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SummaryA flawed, yet worthy sequel to Dark Forces
The GoodUse the Force, Kyle!
The BadLots of ideas that hit just a bit wide of the mark, kinda like stormtrooper fire.
The Bottom LineStar Wars: Jedi Knight - Dark Forces II came at an exciting time, when first person shooters were beginning to switch from pseudo-3D/sprite based engines to fully 3D ones. It was also a follow up to the original Dark Forces, which had been a very hot item just a couple of years earlier. Naturally, expectations were high for this game.
From a purely technical viewpoint, the game did not disappoint. It had very good for the time full-3D visuals and it came with excellent Star Wars themes sound effects and soundtrack. The moment you started up the game, it was instant immersion into the Star Wars universe. Still, it's worth mentioning that, seen today, the graphics haven't aged well. 3D games of the era have very blocky modelling and some of the textures can seem positively rubbish. There's one level in particular in Dark Forces II that must have the ugliest grass texture I've ever seen in any (hardware accelerated) game. However this is to be expected in a game of this vintage, so you pretty much go in knowing it's not going to be a visual extravaganza. And, let's face it, graphics aren't why you play a 1997 first person shooter.
Fortunately, in the sound department it mostly holds up well and it's everything you would expect from a Star Wars themed game. The cinematics are also well crafted and, even today, some scenes look quite spectacular. However the modern gamer might have to get used to the fact they combine CGI with FMV elements using real actors instead of animated characters. And speaking of actors... the acting, while not terrible, can be pretty bad at times, so be prepared for some cheese. Ultimately, I guess it all comes down to a matter of personal taste.
In terms of gameplay, the really big thing in Dark Forces II is that it was the first Star Wars game to feature lightsaber combat. While today it may not seem that big a thing, in its day this thing alone must have sold a great deal of copies. The game also gives you the ability to change your alignment (light or dark side) and once that happens there are alternate cutscenes and two different endings. The inclusion of Force Powers was also a big addition and I'm sure lot of fans were eager to try out some 'Jedi tricks'. More importantly, some of these Force Powers are essential if you want to advance through the game.
The selection of weapons is very similar to the one from Dark Forces and some of these weapons have alternate modes of fire. The game also attempts a more modern approach to grenade mechanics, though it falls short of making them truly useful from a tactical perspective. As you progress, the lightsaber becomes a truly potent weapon; not only that you become capable of deflecting multiple incoming projectiles, you can also deflect many of them right back at your enemies. It's quite possible (not to mention entertaining) to kill an enemy using his own weapons' fire against him. On the other hand, the lightsaber doesn't look very lightsaber-y. I guess the early 3D engine wasn't really up to the task of replicating the look lightsabers had in the films. Hit detection is also a bit iffy when it comes to melee attacks.
As far as the level design goes, some of the levels are massive; you get large open areas or long winding tunnels leading you through all sorts of interesting locations, some more familiar than others. The size alone can give the game a certain epic feel. Also, Force Powers have been integrated into the level design and, as I've already mentioned, you will need to use some of them in order to accomplish certain tasks. It also often features little puzzles that can be quite rewarding to solve. It's not all great though. Some levels really do feel like they are needlessly long. Others can get frustrating due to the relatively imprecise controls, which complicate navigation. This is especially true for jumping which is absolutely essential in certain locations. Speaking of which, I'd say the default control scheme isn't terribly good, but fortunately it's a problem easily solved. Unlike it's predecessor, Dark Forces II allows you to remap actions to whatever set-up you like.
The enemy AI isn't the smartest thing you've ever seen in a computer game and it does have a few bugs. Sometimes enemies will try to come straight at you, getting stuck in the process behind an object/wall and ignoring the fact there's a less direct way of actually getting to you. Ah, pathfinding, the bane of many a game programmer. On occasion you'll also notice that, although you've left their field of view, they're still shooting in the direction they last saw you in. Enemies also tend to try and shoot you through doors or force fields, obviously to no avail.
A small gripe: during the game you earn points that you can assign to the various Force Powers in order to make them more potent. The problems is that, as far as I can tell, the number of points you get is dependent on the number of secrets (secret areas) you discover in the game. I know this game is from an era when finding secrets was still a very big element of FPS gameplay, but it just doesn't make any sense in the context. The Force isn't supposed to work that way and it spoils the immersion a little bit. I guess you could look at it from the different point of view and say that it's a game that rewards the compulsive explorer in you.
Another thing of note is that the game is quite mod-able. You can replace original assets with better textures or higher poly characters, for example. Despite its age there's still a loyal community around the game, which is fortunate seeing how some modern gamers might have trouble running this game with hardware acceleration. Thanks to the community, this is a problem that has been solved. There's even an unofficial patch which, it's my understanding, fixes certain issues that weren't resolved by the original devs themselves.
All in all, while the story might not be particularly impressive, nor original, the game itself and the quality of the cutscenes keep you interested in the developing narrative. Oh, and Kyle Katarn, the protagonist, has got to be one of the most beloved characters in the Expanded Universe. More importantly, it's a fun game to play and killing stormtroopers is a real blast (terrible pun, sorry). So if you're a bit of a Star Wars geek, like me, or you're just interested in having fun with a first person shooter from the 'old guard', you should definitely pick this game up.