Blog 878: Dark Forces

I used to like Star Wars. The original trilogy? Bangers. The prequels? Flawed execution of a fundamentally solid plotline.

Then there were the video games. Jedi Knight II has long been one of my favourite Expanded Universe adventures, but I’ve never played the game where this particular storyline began and I’ve been meaning to catch up for years.

Kyle Katarn started his life in 1995’s Dark Forces. Now, I struggled to play Doom and gave up on it after a few levels because it was too old even for me, so it was with some trepidation that I took this particular plunge…

Star Wars: Dark Forces

Did you know that Kyle Katarn stole the plans to the Death Star, before forwarding them on to Leia? Yep, it was him. It’s the first mission of Dark Forces. Which is about ten minutes long. Then we forget all about it and fast-forward to some time between A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back for the actual game — the story of dismantling the Dark Trooper project.

(As the only film of the modern tranche that’s any good, I’m probably happy to have Katarn’s theft of the Death Star plans replaced by Rogue One‘s slightly more… detailed… take.)

That’s a lovely moon space station you got there, would be a shame if something happened to it…

Of course the main draw is that narrative focus. Mission briefings are delivered in text with plenty of personality, as Jan Ors explains your objectives in a conversational tone. Every few missions, there are even some proper pre-rendered cinematics — these are not the live-acted majesty of Dark Forces II (we’ll get there, don’t worry), but they are a mix of glorious CGI spaceships with hand-painted characters.

Mind you, there are definitely a clips from the films crunched down into 256 colours as insets — there is the obligatory appearance of Jabba the Hutt (via hologram), and I’m certain that the civilian witness to the Empire’s raid which sets the story in motion is actually Admiral Ackbar.

It’s a trap! (Also Kyle didn’t have a beard back then, woah.)

The thing is that the narrative is perfectly Star Wars. The Empire has yet another secret project to build a tool of oppression, and this time when the beleaguered Rebel Alliance stumbles upon it, they hire Kyle Katarn to investigate. He goes from looking for clues to chasing smugglers and blowing up factories on a planet-hopping adventure. He gets interrupted by bounty hunters. He has a burgeoning romantic relationship with Jan Ors. It’s exactly what I want from a Star Wars story.

The missions themselves are about what you’d expect from an older FPS. You’re dropped into a place and have to blast and puzzle your way through sprawling levels until you reach your final objective. Some missions require you to get in and get out again, while others end as soon as you reach your goal. Most are quite open-plan with plenty of space for meandering and exploration, though that often comes with an amount of backtracking as you track down keys and realise that you passed the doors you passed for them are miles away.

The map shows most levels to be ABSOLUTE FUCKING CHAOS, but when you’re running around on the ground they don’t feel that bad at all (mostly).

Unfortunately, some of those doors are behind obtuse switch combinations — and getting one switch wrong can mean a costly run around the level three times until you work out what you missed. Although Kyle will speak a line or two when you complete an objective, there is otherwise no hinting about what doors you need to seek when, or what the result of hitting any given switch might be.

Some switches have more than one position, which came as something of a surprise to me. The infamous sewer level also has a switch that opens four different doors depending on what position it’s at, and there are even a few multi-floor elevators that have to be set to the correct levels to open up certain paths. I say these interactions came as a surprise because, well, it was 1995 — they’d barely invented the ability to look upwards! And yet, here we are with complex sequences of moving parts, linked into in-world puzzles.

Do not just run past the pretty wall decorations — this one helps you work out the correct sequence of doors required to reach the centre. (I had to draw this one out. Twice.)

Yes, looking up or down is a doozy. The mouse can be used to look left and right, giving you the full power of mouselook circle-strafing, but you’re limited to having two separate keys for verticality. At first this seems like a daft choice — the game understands the mouse Y axis after all — but then you actually start looking up and down and hooo-eeee, does the view warp when you do that.

Height is an important factor in the game — there are frequently ledges and walkways with stormtroopers shooting down at you, and although there is a degree of vertical auto-aim, manually looking up and down is necessary to be sure you don’t just spray ammo at the walls. Given that warping, though, you don’t want to stray far from horizontal for any longer than you absolutely have to.

It doesn’t look so bad in a still but believe me, it’s stomach-churning in motion.

So we are on the old side of things, but we’re advanced enough that it’s surprisingly playable. It’s absolutely worth forging through some of the more oddball design choices for the privilege of the story and the dramatic Star Wars scenery.

