Hardspace Shipbreaker: The Beginning

I love this game. I absolutely love it.

Hardspace: Shipbreaker puts you in the suit of a blue-collar salvager working to dismantle spaceships and reclaim their valuable elements. Working in low earth orbit, you can look down on the Earth you left behind to seek your future among the stars. Earth, at this point in time is kind of messed up. Global warming is a past event. The ice caps have melted and flooded many continents. The tropical rain forests are gone, turned into barren desert. The only habitable areas left are in the polar extremes. You left behind everything you knew in search of a better existence.

The game opens with you looking at a datapad, presumably in the cramped confines of your Earth habitat. A mess lies in front of you. The ambient soundtrack is one of cramped urban chaos. Through the walls of your apartment you hear scuffling, thumping, screaming, crying, sirens in the distance; everything you’d expect from an overpopulated and nightmarish city. It’s a moment that plays perfectly to your motivation to knowingly sign a horrible contract with Lynx Corporation.

It’s an absolutely ingenious way to set up a game about clawing your way out of debt to an evil corporation. Sure the game is about salvaging spaceships, but the fact that they set up why you’re doing it pulls the feel of the game together in a way that might not otherwise work. It explains why you’re starting from square zero, why you have to pay for your tools and the workspace, as well as how you can keep working after accidentally floating into the processor (which I did, embarrassingly early on).

The opening cinematic sets the tone for the game. It has the reason for leaving Earth, the new civilization in low orbit, what gets left behind, and how your new life looks. It’s just fantastic!

The little girl in the video is reciting a version of an old miner’s prayer:

Each day he steps into the yard
to earn his way just working hard
I pray to the stars and heaven above
to return my daddy to those he loves
If there comes a time when he and death meet
Bless the next cutter to take his seat

This is what happens when you accidentally process yourself…

Playing the Factorio Demo May Have Been a Mistake

I’ve heard about Factorio for years, it seems. There was always something intriguing about the screenshots, but they were never quite enough to draw me in. This past Friday I was browsing games on my wish list and noticed Factorio has a free demo! In 2020, that’s a notable thing by itself. The game’s developer has a hard stance against ever putting their product on sale, so the demo exists to offset that.

Considering that my intent to see what the game is all about ballooned into three hours of play time in one afternoon, I’d say the demo is going to pay off.

So what’s the game all about? You’re a pilot, or something, stuck on an alien world and you want to go home. Surrounded by the wreckage of the ship you crashed in, you must salvage what you can to build a new ship and leave the planet you’ve been marooned on. But it’s not quite that simple. At least not in the world of Factorio. Scrap isn’t good enough, you must harvest resources to build a shiny new spaceship!

Your first order of business is to manually harvest stone and iron to build mines and furnaces to refine the raw materials from the ground. This allows you to build mining platforms to harvest the ore for you. Next you need to recover scrap from your crashed ship and build processors that combine multiple raw elements into new components. Those components are used to feed research to develop other new products. And on top of it all, you must manage power sources and – of course – build a dizzying array of conveyor belts to connect it all!

If it sounds simple, it is – except that it’s not. Machinery needs power to keep running. If you notice your conveyor of copper plates is empty, the odds are that a refinery or grabber arm ran out of coal. Sure, you could collect coal yourself and walk your character over to refill it. Or you could build a hideously complex conveyor system to deliver coal to the copper mine and automate the process.

It doesn’t take long before you’re constantly zooming in and out, tracing the supply of iron cogs to see if they’re supposed to go to the science lab or the other manufacturing plant. And then you notice a grabber arm has ran out of fuel, so you reroute the coal supply. By then you notice there’s a backup of iron ore for some reason… and so on.

It’s likely that some people will find this all to be a lot of tedious upkeep. For me, it strikes just the right balance between maintaining what you have and needing to expand and change. The tech tree allows you to research new abilities and machinery that will help optimize your layouts. There’s seldom a moment when you’re just sitting and waiting for something to happen.

The demo, which is the game’s tutorial scenario, does a nice job of offering specific objectives and letting the player figure out how to meet them. Hand-holding is minimal, allowing for maximum creative freedom. It also allows for mistakes. I find the game’s trust of the player to be a refreshing experience when compared to so many of today’s tightly choreographed campaigns.

