Ten years of Jedi Katarn

jk_box.jpgIn the fall of 1997 LucasArts delivered into the hands of gamers something they had wanted since they first saw one twenty years prior – a lightsaber.

Dark Forces brought the Star Wars universe a new level of immersion through the first person shooter perspective. The story brought in classic settings abd characters and introduced a new hero – Kyle Katarn. Former Imperial Academy hero shaken by the discovery of the nature of the Empire through tragic events, Katarn is joined by his partner Jan Ors as the pair serve as mercenaries in the hire of the Rebellion. Dark Forces was an amazing game that delivered a visceral experience and new tschnical advances to the new first person shooter genre. What it didn’t give gamers was a taste of what it felt like to be a Jedi.

It took a couple of years for that vision to be realized, but the results were well worth the wait: Jedi Knight was critically heralded at release and remains an amazing game in terms of gameplay, characters and story. To commemorate the tenth anniversary of the release of the game, I played through it again.

The first thing you will notice is the FMV (Full Motion Video) introduction and opening cutscene. This was fairly common at the time, and the early move to CGI cutscenes was bemoaned due to the excellent scenes from games such as Command & Conquer and Jedi Knight. Jason Court’s representation has become Kyle Katarn, as the characterizations from Jedi Outcast and Jedi Academy attempted to capture that spirit in digital form.

The next thing you’ll notice was equally common – dropping from FMV to the game engine graphics is quite jarring. Obviously ten years later even a modest computer can run the game with all settings maximized – indeed, the game engine was able to scale up to run the game at 1900×1200 pixels. Even at those settings the game looks primitive, so I tried running at lower setting to imagine how it would look on a mid-range computer at the time. Here are a couple of screens to compare:

But the amazing thing about the game isn’t the graphics – it is the story and gameplay. The story is fairly simple yet allows for the introduction of a set of characters that makes for a compelling game from start to finish. As the Empire is falling apart after the destruction of the second Death Star, many seek to grab power and control the galaxy. One of these is Jerec, a Dark Jedi – not a Sith, but a former Jedi who has turned to the Dark Side of the Force. He has taken on several proteges, and some of these are training apprentices. They will try to destroy you and ensure that Jerec can reach his goal – the fabled Valley of the Jedi, whose power could allow him to gain ultimate power in the galaxy.

This sets the basic structure of gameplay: you play through a series of levels against common Star Wars enemies – Rodians, Grans, and of course wave after wave of Stormtroopers. Then you reach a face-off against one of the Jedi. You start with Yun, who is young and brash and a great enemy to learn to battle against. You have had the lightsaber for a few levels, but now you figure out if you have learned anything. If you are already using the saber as your primary weapon, you’ll be fine – but if not, plan on plenty of reloading!

One thing that will strike veteran gamers is that Jedi Knight manages to turn the typical level-level-level-boss structure into a device that feels like a natural part of the plot. By arranging a hierarchy to the array of Dark Jedi you will oppose, the game gives you a feeling that you are moving towards your goal. It is a wonderful device that is executed perfectly – every other shooter to that point was a matter of a massive boss to end a chapter, and this game nails that point home by showing how much better it could be.

The are twenty-one levels in the game including the Jedi battles, but that number is deceptive. The game includes some of the most massive areas I have ever encountered in a game, many of which remain exhausting and daunting to traverse. It also includes some of the most amazing levels ever – perhaps not so surprising given how highly it was regarded. The Falling Ship remains a tremendous challenge to this day – you are never sure exactly where you are or where you are going because the ship is … well, falling!

In an era where even many role-playing games are under twenty hours long, Jedi Knight *still* takes me more than 25 – 30 hours to finish and many of the battles and areas are quite challenging! But as I stood over the fallen Jerec and watched the credits, it wasn’t the length in terms of hours that struck me. It was that after a decade this remains one of my all-time favorite games, a story with characters and settings that have stood the test of time while so many others have fallen by the way side. Jedi Knight may be 10 years old, and Kyle Katarn might have been farmed out to the old Jedi home, but this game is one of those enduring classics. If you have played it in the past, give it another go and enjoy the ride – and if you haven’t, enjoy the fact that any PC you could possibly buy now is overpowered for the game, and enjoy one of the great classics of video game history.

12 Responses to “Ten years of Jedi Katarn”

  1. Nostaligia FTW!

  2. Nice job Mike. You kinda nailed what it was like reviewing this game when it came out. Before Half-Life this was the only real example of narrative in FPS and the Boss structure is exactly why I still consider Jedi Knight II a failure by comparison. Why Raven didn’t ape the colorful and tactical boss structure, and instead gave us Big Boss Barney the Dinosaur, I’ll never know…

  3. Man I love the Jedi Knight series. The multiplayer was my favorite part. Light sabre battles all over and a player made set of rules to follow (bow before battle, step back, draw sabres, etc). It was a blast.

    Hmmm, where did I put those CDs?

  4. Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast was the first truly immersive FPS that I had played. As a Mac user, I’ve been unable to play Jedi Knight but I’ve purchased the game online and I’ll be spending some time on my mate’s PC no doubt. I’ve enjoyed the story of Kyle Katarn and find it truly compelling. He’s easier to identify with than young Luke Skywalker and rather than rehashing scenes from the movies, here is an original story with great characters, locations, drama and decent acting. I’ve watched the FMV cutscenes on YouTube. Your review has pushed me to finally order a 10 year old PC game so I can finally experience the full saga of Teh Katarn, the only star wars video game character to appear in the Star Wars novels and comics. Now to play through Dark Forces again before my parcel arrives.

  5. If you have a new enough (i.e. Intel based) Mac, I strongly recommend BootCamp so you can run more PC games. My Dell XPS gaming laptop rarely sees the light of day …

  6. I’m still on a PowerBook G4, which plays Jedi Outcast and Jedi Academy well, but upgrading soon to MacBook Pro. What Windows version should I use to run Jedi Knight and Mysteries of The Sith? Will they run on WinXP?

  7. I neglected to thank you, Mike, for a well written review!

  8. I run WinXP on one of my MacBook Pros, and that is where I ran Jedi Knight for this. It runs great – heck, I ran Mysteries of the Sith on Vista for an upcoming (tomorrow) retrospective. All you have to do is use the JK.exe (and Sith.exe file in the program folder to start them.

  9. Thank you, Mike! I’ll be buying a new MacBook Pro within a month.

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