The Cave

The Jedi let out a laugh as he realized there was a very good chance he would be eaten alive by a swarm of cave vermin on this odyssey of self. The Master hadn’t seen that one coming, our Jedi was certain of that.

There was more in the cave than blackness. The Jedi estimated he had been limping towards the exit for the past hour or so; since he fell. At least, he hoped he was heading toward the exit. He took a moment to rest and took a few deep breaths. When he did so, a dull pain stabbed his right side. His robes were damp with mud and at least a little blood. Willing the pain not to interfere with his thoughts, he tried to sense the area just ahead. He was not alone.

They had been following him for at least a half hour. Denizens of the cave had been drawn to the Jedi when he fell from the ancient structure that had been his objective. Though none of the creatures had yet shown any hostility, he could sense their numbers growing. The Jedi recalled his lessons in xenobiology about creatures that moved in packs. Since they hadn’t swarmed him immediately, they probably weren’t predatory. And yet, the fact that they kept pursing him signaled that they expected to gain something from the Jedi. Scavengers!

Either the herd of creatures would grow large enough that they were emboldened to swarm the Jedi and devour him, or they would wait for him to make a mistake and make their move then. The Jedi was running out of time.

Sighing, he raised his lightsaber above his head and flicked the switch. With a loud snap and a hiss, a blue glow washed over the area. Nothing in front, the Jedi turned around. From just beyond the reach of the light, dozens of eyes reflected the saber blade back at the Jedi.

They were getting closer. He didn’t know if the creatures were drawn to him or the light.

Turing back towards the exit, the Jedi deactivated his lightsaber and limped forward. One way or another, his day was going to end. He let out a bitter laugh when he took stock of the situation. His master had bid him travel to a strange planet in search of a Jedi temple. There had been no instruction to recover an artifact, contact a long lost civilization, or perform some heroic act. All the Master had instructed was that the Jedi “connect with his inward self”. Understanding oneself was the key to understanding others, or so he had been told.

The Jedi let out a laugh as he realized there was a very good chance he would be eaten alive by a swarm of cave vermin on this odyssey of self. The Master hadn’t seen that one coming, our Jedi was certain of that.

More time passed, and the Jedi shuffled onward. Getting used to the pain, he was able to spare more of his mind for observing his surroundings. The darkness wasn’t ominous, it was merely the absence of a light. He could feel gentle streams of water coursing through cracks and down the walls. Every now and then stalactites and stalagmites pierced through the horizontal surfaces, requiring the Jedi to change course. His path was a loose gravel, a sign that others had come before him and that this cave hadn’t been underwater in a long time.

As his footsteps crunched underneath him, he became aware of other sounds in the cave. There was a pattering coming from the floor around him. Almost like raindrops, but far too rhythmic. When he stopped, so did the sound. His legion of vermin friends was keeping up the pace. Though he could sense the life nearby, it was difficult to discern how close it was and how many were there.

It was time to risk another look around. Leaving the lightsaber at his side, he snapped the button and the cave lit up once again. They were closer, only a meter away, and there were more of them. A lot more. The Jedi slowly took stock of the situation. None of the creatures moved. The ugly quadrupeds were covered scraggly hair, boasted narrow mouths with a few pointy teeth, and bare tails. Large eyes stared unblinkingly and reflected the line of the lightsaber. A few of the closest creatures were about the size of the Jedi’s head. Even as the Jedi stared at them, they stood absolutely still.

The stillness was unsettling. Hair on the Jedi’s arms stood on end as he felt an energy pulse through the mass of creatures. He knew in his mind what was going to happen next but wanted to confirm it. The lightsaber shut off and the Jedi focused on listening. The rhythmic not-rain continued slowly.

He snapped the lightsaber on again, and confirmed that the creatures had advanced on him again. The closest sat just out of reach of his blade. Their next move would be to overwhelm their prey.

The Jedi crouched on his good side to be able to better reach his lightsaber to the floor. He took a deep breath, pushing all wayward thoughts to the back of his mind. Once more, the Jedi took a deep breath. Words from his master rolled through his mind repeatedly, “Victory is not gained through physical effort, but mindful execution.” Raising the saber in his left hand and angling it towards the ground, he saw what he must do in order to survive the onslaught. It would not be easy.