But it’s not just peace and optimization. The planet you’re on has fauna that wants to destroy your factories and kill you. They’re super mean. This is what happened to my first base in the tutorial:

Compare this to the GIF above…

The next logical escalation in this war is adding guns to the research tree, which Factorio does. Now my base is protected by automated turrets. TAKE THAT, EVIL SPACE BUGS!!!

Factorio has proven to be pleasantly surprising. I’m sure I’m going to keep playing until the demo ends and, at this point, I’m planning to drop $30 on the full game when it happens. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to adjust the conveyors to optimize my coal distribution.

Half Life: Blue Shift

Released two years after Half Life had a seismic impact on the state of story-driven video games, and one year after Opposing Force earned the label “best expansion pack ever”, Blue Shift entered the scene to high expectations.

For the past 19 years, Blue Shift had been cemented in my mind as my favorite Half Life experience. Playing it again today, I’m not quite sure why that is. Released two years after Half Life had a seismic impact on the state of story-driven video games, and one year after Opposing Force earned the label “best expansion pack ever”, Blue Shift entered the scene to high expectations.

The game puts you in the shoes of Barney Calhoun on the day everything went wrong in the Black Mesa research facility. Honestly, there’s not much to Blue Shift. Barney’s story is pretty simplistic: Trapped in Black Mesa, he sets out to find a group of scientists who are devising a means to escape the facility via a short range teleporter. The game doesn’t have the sense of discovery that Half Life did, nor does it turn the narrative on its side like Opposing Force. It’s the tale of a guy who had a bad day at work and wants to go home.

There’s nothing wrong with keeping it simple; it’s just that the game is too simple when compared to its companions. The most interesting bit happens when scientists send Barney to the netherworld of Xen to re-calibrate their teleporter. The location feels suitably alien, with the only recognizable bits being pieces of scientific equipment placed there before you.

Ironically enough, the extended time spent in Xen illustrates why the location is so difficult to pull off: it’s a world without context. The Half Life franchise is built on creating a relatable world that’s been obviously turned on its side by a sinister alien presence. The player knows how to feel since so much of it is familiar. Xen, on the other hand, is a world you can’t relate to. Monsters stand around and wait to attack you, much like they do on Earth. If there’s a structure or an order to their world, it’s not communicated beyond basic gameplay tropes. Jump on that round thing to get launched in the air. Stand in this puddle to gain health. Don’t fall off the ledge into oblivion. It almost feels like switching from a stroll down your hometown’s main street to an abstract level from Super Mario Brothers; From reality to abstract.

Maybe that’s the point. Maybe Xen is supposed to conjure up existential ruminations? Perhaps the goal is to make the player question what “natural order” is supposed to be? Or maybe it’s just supposed to be a “weird” level in a video game. My money is on the latter option.

Whatever the goal, Blue Shift doesn’t give you much time to ponder these questions. Taking it slowly, you’ll be lucky if the game lasts you more than two and a half hours. I just completed the game and I struggle to recollect most of it; it’s that forgettable. If you’re in the mood for an extra dose of Half Life and need it to be different from the original game, play Opposing Force.

Sorry Blue Shift, nostalgia was wrong about you.


Raving Reviews – Jedi: Fallen Order

Fallen Order is one of the best Star Wars video games to have ever been released. It hits a lot of the high notes required to make a Star Wars game a compelling and memorable experience. It’s concrete proof that developers need to make expansive single player games in the Star Wars universe.

Fallen Order is one of the best Star Wars video games to have ever been released. It hits a lot of the high notes required to make a Star Wars game a compelling and memorable experience. It’s concrete proof that developers need to make expansive single player games in the Star Wars universe. And yet, on the backside of spending 35 hours to complete the game to 100% the experience feels a little empty.

Fallen Order has a pretty great first hour. It’s set a few years after the end of the Clone Wars. Cal Kestis is a former Jedi, now existing as a scavenger who makes a living by dismantling old warships on a backwater planet. He makes the somewhat predictable good-guy mistake of using his Jedi powers to save a friend’s life. The evil authorities inevitably find out, kicking off the pursuit of our ginger-headed hero. He meets a few allies along the way and eventually begins a quest to rediscover his Jedi roots and restore balance to the galaxy.

Oh. Okay. No pressure, eh?

Though the game’s marketing campaigns sell it as an action / combat game, Fallen order is an adventure game at heart. You are given a quest and means to pursue it. It’s up to you to follow the clues and unlock the secrets. The core gameplay loop is a good one. Begin the leg of a quest by picking a planet from the holomap on your spaceship. Travel there, ascertain the situation, and then explore the lay of the land.

