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Jedi Knight Series Retrospective

The Jedi Knight series is LucasArts gold. After LucasArts’ success with the X-Wing and TIE Fighter series of PC games, LucasArts went from strength to strength in establishing what we now call the Star Wars Expanded Universe. Over the next decade we’d see comic books, novels, video games and more. All crossing over with each other to tell a story much bigger than three movies could possibly imagine.

Dark Forces

Star Wars Dark Forces was released for DOS and Mac in 1995. LucasArts had scrapped the idea of an FPS where players controlled Luke Skywalker. Dark Forces introduces us to Kyle Katarn and his partner and pilot Jan Ors. Katarn is a defected Imperial Stormtrooper turned mercenary, selling his services to the highest bidder. Straight away, what a great character to bring in, he’s even edgier that Han Solo! Kyle is hired by the Alliance after having successfully stolen the Death Star Plans. He is tasked with infiltrating an Imperial cell. This cell are developing super battle droids called Dark Troopers. Dark Forces anchors into the Star Wars universe with cameos by Jabba the Hutt and General Crix Madine.

Dark Forces came out two years after Doom. It was bemoaned on its release as being another “Doom Clone”. But in a lot of ways Dark Forces was more sophisticated than ID’s shooter. Throughout the 90s LucasArts were known for innovating in games and pushing the boundaries. Dark Forces ran on LucasArts’ own 3D engine, called the Jedi engine, and allowed for a much more “3D” experience. Unlike in Doom, players could look up and down, duck and jump; these features were groundbreaking at the time. The game’s level design had way more vertical movement. The raycasted environments also contained “real” 3D geometry and atmospheric shaders. LucasArts’ own iMUSE interactive music technology meant the in-game music would change depending on player action. Dark Forces even had its own original Star Wars score.

Dark Forces made one hell of a splash, selling near enough a million copies over its lifetime. It almost made it into the top ten selling PC games of the 90s. It remains the best-selling game in the Jedi Knight series.

Dark Forces 2 Jedi Knight

After that critical and financial impact, Lucas wanted to follow up as soon as possible. Dark Forces II: Jedi Knight followed on in late 1997. The FPS genre had changed considerably in the two years since Dark Forces. Once again LucasArts had built their own in-house 3D engine. Much more powerful than before, this time called the “Sith” engine. Sith was competing against powerful 3D engines of the time such as ID’s Quake. The market was crowded, Jedi Knight needed serious chops. A lot of FPSs were still sprite-based, but Sith was full-3D using polygonal characters over sprites and supporting mouse look. Sith supported hardware acceleration, one of the first engines using Direct3D.

Once again you’re playing as Kyle Katarn, alongside his partner Jan Ors. Jedi Knight is set after the original film trilogy. Darth Vader and the Emperor are dead. The power vacuum left behind has allowed a sect of Dark Jedi to start a Sith Crusade. Jerec, the leader of these Dark Jedi, captured and murdered Kyle’s father to find out the location of “The Valley of the Jedi”. After Kyle finds this out, Kyle picks up his first lightsaber and starts a quest of revenge; tracking down and killing every member of Jerec’s cadre before facing him down in the Valley of the Jedi itself.

As the game goes on, Kyle develops Force powers which the player can upgrade between levels. This is the real roots of the Jedi Knight series. From both the Light and Dark sides of the Force. The game has two endings, depending on whether the player chooses to focus on the Light Side or the Dark Side.

Full motion video (FMV) cutscenes move the story along between levels; which LucasArts had first in Rebel Assault 2. The cutscenes included the first lightsaber footage filmed since Return of the Jedi in 1983. The game received tremendous reviews. The single player and the online multiplayer were both excellent.

Jedi Knight Mysteries of the Sith

A few months later, LucasArts followed Dark Forces II with the full expansion, Jedi Knight: Mysteries of the Sith. Now competing against Quake 2 and Unreal and with Half Life just over the horizon, the Jedi Knight series had to improve. LucasArts updated the Sith engine to include coloured lighting and added a few extra tweaks to sell the game. Set after the good ending in Dark Forces 2, Kyle Katarn has taken on his own troubled apprentice: Mara Jade. Together they work for the Alliance. They discover the Imperial Remnant’s interest in an ancient Sith temple on a planet called Dromund Kaas. Mysteries of the Sith has some of the most significant crossovers with the EU; this is the only time Mara Jade appears as a playable character in a Star Wars game.

