Let me attempt to walk you through the order in which the Jedi Knight games appeared. It began with Star Wars: Dark Forces featuring Kyle Katarn's adventures, working in parallel with the original Star Wars films.
Kyle was but a soldier back then, but soon showed a propensity for the Force, which brings us to this, the peculiarly named Star Wars Jedi Knight: Dark Forces II. This is not to be confused with the expansion pack, Star Wars Jedi Knight: Mysteries of the Sith. Nor indeed Star Wars Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast, which was of course followed by Star Wars Jedi Knight: Jedi Academy. Erk. We shall call this game Jedi Knight, and all shall understand.
1997's Jedi Knight picks up a year after the end of Return of the Jedi. Katarn learns that a Dark Jedi, Jerec, has killed his father. Returning to his father's home he learns details of a map to the Valley of the Jedi where he will be able to avenge his father's demise, and rather significantly, gets given a lightsabre.
It turns out Katarn has latent Force powers - if only he'd known when fighting those Dark Troopers before! This of course means Jedi Knight becomes a far more elaborate shooter, not only offering the glowy fun-stick for fighting, but a collection of nano-powers (although of course Lucas wouldn't break that terrible news for a long, long time). So with the help of his buddy Jan Ors, it's time to leap around the galaxy.
And by crikey, it's good. It's very, very good. It's so good that you can only look down at the ground, shake your head in confusion, and slowly pen a letter to LucasArts asking them what the hell they were thinking when they abandoned FPS development and handed the reins over to Raven. With this, Dark Forces, and indeed the enormous Mysteries of the Sith expansion, LucasArts demonstrated a rare and brilliant skill with a genre that's so often so mediocre.
I'm not really interested in which game did what first, but more which games did what brilliantly. So while Jedi Knight was one of the first games to embrace Direct 3D, and an early adopter of 3D sound and dynamic lighting, the chronology does not matter. What matters is how effectively these tools were employed here, in such a way that they still maintain an impact 12 years later.
Certainly we take it for granted now that you can light a dark corridor, it doesn't make it any less charming to explore the danker areas of the game by wielding your lightsabre as a green torch. There's no doubt that we instinctively explore levels using ambient clues, but this doesn't diminish the thrill of hearing an AT-ST walker somewhere near to the left, and knowing to run. (Oh, and talking of walkers - I know there should be more complicated, nuanced reasons for choosing your alignment in the Star Wars universe, but one side has AT-ATs and AT-STs, and the other doesn't. Decision made.)
But before you get to lightsabres, Force powers and walkers, there's a surprising amount of old-school shooter to play through first. Katarn's adventures begin very modestly, fighting Gamorreans, Gran and Rodian with traditional blaster weapons and thermal detonators. In fact, it's very much in-keeping with the style of Dark Forces, keeping its cards close to its chest for a surprising amount of time.
Not that this is a bad thing - by matching Dark Force's ideas Jedi Knight lets LucasArts once again demonstrate an astonishing skill for creating vertically interesting levels.
You may remember the recent, completely dreadful Damnation, which spent its marketing describing itself as revolutionary as it was "the shooter gone vertical". It quite spectacularly wasn't, but more significantly, Jedi Knight was, and over a decade earlier. So very much of the game is spent screeching to a halt on the precipice of a terrifying drop, my poor stomach wobbling in terror. As someone who isn't bothered by heights this ability to induce vertigo is all the more remarkable. Narrow ledges, and seemingly impossible distances to fall, sometimes on vast space stations, make for excellently precarious locations to explore.
There's also the splendid puzzle design to keep you occupied. As I lamented in the Dark Forces retrospective, FPS games have forgotten the puzzle, with the occasional exceptions in a Half-Life episode. While it's mostly matching keys to doors, this is performed by requiring you to find innovative routes through levels, never knowing if you're stumbling on the correct path or on your way to a secret bonus.
