Tech, Autos, & Gear in Layman's Terms Since 2006

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March 16, 2010 • Gaming, Reviews

Star Wars Dark Forces (1995, FPS): The Netbook Gamer

I now come to the conclusion of my reviews of the Jedi Knight series (see my Netbook Gamer reviews of the original Star Wars Jedi Knight, the Mysteries of the Sith expansion, and the Jedi Knight II and Jedi Academy sequels) with the game that started it all – 1995’s Star Wars Dark Forces.

At the end of 1993 id Software released Doom as shareware, and the gaming world has never recovered! The shooter was born, links between video game and real violence supported by shaking data were being blamed for everything from murder to bad haircuts, and the age of the ‘computer hardware upgrade treadmill’ began.

Doom proved so popular – and the shareware method so successful – that very soon new FPS games were being released in all different forms. id Software was smart and licensed their technology, which only further muddied the waters with more and more clones, but throughout all of this some really creative games emerged. Raven Software (known as the crew who later did Jedi Knight II and Jedi Academy) had done a pretty mediocre game called Shadowcaster using the Wolf 3D engine, but returned with a vengeance with the classics Heretic and HeXeN in 1994 and 1995 respectively. Each of these games took the Doom engine in a somewhat new fantasy direction.

In 1994 gamers learned that LucasArts was working on their own Star Wars themed first person shooter, and there was a mixture of hope and skepticism. LucasArts was pumping out top quality games such as Monkey Island and the X-Wing and Tie Fighter classics, and had not yet earned a reputation for bleeding franchises for cash. Yet there were so many lousy Doom clones that there was fear that this would be yet another one of those.

Fortunately the fears were not realized: LucasArts had developed their own engine which did a couple of important things that were impossible in Doom. It allowed levels to exist across true vertical spaces, and it allowed the player to interact in three dimensions for the first time. These two design differences forever changed game design and help the level design of Dark Forces feel truly innovative while also being very much ‘of the Star Wars Universe’.

The game tells the story of Kyle Katarn, young man from Sullust who leaves his small homeworld to attend the Imperial Academy and become an Imperial Officer. From there a series of events (wonderfully detailed in a trilogy of books by William Dietz that I highly recommend) causes Katarn to turn his back on the Empire, but he is also not totally trusting of the Rebel Alliance. In the opening mission, Kyle is a mercenary who is working for the Rebels to capture the secret plans for a new Imperial super-weapon (i.e. the Death Star), which is handled in a way that threads in nicely between what we know from the movies and what was left untold.

As the game continues after the events of the original Star Wars, Kyle Katarn and his pilot partner Jan Ors uncover a secret plot to create a new highly powerful Dark Trooper while investigating a destroyed Rebel base. The remainder of the game has Kyle traveling from planet to planet uncovering new details about the Dark Trooper project, leading ultimately to a showdown with General Mohc.

Dark Forces was a great looking game in late 1995, and an even better looking (and sounding) game when it came to the Mac in early 1996. The ‘Mac Enhanced’ version had double the resolution and utilized the Mac’s inherently superior built-in audio capabilities to full advantage. But even without those enhancements the game looks and sounded great, and is still very playable after 15 years!

The new digital download release of Dark Forces comes wrapped in DOSBox, an amazingly well done emulator that recreates an entire DOS system including CPU and various memory configurations. DOSBox has become increasing more sophisticated through the years, and allows users to wrap games in DOSBox so that they just start the game and it opens DOSBox with all of the proper configurations.

One change I am not sure I like was the decision to remap the keyboard controls to a pseudo mouse & keyboard setup. The problem is that it doesn’t fully handle mouselook with movement, so I found it neither as effective as a fully modern setup nor as familiar as the old keyboard-only configuration. Through the DOSBox utility I was able to remap the keys to the point of making it all work to my satisfaction. Newer gamers will likely be quite comfortable with the more modern default setup.

There are loads of interesting things about Dark Forces aside from the truly 3D perspective. There are loads of puzzles throughout the game which go beyond the typical ‘find the key’ scenarios presented in Doom and other early shooters, and include multi-stage puzzles where you actually need to stop and think about what to do next.

