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'An Elegant Weapon, For A More Civilized Age'

by Alanix on April 4, 2004 @ 4:15 a.m. PDT

It’s been a really long day. You’ve put in 10 hours on the job. The commute home was a nightmare. You were cut off no fewer than 5 times by self-important pinheads that seem to have Ericsson cell phones grafted to their skulls. Everyone you did business with today had a major superiority thing going on. You have an overwhelming urge to, as I say to my wife, “blow sh*t up.” You sit down at your PC or your console, you fire up your flavor-of-the-month, and you aim for the nearest thing that isn’t you…

'Jedi Academy Multiplayer Duels'

In the gaming world, we all share that adrenaline rush that comes from fragging a buddy, or a total stranger for that matter. We love to see limbs fly, blood gush, and hear the agonized screams of our victims. Be it historical, as in Medal of Honor, current like Counter-Strike, or as “out there” as Aliens Vs Predator, there is that same bloodthirsty, “if-it-isn’t-you, kill-it” charge that gets your fingers twitchin’ and your mouse movin’. (Okay…I nominate myself for the internet award for worst run-on sentence in the history of electronic publication).

That being said, (pause for effect) can’t we all just get along? Is it too much to realize that in one way or another we are all trying to unwind? To somehow escape, or at least forget, the reality we spend most of our lives in? Whether you’re a 40-year-old father of two, or a 13-year-old daughter of one, we all are into this for a certain modicum of “otherness.” So why do some gamers go out of their way to make others feel unwelcome, unwanted, and unnecessary?

I’ve been playing video games since there were videogames. My first computer used a cassette tape player as an ersatz hard drive and communicated at a then-dazzling 300Bps! I remember sticking a clingy film of plastic painted to look like a tennis court on my old B&W television to make Pong seem more realistic. I remember the horrid controllers that came with Intellivision, and I swore that ColecoVision was the “greatest thing on the planet.” Your friends would all come over and get blisters on their palms from shaking the single-button joystick from the Atari 2600 back and forth frantically like the masturbating lab monkey from Leisure Suit Larry while playing Activision’s Decathlon. I think I am waxing too nostalgic, I’m sounding like a Norman Rockwell painting, so I’ll stop digressing.

What I am trying to say is this: When did everyone get so friggin’ RUDE???

I want to believe that there are enough decent folk out there to balance out the nimrods, and hopefully, set a good example. But more and more, I’ll drop into an unlocked, public server for Counter-Strike, or, more recently, the great XMP add-on for Unreal 2, and watch as n00bs are voted out of rooms for as much as a single bad mouse-click. Folks, a word to all of you: If someone drops into a public server that you are playing on, announces that they are new to the particular game, and makes a few mistakes, cut them some slack! You didn’t come out of the womb knowing how to use a concussion rifle to jump six stories in the air, either.

I’m not unsympathetic to the other side of the coin. To you n00bs: Read the manual at least once before dropping into a crowded room! If we can all follow these two simple guidelines, the internet will become a place where we can dismember each other in an environment of peace and unilateral acceptance. (Stepping down from soapbox)

Fear not, however! There is a gaming community that, in my humble opinion, has transcended the sometimes intolerant (and occasionally intolerable) world of online havoc.

I am referring to the Duelers who play Star Wars Jedi Knight: Jedi Academy. This latest in LucasArts’ long-running and highly successful series that began over ten years ago with Dark Forces, is becoming the home of some of the most relaxed, and – perhaps as a result – most highly-skilled gamers out there. The Lightsaber Duels go back as far as Dark Forces II: Jedi Knight in 1997, evolved with the Mysteries of the Sith expansion, and really came into their own with 2002’s Jedi Outcast. It’s in Jedi Academy that the classic Star Wars duels really come to life.

The game contains some of the more conventional multiplayer modes (CTF, FFA, Deathmatch) and a neat “Siege” mode that pits teams of players against each other to attack or defend key points on a map. This game mode takes things a bit beyond the simple bomb-planting or hostage-rescuing of most squad-based shooters and gives the feeling of a larger scale engagement where small triumphs lead to a greater victory. The real challenge, and for me at least, the real fun, is in the one-on-one Lightsaber Duels.

