While there’s been a surge of Star Wars games over the past few years, we still haven’t seen anything quite like the Jedi Knight series. In case you missed them, they were uniformly excellent shooters in which you took on the Empire while exploring your burgeoning connection to the Force. Though they all had great campaigns, it was the lightsaber combat system that made Jedi Outcast and Academy in particular so popular, and birthed a unique community of online duelling clubs.
While developer Raven Software has long since moved on and publisher Lucas Arts has folded, the players who spent hours with these games are finding ways to preserve them. We’ve spoken about Jedi Academy’s movie battles mod before, but another project we’ve been following is Vertex.
In development at fan-fueled indie Timenudge Studios, the core of Vertex is freeform melee combat based on that of Jedi Outcast and Jedi Academy. The project’s lead Chris, who wishes to remain on first name terms, explains that the melee system will give you full control of your movements, attacks, and acrobatics: when it’s all in full flow, you can use any of these three elements individually or in combination. Doing so with success will require a lot of skill – you’ll need precise positioning, timing, and inputs to master it all.
This does sound evocative of those old PC games, for these are the aspects of the original experience that Chris and his team at Timenudge are so keen to preserve.
“If, for example, a Jedi Academy veteran can play Vertex for the first time and find that some of their skills translate, then we know we are doing something right,” he says. “We also wanted to keep the old Quake 3 engine style of strafe-jumping and movement – it’s not exact, but it’s close – which opens up other options like race modes and race maps.”
The Vertex team are keen fans of the series, then, but they’re not settling for mere recreation. Chris tells me they’ve also created the game with various improvements in mind, such as “more interesting game modes”. They’re also working on fixing “the problems with running, the balancing between the different weapons, improving on the movements and the abilities, and making the gameplay more consistent”.
“We want to expand the game and provide other features, such as different telekinetic abilities for melee characters and different gadgets for players who want to fight at range and use guns,” he tells us. “We believe melee vs guns would be great fun.”
Another of Chris’s hopes for Vertex is to lean into the community aspect that has kept Jedi Knight’s following going for so long. While his team is developing the game, he wants its community to be involved in shaping it, too.
“We want to provide a very robust modding system,” he explains. “UE4 is free for everybody, and the UE4 editor is the only tool anybody will ever need to mod the game. We want to allow everybody to mod the game into whatever game they want.”
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He’s still working towards that goal. While Unreal Engine has helped him greatly, it’s not without its complexities to master. “Modding for UE4 can require quite a bit of work on the developer’s end, depending on how deep you want mods to go,” he says. “Things like cosmetics are easy enough for the game to support, but modders being able to add significant custom functionality to the game world – that’s more complicated.
“On the plus side, it’s possible to compile your own game-specific version of the UE4 editor which you can distribute to modders, so your version of the editor can have any specific modding features you wish to expose.”
The good news is that Unreal Engine is “very easy” to learn. That comes in handy when your goal is to give everyone the ability to contribute to a project like Vertex.
“Game development has always been a hobby of mine, but I would not say I was an experienced game developer when I started with UE,” Chris tells us. “I think it’s structured in a way which makes it very easy to pick up. It also has an excellent visual scripting system – Blueprints – for non-programmers as well as programmers, and it’s robust enough that you can literally build an entire game with it. Although some things are better implemented in C++ for performance reasons.”
Now that Chris is more familiar with the development tool, he’s found that it’s helped him overcome several technical challenges with Vertex such as the ability to iterate on the fly, and creating content.
“Iteration time is absolutely crucial to the development of Vertex,” he tells us. “I want to be able to make changes and deploy them as patches so the team can start testing out some ideas. I’m the only programmer, so the visual scripting system is great for the other team members to add and experiment with things on their own local versions.
“For content creation, the UE4 node-based material system is great for making materials, and material instances are absolutely fantastic for tweaking materials in-game. I love the animation system as well, and the Quixel library being free for UE4 is a complete game-changer.”
Vertex has come a long way since it started up back in 2017. Players now can launch their servers and create maps thanks to the modding accessibility – just as the Vertex team intended. “The playerbase is very small,” Chris says. “But we hope that it will keep growing as we keep adding in more content and more things to do.”
The project isn’t entirely done yet, and Chris doesn’t know when it will be as it’s a passion project the team is making in their spare time. Regardless, there’s an active Discord you can join if you want to get involved and try out what’s on offer so far.
“Although we work on the game as fast as we can, we all work on it in our free time – so it’s hard to say when it will even be out of pre-alpha,” Chris says. “Of course, we are always looking into options to get funding for the game, which would speed things up considerably, but we aren’t quite there yet. We have more things we want to add as well as more polish – better to represent a vertical slice of the finished product.”
In this sponsored series, we’re looking at how game developers are taking advantage of Unreal Engine 4 to create a new generation of PC games. With thanks to Epic Games and Timenudge Studios.