The lightsaber flickered off and back on again as the Jedi began to fight for his life.

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

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.

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…

Virtual Hardware – Bryar Pistol

In most games that involve shooting, the gun you start out with is the one you can’t wait to get rid of. This lowly weapon seems to exist only in order to make you appreciate the weapons you’ll get later. Occasionally, a starting weapon will contain some characteristic that renders it useful throughout the entire game. Kyle Katarn’s Modified Bryar Pistol from the Dark Forces series contains just those characteristics.

Virtual Hardware: The blog column that highlights some of the many items available for players to use in gaming, and why they’re either awesome or the worst thing ever. 

In most games that involve shooting, the gun you start out with is the one you can’t wait to get rid of. This lowly weapon seems to exist only to make you appreciate the weapons you’ll get later. Occasionally, a starting weapon will contain some characteristic that renders it useful throughout the entire game. Kyle Katarn’s Modified Bryar pistol from the Dark Forces series contains just those characteristics. At the onset of 1995’s Dark Forces, you’re infiltrating a top-secret Imperial base armed with only this seemingly insignificant pistol. It has a slow rate of fire, part of the barrel is yellow, and it wasn’t even in the movies! How can this thing deal with the might of the Empire? Though the game quickly gives you the iconic and more powerful E11 Stormtrooper blaster rifle, the practicality of that smaller pistol soon becomes self-evident. Pinpoint accuracy is a trademark of the weapon, ensuring it remains useful in large open environments where you can get the drop on your enemy. Plus, it consumes significantly less ammo per shot than other weapons. The gun’s rendering in Dark Forces is crude by today’s standards but manages to evoke the essence of some kind of “space revolver”. A rectangular protrusion on the left side of the weapon is obviously where the ammunition is fed into the cylindrical chamber of the weapon. The back end of the pistol contains a hammer assembly with some red detail that only hints at how the weapon actually operates. If Katarn is a rogue outlaw, the Bryar Pistol is the sidearm that never lets him down.

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1997’s Jedi Knight: Dark Forces II features the second iteration of the weapon. Jedi Knight renders the Bryar in a fanciful three-dimensions, albeit in somewhat ugly fashion. Like every other object in the game, the weapons  were constructed from a small number of polygons, relying on textures to add some details. As a result, the slight curves and elegance of the Bryar pistol were lost. Gone was the prominent protrusion on the left side of the weapon, presenting a sleeker if less interesting design. In spite of the rough render, movement animation makes the gun feel more lively than its first iteration. The game kept the weapon’s trademark yellow barrel and pinpoint accuracy, cementing its place as a most useful weapon in many of the games vast outdoor environments. It’s helpful that most of the enemies are dumber than a pile of rocks. You can snipe them with the Bryar from a half a mile away, and they’d never move.

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Jedi Knight also saw a prop rendering of the weapon in the game’s full motion video cutscenes. The physical model is a bit larger than I would have expected, but to me the size of it really cements the pistol’s iconic status as “not just another space gun”. If you’re one of the bad guys, you don’t want this thing pointed at you!

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In 2002, Jedi Outcast brought back the Bryar pistol in a big way: It now had an secondary firing mode. Holding down the alternate fire button powered up a charged shot which deals extra damage. This firing mode stacks on top of the pinpoint accuracy, allowing you to deal a punishing blow to your opponents. Stationary turrets and large targets like probe droids are much easier to deal with when you have a charged shot at your disposal. Outcast utilizes the Quake 3 engine, which means each item is rendered in more detail than was possible in Jedi Knight. The Bryar doesn’t look so ugly this time! Some design details were added in the form of tubing near the muzzle, though the rectangular protrusion on the side of the pistol was still conspicuously absent. Jedi Outcast is the first game to show characters other than Kyle using the blaster, though none of them use it with the same effectiveness as Kyle. It’s also worth noting that Outcast is the only game where the Bryar pistol’s shot is colored straight yellow instead of the red / orange of other Star Wars weaponry. 

