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Due Fall 2003 for Xbox, PC.

"The Force is what gives a Jedi his power. It's an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us. It binds the galaxy together."
--Obi Wan Kenobi

Whether or not you are a follower of crazy old Ben’s mantra, the force certainly has surrounded and penetrated the video game industry for the past few years. Visit your local retailer and you will see that the shelves (and the bargain bins) are littered with Star Wars titles for every platform. Trouble is, most of them suck. There are, however, a few series that have become a reliable way for fanboys and girls to get their Star Wars fix. If you want to pilot the space craft you see in the films and take the Empire down old school, Rogue Squadron is your game. If you want to step into the role of a Jedi, face the Empire with a blaster and a lightsaber, walk on walls, leap into the air, and wield the force with style, then the Jedi Knight series is exactly what you are looking for.

For the first time in the series, Jedi Academy does not have you playing as Kyle Katarn, who has finally accepted his role as a Jedi Master. Instead you play the game as his student. This is a step in the right direction for two reasons. First, it eliminates the biggest complaint fans had with Jedi Outcast, which was that you had to spend some six levels playing the game without your lightsaber or force abilities. While this was necessary for the story that they were trying to tell, it was a real drag to play until you reconnected with the force. This time around you begin the game with your first level force powers, a lightsaber, and a blaster. Second, it allows for some creativity on your part as you are now able to customize your own character. Before you begin your game you will have to choose the species of your character from a gallery of Star Wars rogues. You will also get to customize the look of your character, choose a hilt for your lightsaber, and the color of the blade.

Of course, in addition to a new character, there will be all new weapons, force powers, and fighting skills to acquire. Perhaps the most exciting is the ability to wield different lightsabers in the game. After mastering a single blade, you will be able to fight with a Darth Maul-style double blade (cool), or two independent lightsabers at the same time (very, very cool). If you thought that the battles were exciting in Jedi Outcast, wait until you play Jedi Academy. You can take on multiple opponents in all new ways. You can throw one lightsaber at an enemy far away, while simultaneously Force Pulling another enemy over to you and cutting him down with your second lightsaber, then reach over and catch the first blade on its return path. And taking on another skilled Jedi in a dual lightsaber duel? Wow.

There is also a new mission structure in Jedi Academy. Rather than playing the game in a strictly linear fashion, you will be presented with several missions from which you can, to some degree, pick and choose. You choose which missions and in what order you will play them. And while you do not have to play every mission, your character will not advance as quickly in skill and power if you skip levels.

As in the other games, you will also be required to pilot the occasional vehicle, such as a speeder bike or an AT-ST. There will also be different mounts available, such as a Taun Taun, from which you can use your blaster, force powers, even your lightsaber.

The multiplayer mode has been completely revamped as well. On the Xbox, you will be able to play against your friends via split screen, system link, or Xbox Live. On the PC you can play online or via a network. Multiplayer games include Duel, Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch, Capture the Flag, and Siege. Siege is a team objective game in which one team will be given a task, such as blowing up a grounded starship, while the other team tries to thwart their efforts. While the number of players has not been set, I did learn that vehicles will be available in the multiplayer games.

The playable demo at E3 had two levels available. In the first level, you had to rescue a group of students who were trapped. You entered the level with your lightsaber, some first level force powers, and a variety of blasters. The mission played much like what you have come to expect from the series, with the player switching from a first person perspective, shooting and sniping the enemy with a blaster, to third person perspective, slicing and dicing in close range combat. That is until the end of the level, where you come face to face with a slobbering, hungry Rancor Monster whom, sadly, I was unable to beat in the few tries I was afforded. Needless to say, don’t let the ugly sucker grab you, because a Jedi is just another meal to him.

The other level was indicative of the kind of gameplay you can expect in the later missions of the game. The character was endowed with your choice of lightsabers, upper class force powers and several fighting stances. The level ended with a Jedi duel in which you both had double blades. Now this is something I was ready for, as I have acquired a certain level of finesse from playing the previous game. I gave that Jedi the smackdown of his life, and I looked good doing it. Stepping back from the exciting battle, I breathlessly exclaimed: "Oh yeah, this is my game."

If hokey religions, ancient weapons, and a good blaster at your side are the stuff your dreams are made of, Star Wars Jedi Knight III: Jedi Academy will be your game as well. Expect it to show up for the Xbox and PC sometime Fall 2003.

Jeremy Kauffman (05/24/2003)