Tuesday, January 10, 2023

Classic Review: Star Wars Jedi Knight: Dark Forces II [1997]

Between the void known as "The Dark Times", the period between Return of the Jedi in 1983 and The Phantom Menace in 1999, Star Wars as a franchise was kept 'alive' with novels, comic books and video games that were usually part of a shared narrative ecosystem. This was first known as "The Expanded Universe," until 2014 when Disney labelled it 'Legacy' due to the creation of their own new narrative going forward rather than being tied to so many years of previous work. The most significant Legacy events occurred in the mid 1990's including Timothy Zahn's 'Thrawn Trilogy' of novels, Dark Horse comics' 'Dark Empire' and Lucasarts' Tie Fighter and Dark Forces video-games; the latter which introduced the character of Kyle Katarn.

Dark Forces established Katarn as an Imperial officer who defected and became a mercenary after discovering the Empire was responsible for his father's death. He was often hired by the Rebel Alliance for whom he stole the plans for the original Death Star and then proceeded to put an end to the Dark Trooper project. Jedi Knight fleshes out Katarn significantly as a year after the destruction of the second Death Star he goes in search of revenge against Jerec the man who killed his father, as well as stopping him from becoming a Dark Jedi 'god' all while learning some force abilities on the way that would define his character in Legacy games, comic books and novels for some 17 years.

There was two prompts to replaying Jedi Knight in 2022, one was the 25th Anniversary of one of my favourite games - and one of my top 10 FPS games of all time - but also because there has been great strides in modifying the game to run on modern systems and take advantages of some of that hardware's power. The game is a quick and easy installation and once you've configured the add-ons you can be playing Jedi Knight as if it had come out in at least the mid-2000's.

Retro gaming purists are generally happy with tweaking original game files to allow games run as close to vanilla as possible on new systems (this is generally GoG's primary business model) and many of these balk at the idea of modifying retro games to look like they were released years later as it removes the "charm". While there are many games I would chose not to enhance, there are other games in which I am saddened that the replay experience is so far from what I remember that I wish I could get a more modern version, even if its just a visual makeover. Jedi Knight was one such game. I retired the vanilla version in the mid 2000s and played last with an early modification that introduced coloured lighting which I was happy with at the time. Therefore and in fact sometimes my incentive for returning to play an old game is to examine the technologies implemented to enhance the game and possibly my experience with it since the last time I played. The Jedi Knight Remastered mod is one such effort.

Jedi Knight Remastered 2.0 is basically a collection of mods fused into one easy app. It's neither the first or the last iteration, but it's the one I used today. Features include:

  • JKGXMOD v1.0 This makes Jedi Knight look better and run on new computers featuring, performance improvements, HUD scaling, 32-bit colour, Gamma correction, Bloom, Ambient occlusion, Parallax mapping and support for advanced, high-quality materials.
  • Enhancement Mod for JkGfxMod (JK Edition) 1.0 featuring higher detail community models as well as readjusted lightsabers, muzzle flashes and explosions.
  • Jedi Knight Neural Upscale Texture Pack. A replacement texture pack for Jedi Knight featuring upscaled textures using ESRGAN and a custom model.
  • Jedi Knight 2009 FOV - Mipmap Patches allowing for Field Of View for modern widescreen displays.

[Left] Remastered, [Right] Vanilla

Vanilla Jedi Knight is a significant chore to get running on modern systems, this is either the CD version or the digital distributed versions on Steam or GOG. It's one of the most incompatible games to modern hardware that many users have come across. Thankfully the hassle is almost completely eliminated with Remastered. Once installed there is some additional tweaking depending on your setup but once you're configured the first time that should be it, and the whole game is ready for you to play in whatever resolution you so desire.

The enhanced visuals here are nothing short of remarkable, character and weapon models are detailed, full coloured lighting is implemented, the bloom effect on lights and of course the lightsabers add about 5 or 6 years of graphical progression to the engine. It's not as strikingly different as Quake II RTX was, but like that, it's still the same game with relatively dumb AI and spartan highly simplistic geometry that one would find in this, one of the earliest fully 3D shooters. But I was genuinely so impressed with the enhancements that I played the whole game - which was not my original intention.

Dark Forces made you feel like a soldier for the Rebellion, perhaps a bit Han Solo without the wit. In Jedi Knight, you're pretty much the same only now you can add a few of Obi-Wan and Luke's force powers (or Palpatine and Vader's if you're so inclined) into the mix and have fun with them. In it's day it was the first time you could really feel like a Jedi in a video game and the experience has obviously been surpassed by everything from Jedi Knight's own sequels to Jedi: Fallen Order but crucially it has not lessened over time, the feeling you get when using force powers to thwart or circumvent an enemy is as novel today as it was then probably because of rare it still is. But the standout feature of Jedi Knight is being able to use the most famous symbol of my religion... the lightsaber. 

The mechanics may be simple now compared with successors but lightsaber combat here (especially in 3rd person view which is recommended) changes the dynamic of the game considerably after the first few levels. Not only is it a weapon with which you can "strike down" and dismember enemies (thanks to a JK Remastered mod element) but it's also a shield as you block some weapons fire and even deflect it back to it's origin, it's also a cutting tool which you use to cut open grating or slice machinery and finally it even acts as a light source in dimly lit areas. Both the significant graphical upgrade that the weapon benefits from under JK Remastered and it's overall utility elevates it from being another FPS melee weapon. In many games, your melee weapon is your last resort when you're out of ammo, in this game it's practical to be using it even if you have ammo at max.

Something the modding team did their best at but it's still rather hokey is the fully voiced and acted FMV sequences that progress the story as you progress the levels. They were all clearly shot on a green-screen with about 10% of the budget and equipment that would be used in Episode I's sequences the following year. There was no requirement for big name Star Wars casting for this so the bottom of the barrel casting brought a plethora of D-list talent together noting only Christopher Neame as the Dark Jedi Jerec, and who has been typecast as a German or various Sci-Fi villains over the years in everything from Blake's 7 to Star Trek: Enterprise. Dark Forces composer Clint Bajakian returns to his music editing role here to edit John Williams original trilogy score onto the game as by then games no longer favoured midi tracks but included the music as tracks on the installation CDs.

Final Verdict: Star Wars Jedi Knight: Dark Forces II is a LucasArts classic and was one of the most celebrated Star Wars games of it's time. Thanks to some intrepid modders it's no longer a chore to get working and is arguably better than it was. You feel like a Jedi and firmly rooted in the Star Wars universe but much like any game you have to kill hundreds of enemies in ranged or personal combat to prove you're good enough to take on the last boss, not very Jedi like but it is very Kyle Katarn like.

Technicals: 11 hours approx. playtime @ 3440x1440 UW / 175Hz with max settings. Framerate was recommeded capped at 40FPS to prevent issues with older animations and other glitches. Played using the GOG version with the Jedi Knight Remastered 2.0 mod enabled using a Nvidia 3070Ti on Windows 11. 

Bugs: Sometimes explosions cause the game to crash. Users research suggest limiting saves or disabling hardware acceleration might fix them, but they were infrequent enough to implement workarounds.

Star Wars Jedi Knight: Dark Dorces II is available from GOG for €5.99 and Steam for €4.99. Review copy from GOG for €1.39 in May 2017.

Series Timeline:

Star Wars: Dark Forces [1995]
Star Wars Jedi Knight: Dark Forces II [1997]
-Star Wars Jedi Knight: Mysteries of the Sith [1998]
Star Wars Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast [2002]
Star Wars Jedi Knight: Jedi Academy [2003]

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