Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast’s Worst Levels Made It a Great Star Wars Game

Years after its arrival, Star Wars Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast's infamously slow start feels more important than ever.

Despite the assurances of ‘70s soul trio The Main Ingredient, many gamers do not believe they ever need to play the fool.

Many consumer revolts against the modern gaming industry involve the notion of being duped. From the temptation of unnecessary microtransactions to the false advertising of supposed epics, nothing brings a modern gamer’s blood to boil faster than the idea that they have been deceived by a developer.

For some, it’s a fear tempered by the fires of experience. Without launching into a porch sitting, cane waving, “back in my day rant” about old-school gaming, there was a time when nearly every video game purchase was a blind one. Due to a lack of readily available media outlets and community forums, it wasn’t uncommon to purchase a game you knew relatively little – if anything at all – about.

It was a time when a game was far more likely to surprise you simply because you had no expectations regarding it, but it was also a time when just about every gamer fell victim to a title that misrepresented itself in some way. Those feelings of betrayal and disappointment that never quite leave you.

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I first experienced these feelings with Star Wars Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast.

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To be clear, Jedi Outcast was not the first game I felt duped by. I believe that honor would go to the infamous LJN X-Men game for the NES. It was, however, the first game that I ever purchased which I felt was misrepresented by those who had already played it.

I had done my homework before purchasing Jedi Outcast. The consensus regarding the game was that it was arguably the definitive Star Wars title and certainly the game that finally allowed players the chance to experience proper lightsaber combat.

The power of such a promise cannot be overstated. Until that point, lightsaber combat in Star Wars video games didn’t amount to much more than mashing the attack button while digital Jedi cycled through their attack animations to defeat enemies that should have been bested by a single blow.

That approach proved to be serviceable for awhile, but as time went on, fans expected more. Not only had video game technology evolved, but the Star Wars prequels introduced a much more stylish form of lightsaber duels that made the video game versions of these battles feel that much more trivial

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When I brought Jedi Outcast home from the local CompUSA – an ancient place of yore – and installed it on the wheezing family computer, I expected to immediately participate in the fabled lightsaber combat I had heard so much about. What I got instead was a first-person shooter.

Perhaps you realize the mistake a much younger me had made. In my haste to believe that the perfect Jedi simulator had finally been made, I overlooked certain other aspects of the game reviewers had mentioned. Namely, I had conveniently glanced past the fact that Jedi Outcast was a continuation of the first-person shooter series Dark Forces and was itself partially a first-person shooter game.

In hindsight, the real problem with Jedi Outcast isn’t necessarily that it starts off as a first-person shooter, but rather that it starts off as a fairly outdated first-person shooter that can also be played as an unimpressive third-person shooter. Released after games like Halo and Half-Life showed that first-person shooter combat didn’t need to revolve around monster closets and colored keys, Jedi Outcast’s stormtrooper closets and colored keycards did little to capitalize on the many innovations the genre had made since the original Dark Forces was released.

All told, you are going to have to endure about three hours and change of this gameplay before you’re ever allowed to even touch a lightsaber. At that point, the game doesn’t even automatically redeem itself by allowing you to partake in the splendor of its saber combat. Instead, the game forces you to wade through a level that lets you briefly use your lightsaber and accompanying Force powers against a squad of woefully unprepared goons, before making you revert back to your arsenal of blasters to effectively dispatch the litter of snipers peppered throughout the area.

It’s not until the next level that Jedi Outcast finally allows you to participate in a lightsaber duel and experience the element of the game that has defined its legacy. Actually, the truly fascinating thing about Jedi Outcast’s lightsaber combat is that it doesn’t require you to look at it through the lens of any historical context in order to fully appreciate it.

Despite the promise of motion control lightsaber battles and VR experiences, no game has ever really come close to replicating the sublime brilliance of Jedi Outcast’s brand of acrobatic melee mayhem. Lightsabers in this game are not treated like bright swords that deal “X” points of damage with each successful hit. They are beams of pure energy that can destroy a foe in a single blow if the person wielding the weapon is able to use his agility and Force powers to land the perfect strike.

It would be lovely to say that Jedi Outcast’s combat forever changed the way that developers approached melee battles in action games, but that sadly isn’t the truth. Star Wars games or no, developers everywhere are still chasing the perfect melee combat system. Titles like Blade Symphony – one of many games inspired by the revolutionary combat in Jedi Outcast – have even gone so far as to base the entire game around the mechanics of its melee fights. 

