On the face of it, Jedi Academy is the definitive Star Wars first person shooter; the one fans have been waiting patiently for, crammed with great ideas that finally give gamers the chance to live out their lightsabre-wielding dreams.
With a breathless list of features, it's evident that LucasArts and Raven have taken great care to ensure that this isn't a by-the-numbers FPS with a Star Wars storyline bolted onto it. But, yet again, we're sitting here rueing missed opportunities and the fact that the game commits a multitude of sins that convince you that Dark Forces were indeed at work in conspiring against the potential brilliance of this occasionally remarkable, but often uninspiring game.
A Jedi of your own creation
But before we launch into a rant of why we're so frustrated with Raven's latest effort, allow us to give you some background. To kick off, you have to create your own Jedi apprentice, Jaden, from an array of six species; human male/female, Twi'lek female, Rodian male, Zabrak female or Kel Dor male, with the option to customise the head, torso, legs, costume, and skin tone, as well as tweaking individual colours. Cunningly, whoever you create will appear in every cut scene thereafter - a nice touch.
After customising your lightsabre from nine hilts and five blade colours you're thrown into the fray. Jaden and wet behind the ears fellow student Rosh have crash landed on route to the Academy, and you begin a short journey there to fulfil the longer-than-usual academy tutorial in the ways of the Jedi at the hands of the bowl-headed Luke Skywalker and former Jedi Knight/Dark Forces hero Kyle Katarn.
Here you get a chance to get to grips with your initial Force powers which increase in power up to a maximum of level three as the game progresses. Force Push and Force Pull allow you to manipulate both objects and NPCs, Speed slows the world around you, while Sense lets you see through walls, and reveals important hidden objects as well as cloaked enemies.
Unlike Jedi Outcast, you get the lightsabre from the very start, not to mention two more sabre styles: Dual Sabre and Sabre Staff, which will no doubt appease those with designs on the vacancy left by Darth Maul. Add to that, you can choose your desired sabre stance, giving you the chance to choose strength over speed and vice versa, each one with their respective pros and cons.
As you progress through each level (via various places in the Galaxy) you're rewarded with an experience point which you can allocate among four light and four dark force powers. On the light side we're granted Absorb (converts attack damage into Force Power), Heal (boost your health), Mind Trick ("bwahaha, you're on my side now aren't you?" THWOCK!) and Protection (decrease incoming damage).
The naturally more evil Dark Forces are Drain (transfers life to you), Lightning (zap!), Grip (choke), and Rage (ups speed and protection). Out of these, you'll doubtlessly find yourself using Heal regularly (which is a blatant cheat if you ask us), and Grip, which is a great Darth Vadar inspired move which lets you throw foes off ledges and cliffs to their doom. Aiiiiiiiiiiiii!
I sense much good in you
Once you've earned a new force point, it's entirely up to you to decide whether you'll follow the light or dark side, but although you can choose from five missions within each 'tier', the storyline is ostensibly linear and doesn't appear to explore the full potential of this aspect of the game. Should you decide to use a dark force against Imperial scum, they might remark "the master has taught you well", while Luke Skywalker might grumble about this tactic, but there's no penalty or change of events in adopting one side over the other; the game still follows a predetermined path regardless.
Physically pulling off these moves in-game can feel a little unwieldy, with eight Force powers to cycle through (with the E button) then carried out with F (or bound to the Function keys if you fancy). But having to stab F or reach over to the function keys while you're also trying to dance around your opponents is both a handicap and totally unnatural during a fast-paced battle with a pack of arrogant Imperials.
Part of the problem is that the enemy AI is so utterly dense for the first three quarters of the game that you never have to stray from simply sticking to the tried and trusted FPS weapons that you know, love/hate and can cycle thorough with on your mouse wheel, thanks. Only when you come across a lightsabre-wielding foe do you actually have to use one yourself (yes, these bomb proof enemies are indestructible via any of your other weapons, including missiles, would you believe?), but these are few and far between until deep into the game.
Thanks to the lack of lightsabre battles early on you don't get the practice you need, and by the time you actually need to use the force, you're doubtlessly lacking the experience to put them to full use. As a result, this whole layer of extra combat feels suddenly feels bolted on and clumsy as your fingers, previously welded to WASD, are called into action elsewhere on the keyboard.
Attempting to switch to the exact force you require quickly feels like a lottery in the heat of the battle, and the net result is a quicksave/load marathon, as you frantically stab F12/F9 in the process of going into combat with the right powers enabled. Inelegant, to put it mildly. Bloody frustrating if we're blunt.
Of course, repeated use does bring its own rewards, and gradually you begin to warm to the layer of depth that lightsabre battles bring with them. Like a traditional beat 'em up, various combos allow you to carry out some fairly nifty attacks. Mostly you'll get by just circling your opponents, stabbing the left mouse button wildly and hoping for the best, but various combinations of movement, crouch, jump and mouse1 gives you a surprising array of moves with which to down your opponent - especially important near the end of the game, and in multiplayer. The third person camera and mouse look makes it quite hard to keep the right perspective at times, but battles can get quite intense if you can get to grips with the system.
