I got to the level where you get your Jedi powers and I'm absolutely certain I've played this game before, but it dismays and confuses me that I forgot there was a Luke Skywalker cameo. That's kind of huge and it completely slipped my mind. I think I may be getting old.
But let's just put my personal angst aside for a moment and focus on the game itself. It's interesting the way it can be recognizably and unmistakably a Dark Forces game, but also be better than its predecessors in every conceivable way. I guess the five year break really did make a difference.
A lot of the improvements are little things, like mapping your weapons' secondary fire mode to the right mouse button instead of the "z" button. It's something I could (and probably should) have done myself, but having it as a default is just so much more welcoming.
Then there are high-level design decisions, like have real, physics-based force powers. Using your telekinesis to push an enemy and send them flying across the room is incredibly fun. And having your force power recharge quickly, instead of slowly over time, is an unmitigated move for the better. I feel more like a Jedi than I ever did in the previous games (although I have to confess that I keep forgetting I can use the Force to solve environmental puzzles).
But the biggest improvement is in the script. Conversations are more natural and realistic and even the stiff and clunky exposition does a better job at actually explaining the plot. Dark Forces II might have been slightly better at characterization, thanks to the actors bringing texture to their characters just from their mannerisms and appearance, but even that's debatable. The voice work in this game is very good. I suspect that this is simply a case of the video games industry being less "niche" in 2003 than in 1998 and thus able to attract more artistic talent.
I'm not sure that I necessarily regret missing out on this game the first time through, because it's still fundamentally a Dark Forces game and the series' combination of intense FPS action and confusing mazes is one that tends to task me beyond my abilities. I couldn't even get through the first level on normal mode and I'm constantly using a walkthrough to find my way out of trouble. With those caveats in mind, I'm still enjoying myself. I like exploring the Star Wars universe and jumping around with a lightsaber, even if I'm a complete waste as a Jedi.