Star Wars Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast (GameCube) review
"Kyle Katarn is back! Well, yes. Exactly. "
Kyle Katarn is back! Well, yes. Exactly.
Of all the Star Wars protagonists who've never appeared in the films, Katarn has been the most generously served by Lucasarts, but that still doesn't mean that I thrill to his approach. Gamers were able to guide Katarn as a John Doomish gunslinger back in first-person shooter Dark Forces, then again as a more troubled soul in the action-adventure combo of the original Jedi Knight (JK1). A hop, skip and a jump later, Katarn is mixing it up with Imperial scum for the third time in JK's ambitious sequel, Jedi Knight II - Jedi Outcast (JK2), and here on the GameCube he must also negotiate extra trickiness symptomatic of the port from PC to console. Some game elements have been positively illuminated by the translation while others have become technically frailer or more frustrating. Nevertheless, JK2 offers a grand, involving and decidedly big adventure - so big that during the good times you'll forget the bad times, and during the bad times you'll forget the good times.
Katarn renounced The Force (light, dark and beige flavoured) at the end of JK1, and thus gave up such powers as the ability to jump thirty feet in the air, choke baddies from afar, heal and shield himself, throw lightning bolts or furniture at people, or indeed to simply throw people. In JK2 he will eventually learn all of these tricks again, but only after an older and wiser Luke Skywalker convinces him that this is essential to the plot. Said plot and the attending choppilly compressed cut-scenes involve the kidnap of Katarn's hot-and-cold love interest Jan Orrs by Dark Jedi Desan, and yet another scheme by the bad guys to steal or abuse the power contained in The Valley Of The Jedi. What Katarn's changing relationship to The Force means for the player is that JK2 offers quite an original gameplay arc, starting out as a purely gun and thuggery based first-person shooter, but changing over time - as Katarn recovers his supernatural powers and wields his lightsaber anew - into a far more diverse and complex third-person adventure. Again, as a side-effect of JK2's bigness, by game's end the FPS / force-free segment of the game seems almost a distant memory.
Life as an ex-Jedi seems tough and unappetising at first. The crosshairs in this game are tiny, and using the C-stick to try to point them at the incredibly skittish stormtroopers is no picnic. Controls will turn out to be a major gripe in general. Katarn's lady friend Jan is on hand to help during the first few levels, but I was annoyed that whenever I gave her a nudge, she'd only ever reply with one of two comments no matter what the situation was: 'Did you hear something?' or 'What was that?' The prototypically lush Star Wars orchestra music is on hand, and the overall selection of cues is usually good and often sublime in assisting in the creation of atmosphere - unlike the activation of the cues, which is pretty spastic. Enemies behind walls or fifty feet above you on a gantry way can cause the lurch into hectic fight music, and just as immediately cause it to jolt to a halt if they take a step back.
The good news is that the visuals are extraordinarily nice, and it's your immersion in a dark and beautifully rendered Star Wars environment that's likely to keep you involved through these (relatively) stodgy opening levels of toughish FPS'ing, and what seems to be not the greatest programming in the world. Once you've reconnoitred with Luke Skywalker for a Jedi refresher course and gotten your mitts on a lightsaber and some magical powers, the real fun starts. You can now 'pull' nearby objects, toss weapons from enemy hands, leap like an athlete and slow time with Force Speed, the Jedi version of ye olde bullet time. Your arsenal of powers will expand and amplify as you progress in the game, so that a level three 'push', for instance, will toss an entire crowd of bad guys asunder like so much Imperial confetti.
You will need all of these powers to negotiate what is generally a very savage game. The first post-force level sees you running a gauntlet of backstreet bounty-hunting scum on the labyrinthine streets of Nar Shaddaa, where two of the most dangerous and obnoxious enemies are introduced immediately. Green-skinned Rodian snipers perch in windows beyond your sightline, pecking at you with disruptor rifles whose shots travel at light-speed (I.E. instantaneously) and vaporise you in about three hits. And on the ground, the numerous three-eyed Gran function as suicide bombers, lobbing thermal detonators about left, right and centre with zero self-regard. The high and narrow platforms you must negotiate whilst defending yourself from all manner and range of attack are totally unforgiving, and you'll soon get used to making the trek back to your last saved game on the memory card.