So once the Force powers arrive this is all icing. They're oddly introduced, in so much as they just aren't. At a certain point you can spend some stars on a Force Run ability, and you have to accept that that's the case. Perhaps simply holding a lightsabre unleashes these abilities? Who cares. So with Force Run you can now charge about at an incredible pace, which comes in fairly useful when you first encounter the terrifying AT-STs.
Level 6, Into The Dark Palace, is just remarkable. You're tasked with breaking into this enormous Empire complex. It's heavily guarded by Stormtroopers, and locked up tight, and by this point you can't Force Jump your way in. Instead you have to clear out enormous chambers of enemies, and perform a really fun Force Run dash to press distant buttons to extend a bridge and cross it, all in one panicked manoeuvre. It's exhilarating, and only more so thanks to the stomping behemoth walkers stalking the level. You can fight them should you wish to waste all your detonators and die a trillion times, but the sensible Jedi just pegs it past them as fast as he can.
As you add more powers, the game increases its complexity to match. Once you're able to leap enormous heights, the levels improve the vertical design even further, forcing you to always be looking up, down, and underneath.
And I've yet to celebrate the lightsabre! While Raven would dramatically improve the feel of the duelling melee combat in the later Jedi Knight games - here it's mostly about running around in mad circles while waving your sabre around like a stick of French bread - the pleasure of watching it brrrzzzzz into life is splendid. It automatically defends you against incoming blaster fire, Katarn swishing it to bounce the blasts away. While this is mostly out of your control, just that it's happening at all is stupidly fun, and it's never better than when you deflect their attacks back at them. "Why are you shooting yourself? Why are you shooting yourself? Why are you shooting yourself?"
Using it in regular combat is a skill - as soon as you swing it to attack you're no longer using it to defend yourself, so the skill is rushing in at the right moment. Done properly it feels very rewarding.
So much is so charming. The cut-scenes are FMV, which in the nineties was normally cause for stabbing out your eyes with the nearest biro and setting your PC on fire. But while they're corny as hell, they're also hugely enjoyable. This might be in large part because, well, it's more Star Wars movie! While it was all shot on green-screen, it doesn't look cheap or tacky. The effects are mostly great, and while the CGI for the droid, 8T88, is crude, the real-world make-up for aliens is all perfect. (And never mind about 8T88's CGI - just say his name out loud. It's ludicrously fun.)
No one's acting is particularly stellar, but most offer a fun, hammy turn. Katarn is played by one Jason Court, who hasn't exactly gone onto great fame - although he was previously in an episode of the Red Shoe Diaries - steamy! Angela Harry who plays Ors has equally failed to find fame beyond appearing in Pamela Anderson's V.I.P., but both at least had the high point in their careers of appearing in Diagnosis Murder, which is all any actor could hope for.
8T88 is voiced by Danny Delk and is a real highlight. This is no surprise from the man responsible for voicing Murray in the Monkey Island games and both tentacles and Hoagie in Day of the Tentacle. ("8T88!" Seriously, try it!) The only real issue is the lunatic playing the Twi'Lek Boc Aseca, the amazingly named Time Winters, who overacts so much your monitor might switch itself off in protest.
LucasArts recently released the game, along with all of the Dark Forces series, on Steam, for the weeny price of £3.50. However, if you want to play it again - and you really should - there's a few issues. Unlike its re-release of classic adventure games, this collection hasn't been completely reworked for modern machines. There's lots of angry threads on the Steam forums reporting multiple issues, but the most common (and the ones I experienced) are a complete lack of in-game music, and the very peculiar inability to show menus and cut-scenes in full-screen. This means the game switches in and out from full-screen glory for the levels, and a tiny little window for the FMV and options. It's odd, but it's not that enormous a problem. But be warned.
It's all worth it. Jedi Knight is still absolutely stunning. This shooter gone vertical also went Force-empowered, letting you eventually choose whether to focus on the Dark or Light sides, and offering different endings depending upon the direction in which you head. It captures so much of what was great about those original campy movies, and despite the character models looking hilariously awful, the overall design is so marvellous that your imagination eradicates the dated look.
8T88! 8T88! 8T88!