Each planet holds some secret, a clue that Cal needs to uncover in order to accomplish his quest. After landing, he’ll have to scout out the area and discover the best way to progress. And these areas are huge. Zeffo, in particular, took at least ten hours to explore between the two mandatory story visits. A lot of time is spent on simple but engaging traversal. Navigating these huge levels reminded me a lot of Tomb Raider. Discovering where to go and how to get there is a part of the puzzle.

Most of the time, there’s an obvious path to take. Frequently, you’ll observe a ledge or a crate that’s just out of reach; waiting for you to learn some Jedi power before you have the means to access it. The game handles these barriers to progression fairly well. Impassable environmental obstacles glow a dull red. I appreciate the game’s respect for my time by letting me know there’s no point trying to overcome those obstacles yet. Done poorly, placing such obvious restrictions can seem like a cheap way to pad the length of the game by forcing you to come back later. Thankfully, Fallen Order has such masterful level design that the placement of obstacles and progressing through them felt natural.

Environmental design is spot-on, and even spending hours unraveling a puzzle maze of a tomb built by a long-extinct force-sensitive race is a bit of fun. It says a lot about a game that jumping, climbing, and force-pushing giant spheres can be just as engaging as mowing down dozens of stormtroopers with a laser sword. There were only two instances where I had to seek internet assistance to solve a puzzle, and those were both due to my inability to recognize clues the game had telegraphed.

It’s these quiet moments that make Fallen Order feel like a Jedi experience. It’s not only about proficiency with a lightsaber, it’s about discovery. Discovery of yourself and the universe around you.

That’s not to say that slicing living beings with a lightsaber isn’t fun. On the contrary, it’s an experience that generates great joy! The style of combat presented in Fallen Order is a pleasant combination of the heavy swinging from the Original Trilogy and the fast aerial battles of the prequels.

Entering an area with enemy combatants, you’ll have to take inventory and identify the biggest threats and how to sequence your attacks. A single rocket trooper may not be a big threat, but if you get thrown off balance by a rocket it will open you up to attacks by other foes. Even meager stormtroopers can cause havoc when engaged against two or more pike-wielding biker troopers. Combat poses a fun challenge until late in the game, when it’s just plain fun.

As great as the combat is, there are many moments when I have to stop and wonder how Jedi-like it is to travel to planets and stab everything with my laser sword. If it moves, you can – and are probably supposed to – kill it. The focus on combat is such that there’s no real question about whether or not attacking is the right thing to do Placing such a singular response on non-character beings is something that holds the game’s storytelling back. Some of the greatest narratives in Star Wars games gave players a choice about how to respond to the characters around them.

This is the Jedi way.

There are tons of story and world-building details scattered all throughout Fallen Order. Most of them are presented as force echoes that Cal must sense with his powers or environmental details to be scanned by BD-1. When observed, these details are presented as a line or two of text that hangs onscreen for a moment, forcing you to open the menu to read the full entries. I understand why Respawn did it this way; no need to force reading on people who’d rather not. However, by relegating so many of the details to a menu people may not look at, the end result is that a lot of the games locations don’t feel as fleshed out and alive as they could have.

I’m not going to spend a lot of time going over the story here, because that’s something best left experienced firsthand. What I will say is that it’s told exceptionally well, and fantastic character writing makes the story more impactful than you might have expected. Even Cal, who has garnered a mixed reaction from critics and some fans, resonated with me more than I expected he would. I love the guy!

Think of it this way: Cal is a guy who has been training since childhood to do one thing – be a Jedi. In the middle of that, Emperor Palpatine comes to power and your way of life gets Order 66ed. Everyone you knew or cared about is murdered, and you’re next if anyone discovers the truth about you. Through a series of events, you have an opportunity to step up and set in motion a way to redeem your life’s purpose.

Cal’s quest is immediately relatable, and his supporting cast of Cere, Greez, BD-1, and particularly Merrin help to sell the adventure. I sincerely hope that we haven’t seen the last of this crew. But seriously, go play the game for the story or watch it on YouTube; it’s worth experiencing.

So where do I get that aforementioned feeling of emptiness from Fallen Order? I think the problem is that when the story ends, the game doesn’t. After the last set of set piece confrontations ends, you’re dumped back on the ship with the opportunity to go and discover all the secrets you missed during the course of the story. That’s a blessing and a curse.

