Ones and zeroes. Packets of information.
For Christmas I decided to spend some of my Christmas money on this game as I'd been looking forward to it for months. After playing the game for a few days I became enraged that I had spent $50 on this and decided to write a brief article highlighting some of the problems that I had with a game. As you can see that didn't work out so well, so instead I present you with something more closely resembling a novella.
Jedi Academy takes place on the same vanilla, boring planets that keep popping up in every Star Wars book, game and movie. Hoth and Tatooine for example. I can accept Hoth and Tatooine's inclusion in the original movie trilogy. The whole purpose of the planets is that they are remote and nearly barren. That is why the Luke is hidden on Tatooine and that's why the rebels hide out on Hoth. Enough already! Why do writers, movie makers and game makers feel the need to continue including these planets in everything that is created? Part of what made games like Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic so interesting is that the makers of the game actually had imagination enough to come up with new and interesting planets.
While some newer worlds are introduced later in the game they are just as dull as Hoth and Tatooine. The level design is so poor in this game that I don't think there was a single mission I played where I didn't get lost. I spent a lot of time wandering around, looking desperately for something new. Often times the level was so repetitive that I couldn't tell if I was re-treading the same terrain or if I had found something new. The lack of any sort of map or compass-like device makes every level a tedious exercise in backtracking. I often had to just hug the left wall of a level (using the age old trick for solving a maze) just to find where I was supposed to be going. One level requires you to destroy six weapons caches. Your mission objectives screen tells you how many you have destroyed but with no idea where you are or where you've been you have to wander around the level for ages just to find that last weapons cache, continually encountering the flaming remains of the weapons you've already destroyed. What's worse is that this is the only mission that features a map on your objectives screen. The map shows the location of the six caches. It, however, fails to show where you are on the map or which caches have been destroyed. Why they bothered to even program the map into the game is a mystery to me.
At one point in the game you are on a speeder high above Han Solo's home planet of Corellia and you over two soldiers talking. This is fine, a nice little touch in an otherwise fairly boring and frustrating level. However, the soldiers are named "Hawk" and "John". John. John? C'mon! Here I am, trying desperately to get lost in the whole Star Wars experience. I created a nice Rodian character and I'm holding my custom blue-bladed lightsaber, slashing away at the bad guys the way I spent most of my toddler, adolescent, pre-teen, teen and adult years wishing I could. It's bad enough that a character named Kyle from the previous games appears but now I have to hear about a character named John. If anyone from Lucasfilm is reading this, please listen to my plea and never do that again. The least you could do is come up with any lame ass three letter name so long as it sounds remotely un-Earthlike. Here are some crappy names I came up with given 35 seconds. Put them in a database or something.
Before every level you will get to choose from a wide range of weapons. You will be able to choose two firing weapons and one grenade-type weapon. You can choose from a large stock pile of weapons to find the weapon best suited to the mission. This would be a lot better if you ever needed anything but your lightsaber. In the entire game I probably fired less than fifty shots with any gun. It takes multiple shots to kill just about any standard enemy when you could just slash them once with the lightsaber and have done with them. Using these weapons on a dark Jedi is useless as they will simply deflect anything you shoot directly back at you. The only thing having multiple weapons does is frustrate you as you will accidentally hit the button from time to time and have to scroll through six to eight different weapons to find your lightsaber again. It can sometimes come in handy when your character loses his lightsaber (getting it caught somewhere or dropping it). Then you can switch to a blaster and then switch back to the lightsaber and through the power of the midichlorians the lightsaber will appear back in your hand.
This game lets you build your character by allotting you points that you can assign to various Force powers. In Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic this system was incredibly intricate and crucial towards developing the abilities of your character. It also helped determine whether your character leaned either towards the light or dark side of the Force. In Jedi Academy you have only eight powers to choose from. Ultimately it doesn't matter what you choose because all you will need is Force Heal and Force Push. The other powers can be used but there isn't really any need or reason to use them. One such power, Jedi Mind Trick, is utterly useless. I have no idea why it is even included since there isn't even a way to communicate with characters in the game. You never have to convince anyone to do anything. The only thing you do is wander around killing the people that shoot at you. What's more is that once you select Force Heal (which anyone with any sense will select first) it becomes pretty impossible to die except when encountering a dark Jedi.
