Review: “Star Wars: Dark Forces” (Retro Computer Game)

2015 Artwork Dark Forces review sketch Let me start off by saying that when it comes to the old “Star Trek vs. Star Wars” debate, I’m firmly on the “Star Trek” side of things. I don’t know why I mentioned this, but it seemed appropriate to get it out of the way before reviewing “Dark Forces”.

Even so, I absolutely love 1990s sprite-based FPS games. But, the problem is that there aren’t that many of them left that I haven’t played yet. So, when I saw that the first “Dark Forces” game was on special offer on GoG back in May, I just had to buy a copy of it. I also got the second “Dark Forces” game too, which I might review at a later date.

I should also point out that this review will be more of a “first impressions” article than a full review. This is because, at the time of writing this review (in early May), I’ve only been able to play about the first six levels. So, this review will mostly focus on my impressions of the gameplay and my experiences with the game so far.

So, is “Dark Forces” any good? Dark forces name screen My answer to that question is more complicated than you might think, since there are a lot of things – both positive and negative – that I have to say about this game.

Although my very first impressions of the game were extremely bad, in a literal example of the sunk cost fallacy I persevered and gradually started to appreciate this game slightly. So, I’ll start by listing the game’s good points before I begin to completely tear it to shreds criticise it.

In “Dark Forces”, you play as an ex-imperial officer called Kyle Katarn who has been hired by the alliance to carry out a series of missions against the Empire. And, yes – in this regard – the game is very ahead of it’s time.

Whilst most other FPS games at the time mostly just made you get from one end of the level to the other (*sigh* I really miss levels like this), in “Dark Forces” you actually have mission objectives that you need to fulfil before you can complete the level:

Yes, the game actually gives you full mission briefings, complete with screenshots.

Yes, the game actually gives you full mission briefings, complete with screenshots.

Unlike many other early-mid 1990s FPS games, “Dark Forces” also actually includes something resembling a proper story – which is also occasionally relayed through cutscenes between some of the missions:

And, yes Darth vader is in this game too.

And, yes Darth vader is in this game too.

Another good thing about “Dark Forces” is that it uses the Jedi engine, which enables it to do things that most other FPS games at the time couldn’t really do. You can look up and down, you can jump, you can crouch, there are basic 3D models, there are destructible walls and there’s even a certain level of dynamic lighting in this game (eg: you have a “headlight” that you can turn on in dark areas).

In many ways, the Jedi engine is a lot more like the Build engine (from 3D Realms’s 1996 classic ” Duke Nukem 3D”) than the “Doom” engine. So, yes, technologically – this game is very impressive for something made in 1995. In fact, this game is surprisingly ahead of it’s time. Another good thing about this game is the music and voice acting. The game is filled with wonderful 90s MIDI background music that is taken straight from the “Star Wars” movies and it really adds a lot of atmosphere to most of the levels.

Halt! Rebel scum!

Halt! Rebel scum!

Likewise, the stormtroopers and imperial guards will shout at you when they see you and Kyle Katarn will also occasionally even comment about things . Again, having the player character comment about the game was something that didn’t really become popular until “Duke Nukem 3D” a year later [Edit: Although this feature is sort of included in both “Heretic” and “Rise Of The Triad: Dark War”, it isn’t really used to the same extent as it is in this game].

But, although “Dark Forces” was at least a year ahead of it’s time, there are a lot of flaws with this game that I feel I have to mention. The most glaring flaw in the gameplay is the almost total absence of a saving system. Yes, you can’t save during each level – there aren’t even checkpoints in each level.

The game auto-saves for you at the end of each mission and only at the end of each mission. Instead of an actual in-game save system, you get a certain number of “lives” (eg: when you die you respawn nearby and lose a life) and when your lives are depleted, you have to re-start the mission from scratch. I could tolerate this in a 2D platform game, but there’s no place for lives, checkpoint saving or any of that nonsense in the FPS genre!

Yes, there's no save option here. Consider it a giant middle finger from the developers.

Yes, there’s no save option here. Consider it a giant middle finger from the developers.