Instead of challenging a single player randomly, or from a list of connected players like most one-on-one games, JA duelers enter an arena with full chat room features, and a deadly game of King of the Hill commences. The newest person to enter the room goes to the bottom of the players’ queue, and everyone else watches the two combatants at the top of the ladder battle it out. The loser goes to the bottom of the list, the winner stays in the arena, and everyone else advances one fight closer to his or her shot at the title. You can watch the duels from a free-floating camera and choose your own angles, or you can choose to focus on either of the Jedi from a third-person view. When it’s your turn, it’s either you or him, and the action is fast and furious.

The graphics are beautiful, the frame rate doesn’t disappoint, and the controls are intuitive. Button-mashers will end up being slashed to pieces like a network television broadcast of “Scarface.” Timing is everything, and knowing how to counter your opponent’s moves is as important as knowing how to perform those selfsame moves. Players can choose from three different lightsaber types, Single Saber, Dual Sabers and the Darth Maul-inspired Saber Staff. Each type brings to the table its own strengths and vulnerabilities, and if you choose to fight Single Saber, you have three distinct fighting styles to choose from. The Fast Style keeps the weapon in the forefront for good defense, and quick, glancing strikes that do less damage but come more quickly than others. The Medium Style is the classic lightsaber position, which is the mode that players of Jedi Outcast will find most familiar, but with new moves and the possibility to chain up to five attacks. The Strong Style keeps the blade behind for long, sweeping strikes with longer range and increased damage, but this style leaves you more open to counter-attack in the event you miss.

Now I’ll get to the heart of the matter. I bought JA when it first came out, and I played around with the single-player mode for a few days. It has a decent storyline, familiar characters and locations, reasonably good voice talent, and some very nice lighting enhancements from the previous games. I set up a few ‘bots (the computer AI isn’t genius level, but it’ll get you through the night if your cable service goes out) and took about an hour just dueling alone. (Dueling alone…..for some reason that sounds dirty, but I promise you, my hands never left the keyboard and mouse) Finally, after winning about eight out of 30 duels, I thought I was ready to hit the ‘net and shake my moneymaker like my Jedi Master taught me.

I picked a room that had five other people in it. Seemed like a good idea, ya know? Watch three or four matches to see how things flow, then jump into the fray. Not knowing if this server was running something special for a particular clan, I immediately asked if I was crashing any particular party. The response was overwhelming: “Not at all! Welcome!” This seems to sum up my entire experience playing JA. In almost every case, the Dueling Servers I randomly dropped into were friendly, welcoming, helpful, and tolerant. Nirvana!

But wait…it gets better! Humor! Yes, there is an undeniable lightness of tone in these rooms. A lot of cross-chatting and kibitzing amongst the spectators is par for the course. Here are a few of the one-liners I have heard while watching JA Duels:

  • “Whew! I sucked like Britney Spears backstage at the Grammy’s”
  • “Can I get a lightsaber with training wheels?”
  • (After losing in 5 seconds) “O.K., I’m ready now.”
  • “I’m looking at the scoreboard and I realize I have fallen farther and faster than Ricky Martin’s career.”

Did you notice something? All of the above quotes were self-deprecating. Instead of flaming others, which has become so common nowadays, these players tend to point the comments inward, unless it’s to compliment another on his or her win.

A long time ago, Marvel Comics had a character that I think was supposed to be a mutated version of Stan Lee, who wore a t-shirt that said “Play Hard – Play Fair – Nobody Hurt.” This, in a nutshell, describes my experiences with the Jedi Academy Online dueling community. Certain conventions, for example bowing to your opponent before drawing your saber, and the unwritten, but strictly observed rule that you do not slash away when someone has the “typing indicator balloon” over their head, add to the sense of fair play.

Once the match begins, however, it is kill or be killed. Two skilled Jedi fighting to the death is beautiful and deadly, a terrible tango where only one dancer will leave the floor alive. Sabers clash, opponents leap 15 feet into the air, roll, sidestep, lunge, fall back to riposte, parry and renew the attack. Trust me, this game moves fast, but there is no luck involved. Skill alone will grant you victory and end the reign of the current king.

Obi-Wan Kenobi referred to the Lightsaber as “…an elegant weapon, for a more civilized age.” Perhaps it is that elegance and civility that makes this multiplayer experience one of the richest and most rewarding ones I have had in a LONG time. Thanks to LucasArts for a great game, but mostly, thanks to the people who play it for making a great game even better.

Until next time…

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