Perhaps the most interesting thing is that there are no in-level saves. While it is neither then first nor the last game to do this, it was a novel approach for a shooter, especially as Doom used the typical ‘save anywhere, die & retry’ method that allows you to advance a little, save, advance some more, and if you die you have only lost a bit of progress. With Dark Forces there is a greater investment from the player, but also greater demands on the game itself.

For the game to succeed each mission needs to be long enough to justify playing but short enough that failure wouldn’t be overly frustrating; hard enough to be challenging but not so hard that it is impossible to pass; and most importantly the level design needs to be good enough that gamers never feel like they have been treated unfairly. Another thing that helps with this is that you select difficulty for each level individually.

Dark Forces wasn’t the first Star Wars game, but the way it managed to immerse gamers into that universe gave it a unique feel. Darth Vader figures heavily into the story, as do many other characters and places from the original trilogy (remember this is several years before Jar Jar and midichlorians).

Despite being a Star Wars game and also a Kyle Katarn game, this is NOT a Jedi game! There are no lightsabers or Force Powers anywhere in the game, so you need to rely on your wits … and weapons. Dark Forces has some great weapons, from the Bryar pistol to the standard Stormtrooper rifle to the Imperial repeater. There are also new weapons like the Fusion Cutter, Morter Gun and Assault Cannon.

But the single-most memorable weapon from Dark Forces is the Stouker Concussion Rifle, which fired compressed ionized air that unleashed massive impact waves upon impact. It produced accurate devastation and also a decent area-of-effect attack that made it an excellent weapon late in the game.

Dark Forces takes me about 15 hours to complete, and is a game that I have played at least once a year since 1995 when it first arrived. It is a game that simply drips with quality of design and love for the Star Wars license. It isn’t the best overall game in the series, and there is always room to debate if it is the best FPS of the Doom era. For me, it is an absolute classic that has stood the test of time like few games ever released.

RetroGamer Perspective: Going back to the time after Doom rocked the gaming world, there were countless ‘Doom clones’ – in fact for a while any FPS was immediately labeled a ‘Doom clone’. But soon enough games emerged that took the genre in new directions – and Dark Forces did that in a way that makes it arguably the most re-playable game of that era.

Netbook Gamer Perspective:

– Digital Download / CD version? – you can get the game from the Steam and Direct2Drive digital download sites. The CD version is out of print but is easily attainable through used or trade sites.

– Installation Notes: The game is on two CDs but installs fairly quickly. There are no registration codes to enter, no online authentication or other requirements to get going with the game.

– Disk Space Requirements: full-install takes ~75MB.

– CD Required to Play? No.

– Control Considerations? Dark Forces originally used the arrow keys for movement and the control key to shoot, and the page up/down to look up or down. The Steam version translates these to a WASD layout. It is possible to remap these using DOSBox keymap (ctrl-F1) to an extent if desired.

– Will it run on a VIA C7? No problem at all.

– Will it run with 1GB RAM? Yes!

– Special Considerations for running in Windows XP / Vista / Win 7? The game was designed for DOS, and runs best in DOSBox, which is how the digital download games are set up.

– Compatible versions for other OS such as Linux or Mac OS? Dark Forces was released in a wonderfully ‘enhanced’ Mac version – for the ‘Classic’ Mac OS. This means it won’t work on a modern Intel-based OS X system, but the DOS version runs nicely in DOSBox for any platform.

– Notes on the Digital Version: The biggest issue is with the controls, as noted above. Everything else works great – DOSBox is pre-configured, and the overall user experience is well handled.

Conclusion: Dark Forces is an enduring classic for several good reasons: great story, game mechanics that have withstood the test of time, level design that continues to be at least on par with anything currently released, and missions that are quite challenging but made to be beaten without needing save-points. The game is imbued with loads of Star Wars lore and really does a great job of immersing you in the role of Kyle Katarn as you stop Vader and a top Imperial General from unleashing a fiendish plot!

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