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With Jedi Outcast, however, you have a game which doesn’t even introduce its melee system until around the quarter mark but manages to perfectly capture the thrill of a combat style that has achieved mythical status in the realm of pop culture. My fascination with Jedi Outcast’s lightsaber combat has long inspired me to consider just how it is that a game that doesn’t even come alive until almost halfway through can best the efforts of games that focus on nothing else.

At some point, I began to accept the possibility that Jedi Outcast’s worst moments are more than just a tool developer Raven Software used to pad the length of the game and deceive those Star Wars fans who took a chance on their adventure.

Although I realized that Jedi Outcast was part of the Dark Forces franchise long ago, I never appreciated what the game’s first-person shooter sections mean to the series’ on-going narrative. At the beginning of Jedi Outcast, protagonist Kyle Katarn wants to be as far away from a lightsaber and all other Jedi-related things as possible. He has the ability to be one of the galaxy’s great Jedi warriors, but no longer possesses the desire. 

That’s not a standpoint many Star Wars fans can sympathize with, but rather one that stems from Katarn’s history as a mercenary turned Jedi who watched his world descend into chaos as he furthered his training in pursuit of a form of justice bordering on vengeance. In Katarn’s mind, he has done what the Jedi in him was required to do, and it is time to return to his life as a mercenary.

Jedi Outcast’s opening levels allow for the player to feel what Katarn feels at this stage in his life. Yes, he could continue a lucrative career as a gun for hire if he truly desires nothing else, but how can one who has walked the path of a Jedi ever go back to blasters and grenades? Katarn puts on his best Han Solo impression, but the call of the Force clearly rings in his ears.

If Jedi Outcast had begun at the moment that Katarn decides to return to the ways of the Force – around the point when his partner, Jan, is killed – we would have gotten to the game’s fabled lightsaber combat quicker, but we would have been denied the opportunity to experience the psychology of our hero. More importantly, we wouldn’t have been able to fully appreciate the significance of finally getting to wield a lightsaber, which, if you’ll remember, was the problem with many of the games that came before Jedi Outcast.

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Jedi Outcast could have gotten by with a stellar lightsaber system alone, but even its blissfully methodical combat system runs the risk of feeling like a refined take on the old button-mashing style were it not for those opening moments that show you the clear distinction between a properly trained Jedi and, as what Katarn identifies himself as shortly after retaking his Jedi weapon, “A guy with a lightsaber and a few questions.” In Jedi Outcast, lightsabers carry a weight that is both impressively tangible and refreshingly meaningful to the plot.

If the idea of a version of Jedi Outcast that is somehow worse without the shooter prelude is too abstract for you, consider the practical example of that concept, Jedi Knight: Jedi Academy. Jedi Academy typically doesn’t enjoy the acclaim its predecessor regularly receives due, in part, to the fact that it dispenses with the careful plotting and pacing of Outcast in favor of a Jedi lightsaber combat extravaganza. In the process, it gives a guest lecture on a lesson that Star Wars fans learned from the prequel trilogy, which is that the finest choreographed lightsaber fights in the world don’t add up to much if they’re not supported by a reason to care about all the flipping and whooshing.

Actually, the more you begin to appreciate how important the early sections of Jedi Outcast are, the more you begin to wonder if the shooter segments are unfairly ridiculed as a standalone experience despite playing a vital role in the overall construction of the game. After all, if a five-foot tall man stands on the shoulders of a four-foot tall man you wouldn’t just single out the lower man for pretending to be nine feet tall.

While it’s a little too much of a stretch to imply that Raven Software knowingly implemented a slightly outdated take on shooters in order to bolster the appeal of the later stages even more, there is an undeniable charm to the retro simplicity that grows stronger with each passing year. If Jedi Outcast’s shooter segments were stretched to the length of an entire game, that hypothetical title would still be one of the most respectable interactive ventures into the non-Force power sector of the Star Wars universe.

There’s something to be said for a game that’s worst parts are still better than the majority of equivalent experiences out there. In the case of Jedi Outcast, you have to say that not only is the game not the rip-off that certain misguided youths may have labeled it as in a moment of anger, but that it may very well be the greatest Star Wars game ever made.

Matthew Byrd is a staff writer.