+Excellent level design
+Lengthy for an expansion pack
-Storyline and voice acting
Starting out Mysteries of the Sith, I really wasn't sure I was going to finish it. I had completed Jedi Knight back in its day, and decided it would be fun to revisit the gameplay via this expansion pack. (On a personal note, I feel it's deeply frustrating to play through a 1998 expansion pack with the length of the average full-priced game of today, since nowadays the best we can hope for is a 3-hour story DLC for $15. Oh how the times change.)
The game's age was the first thing I noticed - blocky, pixelated character models and textures, complete lack of AI, the strange inability to change the inverted mouse look - and it's admittedly offputting. Spending hours configuring the game to be playable on my system didn't help either (see the Notes below).
Despite all of this, Sith is a deeply engaging experience. This is based on a few key factors.
One is its level design, which not only holds up well despite its age, but is actually smarter and far more interesting than the majority of shooters released today. For one thing, the levels are enormous. Sith is the antithesis of the corridor shooter that was so popular back in the 90's. Every level has you exploring what feels like a real place – a Hutt palace, a mining facility, a spaceport – whatever the case may be, the level design feels congruent throughout, like a fully realized location instead of a series of shooting galleries. It is a linear game, true, but the way forward often loops back on itself and isn't always apparent, even very frequently hidden, requiring the use of a HUD map to find it. In fact, since I'm used to never having any problems figuring out where to go in a linear shooter, I forgot about the map feature and got stuck a few times – this is the effect of being spoon fed by modern gaming design. Since you play as a Jedi with the ability to use the Force to jump very high and very fast, there is also a truly remarkable verticality to the maps, requiring the player to look carefully up and down for the next area, using a combination of Force powers to access it. By today's standards, I often found myself thinking I had found a secret, when in fact I had just found the correct way to advance. I actually missed most of the actual secrets in the game, which is a testament to its brilliance in design.
Another very important positive for Sith is its combat. While I initially thought the first level a bit bland, I was suddenly low on health, trying to scrape by each conflict with lots of quicksaving. Soon after, I found myself facing a giant rotating fan I had to pass through in order to proceed, and since the player has to take damage to get through, I was forced to backtrack to find a health pack. This was the first in a series of lessons that taught me that careless combat, even on the normal difficulty, gets quickly punished. This is still an FPS of the run-and-gun variety, similar to Quake II, but a player still needs to be careful when moving through - ambushes abound, and especially considering the verticality of the maps, you'll have dudes shooting missles into your face from out of sight high above. The AI isn't too sharp, but the enemies are quick, very aggressive, and all deal high damage, which means you can lose half or more of your health within seconds if one of them gets the jump on you. Frequent quicksaving alleviates some of the difficulty, though the curve isn't balanced – the second level in particular is by far the hardest in at least the first two-thirds of the game (not only in combat, but also navigation and puzzle solving), while the last few levels see another spike in toughness. Still, that's the 90's for you.
Other aspects of the game are less successful – the lightsaber is next to useless for blocking shots, which is disappointing, but does force you to play the game like a shooter instead of just standing there deflecting blaster bolts like the sequel allowed you to do. The force powers are underpowered, clumsy to use, and not really necessary, save for the jump. The storyline feels less epic than the other games in the series, and as a whole, falls pretty flat. The voice acting is weak and the cutscenes are rendered in game, and are clearly not the focus of the developer's time, inserted minimally to advance the plot and the player to the next (awesome) location.
I reviewed Mysteries of the Sith since it's the one I played recently, but honestly, the things I have said could almost certainly be applied word-for-word to Jedi Knight: Dark Forces II, and thus I would still recommend both today. I am not particularly a fan of 90's shooters, but this is a game that really did get it right.
Anyone born after 1995 will still probably think it's a piece of crap though.
This is not a Windows 7 or 8-friendly game. The .exe should be run in Compatibility mode for Windows XP Service Pack 3 to even get it to start. Running it through Steam's Play button for whatever reason puts the entire game in a windowed mode, but clicking the .exe file itself to start gets rid of the problem. 3D acceleration to make the game look and run smoothly can only be used by downloading a .dll file available online (check the Steam forums for its location), but even then, this is only apparently fully compatible with Windows 7. Windows 8 users such as myself do not get the luxury of having a HUD when using 3D acceleration, and selecting force powers also makes the screen go black and thus the game unplayable. So the only option available for Windows 8 is disabling hardware acceleration as well as the Backbuffer in System Memory – this latter option improves frame rate for a short time until it crashes the game. In any case on any system, higher resolutions will immediately crash the game. I had to run at 1024x768 in software rendering mode to get 25-30fps, while remaining clear enough that distant objects don't overpixelate. It's not ideal, but I found it very playable and still a good amount of fun. At any rate, whatever your setup may be, this game's graphics will not impress you, so who cares.