Developer: Raven Software
Rated: T for Teen
Completed: 02 September 2015
There are so many great things about Star Wars as a licensed property. Between many excellent books (that are now non-canonized) and a surprising number of high quality video games, fans can delve deep into the universe and its lore. Whether you want to reenact your favorite scenes from the movies, or flesh out the past and future of a galaxy far, far away, the expanded universe has you covered.
The video games have always held a special place in my heart because of their interactive nature. It's one thing to watch Luke make the Death Star trench run, but it's another to be the person in the cockpit, firing your proton torpedoes at just the right moment with Han Solo shouting words of encouragement into your comlink. Flight sims and Star Wars were a natural fit, given the films' exciting space battles, but the Jedi Knight series opts for a more personal experience.
After two solo outings, mercenary-cum-Jedi Kyle Katarn has made peace with his struggles with the Force and become a Jedi Master at Luke Skywalker's Academy. Kyle and Luke train gifted young students in the ways of the Force to rebuild the ranks of the Jedi, the guardians of peace and order in the galaxy. Katarn's first appearance was in the classic Dark Forces, a straight-up first person shooter that remains a favorite of mine.
When the sequel, Jedi Knight: Dark Forces II, moved to true 3D with polygonal enemies and environments I'll admit I wasn't thrilled. I missed the pixelated, sprite-based VGA graphics of the original. It took many years for Jedi Knight to finally click with me, but having completed it and its expansion, Mysteries of the Sith, in recent years, I now fully appreciate how groundbreaking it truly was, thanks to its spectacular lightsaber melee combat.
With Kyle now in a teaching role, the story shifts to Jaden Korr, a young student who somehow managed to built a lightsaber without any formal training. For the first time in the series, players can customize their Jedi's appearance to a small degree, choosing from a couple of races, faces, clothing styles, and even their lightsaber's hilt and color (though Dark Side Red is not an option, sadly). I suppose it's meant to make the player feel a greater connection with their character instead of being thrust in the shoes of an existing one, but I found it had just the opposite effect. Jaden felt more like a faceless errand boy with little personality, save the few utterly predictable moments where he nearly falls to the Dark Side (and you can let him, if you so choose).
The problem is compounded by the ability to choose your character's race. Though only a handful of the myriad Star Wars alien races are represented, it's incredibly weird to see a Rodian (see: Greedo) or a Kel Dor (Google it) wielding a lightsaber, and even weirder that they speak with a normal, human voice and not their native tongues.
The story in Jedi Academy sends Jaden on a number of different missions, which you can tackle in any order but only five at a time. After each set of missions, your core Force powers (jump, speed, push, pull) will become stronger and you'll face a more scripted story mission. You can upgrade optional Force powers after each mission, with four options on both the light and dark sides. The light side offers healing, protection to reduce physical damage, and the ability to absorb enemy Force attacks directed at you, while the dark side offers popular offense tactics like Force lightning and the ever-popular Force grip (choke). Using your powers in missions is great fun, and often very strategic as you must manage how much Force energy you have. If you run out in a tight spot, you'll likely be reloading your last save.
Before the final set of missions, you'll also earn the ability to upgrade your lightsaber. While you can stick with a single blade and switch between three fighting styles on the fly, you can also opt to dual-wield a saber in each hand or take a cue from Darth Maul and use a double-sided saber-staff. Each choice has its advantages and disadvantages, as well as their own set of moves for the game's robust melee combat system. While it can be chaotic and hard to follow at times, and your first inclination will be to flail your saber around wildly, there's a ton of depth to the saber combat and it's incredibly well animated and fluid.
Missions themselves are generally fun, with a few dull exceptions. There's a fetch quest mission that requires you to repair your damaged ship while avoiding a giant burrowing sandworm that will eat you alive. You can only carry one ship piece at a time, so there's a lot of back-and-forth as you run out, run back to the ship, run out again, etc., and it's very tedious even though it's blessedly short. Other missions will take you to familiar locations such as Tatooine and Hoth, with the former being one of the dullest missions in the game and the latter being excellent as you explore the remains of Echo Base, and even some places only mentioned in passing in the films. You'll run into a bounty hunter on Ord Mantell, just like Han Solo references in The Empire Strikes Back, capture a crime lord in the Imperial capital city of Coruscant, and even visit Tanaab, where Lando Calrissian made a famous maneuver that earned him a promotion to General in the Battle of Endor (Return of the Jedi). Easily my favorite mission had Jaden running along the outside of a speeding tram.
Most of the missions involve shooting and slicing Imperial remnant troops. Occasionally you'll get to do something distinctly Star Warsy like ride a Taun-Taun ("Boppit boppit!"), shoot down Imperial TIE Fighters with turbo lasers, and even ride a swoop bike (though it doesn't handle very well). This is all is made all the more enjoyable with authentic Star Wars sounds. The "chew" of blaster pistols, the hum of your lightsaber, the squeal of the speeder's engines, and John Williams' classic score playing in the background really suck you into the experience.
Voice acting is another matter. Kyle Katarn is still played by Jeff Bennett, who provided his voice in previous games, and he does an admirable job. Everyone else is not so good. Bob Bergen, who has voiced Luke Skywalker in numerous games, simply doesn't sound at all like Mark Hamill, and Phil Tanzini sounds completely unconvincing as Jaden, lacking any real emotion. Interestingly enough, the female Jaden is voiced by Jennifer Hale, best known as the female voice for Commander Shepard in the Mass Effect trilogy.
The graphics are also a bit of a mixed bag. It's not completely fair to judge a game that came out 12 years ago by today's standards, but everything is certainly blocky. The environments still look pretty good for the most part, despite a lot of very similar looking hallways in the longer later missions, and enemy character models look and animate fantastically. Watching stormtroopers flip over as they get hit with blaster fire while on the run never gets tiresome. Kyle's model looks like it was pulled straight from Jedi Outcast, which is fine, but human Jaden is just as generic as his personality and his voice, as are the game's two key enemies, Alora and Tavion. Luke looks downright scary, however, with sunken eyes and a pale complexion.
Jedi Academy's greatest failing is that I just didn't find the story very interesting, partly due to the forgettable main character and lame villains. The missions themselves never feel connected, like part of a larger story, but more like a loose set of errands. Even more annoying are the enemies. Stormtroopers are simple enough to handle, and sometimes the AI will stand there and let you walk right up to cut them down, but late in the game you encounter a seemingly endless stream of saber-wielding dark Jedi cultists. Where the hell are they getting all those lightsabers from? And who is teaching them about the dark side of the Force? There are so many of them it makes you wonder why the Empire didn't roll over the Rebels and their one measly Jedi.
Speaking as a Star Wars fan, it comes up woefully short in the story department, but still succeeds in capturing the feel of the universe. Even though I started to get bored by the end of it, there was often a satisfaction in dueling with three other saber-wielding Force users and coming out on top - and an even greater one if I was able to Force push them over a cliff to their doom. Yes, few things in gaming are as satisfying as listening to stormtroopers scream all the way down a seemingly bottomless chasm. I did appreciate the variety of mission objectives, even if some of them weren't as fun as others, but ultimately this is my least favorite entry in the Jedi Knight series and not a very fitting end.
Star Wars: Jedi Academy was completed on a PC with no cheats.