Being able to go back to these empty planets after completing the main story, to me, only served to dilute the adventure I’d just experienced. Kashyyyk was no longer the battleground between the Empire and the Wookiee nation, it was this vast open jungle where I was scouring every corner looking for a blue force echo to sense. That, or I was swimming through murky water to find a crate at the bottom of a lake. It probably took me at least 2-3 hours after completing the game to travel to all the planets and uncover the things I’d missed – or been unable to access during the story.

Those few hours of running through empty worlds effectively distanced me from the adventure I’d just had. Instead of ruminating on the force, dark encounters, and epic duels, I’m left thinking about where in the heck on Dathomir that one crate is.

And that’s where I’m at. If Fallen Order had simply ended after the last epic encounter, I think I would feel much happier with it. Spending just those few hours in the empty world caused me to feel so distant from the vibrancy those worlds exhibited during the story.

If you love Star Wars, hacking things with lightsabers, exploring massive areas a la Tomb Raider, and great stories; please, play the game! Just maybe don’t worry about completing it to 100%.

Screenshot Gallery

Daikatana – What a Weird World

True to my New Year’s pledge, I’ve begun playing some of the previously untouched games in my library. I’m now about an hour into Diakatana and so far the game has taught me two things:

One: In this dystopian cyberpunk future alternate reality, blue collar workmen are terrified of techno-frogs.

Two: This cyberpunk future has taken sewer boxing to the next level:

Ultimate Gas Hands?

Every time you put them on you watch the animation of your character pulling a cord to start what sounds like a 2-cycle engine. The sound persists as your hand vibrates, waiting to… punch people to death?

I expected to have a lot to say about this game, and I probably will later on, but this moment has left me kind of speechless.

Resolve to Dissolve the Gaming Shame

It’s confession time. There are some games that haunt me. Not in the sense of being reminded of bad experiences, but rather the knowledge that I may have fallen short. Or it’s possible the game didn’t or couldn’t live up to my expectations. Call them regrets, if you will. It’s time for me to address these and get them off my back.

The one I never played: Starcraft

Yes, that Starcraft.

What can I say? Back in the 1990s I was a Command and Conquer kid! It was my go-to favorite franchise for strategy gaming. Having this other game show up and get widely proclaimed as one of the best and most influential titles of all time just hit me the wrong way. I didn’t want to like it because it was popular. Plus I associated the game with Warcraft, a similar title set in a world of magic and orcs – and I was just too cool for that kind of fantasy setting when I was kid.

Younger me did some dumb things, and missed out on some cool stuff. Not adult me! I purchased Starcraft Remastered from Blizzard’s confusing storefront and will be beating the game in 2020.

The one I never finished: Homeworld 2

This one stings.

As I’ve publicly professed before, Homeworld is my absolute favorite video game series of all time. The first game captivated my imagination in December of 1999 and I credit it, along with Star Wars, for cementing my lifelong love of all things space.

But I never beat Homeworld 2. I’ve completed the other games in the series at least a half-dozen times over, but number two eludes me. Back when it released there were some balancing issues that made the single-player campaign punishingly difficult at about the midway point. I still remember giving up on it back in 2003.

The Remastered version was prettier and easier to play, but I just stopped playing about two thirds of the way through. Something about the story didn’t overcome real life and I gave up on it. I remember something about hyperspace cores, Progenitors, Sajuuk, and bears. Oh my!

Yeah, I need to finish this one properly.

The one I never was able to get into: Fallout

War. War never changes. It’s also very brown.

I tried, multiple times, to get into Fallout. Each time, my experience was very much the same: brown. Maybe role playing games and I don’t get along. My apathy for this influential title is shared among many slow paced point and click games for the era. Still, I’d hoped that at some point a light bulb would go on and the barren wasteland of Fallout would start to be more appealing.

Maybe it will this year?

Here are five other games I’ve never played that make my list for 2020:

The one that couldn’t possibly be as bad as everyone said it was: Diakatana

It can’t really be that bad, can it?