After Jedi Outcast I began to fear we’d never see the trusty Bryar pistol again. Though you could use cheat codes to spawn the weapon in Jedi Academy, the expansion to Jedi Outcast, it didn’t have a proper place in the main game. To my great surprise, 2015’s Battlefront added the Bryar pistol as part of its Death Star expansion. Battlefront called it the K-16 Byar Pistol, because for some reason Battlefront thinks every gun is more distinct if there’s a number in its name. Thankfully, this high fidelity design hearkens back to the original as shown in Dark Forces. This time, the protrusion on the left side of the weapon is clearly where energy packs are loaded into the pistol. Gone is the yellow blaster bolt from Jedi Outcast, though the secondary charged shot remains. It’s a bit slimmer than the gun shown in the video scenes of Jedi Knight. From a design standpoint, it’s slimmer, sleeker, and looks more like a mass-produced weapon of war. Though I understand the gun’s design needed some tweaking in order to fit the aesthetic of Battlefront, I think it lost something. The slimmer and more “realistic” design takes away some of the weapon’s character. It’s no longer a special gun for a hero, but a standard issue instrument of no real significance. starwarsbattlefront-2016-12-01-18-18-22-66

Though Battefront takes away some of the magic of this gun, I’ll always think of it as an extension of Kyle Katarn’s mercenary persona. Cut down from a larger rifle, his pistol is a powerful and elegant tool in the fight against the scum of the universe. Versatile and fun to use, this may be my favorite weapon in the series. Sniping enemies from crazy distances? No problem! Stationary target that needs a blast shot? Got you covered! It’s the gun that never let me down.

Well, except when I tried to use it against an AT-ST. Don’t do that. It doesn’t work.

To be fair, I missed the shot here. But that still doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to take on an AT-ST with a pistol, especially when you only have 36 health.

Becoming Vader

There’s no grace, no subtlety to using Vader’s powers. The slightest nudge of the controls results in a disproportionate explosion of force. Trees and wooden barriers shatter spectacularly. Cargo containers take flight and bounce as though nearly weightless. Enemies and allies alike are strewn about like rag dolls. Though the force powers respond to your commands, rarely will you feel completely in control. But in a sense it fits, because when is the rage of a Sith ever synonymous with precision?

Welcome to First Impressions, where I relay my experiences of a game’s opening moments. 

I am become death, destroyer of Wookies. The force is with me, and by it the world conforms to my will. I am Vader unleashed, and nothing shall stand in my way.

As far as opening levels go, the one for Star Wars: The Force Unleashed is a doozy. While most video games start out small, giving players a limited tool set and gradually introducing them to core gameplay mechanics, Unleashed goes all in. Within three minutes of starting the game, I’m controlling one of the most iconic villains in sci-fi history. Not only that, I’m using force powers to smack around a planet full of Wookies. Wookies. Remember them? The big walking carpets that pull peoples arms out of their sockets when the lose a game? As Darth Vader, I crush them more easily than a trash compacter crushes rebels.

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Vader is on Kashyyyk to continue his quest of eradicating the last remnants of the Jedi from the universe. Rumor has it there is one here under the shelter of those furry monstrosities. Your mission is to hunt him down and take him out. As you step off the Imperial shuttle onto the planet, it’s worth pausing for a moment to take in the spectacle. A half-dozen Imperial Star Destroyers skim the surface of the planet, launching hundreds of TIE Fighters that scour the planet’s surface. Stormtroopers have already started to forge a path for you, engaging squads of Wookies with orange blaster fire. An impressive sight, but not as impressive as a Dark Lord of the Sith and his mastery of the force. Enemies of the dark side have more to fear than his iconic red lightsaber. Vader also has at his disposal two force powers. One allows him to pick up individual objects in the environment and move or throw them at will. The other is a force push which can be charged to let loose a force blast, sending shock waves of concussive force cascading outward.

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There’s no grace, no subtlety to using Vader’s powers. The slightest nudge of the controls results in a disproportionate explosion of force. Trees and wooden barriers shatter spectacularly. Cargo containers take flight and bounce as though nearly weightless. Enemies and allies alike are strewn about like rag dolls. Though the force powers respond to your commands, rarely will you feel completely in control. But in a sense it fits, because when is the rage of a Sith ever synonymous with precision? It’s called “blind rage” not because the actor has no knowledge of his actions, but because such rage will inflict itself upon anything that happens to be nearby. This is exemplified perfectly by Vader’s poor and hapless allies, those lowly Stormtroopers. Force powers affect them, too. The powerful blasts that knock Wookies asunder will do the same to your minions. Those unfortunate enough to survive your wrath may earn your sympathy as they scream in terror and run from your terrible presence.