Because ah, even in glorious 320×200 resolution, the look and feel, the essence of Star Wars is so thoroughly present in all thse environments. The patterns on the metal walls, the lights on the control panels, the needlessly complicated power generator control systems and door locks. Oh, and the enemies — sure, they’re crunchy sprites, but they’ve got more than enough pixels to be completely recognisable as stormtroopers and Probe Droids and Imperial officers (well, at least when they haven’t been ground into dust by distance). Yes, even with the early FPS technology of the mid 90s, this is Star Wars. Who needs 4K monitors anyway?

It helps that the Star Wars films had incredibly distinctive sound design too — even at perhaps a slightly compressed quality, that inimitable pew of a blaster rifle immediately sets the tone. Even the MIDI soundtrack renders all those recognisable riffs, dynamically swapping between combat and relaxed themes too. This game was hella far ahead of its time.

Why do I have to extend a bridge in three different ways, to hit three different switches, before it’ll let me at the precious artefact on top of this pillar? Why is it even on a pillar? Imperial security systems!

Maybe the most annoying age factor is the lack of any saving or loading. There is a system of lives so death isn’t necessarily a problem (though I played it on Easy to keep things running smoothly), but it means you can’t start a bath and be confident it won’t overflow by the time you reach the next stopping point. Completing a mission unlocks the next on the main menu screen, and their lengths are uneven enough that there’s no way to predict when you might stop for the day.

There are also some peculiar design choices tossed in that don’t seem particularly due to limitations of the age, though. For example, the icy planet of Anteevy has sections that are impossibly slippery if you don’t find the Ice Cleats to wear — but once you do they are indistinguishable from normal surfaces. You find the Ice Cleats at the first slippery area so it seems a little pointless; and if you don’t have the fortune to slide into them, then once you come to a stop you pretty much cannot get moving again. I had to restart that mission several times until I worked this out.

Ah yes, the obligatory Star Wars ice planet.

Of course the other reason to play Dark Forces is another kind of significance — this is the game that gave us the Dark Trooper. While these powerful Imperial droids don’t return in either Jedi Knights I or II (though I can’t yet speak for III), they do show up in other Star Wars games! They’re in The Force Unleashed and Empire at War: Forces of Corruption! That’s a real legacy. (Although Katarn naturally destroys the Dark Trooper project in Dark Forces, it’s completely reasonable to assume that many units had been manufactured and shipped off elsewhere before he managed to do so.)

Remember when Star Wars was a strange half-official community worldbuilding project, where artists could riff off and expand on each others’ contributions? This flexible approach to the Expanded Universe might have led to some… questionable… pieces of lore over the ages, but it also meant that compelling ideas like the Dark Trooper could be picked up and reinforced by other stories, further contributing to that incredible feeling of depth. Dark Forces proves that you don’t need everybody and their aunty to be a blood relative of a Skywalker to make a piece of fiction that is quintessentially Star Wars. Hell, Dark Forces shows you don’t even need a lightsaber.

But don’t worry, we’ll get a lightsaber in a bit…

My dudes, that is a fully mobile polygonal 3D model. In an FPS from 1995.

2 thoughts on “Blog 878: Dark Forces”

  1. This game was mindblowing back when it first came out – like Doom, but you can look up and down??? – and the StarWarsy-ness of it was perfect: music, sounds, designs.

    In retrospect, it’s tough getting used to the cruder controls again, and the problems of the game series can be seen here: what I like to call the “how do the bad guys get to work in the morning?” syndrome, with obtuse puzzles and running back & forth over the same ground again interrupting an otherwise immersive experience.

    I’ve been enjoying the references to Dark Troopers in the new canon; and I suspect the character of Kyle Katarn – mercenary, rebel, and Jedi – has his full expression in the characters of Cassian Andor and Kanan Jarrus (maybe…).

    At the time I found it to be a game that both treated players/fans to familiar stuff, but plausibly expanded the universe as well (that feeling of “I wonder what’s around the corner I can’t see?”). In some ways I miss that about Star Wars…

    (Great review though – cheers!) 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The obtuse door lock puzzles are hilarious, but on the other hand — Obi-Wan had to do a dangerous stunt to shut down the tractor beam, and the bunker on Endor had something like three layers of door. This stuff is _absolutely_ on brand for the Empire!

      And I would say, it’s completely playable today. It did not take me long to get used to the controls, slightly crunchy as they are, and even the more obscure bits of level design are relatively rare. Most of it is just a great romp blasting stormtroopers through lovely environments. (Also — the gog edition I bought comes with the Official Strategy Guide, so you don’t even need to search the internet if you get stuck!)

      Liked by 1 person

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