The one I watched my brother play but never got into for myself: Thief, The Dark Project

The one where you type to make robot drones do things: Duskers

The one with the five-hour soundtrack I’ve listened to dozens of times: Mirror’s Edge Catalyst

The shooty spaceship game I absolutely cannot believe I’ve never played: Descent Freespace

This is not about “clearing the backlog”. For the uninitiated, “backlog” refers to massive game collections that expand faster than anyone can reasonably play through them. No, attacking backlog conjures up feelings of obligation and makes gaming feel like work. It’s just not feasible for me, as a gainfully employed adult, to ever complete every one of the four hundred and thirty games currently sitting in my library.

However, I’d like to experience more of what I’ve missed out on. And that means treating games like a fun hobby instead of work to be done. This means it has to be okay to not complete or even start some of the games I already own. Therefore, I have two guidelines set up for my gaming habits in 2020:

  1. For every old experience, there has to be a new one. When I install a game I’ve played before, I need to also try at least one game I’ve never played.
  2. Games get two hours to to prove to me that they’re worth playing. If I don’t see the value in them after two hours, I can set any title aside and say that, while it might be good, it may not be a game for me.

That’s it.

2020 may not have more gaming going on, but it’ll have some different gaming going on. And that’s exciting to me!

Jedi: Fallen Order – The Beginning

You never get a second chance to make a first impression, so it’s a good thing Fallen Order seizes its opportunity. The first single-player only Star Wars video game to be released in almost ten years, Fallen Order had a lot of expectations resting on it. After spending a little less than an hour in the life of Cal Kestis, I’m confident my decision to pay (almost) full price for the game was a good one.

Cal is a ship breaker among a legion of ship breakers. They’re tasked with demolishing hulks of warships from the Clone Wars so that the Empire can use those materials to make new ones. The game, mercifully, doesn’t have a distinct tutorial. Instead, you’re taught the basics of movement as Cal follows his friend Prauf to a new assignment. In addition to showing off the movement mechanics, this opening sequence shows off the stunning visual design of the game.

As Cal winds his way through a hulk, you pass a bunch of other scrappers performing their work. At any moment you can pause to listen to their conversations, watch them work, and see sparks fly from their tools. Droids move large pieces in and out of your field of view. Anything you’d expect to see blow by wind actually moves and flaps around. Rain drops accumulate and drip down surfaces. Rats scurry across piping and away from larger beings. There are tons of fantastic details that help to sell the world as a live place.

Fallen Order is set about five years after the events of Revenge of the Sith. The Old Republic is gone, and the Empire is still in its infancy. It’s a difficult time to be a Jedi. Cal encounters a situation that requires him to use his force powers rather conspicuously, and his day gets worse from there. This means the game gets more fun to play as we’re introduced to force powers and Cal’s lightsaber. Oh yeah, and you get into a duel.

At the end of the game’s introduction Cal meets allies Greez and Cere on board a ship called Stinger Mantis. This is the moment that cemented my love for Fallen Order. Sure, we’ve already seen all the requisite Star Wars elements, the Force, Stormtroopers, aliens, lightsabers, and all that jazz; but spaceships are what seal the deal for me. I’ve always been captivated by the idea of boarding a rocket ship, pointing it up, and seeing what the stars hold.

The design of the Mantis, to me, demonstrates the care and love that Respawn put into creating this game. I mean, look at this common area:

You’ve got a kitchen, bunks, and a sitting area. Every wall has switches, compartments, and other details. There are some plants (plants!) under specially designed grow lights. Every surface has just the right look to it. The kitchen is stocked with cups, dishes, and utensils for doling out food. Everywhere you look, there’s something to see; and it’s all evidence of a real spaceship that people use on a regular basis.

The first hour of Fallen Order tries hard to sell you its world. And it works. I’m in.

Dirt Rally

A game built around rally racing seems like it would be something I enjoy. Just me and my car on long, winding tracks in a race against the clock. My primary opponents are dirt, snow, hairpins, hills, and jumps. I’d overcome them all with ease, flinging my metal machine over and through them all at breakneck speeds. Me and my car on a dirt track in a race against time. Drive a car, go fast, don’t crash. Sounds fun, right?

It sounds like a ton of fun. But in reality, Dirt Rally is the most stressful racing game I’ve ever played.

That’s not a knock against the game. It’s the realization that Dirt Rally and I are not well suited for one another. If racing games were movies, I’d prefer the ones made by Michael Bay. The kind where you wind up jumping a big rig over an exploding gas station. Dirt Rally is not that kind of game. CodeMasters, the developer behind the game, touts its “challenging, uncompromising handling model” that “adequately capture(s) how it feels to race across changing surfaces”. It’s totally a simulation game, not an arcade racer.