Vader doesn’t run, though. He can’t. The game won’t let him. There’s no need. When you’re this powerful, you don’t need to run. Sometimes, it’s good to be the bad guy.

Screenshot Gallery

 

Star Wars: Battlefront – Beauty Without Soul?

After mulling it over for several hours I finally made the realization that the real failure of Battlefront isn’t how it looks, or how it plays: it’s how much I care about what’s going on. Yes, these are spectacular battles rendered with craftsmanship and fidelity never before seen in a Star Wars game, but I just have no reason to care about any of it. […] Having said all that, I’ll buy the game the next time it’s on sale for $20 or less.

I wanted to totally fall in love the new iteration of Star Wars Battlefront, I really did. Considering it combines two things I absolutely adore, Star Wars and action games, by any rights this game should be a perfect fit for me! And yet, in spite of having spent an entire weekend with the prerelease beta and another four hours with the full game this past weekend, it just hasn’t hooked me yet. After feeling somewhat disappointed by the beta I had hoped the newly-released skirmish mode for offline play would be enough to win me over. And yet, all the free trial managed to accomplish was to cement my sense of indecision. It comes down to the simple reality that Battlefront has no soul. And that makes me sad.

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It looks like this moisture farm on Tatooine would have a lot of great stories to tell… but it doesn’t. It tells nothing.

On the surface, it has all the things that fans of Star Wars and of action games could ever want: dazzling graphics, phenomenal sound engineering, the rousing orchestral score from John Williams, all some of the planets, characters, vehicles, and weapons we know and love, and exquisitely detailed game environments. Make no mistake, Star Wars: Battlefront is the Star Wars-iest Star Wars game I’ve ever played, and I’ve played a lot of Star Wars games. The miracle workers at DICE are to be commended for creating what is, quite frankly, the most beautiful and most complete rendering of the Star Wars universe in a video game. Every pixel, every sound, every movement, every object, every environment is 100% certified Star Wars. But considering the cinematic inspiration for the game distinguished itself by imagining an imperfect and dirty universe, the perfect rendering of that world in a video game somehow feels shallow. The end result is that the game feels more like an impression of an experience than the genuine article.

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Piloting speeder bikes is all fun and games until you crash into a tree. Which happens. A lot.

In spite of the beautiful and immersive environment, there’s something that just doesn’t feel right. Oddly enough, it’s not the gameplay – even though it is simplistic to a fault. The actual mechanics of the game are more than fine. Shooting feels good, navigation and movement is spot-on, the game modes feel like they’re taking place in a galaxy far, far away, and all of the different parts contribute to an escapist whole. After mulling it over for several hours I finally made the realization that the real failure of Battlefront isn’t how it looks, or how it plays: it’s how much I care about what’s going on. Yes, these are spectacular battles rendered with craftsmanship and fidelity never before seen in a Star Wars game, but I just have no reason to care about any of it.

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Thermal Detonator makes stormtroopers go boom.

Battlefront puts you squarely into the shoes of a no-name soldier to show you a ground-level view of the war between the Rebellion and the Empire. From such a low perspective the morals and motives of either faction don’t matter. Survival is the name of the game. The Rebels are always ill-prepared and fighting against the odds, and the Empire is always a military superpower trying to quash dissent. There’s no real motivation to fight for either side other than the fact that this is the way it’s always been. In a sense this might be considered one of the game’s successes, that it replicates the experience of being a pawn in a large-scale galactic war; but I believe it’s also why the game feels so empty. For a franchise that was the catalyst for millions of people to imagine themselves as a hero in a galaxy far, far away, spending hours in a game as an ordinary foot soldier is a bit of a letdown. Focusing on the little guys and giving them repetitive and relatively small-scale objectives removes the context from the fight and turns what should be an epic clash into just another day on the battlefield. Star Wars has always been a grand space opera about ordinary people becoming extraordinary and then doing heroic things. Even though Battlefront allows players to “be the hero” with powerups, there’s no real justification for their presence on the battlefield and they end up feeling like nothing more than a fancy costume for the ordinary soldiers. In spite of how much you want your role to have a sense of significance to it, the game never gives you that empowerment. No matter what you do you’ll be just another pawn fighting in a war against other pawns. At the risk of mixing up my metaphors, Battlefront ends up feeling like playing checkers when you want to play chess.

