Full Name: Star Wars: Jedi Knight: Jedi Academy
Developer: Raven Soft
Publisher: LucasArts
Release Date: September 16, 2003 (USA, PC)
Rating: T for Teen, no blood but plenty of killing
Systems: PC CD ROM (this review is for the PC), XBox
Genre Keywords: First Person, Third Person, Star Wars, Action

Jedi Academy is a prime example of the "third time's the charm" theory of game design. Learning from the previous two games (Dark Forces 2: Jedi Knight and Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast), Raven has tightened up gameplay, streamlined the mission structure, improved the level design and kept the Jedi fun that made the latter portions of Jedi Outcast more than bearable.

Starting the "fun part" early on, Jedi Academy sets you up as a prodigy student, already equipped with the basics of the Force and your own lightsaber. This allows you to provide a small degree of uniqueness to your character (no longer playing gruff straight man Kyle Katarn), as you can choose from Human, Twi'Lek or Zabrak female or Human, Rodian, or Kel Dor male. You can also choose a variety of faces, torsos and legs to create your own outfit. While not nearly as complex as that of Star Wars Galaxies, the character customisation provides another small degree of identification with your in-game avatar. You can then choose your saber hilt style and blade colour - again, purely cosmetic.

Discarding the time-honoured tradition of linear plot progression, Jedi Academy instead hones your skills via sending you out on sub-missions, Rent-A-Jedi style. These are fairly short, and range from securing an out-of-control speeding train on Coruscant to investigating a power plant gone silent on Bakura, to finding a lost droid on Tatooine. Each sub-mission gives you a chance to improve one of your specialized Force skills (Light Side: Heal, Absorb, Jedi Mind Trick, Protect; Dark Side: Rage, Grip, Lightning, Drain). There are five vaguely plot-hinting missions in each subset; each subset is topped off with a longer, more plot-related mission where you are usually accompanied by Kyle. After the final mission you will receive your progress report (how you are doing in your Dark/Light side of the Force) and a boost to your Core Force powers (run, jump, push, pull, speed, saber techniques).

This "hub" mission system, where you return after each mission to choose the next one (and you can do them in any order, although they do get progressively harder from top to bottom) allows the designers to finally show off the rich and varying background material of the Star Wars universe, and for fans to enjoy the same. The fact that you are visiting places seen in movies and books, and sometimes enjoying cameos by characters from the movies as well gives the overall sense of atmosphere a great boost. It also keeps the missions from getting stale, as you're no longer having to traipse through imperial_base_004x or generic_planet_015.

Some regarded starting off with a lightsaber as a bad thing, as it presumably gave you nothing to look forward to - this is an incorrect view, as replays of Jedi Outcast show. Not only does having access to the Force improve your gameplay choices right from the start, roughly 60% into the game you lose your lightsaber, allowing you to create a new one. The new lightsaber can be a single blade, a dual blade, or you can wield two sabers at once; each of these is augmented by fighting styles, which further enhance the combat experience, although not by much. In addition, starting off with a saber means that you'll be able to face Jedi opposition from very early on, and hone your skills on gradually improving baddies in pure saber/Force combat. Fun!

The level design no longer boasts ridiculously out-of-place puzzles, and puzzles in general are simplified. In some cases Kyle is accompanying you and radioes in hints what to do - it's the how that's left up to you, and usually it's not difficult. In other cases the switches are extremely obvious and simple progression through the level pulling every switch you see does it. This would be tiring, if it wasn't for a few clever twists along the way and ample enemy presence so the player does not get bored. Jumping puzzles are nearly eliminated, or incorporated seamlessly into the gameplay's progress (warehouse level, or droid smuggler level - lots of jumping, none of it contrived), so it never feels like you're doing something for an arbitrary reason. The combination of these factors keeps the player moving right along.

Audio Visuals

Graphics are passable, model-wise, courtesy of the somewhat aging Q3 engine - this same engine guarantees good performance even on aging machines. They move fluidly, and hot Jedi-on-Jedi action is particularly rewarding to watch as the saber effects are superb. The few FMV cutscenes (mainly arriving at a planet) are movie quality, and all cutscenes are skippable. A few environments are perhaps not as hot as they could be, and slight texture repetition is visible but none of this detracts from the overall gameplay. Some levels are downright inspired however, such as the speeding train, the Jedi's tomb, or the final arena. The most jarring to the eye are the engine-built cutscenes, as models often move with extreme stiffness and gliding motions, faces are not very detailed, and the polygons suddenly become extremely pronounced - it's almost as if someone else was contracted to crank these out (oddly, some cutscenes are just fine, so I wonder if we're seeing the talents of two or more separate animators).