Playing a racing sim demands that you unlearn almost everything you already know about playing arcade racing games. Using the e-brake to slide around corners, drifting, grinding side walls without consequences; none of those things work here. I mean, you actually have to use the brake and slow down before going into turns! If you don’t, you’ll understeer and run off the far side of the track.

Your racing mistakes accumulate on your vehicle. Every missed turn, every rail smashed, every crash results in damage to your car that makes it perform worse. By the end of some races I was in command of a hulk of steel that barely qualified as a car.

If you have any skill at sim racing, Dirt Rally has a lot to offer. Gorgeous visuals, a lengthy career mode, lots of cars to race, staff maintenance; it could keep someone’s attention for quite a while.

But in the end it comes down to your ability to keep a fast-moving car on a perilously narrow track. That’s an ability that I lack.



A GIF from the time Ron and Harry took up rally racing after graduating from Hogwarts


This is me racing, very, very poorly on a snowy track. Game looks and sounds great, my driving stinks.

Logo Appreciation: Jedi Outcast

A rabbit trail of events had me looking up the logo for Jedi Outcast this week. After looking at it, I saw a simple design element that has escaped my attention since it was first revealed back in 2002.

The initials for the game’s title, “JKO”, are in full display in the middle of the logo! The left lightsaber is “J”, the right one “K”, and they’re encircled by an “O”. The two saber blades symbolize that this is the second Jedi Knight game. I don’t know how I missed that for all these years, but there it is. Just goes to prove that good design can stand the test of time, I guess.

That is, if people notice it…

Jedi Knight: Mysteries of the Sith

While Dark Forces II: Jedi Knight had some flaws, it also contained more than a few elements that made it endearing to me and a legion of other fans. It was the story of Kyle Katarn’s ascension from a freelance blaster-toting fighter to a member of either the Jedi Order or ruler of the Sith, depending on your choices. Traditional shooter gameplay gave way to using Jedi force powers and spectacular (at the time) lightsaber duels. Combine the enthralling gaming experience with the delightfully cheesy live-action story videos, and you have a game that’s better than the sum of its parts.

Imagine my delight when I saw that this game I loved was getting an expansion that not only dealt with the Sith, but featured Mara Jade as the lead character! A new game with Mara Jade, nemesis of Luke Skywalker turned ally, was a big deal. After all, this was 1998; the peak of the Expanded Universe for Star Wars fans. Considering Lucasarts’ track record, there didn’t seem to be any downside to having high expectations. Just look at this box art! Mara Jade! Purple Lightsaber! RANCOR!!!

Okay, so it’s just the manual but it’s all I managed to hang on to for 21 years.

Unfortunately, Mysteries of the Sith is the least fun I’ve ever had while playing a Star Wars video game.

That’s not saying that the game has aged badly, even though it has. It’s more a reflection of the lack of quality found in the game at the time it was released. In fact, the thing I remember most about my first attempt to play the game was encountering a progression-stopping bug that either forced me to restart it or wait for a patch to be released.

Both Jedi Knight and MotS have some shared quirks. There’s a unique feel to the movement and the action that’s only present in games built in the Sith engine. Because the games were developed in the early years of three-dimensional shooters, everything is big and blocky. And while Jedi Knight embraced this and gave players huge and expansive levels to explore, MotS traded these for medium-sized levels that are packed with more non-player characters and scripted sequences.

I could list off a laundry list of things I observed in my experience with the game, but ultimately I think it boils down to four distinct failures:

Failure #1 Mysteries of the Sith starts off by giving the player control of Kyle Katarn.

By itself, this isn’t a bad thing. Players were familiar with Kyle, and starting a new game with a lightsaber and full suite of force powers is a good way to get straight to what made Jedi Knight shine. Unfortunately, the game’s introduction takes a long time; four of the fourteen levels belong to Kyle instead of Mara Jade. Though she’s present in between missions during the cutscenes, I started to wonder if I’d ever get to play the game’s marquee character.

Finally, after spending two hours repelling a generic Imperial attack on a nondescript base players are given a glimpse of what this game is all about:

At the end of the fourth mission, Kyle abruptly leaves the story to go and pursue rumors of a Sith temple on a faraway planet. This leaves the player to take control of Mara and not do anything related to mysteries or Sith.