Having said all that, I’ll buy the game the next time it’s on sale for $20 or less.

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Wait, what? Yes, I’m going buy the game when it goes back on sale. There are two reasons why. The first of which is that, for all its shallowness, it is still genuinely fun to shoot at wave upon wave of stormtroopers. The second reason being that Star Wars Battlefront may be the proof that EA DICE has what it takes to do some incredible things with Star Wars games, and that’s something I want to support. The developers obviously care a great deal about the source material, packing the game full of details most players will miss. A prime example is on a map for Supremacy on Endor, which is set at nighttime. A few minutes into the game I approached the outer border of the map which happened to be the bed of a lake. As I turned my character to pan the camera around my jaw dropped slightly. Sprawled out before me was a tranquil lake with a cluster of teepee-like dwellings perched over the water. Looming ominously overhead was a pair of Star Destroyers while the uncompleted Death Star dominated the twilight sky. This in-game scene is obviously directly inspired by Ralph McQuarrie’s original concept paintings for The Return of the Jedi. This glimpse of the real Endor displays how much attention the development team paid attention to the details that make the Star Wars universe special, even if those details are subservient to a grander and more boring big picture. If DICE can do this as icing on the cake in a multiplayer shooter, I’d love to see what they’re capable of in a dedicated single-player experience!

In the meantime, I’m learning that even shallow games have their beautiful moments. It took me four hours before I noticed one on Endor, maybe Battlefront has more to discover?

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I’m still trying to figure out why the Empire built those hangar bays into such a shallow rock face instead of just putting them aboveground.

Star Wars: X-Wing

If I’m completely honest, I’ll say that I have mixed feelings about X-Wing. On one hand, it was a landmark moment for Star Wars gaming. For the first time, gamers were given an experience that both included moments lifted directly from the Star Wars movies and added interesting background stories to what we already knew about. […] On the other hand, it’s nearly impossible to play X-Wing without without noticing just how much its sequels improved upon the game’s basic design. The basic framework and various parts are there, but without the details and more complex mechanics to tie everything together the experience feels a little too hollow.

If I’m completely honest, I’ll say that I have mixed feelings about X-Wing. On one hand, it was a landmark moment for Star Wars gaming. For the first time, gamers were given an experience that both included moments lifted directly from the Star Wars movies and added interesting background stories to what we already knew about. This is the first time gamers had the ability to freely pilot the iconic starfighters we all know and love without the “on-rails” limitations of arcade cabinets. It’s hard not to have fun when you’re blasting TIEs left and right and waging war against the bad guys! On the other hand, it’s nearly impossible to play X-Wing without without noticing just how much its sequels improved upon the game’s basic design. The basic framework and various parts are there, but without the details and more complex mechanics to tie everything together the experience feels a little too hollow. Those missing elements accumulate in your mind over long play sessions to create an experience that is ultimately one of frustration with moments of bliss scattered about.

In terms of gameplay, X-Wing is something of a “lite” simulator. It’s not as daunting as the fully fledged flight simulators of the late 90s, but it’s decidedly more complex than the Star Wars arcade shooters from the 1980s. Simulation aspects are present in the function of your starship as well as the mission design. Your fighter has a limited amount of energy which must be used to run three vital components: engines, shields, and lasers. A certain amount of skill and tactical awareness is required in order to make sure your ship can do everything it needs to do in the heat of battle. For example, increasing your laser recharge rate and leaving your shields at the default maintenance level will reduce your speed by about 12%. This means you have to make some tactical decisions when approaching a dogfight. It’s somewhat safe to sacrifice some speed to charge your lasers while piloting the nimble A-Wing or the X-wing, but this slowness can be a death sentence in the Y-Wing. These limitations placed upon your starfighter always make sense in the world of X-Wing and never feel like a frustrating game handicap.