The combat in Jedi Academy is horrendous. It isn't interesting. It isn't challenging. It isn't innovative. It's just dull. If you encounter anyone with a blaster there is absolutely no chance of them killing you. You simply charge at them with your lightsaber (which automatically deflects any blaster fire) then swing your lightsaber (usually once) killing the person. Thanks to your lightsaber's Force-guided deflection and your Force heal power there is really never any threat of dying that is related to your attackers.
Later on in the game you start encountering dark Jedi. These battles are purely annoying. Due to the lack of any sort of combat strategy you are reduced to simply charging at the Jedi and swinging your lightsaber around wildly. The results of this are hit and miss. I had to save before every Jedi encounter because I never had any idea how the battle would wind up. Sometimes I would charge at the Jedi and kill them instantly. Sometimes I would charge at the Jedi and be killed instantly. One wrong move and you get sliced in half by your enemy. Sometimes we would swing at each other for upwards of a minute until one of us slipped up and was killed instantly. There is nothing in these battles that involves anything resembling strategy. It is pure, mindless button-mashing at best. It's simply a frustrating coin toss every time you encounter one of these Jedi and towards the end of the game you encounter them a lot.
It doesn't help that when you are killed there is an annoying pseudo bullet time effect (which you can't skip) and you have to hear the Jedi insult or belittle you. Then there is an annoyingly long load time as you load your save point. I've never been so frustrated by a game's combat that I can remember. It just teeters back and forth between the mind-numbingly dull and the brain-boilingly annoying. Never is there a part in the game where you think, "Hmmm, this is going to be a challenging battle." You simply think, "Boy, this battle is going to be a total crapshoot. I'm probably going to have to reload about ten times before I can win this one."
I did, however, find an unintentional facet of combat later on in the game. The only real fun I was able to get out of these battles was due to the game's poor programming. I found that the game's AI was so horrible that you could often trick the dark Jedi into killing themselves. In one board I just ran around while the dark Jedi followed me in predictably straight lines. If I angled myself just right I could get them to run right into giant flames that were shooting out of the floor. On other boards I could trick them into falling off the edge of a bridge. In one level I lured a dark Jedi onto a conveyor belt and just watched as he was crushed against an energy shield by a large piece of metal ore. Sometimes I would walk out into a standard, generic Star Wars city with high bridges above giant endless pits. I would then hear the typical dark Jedi line like, "You're mine!" or "I have you now!" or "Die, Jedi!" and then I would simply hear a loud scream as the Jedi accidentally walked off the edge of the bridge.
Sometimes I had foiled the dark Jedi without even seeing him. I would just hear a blood-curdling scream in the distance and that would be that. I think it says a lot about this game that the most enjoyable part of it for me was taking advantage of its poor programming.
The graphics for this game are pretty bad. The in game graphics are of average quality but the cutscenes are horrendous. They would have been better off just using the in game graphics for the cutscenes. The characters walk across the floor (but their bodies move comically at about twice the speed of their feet so that it looks like they're doing a sort of comical forward moonwalk). Their mouths open as if they were attached by hinges under their ears. You can see the the lousy cutout for their chins in the graphics as they talk.
The scenery isn't much better. When you look down into a crevasse or from the top of a building you will see a black cutoff where the game makers must simply have decided: "Okay, that's enough graphics for that. What are the odds someone's going to look down there anyway?" When the programmers actually decided to complete the graphics they are usually pretty boring. There are some pretty cool visuals. A mission that brings you to a Tibanna Gas Mine reminiscent of (read: lazily ripped off from) Bespin's Cloud City is actually pretty well done graphically. Another mission that features speeder bikes is yawn-inducing. Remember the speeder bike scene from Return of the Jedi? well it's just like that except take out the trees and in their place put a barren landscape with nothing but dirt and brush on the ground. Occassionally you will see something that resembles something interesting. You will get off your speeder bike to inspect the area and find that it's only some landscape you can't interact with. They you will promptly be killed before you can get back on your speeder bike.