Someone show them Halo
Coming back to AI, we have to ask Raven: what happened? Until you've cleared the second tier of missions the enemies are - in the main - utterly pointless cannon fodder goons that behave as idiotically as we've ever seen in a modern FPS. With crushing regularity, a whole line of Storm Troopers simply stand politely waiting for you to shoot them in the head. Without exaggeration, almost every firefight resembles a duck shoot at a fairground, and the only chance that you'll get caught out is if you're even more stupid than they are. None of the modern advancements in enemy tactics make an appearance, with no-one bothering to use scenery to their advantage, no ducking and covering, no outflanking. Seriously, it's so bad at times it's almost tragic. Our advice to any potential purchasers is: "don't play it on the default 'Normal' difficulty setting!", although playing it on a harder level doesn't necessarily solve the issue of the AI being a bit dim.
As we mentioned, the challenge does significantly improve about three quarters through, with enemies wielding more wholesome weapons, while a whole pile of uber hard lightsabre-wielding bastards join the party too. But while lightsabre battles are a serious challenge, the standard enemies still act pretty dumb - they just have better guns instead, but all this only happens about ten hours in for heaven's sake. No one should reasonably expect to have to wait that long for a game to get good.
With storyline a key part of the proceedings, this dealt with in the usual slightly po-faced noble manner that we all expect of Jedis. It's quite pleasingly handled, but hardly edge of the seat stuff, lacking any vague hint of humour to lighten up proceedings. Sometimes you rue the fact that it takes itself a little too seriously.
Visually, its ageing Quake 3 origins are all too apparent in these days of Source Engine/Doom III previews, and while pretty and functional for the most part, it's not a game graphics whores will be wowed by. Generally speaking the environments are varied and well designed, but lacking a degree of detail and destructibility, and the inability to maintain a persistent state niggles a tad.
The character models, meanwhile, are nicely rendered - a noticeable leap above last year's Jedi Outcast, and by definition the best yet in a Star Wars FPS, sporting some reasonably impressive physics to boot. But after eight years of Star Wars FPSs, the use of tech is still lagging behind and we're still hankering after the definitive blaster that does justice to the look of the movies. The facial animation in the cut scenes, for example, is still at the puppet stage. You'd think that - by now - George Lucas would demand that Star Wars games used the very latest technology, as his movies have done for decades.
The audio, as ever, delivers an excellent sense of drama, with the traditional soundtrack parping away in the background, dynamically changing to suit the flow of events, but seems somewhat overly familiar these days. The sound effects pretty much match those in the movie, although some of the effects have been recycled from every Star Wars FPS since Dark Forces. And as ever, the voice acting during cut scenes is up to the usual standard you expect from LucasArts - if a little dry at times. In game, it gets a little repetitive hearing the same taunts over and over again - and where are the atmospheric story-building snatches of conversation that would have helped construct a convincing narrative? In essence you merely feel like enemies are lifeless drones.
Multiplayer wise, you have a limited number of force points with which to distribute among your player; potentially allowing you to go all out on the dark side or vice versa. Deathmatch and CTF make their traditional appearances, while two new modes - Power Duel and Siege - have been added to the mix. The former is a two on one lightsabre battle between Jedi (with the single opponent stronger than the others), while Siege is a multiple objective, class-based mode with one team attacking and the other defending. Teams are allocated on a per map basis - e.g. on planet Hoth it's Rebels vs. Imperials, while others might be Jedi vs. Mercenaries.
Online multiplayer wise, there's plenty of ground covered and it ought to keep Star Wars fans occupied for months, with 23 maps out of the box and mod support. Also, the issues over duff AI don't apply here, so there are manic lightsabre battles aplenty - and the interesting array of traditional weaponry elevates it into a pretty unique online experience.
Scoring Jedi Academy is a tough call. Some of the ideas are genuinely classy, original additions to the FPS world that freshen up what might otherwise be a by-the-numbers Quake III-based shooter. We loved the customisation, the freedom of being able to choose the order of your missions, and light/dark side mechanic that enables you to build the kind of Jedi you want. On the latter point we only wished this was developed into a different path of the story (thus guaranteeing replayability), and (with much practice) we enjoyed the combat principle of force powers.
We also found most of the missions quite enjoyable, with a good sense of pace throughout. We even got a kick out of the multiplayer for a few hours, although whether we'll come back to it repeatedly remains to be seen with so much competition around.
Harsh but fair
The harsh reality is, for all the plentiful additions, there's much work to be done before LucasArts can boast it has created the ultimate Star Wars FPS. Sure, it's the best one yet, but with some often laughable AI and creaking tech underpinning it, the flaws are there for all to see. If you enjoyed Jedi Outcast, you'll be happy, but the real hardcore FPS fans will find much fault with Jedi Academy.