Ludicrous Speed! Er, wait...
The “E L S” indicators near the center-right of your cockpit show your energy settings.

The missions also introduce some variety that goes beyond just blowing up every Imperial in sight. You might be tasked with assisting in the capture of an Imperial transport, but before you can do that you need to fly close and inspect multiple starships to figure out which one holds the quarry you’re after. Other missions have goals that are tailored to the ship you’re piloting. A number of capture missions see you pilot the Y-Wing so you can use the ion cannons to disable the appropriate craft. One of my favorites requires you to pilot the nimble A-Wing through an Imperial convoy to identify all the enemy ships present. Sure, you could try to be a hotshot and blow up some of the TIEs that launch and pursue you, but that means slowing down enough so as to be vulnerable to turbolaser fire from capital ships. It’s a risk that’s demonstrably not worth taking. Missions where you’re allowed to play a specific part in a battle, and not perform every action on your own, are the ones that are most fun (and memorable).

Unfortunately for you, the game consistently requires you to fly missions and complete objectives almost singlehandedly. You do have wingmates and other friendly allies, but most of them lack any discernible sign of intelligence and are about as useful in combat as a pet rock. Perhaps the scripting language of 1993 wasn’t detailed enough to write complex AI routines, or maybe this was an intentional design decision to reinforce the feeling of the Rebel Alliance fighting as the underdog against the Galactic Empire. Whatever the reason, the effect is still the same: your allies rarely do more than the design of the mission requires them to do. If your mission as a Y-Wing pilot is to disable a shuttle, you may have X-Wings to cover you while that happens. But the moment the shuttle is disabled and the mission scripting moves on to the next event those X-Wings will be gone, leaving you to deal with squadrons of TIE Interceptors and Assault Gunboats all by your lonesome. Occurrences like this would be fine if they could rationally be explained within the context of the game, but as things are your continual abandonment makes no sense. Why wouldn’t faster, sturdier fighters; X-Wings; stick around to escort the entire capture operation instead of leaving a sluggish bomber; Y-Wings; to singlehandedly protect a target of interest?

Abandonment
Red Leader leaves you hanging again. How typical. Be prepared to see this message. A lot. 

The other major frustration is that since you have to complete most of the objectives yourself, many missions will feel more like puzzles than combat simulations. Frequently, you’ll be assigned with flying a long way downrange of your starting position to take out a squadron of bombers, then be required to hightail it back past your start position to protect some other helpless craft. Everything seems to be going well except… Oh wait, there was another squadron of bombers you missed in your first engagement and they destroyed a mission critical craft. Time to start the mission over and play through 12 minutes to do it again in a different sequence. The missions in the original campaigns aren’t totally horrible; it’s a fair mix of puzzle missions and straightforward assignments. However, the difficulty is significantly ramped up in the B-Wing expansion. So much so that hints for each mission are available during the briefing before the mission starts, should you choose to see them.

The most frustrating puzzle for me was the final mission of the original game: the Death Star trench run. What was supposed to be the crowning moment of the game turned into repeated frustration. Starting above the surface of the Death Star, your first goal is to make it to the trench. Once you get there R2-D2 does his job and increases the power output to your engines, almost tripling your speed.  This helps you evade enemy fire and lessens your time in the trench, but it’s not enough. No matter what I tried; shooting turbolaser batteries, charging everything on full, hiding behind pillars to preserve my shields; I got blown up every time. I’m ashamed to admit that I had to look up what turned out to be, to me, a completely counterintuitive solution: Once you’re in the trench you need to set shields and laser recharge to zero and put all energy to the engines. That’s right, run the Death Star trench with no lasers and no shields. If you furrow your brow and look at it from an angle it might make sense from a story perspective: How else could Vader pick off Rebel fighters with two laser blasts in A New Hope? Because they had no shields! But from a gameplay perspective, it’s totally counterintuitive. After playing three dozen missions where managing your fighter to have sufficient shields and laser power at all times is essential to your survival, having the final and most dangerous mission force you to abandon them completely is mind boggling.

And that’s the thing about X-Wing: For every moment of sheer joy, there’s an equal moment of raw frustration.

Successful trench run
Darn it Jim! I’m a spaceship pilot, not a puzzle-solver! Also: Look, no shields! At all!

