My favourite Star Wars game is Knights of the Old Republic 2. I’m a sucker for big RPGs and great stories, a need which Obsidian catered for near-perfectly in their sequel to Bioware’s more fondly remembered original. Sure, the first KotOR is by far the more polished game and it weaves a seemingly more epic tale, telling a classic adventure of heroism, adventure and derring-do, but KotOR 2 is still, to my eyes, the better game. The story is more complex and meaningful, the principal villain is far more malevolent, insidious and intriguing than the warmongering Darth Malak from KotOR and the RPG elements are actually roundly improved, with better crafting, more abilities and additional classes.
If I want to experience the whole picture of being a Jedi, then the KotOR games are the way to go. In the end, however, they’re still, effectively, turn-based RPGs. If you just want the thrill, the excitement, the downright awesomeness of taking a glowing blue sword and a fistful of lightning to a bunch of baddies, without any of this moral choice or side quest nonsense, there really is only one pair of games to go for: the Jedi Knight games.
Don’t worry, I’ve remembered that Dark Forces 2 exists, but I’m talking about its sequels, Jedi Outcast and Jedi Academy. Playing them has become something of a ritual for me: they’re among the more modern games I can run on my ailing laptop, so on those occasions when my desktop is unavailable (such as this week), it’s time to draw the lightsaber once again. I don’t play them for the story, the graphics, or for any other feature except one, the foundation of the whole thing: the core combat gameplay.
No other Star Wars games capture the essence of being a super-powered swordsman. The Force Unleashed, Lucasarts’ most recent attempt at a Star Wars action game, is pitiful in comparison, where pressing a few buttons leads to ridiculously overpowered attacks that have little to do with your own skill or intention. In Jedi Knight, the combat is mapped to the mouse, with no auto-targeting or lock-on system to help out. Chaining fluid moves is the easiest thing in the world, but a great deal of skill is required to make them strike home. Landing a series of perfectly-timed blows against several enemies in succession is immensely satisfying, even more so when extra moves like lightsaber throw, force push or good old force grip are added in. Jedi Academy added twin sabers and double-bladed sabers to the mix as well, allowing for a tremendous amount of choice.
It’s one thing carving through a swath of Rodian, Weequay and Gran mercenaries, but the game shines brightest in the duels with other lightsaber-wielding opponents. In the near eight years since Academy came out, I can’t think of another game that has executed melee combat so well. Dodging your opponents blows, waiting for the gap in his rhythm, or simply hammering home attack after attack are all viable strategies in a beautifully free-flowing system that makes a mockery of modern games. Combat in a game like, say, God of War is all well and good, but the player’s intent is distilled through the combos and animations (without even mentioning the quick-time events) that the designers have decided that Kratos can pull off.
Here, however, I decide where each and every blow lands, I decide what direction to swing the lightsaber in and ultimately my skill is what overcomes the enemy. It’s the most skill-based melee combat system around, bringing the player’s action closest to the avatar’s action, rather than mediating between the two with a set of pre-defined combos or animations. Jedi Outcast and Jedi Academy are amongst the most brilliant executors of emotion-through-gameplay, rather than story, art direction or any other facet of design, which I have ever played.