What this also means is that you have to commit about an hour to each play session of the game, since you’ll lose all of your progress if you don’t finish the level. I don’t know about you, but I really don’t like computer games dictating to me how long they must be played for. If you need more reasons why this is a criminally terrible design choice, then just watch this Youtube video by Extra Credits about session length.

The lives system is bad enough in and of itself, but the extreme cheap difficulty of the game compounds this problem even further. Don’t get me wrong, I love challenging games – but only when they are done fairly. There’s a lot of needless backtracking (eg: you have to return to the beginning of the level once you’ve completed your objectives) and cheap difficulty in this game (eg: with things like *ugh* first-person platforming sections), which can really ruin the experience. So, I’d advise that you play this game on “easy” difficulty, even if you’ve had a lot of prior experience with 90s FPS games.

The quality of the level design (or what I’ve seen of it so far) in “Dark Forces” is variable, to say the least. Some levels are fairly well-designed FPS levels – they’re non-linear, well-designed and require a lot of exploration and thought. They also contain fair, but challenging, puzzles that require the player to actually think. However, other levels – level three in particular – are designed to be intentionally confusing and annoying. In fact, I actually had to watch a walkthrough on Youtube before I could complete level three. Seriously, this is the first time that I’ve had to do this for a FPS game in a long time.

It's no coincidence that level three is set in a sewer. Wading through a giant river of shit is a good visual metaphor for this level.

It’s no coincidence that level three is set in a sewer. Wading through a giant river of shit is a good visual metaphor for this level.

Other problems with this game include things like the jerky controls and some of the weapon designs. Although I love old-school FPS games with keyboard-only controls (you can also use the mouse for turning in “Dark Forces”, but not for looking up and down), they need to be as smooth as possible in order to allow for fast-paced combat and accurate shooting. Jumping in this game isn’t as precise as it should be, which can lead to frustration during the game’s platforming sections. Since you can’t save, you’ll have to manually retrace your steps and try again. And again. And again….

This LOOKS straightforward. But, thanks to the game's jumping system, you will probably spend at least five minutes just crossing this one room.

This LOOKS straightforward. But, thanks to the game’s jumping system, you will probably spend at least five minutes just crossing this one room.

Likewise, whilst the game will sometimes auto-aim vertically for you (like in “Doom”), it doesn’t always do this and you will have to use the page up and page down keys to jerkily look up and down (in fixed increments). Combined with the lack of a crosshair, this makes a lot of firefights more damaging and ammo-intensive than they should be.

 Yes, it took me twenty seconds and WAY too much ammunition just to shoot this stormtrooper.

Yes, it took me twenty seconds and WAY too much ammunition just to shoot this stormtrooper.

Whilst some of the weapons in this game are fairly good, the one you will use the most is probably the stormtrooper rifle. In a nod to the movies, this gun is notoriously inaccurate and it also uses up two units of ammunition per shot. There also only seem to be about two of three ammo types in the entire game.

So, if you run out of ammo for your stormtrooper rifle, then most of your other guns will also be useless too. Because of the gun’s high rate of fire, this will often happen in the middle of battles. And, since switching between weapons is slightly slower than you would expect in a 1990s FPS game, expect to take a lot of damage when this happens. Still, like most 1990s FPS games, there’s a creative array of other weapons on offer too – like these:

This bizarre four-barrelled gun is kind of cool.

This bizarre four-barrelled gun is kind of cool.

This game also features throwable grenades... a whole YEAR before

This game also features throwable grenades… a whole YEAR before “Duke Nukem 3D” did.

This cool-looking gun fires three shots in a triangular pattern. It looks cool, but it isn't very accurate.

This cool-looking gun fires three shots in a triangular pattern. It looks cool, but it isn’t very accurate.

All in all, “Dark Forces” is a game which – whilst well ahead of it’s time technologically – will probably be more frustrating than enjoyable. Yes, there’s some fun to be had if you doggedly persevere with this game, but it’s one of the worst 1990s sprite-based FPS games I’ve ever played. This still probably makes it better than some modern FPS games, but don’t go into this game expecting it to be as good as “Doom”, “Blood” or “Duke Nukem 3D”.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get two and a half.

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