STAR WARS: DARK FORCES
Released: February 1995
Genre: First Person Shooter
Dark Forces is, in a nutshell, Doom with a Star Wars skin. That's pretty much the simple way of looking at it. However, it does some interesting things that in my opinion sets it apart from other shooters of its time. Is it still worth picking up? Let's find out as I take a look at this classic 90's FPS.
Dark Forces is set during the time of the original Star Wars trilogy (you know... episodes 4-6 cause Lucas felt like starting there for some reason) but is more set as a side story to the movies where you play badass mercenary Kyle Katarn who takes up missions for the rebels and ends up dealing with the Empire's new experimental prototype soldier, the Dark Forces. Oh, just to mention, in this game YOU are the guy who gets the Death Star plans that helps the rebels destroy the Death Star in Episode IV. Probably a key moment in the game because it directly ties you to the events that went on in the movie and makes you feel like "hey, I actually have a purpose in this game". The problem with a lot of games of this time is the lack of any meaning with what you're doing. Even though Doom is pretty much a perfect shooter, it lacks purpose. Since there is no plot or story to the game you're kinda just playing to see what's next and for nothing else. With Dark Forces, you don't play levels, you play missions. Each mission has a set goal that will impact the story and the mission briefings before each mission are essential to understanding the game's story and objectives because some of them can be a bit tricky to grasp without reading the briefing. There's also voice acting in the game and some cutscenes with some decent animation for the time, so all in all I felt the story was damn solid in the game and I felt really connected to the characters.
Now, Kyle is not a jedi (although he becomes one in the sequel, Jedi Knight), so instead of relying on the force and flashy lightsaber combat, he relies on his wits and his guns. It feels a bit refreshing playing a Star Wars game where you're not playing a Jedi or Sith to be honest. To just be the Han Solo type character, a grunt with some guns and a job to do, feels very different and that's one of the main reasons I feel this game has held up as well as it has. There's even a spot in the game where you're captured by Jabba the Hutt and thrown to one of his pets as food. So, instead of using the force to get your weapon back, you have to defeat this beast with your bare hands like a fucking badass. It's one of the most awesome moments I've had in gaming recently.
The game plays a lot like Doom though I would say it actually plays closer to Duke Nukem 3D in the sense you can look up and down as well as jump so you have a lot more freedom of movement than you'd expect from an early 90's shooter. The controls feel solid and, thankfully, are very easily customized so playing the game with modern WASD controls is very easy.
You have all the classic FPS weapons you'd expect. From classic blasters to explosives, so you have something for every situation. I really like the sound design on them and they all sound very authentic to the movies. Visually they look really cool as well with very detailed sprites.
The levels themselves are also really well designed, and everything feels like it's there for a purpose. For the time the level design is very impressive, and it does a lot of nice tricks that would probably be impossible in games like Doom. Since you're playing missions the levels feel more cinematic in design than a lot of shooters of the time and a lot of times I felt like I was in an actual Star Wars movie. Some of the levels could get a bit cryptic and I got stuck several times, though it thankfully never got so bad I had to consult a walkthrough. The only mission I didn't care that much for is the sewer mission early in the game. It's very easy to get stuck in the maze on that mission and it was only to assassinate a minor character so I felt it could easily have been cut out of the game. It feels like a filler mission.
One thing I noticed that kind of bothered me is the lack of a quicksave function. Unlike other shooters of the time you cannot save during a mission, the game autosaves between missions. Granted you have an extra lives system and checkpoints so if you die, you're only set back a short distance, making it not a big deal, but what if I have to go during a mission? Having to replay a mission from the start every time I have to leave made the game a bit more frustrating than it should've been. Thankfully they introduced quicksaving in the sequel so they obviously learned from their mistake.
The missions aren't usually that long though and once the objective is completed you are actually free to continue exploring if you want to and can quit when you feel ready to leave. I really liked this approach to gameplay and it feels very ahead of its time as instead of giving you a simple "end level switch" you can keep exploring for secrets if you want to without feeling like you are bound to the mission goal.
Graphically the game is gorgeous for its time. The atmosphere feels very genuinely Star Wars and I loved the attention to detail, especially when you can accidentally run into friendly droids on a level who are just running around peacefully. There are a lot of hostile enemies, sure, but it's nice to have a game where not all NPC's are hostile. The level designs feel like actual locations from the movies and help give the game a lot of authenticity. The atmosphere is definitely a good reason I kept coming back to the game.
Music-wise you have several options, and the quality of the music will depend on what sound card you have. I used SoundBlaster OP4 FM synthesis, which sounded decent enough and very oldschool so I felt it fit the game's time period. There are some very decent renditions of the movie score that helps add to the game's atmosphere. The sound design in general is very good with very authentic sound effects, decent voice acting and a great sense of ambience.
The story is very well written for its time and draws you into the game unlike a lot of its contemporary games. It offers for a ton of memorable moments from the game.
The lack of a quicksave function really is the main downgrade for me in this game. Otherwise the game is pretty solid.
GRAPHICS: 8/10No support for high res modes means you are pretty much forced to play in a low-res 320x240 mode. Otherwise the atmosphere is spot on and the levels are very well designed.
The spritework feels very authentic and detailed.
Excellent music and authentic sound design. No real complaints here.
FINAL SCORE: 9/10
All in all, Star Wars: Dark Forces is a true classic FPS that you should definitely play if you're a fan of Star Wars or just oldschool shooters in general. Some of its features are well ahead of its time, while in some other ways it does feel a bit obsolete. But as a whole I had a blast playing this game. The force is strong with this one...
Now... on to tackle the sequel, Jedi Knight: Dark Forces II!