The saving issue is worth noting as one of the elements of GameCube JK2 that gives it a significantly different vibe to its cousins. The dynamics of challenge and tension seem genuinely greater here for the simple reason that saving the game is no longer achieveable by instantaneous PC key tap. Not only is going to the memory card quite tardy, but one save eats half a standard card, so unless you're willing to buy more cards or bigger cards, you'll be living with only two save slots, which is somewhat dangerous in a game as complicated as this one. The real downside is that the harder game and less friendly controls lead to a lot more deaths, and resultant tiresome replaying over old ground. Essentially, I wouldn't recommend GameCube JK2 to impatient players or those looking for quick fun, but to those who are prepared to ride out a stiffer challenge with the expectation of greater ultimate satisfaction.
Huge and wondrous but archictecturally difficult levels ensure that your senses will be kept on alert. You must scrutinise all angles of the scenery very carefully in order to locate and identify the important features that will allow you to progress; a lone switch in a cavernous hangar, an out-of-place crate concealing a hidden exit, a ventilation duct in the ceiling, a rail-thin gantry suspended in dark space. Working out where and how to go next is a huge part of JK2, and when you get there, you'll always revel in the excellent quality of combat scenarios, whose endlessly varied environmental configurations provide a hugely open-ended experience. You can run amok in a hangar brawl, hurling troopers about, tossing their weapons, slicing and dicing with the lightsaber. You can sneak up on admirals busy at their consoles and choke them with the force, or mind trick their underlings into mutiny. You can suck enemies down from overhead balconies then watch them tumble into the void. There's the thrill of hide-and-seek combat which takes place in the metallic bowels of a Death-Star like outpost, or of guerilla warfare in the detritus of an outer space garbage dump. Sometimes it's all bravado and melee blur, at others, absolute precariousness. A significant chunk of the Star Wars universe has always consisted of improbably high towers, gantry platforms and walkways suspended above great fatal voids of one kind or another, and you'll do your fair share of battling above these voids, of throwing your foes into them and of plummetting into them yourself. The sense of acrobatic danger and the sweeping views from such heights never cease to thrill.
The game's plot summary would probably look quite juicy if written out on paper, but after the rigorous hours spent completing most levels, it's easy to forget or lose its finer details which speed by in the hasty and so-so FMVs. This doesn't matter, since you'll feel involved enough by your own gaming actions and the pursuit of tangible goals. I think that the inter-level plot gab remains a pretty unsuccessful model of plot advancement for gaming in general, and to be fair, JK2 probably does it better than most titles.
In retrospect, there were some prolonged stretches of this game during which my internal critic felt like just mauling it out of intense frustration; at being utterly lost in the enormous unhelpful levels, or having to backtrack for miles whilst being shot to pieces by Greedo snipers, or wondering how on earth I could stop R2D2 from being nailed with rockets, or howling as the evil Jedi lady boss gloated over my corpse for the fifteenth time. During other prolonged stretches, I was having so much fun wielding The Force and coming up with my own creative solutions to the myriad problems presented by the atmospherically rich and deadly environments, that I experienced a very powerful gaming immersion, and felt that this was some of the finest adventuring I'd known.
Ultimately, both perspectives were validated. JK2 can be a real pain for long stretches, and the programming is hardly the tightest I've seen, but it's such a grandiose and complex and multi-faceted game that it's hard to reconcile the whole experience in your head at any one time, the high highs and low lows. It took me a few weeks on and off to complete this adventure and I came close to giving up a few times. Yet when I did reach the end, I was genuinely surprised, in thinking back over the thousand different situations and very stiff challenges that I'd ridden out, that I had in fact done all of that. I felt like I really had gone on a great adventure and conquered it.
I feel safe in saying that GameCube JK2 is the toughest version of this game, due to the controller difficulties and the game-saving issues (both in terms of speed and storage space), but if you've the patience for the prolonged challenge, the rewards are significant in this great but unforgiving adventure on the Cube.
Community review by bloomer (November 12, 2004)
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