Failure #2After immersing the player to fun, competent mechanics it strips all of them for a restart almost 1/3 of the way through the game.

You’re finally in control of Mara Jade on the fifth mission. Jedi student to Kyle, her force abilities are considerably weaker than his. Forget about the first two hours of the game that you spent wielding a lightsaber to block blaster bolts and force-pull enemy weapons out of their hands. You’re a padawan now! While it makes sense from a story perspective, it makes the game instantly less fun to play.

Mara is unable to reliably block enemy shots with her lightsaber, and her force powers are weak and seem to take ages to recharge. It’s much more effective to equip a blaster and shoot everything that moves. Forget about being a Jedi until you can level up your force powers.

Leveling up your force powers happens between missions. Completing mission objectives will usually give you a point or two to apply to a power of your choice. What’s stated in the manual but not in the game itself is that extra upgrade points are awarded for discovering secret areas. I missed a lot of secret areas, so by the time I got to the end of the game I felt like Mara was significantly under powered to face the uncertainty that was waiting for me. Speaking of the end of the game:

Failure #3The key selling point of the game, Mysteries of the Sith, isn’t embraced until the last three missions.

There are fourteen missions in MotS. Kyle makes a vague reference to a Sith temple at the end of mission four, but the player doesn’t actually do anything related to mysteries or Sith until mission 12. So what the heck happened in the middle seven missions? A lot, and nothing.

Mara is sent to secure supplies from a Hutt gangster, who sends her to steal something from one his rivals. In the process of doing this Mara is captured and sent to a dungeon. Eventually she faces off against a Rancor with nothing but her lightsaber and an array of weak force powers. It sounds a lot more fun than it actually was. Fighting a Rancor involved a lot of saving, dying, and reloading while I figured out how I was actually supposed to survive the sequence. There was so much potential for a fun game, but the way the game was executed really sucked the fun out of it.

By the time I got to Dromund Kaas, the location of the Sith temple, I was ready for the game to be over. The last few levels have a ton of creepy atmosphere, but there are a bunch of new elements thrown at the player for them to figure out.

No weapon except your lightsaber will function on the Sith planet. There are creepy statues that block your passage unless you use your power of force persuasion. Scattered about are a few tiny Ysalamiri that sapped my force powers. Oh, and there are some traps and hidden sinkholes that appear without warning and kill you in about three seconds.

And can we spend a minute to talk about the encounter with ‘Evil Mara’? In the first level on Dromund Kaas, Mara enters a foreboding structure to find a darker mirror of herself. She’s dressed in black and wielding an orange lightsaber like Kyle’s. This begins your first lightsaber duel in the game. It had the potential to be really cool, but wound up being nothing but a pile of frustration. My under-leveled force powers were a severe liability here as I tried to cope with Evil Mara’s frequent bursts of force lightning. While I died after about 3-5 hits with a lightsaber, Evil Mara took close to thirty before finally going down.

What wound up happening is a vicious cycle of save, hit, save, hit, die, reload, repeat.

Never mind the fact that I still don’t know exactly why I was fighting against an evil version of myself. My best guess is that it’s supposed to mirror’s experience in the cave on Dagobah during The Empire Strikes Back. In the movie, there are enough subtle and overt clues to let the audience know that this is a warning to him not to fall to the dark side. Mara’s experience in the game, however… I still don’t quite know how to interpret that.

I still have a lot of questions about the direction of the game and I think the answer to them is:

Failure #4The developers had ambitions for a game bigger than the one they wound up making

In short, I get the feeling that the developers had far more ambition than they had resources to realize their vision. 1998 was a legendary year for action games on PC, so I’d guess that MotS had to be released early in order not be competing with other big titles. Releasing a scant five months after Jedi Knight, it’s possible development was rushed to meet deadlines.

While I don’t know how exactly we got the game we did, I do know what it’s like to play now. And it’s not fun. Really. I don’t recommend anyone play this; it’s just not worth it.

It took me about eight hours to beat the entire game. I recorded all of it and cut out about three hours of frustration, wandering, and failing to give you my definitive play though experience. Most videos have some hopefully humorous annotation to give you a glimpse into my madness while playing:

Mysteries of the Sith has some good qualities and a lot of bad ones. There is a wealth of great concepts present here, and most of them were executed flawlessly in 2002’s sublime Jedi Outcast. But that’s a game for another post…