Mara first appeared in the Heir to the Empire novels. She is a fan favourite character, appearing in dozens of comics and books. The planet Dromund Kaas goes on to be a very significant planet in the Legends continuity and the Old Republic storyline. The game features Jedi Holocrons, Vornskyrs and Noghri, which are all now turning up in the Rebels TV show. Mysteries of the Sith is even better than Jedi Knight in my opinion. The story is fantastic, and the way it weaves into the Expanded Universe is second to none.

You don’t need to read the books or play these games to enjoy the movies. But the attention to continuity across all those different platforms is what makes me love Star Wars. It’s so unique, there’s nothing else quite like it and the Jedi Knight series is the best example.

Jedi Knight 2 Jedi Outcast

Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast is. the third game in the Jedi Knight series.
Raven Software developed Jedi Knight 2 on ID’s Quake III: Arena engine. This is one of the first instances of LucasArts recruiting help from outside the Ranch. Jedi Outcast’s lightsaber combat is what separated it from everything else. Up until this point, lightsabers in games always felt like big glowing bats. Jedi Knight made it feel like you really were controlling a more elegant weapon from a more civilised age.

After the Valley of the Jedi thing and then the Sith Temple thing, Kyle has had enough of the Force. Kyle and Jan go back to merc work. The Force was not done with him. A fallen Jedi called Desann hurts someone very close to Kyle and he comes back swinging. Jedi Knight II features upgradeable Force powers but this time Kyle’s powers reflect his rage-filled state; they unlock with no decision-making from the player.

Kyle once again develops light-side powers like Force Heal and Mind Trick. He also learns Force Lightning and he learns how to choke people, Darth Vader style. Easily the best story in any Star Wars game. Raven did a tremendous job of framing a flawed, human Jedi. Voice actor Jeff Bennett delivers a great performance, Kyle’s anger always bubbling just below the surface.

Jedi Knight 2 launched on PC and was ported to Xbox and GameCube. It smashed the reviews on all formats. JK2 is my favourite Star Wars game ever and I’m not alone in thinking that. The story and lightsaber combat is still absolutely incredible. It’s what gamers still rave about now. Jedi Knight 2 is the Star Wars equivalent to Deus Ex. Now I’ve mentioned it, someone WILL reinstall it.

Jedi Knight Jedi Academy

Following from that success, LucasArts gave Raven one year to develop the sequel. Powered by the same engine as its predecessor, Jedi Knight: Jedi Academy had a focus on customisation and player agency. Kyle Katarn is not playable at any point in Jedi Academy. Instead he’s a teacher at Luke’s academy on Yavin IV. He teaches Jedi Academy’s protagonist Jaden Korr in the ways of the Force. When Jaden discovers a new Sith cult is harvesting Dark Side energy from places like Hoth and The Valley of the Jedi, Katarn joins his protege on missions around the galaxy.

EU locations such as Byss and Bakura feature as playable locations. Most significantly though is the final mission to Korriban. First mentioned in the Dark Horse comics, Korriban is now one of the most significant planets in Star Wars lore. I’m sure that its first video game appearance is in Jedi Academy.

The player agency is what made Jedi Academy. Players were able to customise their look, choose from a variety of lightsaber styles as well as develop their own character over the course of the game. The ability to wield dual sabers or the saberstaff for the first time blew gamers away. This keeps people coming back to the game even today. The story is a bit of a letdown. The final boss in particular is a bit like a Scooby Doo villain. The lighsaber combat in Jedi Academy is the best lightsaber combat in any game. Nothing since has captured the variety and depth of gameplay that was on offer here. A fitting end to the series, it’s just a shame we’ve not seen any more of these games.

The Jedi Knight Series review

The Jedi Knight series was of a consistently high quality. It had survived the jump to consoles. This had killed off other Star Wars series. There was a planned Jedi Knight III. LucasArts entered into a period of uncertainty for the next few years though. So external development was scaled back. The focus moved squarely off of Star Wars.

Kyle Katarn’s story remains one of the shining lights of the EU. Dark Forces and Jedi Knight are novelised in three parts by William C. Dietz, with Kyle going on to play a significant role in the New Jedi Order books. Similarly, Mara Jade is a massive part of the Legends continuity, as significant a character as Han or Leia in her own right. The Jedi Knight series of games proved that a good story and the richness of the Star Wars universe was enough to make a great video game, that the Expanded Universe was fertile soil for great new experiences.

You can watch a video version of this Jedi Knight series review on our YouTube channel.

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