Sound is perfect. Full voice acting is provided throughout the game (male and female for your main character, based on your choice), and is quite competent in delivery, even if content is cheesy (hey, it's Star Wars). All blasting, storm trooper commlink or AT-ST walker sounds are spot-on, and the saber combat and opening/closing hiss are so pleasing you'll do it a few times yourself just to enjoy it.

Multiplayer

If it wasn't for lightsabers, multiplayer would be very similar to anything else out there, with the typical choices of machine gun, pistol, shotgun and rocket launcher disguised by Star Wars trappings. The saber and Force powers (since jumping allows you to get out of any situation very fast) change the game, and most servers provide simple Free For All action, lightsaber-only. Then it becomes that clickfest that I mentioned above, although with human players it's almost invariably more interesting, as they're not quite as single-minded as Dark Jedi AI. The slashing, spinning, multicolored saberfest resembles nothing more than a glowing, rapidly shaken bag of Skittles - fun for everyone. You can also challenge an individual opponent to a duel, upon the acceptance of which both of you become untouchable by other contestants (you cannot slash them either) - which is a nice touch. You can also run a pure Duel server, a Siege server (objective-based, class-system using subset of maps, less popular than others but still fun due to inclusion of speeder bikes, mounted turrets and a strategic limiting of Force powers for the Jedi class) or the venerable Capture the Flag.

If online gaming isn't your thing, you can set up a botmatch with all the trimmings by tailoring bots to any skill level, tailoring yourself to specific Force levels, removing or leaving weapons in, and setting options for Force/saber inclusion. It makes for great practice, but the bots cannot match human ingenuity, as always. They make up for it with ample tenacity however.

Now for the bad news

There really isn't much, as long as you keep in mind that you're playing Jedi Romp Lite, not Jedi Simulator 2003. The obvious things like your saber not really cutting through everything, nor dispatching enemies in a single slice cease to jar, and as long as you can relax your need for either Star Wars or sword combat verisimilitude, you can enjoy Jedi Academy for a well executed "action flick" of a game that it is. Moments when you hit Force Speed, rush into a room full of storm troopers and Dark Jedi, topple the troopers with Push, then Grip a Jedi and fling him into a chasm, to finish off with a flourish that dispatches most of the troopers ... these moments are great - and there's a lot of them.

Personal thoughts (i.e. OPINION and/or SPECULATION)

i.e. stuff you can safely ignore

There really wasn't much more that I could wish for in Jedi Academy. All my concepts of leaping huge chasms, zipping by in Matrix time (TM) and using Force Grip to lift a hapless enemy and fling him off a chasm were realized easily, and the only thing slightly left wanting was the combat. Putting it simply, it's very clicky and light on strategy. Most of it consists of wading in and flailing about, pulling back to duck blows, as there is no block button (!). I've found the problem however (I'm too demanding, that's all), and went back to play some Way of the Samurai; I guess the next game I would like is Way of the Jedi Academy.

Secondly, despite receiving the summation of your progress at the end of each chapter, the Dark Side / Light Side conflict is awfully underplayed. Neither your Master (Kyle) or Luke himself seem to care either way, as long as you make it through the mission. In addition, you can choose powers from either side of the spectrum without having to do anything particularly naughty or nice to obtain them, right from the very start. The inner conflict a Jedi would expect to face is completely absent, and having to make a single decision about 95% into the game, completely out of the blue, is not what I call particularly engaging or interesting. A lot more could have been done with the plot to support this; however, its paper-thin quality is perhaps what makes for such a good action game.

Note: When restoring a savegame in the training levels, I came across a doppelganger that was not there before. The model appeared as red in my crosshairs, designating enemy, and was identical to my character, even down to saber hilt style and blade color. The double ignited her lightsaber when attacked, but was otherwise unresponsive - upon death, she would be cut in two by the saber; what's interesting is that it was the only time that ever happened! No other model can be cut that way. This makes me wonder if perhaps the designers envisioned more depth, and some sort of repeated confrontation with your Dark half, but just ran out of time. I guess I can only speculate, but it certainly gives me ideas. Oh well; perhaps the sequel.

But both of those complaints are probably just me wishing for more depth in everything; otherwise the game absorbed me far more than anything else recently. As a parting thought, I would recommend starting with the "Jedi" difficulty level, as "Jedi Knight" has caused me to curse the creators of such shoddy difficulty gradients (basically the enemies take a lot more slicing to kill, and you take a lot less - nothing else).

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