First-person-shooters have come a long way since the groundbreaking Doom, so does LucasArts’ Star Wars take on the genre with Dark Forces still stand the test of time and improve on the FPS formula?
Star Wars: Dark Forces (PC)
(USA 1995, developer: LucasArts (defunct), publishers: LucasArts (defunct)/Disney), platforms: PC, PS1)
Former Imperial stormtrooper Kyle Katarn goes on secret missions for the Rebellion in order to stop a new threat of the Empire in the form of General Rom Mohc and his army of Dark Troopers.
An old-school FPS with a story
Unlike Doom where plot and character development was non-existent, objective-based missions tell a coherent story that fits rather nicely into the saga’s lore. Kyle Katarn might not have lots of dialogue in between missions, but his attitude towards the Empire and some sarcastic comments make him a character to relate to and care for. While the main villain and story remain a bit contrived and campy with some parts feeling forced to fit the continuity of the trilogy or to provide fan service with well-known locations like the former Republic city Coruscant or characters like Jabba The Hutt and Boba Fett, the plot is entertaining and engaging enough to continue playing. For an FPS at that time it was pretty unique, although fpr today’s story-driven FPS titles, there could have been a bit more story and dialogue (something the Jedi Knight sequels would rectify, though).
The light and dark side of new gameplay ideas
Locations change as much as some objectives, even if one can easily lose orientation. Levels are quite big and with identically-looking corridors, so it’s difficult to find one’s way even with a map. However, just as in the Doom series, they’re all very well-designed, being puzzles in and of themselves. Figuring out which button to press or key cards to acquire in order to open doors is just as rewarding as solving various puzzles, e.g. aligning bridges or crawling through secret passages and jumping from platform to platform. Unfortunately, the latter is one of the biggest issues of the game. With controls being oversensitive, the platform sections are frustratingly difficult. In addition, it’s not possible to save anytime. With only three lives for each level and some checkpoints, it might be realistic, but it’s certainly not the best solution when confronted with unfair passages like these or some enemies like the Dark Troopers who are overpowered and can quickly send the player into oblivion, especially in the final stages of the game.
One can also collect lives on the way and carry them over to the next level, in addition to all the weapons and special abilities, e.g. seeing in the dark or being able to stand firmly on icy grounds. Unfortunately, the CPU speed of today’s machines can make one specific level almost unbeatable, requiring to manually fix the CPU cycles in the DOSBox if one plays it on the current OS. Except for this, the gameplay provides around 10 hours of varied shooter fun. Looking up and down and being able to jump might be standard today , but back in the days it was revolutionary for the genre. While the latter is a questionable design decision with platforming segments, the former shows how big certain levels are. Despite the never-changing shooting mechanics, the level design never gets old, mainly because there are always new ideas thrown at the player and missions get a little more interesting than the standard shoot-everyone template, with placing bombs or finding and rescuing specific persons. It almost plays like an adventure with specific goals why one should finish a level and continue to the next.
Old looks and sounds are good enough
Graphically, the game doesn’t hold up well today with very low textures on both characters and backgrounds. However, only when close up to enemies, does it become a pixelated mess. Most of the time it doesn’t really distract from the experience, again showing how much fun the gameplay is. Stormtroopers look good enough, while all other enemies at least resemble the source material. Special mention has to go to the cutscenes. Even if the animations aren’t great, the drawings are quite good and some of the CGI effects are nice to look at as well. Voice acting is surprisingly good (especially considering how bad it would be years later in Rogue Squadron 3D), and the great music adds to the immersion, as the change of pace is also reflected in the score, making enemy blasting all the more satisfying.
A classic FPS experience with Star Wars feeling
Some games, especially in the FPS genre, don’t age that well. Dark Forces is an exception. While it’s technically nowhere near as impressive as when it was released, with many innovations taken for granted today, it’s still a lot of fun to play. This is due to some great level design and a story that is captivating enough to entertain, even if it doesn’t tread new ground in the Star Wars universe. It might be quite difficult in places with some horrible platforming sections and a questionable save system, but playing it with John Williams’ iconic music, it’s certainly the most sophisticated and innovative Doom clone.
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