There's not much to be said about the soundtrack to this game. Even if you haven't played the game, you've heard the soundtrack. I don't think there's a piece of original music in this entire game. It seems like they have the original trilogy soundtrack in a playlist set to random.
Story (Warning: "Spoilers")
The story is pretty simple. A dark Jedi named Marka Ragnos--who sounds like he could be the host of a show on the Food Network rather than a dark Jedi--that has been dead for thousands of years has somehow enlisted an army of loyal disciples that have figured out a way to collect Force energy. By going to planets strong with the force they can collect this energy to raise Ragnos from the dead.
Your character plays a young Jedi recruit that is on his way to Luke Skywalker's training facility. You are accompanied on your journey by another recruit named Rosh. It becomes clear after Rosh says about three words that he is an eager, hotheaded student that will eventually betray you and turn to the dark side. Even if you hadn't heard of Star Wars before seeing this opening scene it will be so blatant as to slap you across the face.
When the students arrive at Luke's facility they find some bad guys there, siphoning Force power from Luke's temple. After you defeat them you begin your Jedi training under the tutelage of Kyle Katarn. Fans of the series will recognize him as the protagonist of Jedi Knight II. Once your training is complete you are then assigned a series of chores by Luke and Kyle. These missions are given to you, laundry list style, and you must go through them one by one.
Basically every mission is the same. You need to go out kill bad guys that are involved with Ragnos somehow. These chores include a special "bonus" level at the end of each tier. All of the missions are pretty lame but the one that takes the cake is the one with the gratuitous inclusion of, you guessed it, Bobba Freakin' Fett. Any low quality book, movie or game involving Star Wars will stoop to any level to include Bobba Fett. Of course he completely invincible. Your character can take out dozens of soldiers at a time and fight simultaneously with two dark Jedi but when it comes to taking on a bounty hunter your character is helpless. You can only basically run away from the all-powerful Bobba. The man who was "killed" in Return of the Jedi by Han solo bumping into him has not only been resurrected but has gotten exponentially more powerful every time he's featured in a Star Wars product. The mission with Bobba Fett is completely unrelated to the plot of the game in any way. They don't even try to hide it, they just come out and say, "Oh, we have this unrelated mission that you should do. Look out for Bobba Fett, he may be lurking!"
Eventually your Jedi becomes more powerful. This means he gets more Jedi powers that he will never use, has the ability to jump higher and can also hold two lightsabers instead of one. It's not as cool as it sounds.
After every mission you will be see Kyle and/or Luke saunter in after you've defeated everyone. After the climactic final battle the two of them come lumbering up the stairs to the temple you've just exited. You have many Jedi companions on this mission yet the two most powerful Jedi in the galaxy have been inexplicably joy riding in a Tyderial shuttle. The best they can offer for their chronic tardiness is "Good Job." You don't get the feeling of being a hero when you play this game. You get the feeling that you just work for a really lazy boss.
All in all this game does a poor job of capturing the feeling of being a Jedi or Jedi trainee. Rather than feeling like a Jedi I spent more time recalling my job as a dishwasher as a teenager. It was just one monotonous, boring chore after another until you start to resent your bosses (Luke Skywalker and Kyle Katarn) for constantly making you do these tedious tasks as they just hang around with their hands in their pockets.
I feel bad blaming the programmers. The game, to me, seems like it's about 70% done. I'm sure the programmers were fully aware that it was not ready. There was a lot of cleaning up to be done but Lucasfilm undoubtedly pushed them to release it for Christmas so that they could start raking in the money. I would have much rather seen this game released in March or April and be a decent action/adventure game. Instead we're left with something unfinished, unpolished and sloppily presented. I'm surprised that the game got rated as highly as it did. It is not worth buying or renting and only barely worth playing for free at a friend's house.
Unfortunately Star Wars products always have the potential to be huge failures or smashing successes. This game is an example of the former while other games such as Knights of the Old Republic have been stellar examples of what this franchise is capable of. Luckily there are scores of other Star Wars games that are far sources of entertainment. Most of the games released a decade or more ago would still come more highly recommended than this most recent offering.