Video Game Review: Dark Forces
The First Person Shooter (FPS) had just gained momentum in 1993 with the release of Doom. Many games attempted to emulate it and were quickly labeled as ‘Doom-clones.’ But as much as LucasArts wanted to make a FPS like Doom, they also wanted to make additions to stand out. Thus, in 1995, came Star Wars: Dark Forces. The game added (what was revolutionary at the time) the ability to look up, down, duck, jump, swim, and it also contained levels with multiple floors. All the above was thanks to LucasArts creating the Jedi engine basically from reverse engineering the Doom engine. In 1995, all those new features made Dark Forces a good game. In late 2012/early 2013, it’s goodwill from said features has pretty much worn out.
Let’s start with the graphics, which partly influences my ill-will towards the first entry in the Jedi Knight series. I already knew that the graphics weren’t going to be anything special compared to what we’re spoiled with today and at first, I wasn’t even going to touch on them in the review because it’s no surprise things didn’t look pretty. What changed my mind was how they affected my time with the game: confusion and motion sickness. Firstly, corridors, large open spaces, or largely any environment in the game have tons of repeating patterns for walls. This is understandable due to the limitations at the time, but I found it hard to discern entrances to other passageways from the rest of the surroundings unless I was looking in the correct direction. Where early levels are short and simple, later labyrinthine-like levels combined with indiscernible walls force you to rely on the map. Accessing it through the PDA-menu or displaying it as part of the HUD (heads up display) are both equally pains. The map takes up the practical entirety of the screen, layering additional confusion to the situation, while straight up pausing the game to get the PDA-menu every three seconds isn’t any better.
The pattern approach to every environment in levels lead me to my first case of motion sickness due to playing video games. In all other cases, I only get motion sickness from looking down in a moving vehicle. But sprinting through levels, including all the backtracking, quickly made me feel queasy. If you are prone to motion sickness, you should most likely just skip this game due to that.
As I stated earlier, the graphics are limited due to the capabilities of game engines at the time, but looking at the game now to review for you now, I have to warn of how this game stands up now, not back then.
After that, it’s gameplay that really matters. All fourteen missions offer largely the same objective: find something/blow up something and get back to the starting point. The journey to and from has its fair share of variety and difficulty. Whether it’s punching a kell dragon in the face (to death), blasting through endless stormtroopers with unique weapons, or navigating a nasty sewer system, you’ll find challenges around every corner (literally). And what ultimately sets the game apart from most FPS of that time are the puzzles strewn about each level.
It wasn’t until the Anoat city mission, where you’re tracking down a well-hidden Moff, that the puzzles really started appearing. Unlike some of today’s heavy hand-holding games, you’re basically left with a simple objective. In the case of Anoat city sewer systems, you’re never told what your exactly doing exploring four separate entrances, or how they’ll help you get to the Moff, but you just start exploring. Getting lost or confused is to be expected, but I found myself stuck running amok for nearly twenty minutes. Suddenly I realized it wasn’t the sewage system that was the puzzle, it was the entire level.
Popular FPSs like Call of Duty and Medal of Honor are guilty of linearity, where they funnel you down a set path. If there’s anything I expressly loved from Dark Forces, it was that each level truly is its own puzzle. Even if it meant I was riding an elevator on Orinackra trying to figure out how to free Crix Madine for half an hour, I applaud the game for letting you lose instead of reigning you in. This plus has its downside: it can cause tons of frustration as it’s never clear if you’re making any progress. Nothings more exasperating than blasting through a level for fifteen minutes and not have any idea you’ve already done enough to proceed to the end.
Reaching the end of each level can be difficult thanks to the precision shots of the enemies, the auto-aim working only when it wants to, and floaty controls. It was just prior to the Orinackra mission where I noticed how floaty the character movement was and I wrote in my review notes: “Hope there’s not a cliff heavy level.” Orinackra starts off with you jumping around narrow ledges and cliffs and it’s where you’ll quickly find yourself angry at the three life limit as you plummet to your doom. There are extra life pick-ups scattered about a level, so searching every nook and cranny is a must if you don’t want to use the passcode system to cheat.
Shooting enemies can either be a chore or overly simple. You’ll unlock several weapons where basically hitting the shoot button will down any opponent in your field of view, but it’s when enemies are above or below you that things get complicated. To aim up or down effectively, you’ll have to stop in place to get an Imperial trooper in your sights. While you’re doing that, they’ll have no problem hitting you, knocking down your shields and health meters rapidly. Seeing as this was new to the FPS genre, it’s slightly forgivable, but definitely a problem.
But what’s not forgivable is missing the story for Dark Forces. It all starts with Kyle Katarn, mercenary for hire, who infiltrates a base on Danuta to steal another part of the Death Star plans (the Wookiepedia entry on the Death Star plans is way more prolific than I previously imagined). After his success, Mon Mothma asks Katarn to investigate a recently demolished Rebel base on Talay, where there were reports of a trooper design never before seen leading the assault. What follows is a journey to uncover the deadly Dark Trooper project and stop it before it destroys any chance the Rebellion has of defeating the Empire. Katarn will secure Imperial Officer defector Crix Madine (who has an infinitesimally small role in Ep.VI), verse several Moff’s, be captured by Jabba the Hutt, and blow up tons of Imperial bases. The story alone is a pretty fun ride and the game’s undeniably shining bright spot.
Here’s a few other things:
- The games cartoon-ish cutscenes, fully voice acted, hold up pretty decently and reminded me a lot of the cartoons I watched as a child.
- Moff Rebus, designer of Dark Trooper weapons, easily paranoid, and sewage dweller, looks laughably like Ron Jeremy. If not him, it’s a generic version of all overweight 70’s males (see photo on right).
- Kyle Katarn’s character model looks nothing like his current visage, which was developed from the actor who plays him in the sequel to this game.
- I couldn’t figure out if this was a cruel joke or just really good use of source material: Kyle’s time on Talay finds him running across charred bodies of the Rebels who didn’t make it out alive and they all look like the corpses of Aunt Beru and Uncle Owen.
- The jumping sound Kyle makes sounds almost like Dash Rendar’s in Shadows of the Empire. It’s unnerving but nothing wrong with reusing sound bites that worked in older games.
- Phase 1 Dark Troopers look like Terminators and largely move like the one in the first movie. It gave me some scary flashbacks of seeing that movie as a child. Phase 2 looks like the Juggernaut (without corny one-liners) while the Phase 3 is a slightly beefier version. Their character models aren’t too clear in the game, so here’s a picture of the toys.
- Katarn threatens Jabba that he’ll jam his blaster down Jabba’s throat. No one in their right mind would actually want to do that, right?
I won’t sugar coat this: unless you played this game when it initially released, you’re better off skipping this first entry in the Jedi Knight series. While it is an interesting look back at the formative years of the FPS genre, it’s not worth the occasional headache or possible motion sickness. At least read the Wookiepedia entry on the storyline and you won’t have missed much. But worry not, after Dark Forces, Katarn’s gaming legacy only grows stronger.
This game was developed by LucasArts, released on MS-DOS and Macintosh, Playstation One and Playstation Network as a PSone Classic. This review is based off the PSN PSone Classic version.
Ryan is the video game reporter and game reviewer for Knights’ Archive. You can follow him on Twitter at @BrushYourTeeth.