It had to happen eventually. The only thing LucasArts loved more than pimping out its Star Wars franchise, was staying on the cutting edge of technology. So when Doom became the new buzzword, you could have bet dollars to doughnuts that you’d be seeing an first-person-shooter Star Wars game. This is that game.
Dark Forces follows the story of Kyle Katarn, a former Imperial officer turned Rebel mercenary-for-hire. Later entries in the Jedi Knight series will have Kyle discover his hidden Jedi talents, but Dark Forces portrays him strictly as a gruff Han Solo type. Lightsabers and Force magic are absent here, with Kyle instead relying on skills and firepower to accomplish any task. And oh, what a series of tasks the Rebellion has for him. You’ll be guiding Kyle as he tracks down the threat of a new Imperial weapon called the “Dark Trooper.” Just a few of these bad boys pack enough heat to raze a city, and a combination of espionage and brute strength will be required to put an end to the project. The story is certainly one of Dark Forces’ strengths – entwined firmly within the gameplay, and engaging enough to keep you playing.
The story is also one of the elements that manage to prevent the game from simply being “Doom on the Death Star.” Every mission is pretty linear, and often involve some Doom-style keycard hunts, but quite unlike Doom, every mission has a goal and a purpose. This actually does wonders to keep you interested. Pre-mission briefings keep you aware of the situation at hand, and clearly spell out what you need to accomplish on the ground to complete the level. These range from simply finding your way through a maze of sewers to capture an informant, to planting charges throughout a facility, or escaping from a devilish trap. Pictures of key objectives are even included, so you’ll never question what you need to do next, or miss a trigger because you didn’t know what you were looking for.
Dark Forces’ weapons are rather unique and fun to use. Only two are from the movies – one is the grenade Leia threatens Jabba the Hutt with, the other is the standard stormtrooper rifle, and just like the movies, it’s fast but inaccurate. The rest are a well-rounded set inspired by the technology from the films. All end up filling specialized roles, with some best for close range, some long, some best against bosses, some great at ammo conservation. You’re never left without a tool for the job, and the range of your set definitely expands and increases in power as the game goes on. It’s almost worth the price of admission to get to the concussion rifle that blows up multiple enemies from across the room. Weapons also have a secondary fire function, allowing you to toss grenades on a timer or impact, rapid fire many weapons, or change the spread of their shots.
The Star Wars license is also used to solid effect here, both in the story, and in the visualization of the world. The story works as a suitable aside to the events between the first and second movies, and many characters and classic villains make their way prominently into the game. I won’t spoil anything, but fans are in for a few particularly nasty encounters. Well-produced cutscenes keep the stakes rising between missions. As for the world, it’s quite satisfying to blast Imperial troopers and officers, with their pompous accents and terrible aim. A collection of aliens and droids finish out the enemy set, but all are definable more by the specific weapons they carry than any other characteristics.
Dark Forces runs off a specialized engine written by LucasArts (called “Jedi,” natch). It’s comparable to Doom, but also includes the ability to have sections placed directly over other floors, providing a more robust illusion of 3-D, through convincing bridges and working elevators. It also allows Dark Forces to be far more vertical than Doom, featuring no shortage of sheer cliffs, dizzying heights, and precarious situations. Most levels are built to cater to this, with bridges, vents, and chasms all around. The city levels are most impressive, with towering buildings and teeny little ledges over huge drops. You’ll also get a greater range of motion, with the ability to look up and down, jump, and crouch. The engine also allows for true three-dimensional models within the game, so you’ll see ships flying by in the background, 3-D turrets, shuttles laying around as set dressing, and most obviously, your pilot dropping you off and picking you up before and after every mission.
Levels are also laid out with greater consideration to technical detail. At least two puzzles involve manipulating elevators, and new passages are opened up if you traverse the basement level while the elevator is on the top. Another example is the space station centered around rotating a central arm to different docking stations. You can see the arm move from the windows of the command center, and indeed, the passageway isn’t open until that arm is locked in place. It sounds simple, but it both makes the worlds feel far more alive than something like, again, Doom. It also rewards smart thinking. You can apply logic to the moving parts of these levels, and generally get the expected effect.
As all your missions involve Imperial bases or production facilities, every level is industrial in nature. However, there’s still a large variety in the levels, textures, and challenges you’ll be up against. You can expect to traverse an Imperial factory, a fuel station, smuggler ships, and the interior of a Star Destroyer, to name a few. The cliched brown walls after brown walls are less present here. Even though many of the levels feature steel gray walls after gray walls, there is enough solid variation between most levels to break the monotony up, especially as you travel to the Imperial capital, an ice station, or a Mars-like mining planet.
The game packs some excellent sound, which I imagine any Star Wars fan would not only expect, but demand. Sound effects are taken directly from the movie library when applicable, so laser blasts and ship sounds are dead on. All the new stuff have equally capable effects created for them. Voice acting is a surprisingly strong point, with a strong performance by the voice of Kyle, and a frighteningly authentic James Earl Jones imitation for Darth Vader. Quips between Kyle and your pilot, and futile orders from Imperials like “Stop Rebel Scum!” help give the game some personality that many FPS’s lack.
Music is MIDI, but very well-created recreations of the classic movie themes. As an added bonus, the game is coded to ease into action versions or stealth versions of the music as the situation heats up or calms down (the iMuse system). It’s a pretty neat trick, and helps sell the movie-esque atmosphere.
Dark Forces is a short game by most standards, packing only 14 missions. I, veteran gamer that I am, finished the game on Hard in a weekend. However, the pacing ends up being just right, and plenty of levels are a lot longer than their FPS period counterparts. This is magnified by the fact that you can’t save during levels, and are relegated to three “lives” and checkpoints along the way. Still, it’s unlikely that anyone will be disappointed by the experience Dark Forces offers, or left feeling cheated by the game’s length. Worth checking out if you’re looking for a good FPS, and wouldn’t mind a little Star Wars thrown in too.
Great mission-based storyline and action.
Short game that overcomes many “me too” Doom clone problems, but still can’t hide the obvious.