Note: There are officially three versions of the game, all of which can be found and played today: 

  1. 1993 – Original release – 320 x 240 native resolution, iMuse soundtrack, limited voiceovers
  2. 1994 – Rerelease – 320 x 240 native resolution, runs in upgraded TIE Fighter engine, iMuse soundtrack, many voice parts
  3. 1998 – Collector’s CD-ROM – 640 x 480 native resolution, certain menus and cutscenes redone in higher resolution, polygons (ships and other objects) have textures instead of plain shading, music taken from the soundtrack of the movies plus quality audio

The 1994 version of the game might be worth a quick install just for an understanding of how the iMuse score works; it’s a system that dynamically matches the background music to match the action happening within the game. Not much going on? Slow, relaxing themes abound. Sudden appearance by an Imperial Start Destroyer? The score seamlessly shifts to the Imperial March. It’s quite effective at evoking the feel of Star Wars. However, the super-low resolution visuals and detailess models make for a somewhat painful playing experience. It’s just too “chunky” and jagged to flow right. When flying the Death Star trench run to grab some screenshots I crashed into the surface more than once because I couldn’t tell how close I was to the single shade of solid gray beneath me. Unless you have a nostalgic urge to experience the ’93 or ’94 versions, stay away from them. This retrospective was written about the 1998 version of the game, and is the one I recommend playing.

Regardless of what version you play the game’s menus, cutscenes, and transitions are beautifully rendered in a style that’s barely aged over 23 years. Yes they are a bit “chunky” and you can tell they were done a long time ago, but that doesn’t diminish their appeal. Personally, I don’t think I’d ever get tired of these even after the game ages another two decades. .

Transition cutscene
Pixelated, yes; but still beautiful!

The Final Raving – Qualified Endorsement OR Don’t Bother

If you like Wing Commander, TIE Fighter or Descent: Freespace, then this might be worth your time. However, be prepared for some experiences that can’t help but feel primitive. X-Wing might be best left in your – or someone else’s – memories.

This one is a tough call. If you love Star Wars or space combat games in general, you have to play X-Wing if for no other reason than to experience a slice of gaming history. However, if you’ve only ever played the later games in the series or other more modern space games it’s going to be very hard to enjoy X-Wing for what it is. If you’ve never played any Star Wars space sims and wanted to get started with one, I’d have to suggest you skip ahead to TIE Fighter.

Good:

  • Nails the desperation of fighting for the underdog
  • Distinct gameplay differences between the available ships
  • Moments of theatricality hint at the greatness later games will achieve

Bad:

  • You’re not fighting for the Rebel Alliance, you are the only Rebel alive
  • Mission design gets repetitive about 2/3 through the game
  • The game doesn’t give you enough feedback during missions to let you know exactly what you need to be doing

Ugly:

  • Visuals of ’93 and ’94 versions are just too difficult to adjust to today

Compatibility Considerations: 

  • I own these through GOG.com, and they work flawlessly in Windows 10. You can play the ’93 and ’94 versions using a mouse, but a joystick is required for the ’98 edition. Personally, I wouldn’t recommend playing any edition of the game without a joystick.

Tips for New Players:

  1. Your shields will recharge at an impossibly slow rate, so it’s not usually worth it to increase the power to them. Instead, give your lasers maximum power and shunt energy from them to your shields. It’s always faster to do it this way.
  2. You will be required to blow up a Star Destroyer on more than one occasion. The shield generator towers really do supply deflector shields. Take them out with three torpedoes each and your job becomes much easier
    BwingShields
  3. Once a ship’s shields are down, disable it! This buys you some time to deal with the other interference that will undoubtedly be surrounding you.
  4. Disable what you can, and then leave it there. A lot of missions are scripted to send new waves of ships into battle after one wave is destroyed. In the case of Assault Gunboats in particular, disabling one wave may prevent a new wave from joining the battle.

Details

Release Date:

  • Original Game: 1993
  • Expansion #1 – Imperial Pursuit: 1994
  • Expansion #2 – B-Wing: 1994

Developer: Totally Games

Publisher: Lucasarts

Where to buy: Steam & GOG.com – $9.99

Screenshot Gallery