, unless right off the bat you make the dark/light decision and play the whole game out from there. I’ll just have to wait and see.
As I’ve said, graphically, the game is little changed from before. There’s some clipping going on, and no matter how high you turn up the resolution there’s a certain graininess to it. That’s just the reality of an engine now several years old. What a year ago looked pretty good when JO came out, looks a little less so stacked against some more recent games. Voice acting, the sound effects coming out of the Star Wars database, and music, all sound crisp and professional.
Multiplayer is relatively unchanged, except that now everyone is running around with snazzy new lightsabers. Deathmatch, team deathmatch, duel (1 vs 1), and power duel (2 vs 1) are the standards. You can select to allow force powers or not, weapons or not. They’re pretty flexible that way. There is one more multiplayer variant called seige, which is described as “the offense having a number of goals to accomplish, and the defense trying to stop them.” I never saw a server actually playing seige, so I never got to try it. Some game a while ago (Unreal Tournament?) had a variant that I recall one team defending Normandy beach and another team trying to take it, or defending a castle and the other trying to break in – perhaps siege is like that. I don’t know.
I really like the new sabers, and being able to allocate my own force experience (even if there doesn’t seem to be any difference whether I allocate for dark or light), but the plot is hyper-thin, and the graphics are definitely starting to show a little age. The game designers have shown themselves to be very canny – applying only incremental changes to a formula that has sustained them through four titles now. It’s working. I’m still here, still playing them, still enjoying them.