Stop the Galactic Empire from building a doomsday army.
PC Release: February 15, 1995
By Ian Coppock
A lot of the Star Wars expanded universe’s lore is convoluted or flat-out bad, but its removal from canon by Disney was still a somber day for Star Wars fans. It wasn’t surprising; how was Disney going to produce new movies within a 30-year-old framework of established content? Although the Disney-owned Lucasfilm has done a pretty good job of making new stories, from last winter’s Rogue One to Marvel’s excellent Darth Vader comics, quite a few exciting and memorable expanded universe narratives were swept under the rug, and remain so to this day. It’s time for some of those stories, like Star Wars: Dark Forces, to get just one more spotlight.
Created over 20 years ago by the folks at the then-open LucasArts (another Disney casualty), Star Wars: Dark Forces is a first-person shooter that borrows heavily from DOOM and other mid-90’s titans. The bulk of the game is set immediately after the events of A New Hope (with the exception of a prequel level that was, at the time, how the Death Star plans were really stolen). Dark Forces casts players as Kyle Katarn, a grizzled Imperial officer-turned-Rebel saboteur who takes mercenary jobs from the Alliance.
Kyle’s latest assignment comes on the heels of the Death Star’s destruction. Rom Mohc, a dastardly Imperial general who thought that the Death Star was a glorified disco ball, proposes using deadly next-generation battle droids called Dark Troopers to deal with the growing Rebel threat. After pitching the idea to Darth Vader (the term “pitching” meaning “use the droids to burn down a city and kill everyone in it” in this context) Vader greenlights the droids’ mass production. The rebels, ever the eavesdroppers, catch wind of the Dark Trooper project and hire Kyle to shut it down ASAP.
Kyle sets out with his resourceful sidekick Jan Ors to take down the Dark Trooper project, starting with an investigation of the city that the Empire s***housed a few days earlier. Though Dark Forces very much bears the aesthetic of a straightforward shooter like DOOM, Kyle’s investigation is anything but. Finding and destroying the Dark Trooper project requires going up not only against stormtroopers, but also against various criminal and underworld factions that General Mohc’s got lined up. It’ll take all of Kyle’s guns, his skill with those guns, and the occasional wisecrack involving said guns to stop the Dark Trooper project dead in its tracks.
As can be gleaned from that screenshot where Kyle is pointing one pixel at another pixel, Dark Forces is as mid-90’s FPS as it gets. It’s almost shameful how derivative Dark Forces is of DOOM, down to the user interface and the guns being down the middle of the screen. None of this stops Dark Forces from being a good or perhaps even great game, but holy cow, LucasArts… no one needs three guesses to see which game the Dark Forces team loved to tears. Then again, everyone was copying DOOM back then, so perhaps it’s unfair to pin the copycat throttling solely on LucasArts. But, for anyone thinking about getting into this game… DOOM is a stellar litmus test.
And while on the subject of Dark Forces‘ visuals, it would be a lie to say that they’ve aged well. They have not. The player can usually tell which character that vaguely amorphous cutout of pixels is supposed to be, but that’s about it. Sometimes, that pile of grey pixels on the floor is actually a sophisticated piece of ordnance, but the only way to know that is to approach the damn thing and think to pick it up. Dark Forces has a lot to offer in terms of gameplay and narrative, but don’t go into the game expecting a visual feast. It might’ve been sophisticated in 1995, but, well… 1995 has long since passed.
What’s that, though? Dark Forces has a lot to offer in terms of gameplay and narrative? The gunplay in Dark Forces is classic DOOM; the player can carry nearly a dozen guns and pieces of ordnance and wield them all with lethal precision. Some guns are Star Wars mainstays, like the stormtroopers’ iconic E-11 blaster rifle, while the plasma cannon was created specifically for the game. Kyle picks these weapons up as the game intensifies and carries them with him into every mission. Point, click, and shoot. Most weapons are at least slightly guided to compensate for the game’s camera being locked.
Combat in Dark Forces is not hard to understand. Just try to shoot the bad guy before he shoots Kyle. The enemies in this game are about as tactically intelligent as bags of hammers, but Dark Forces compensates for this by giving them all impressive aim and even more impressive damage. It pays to fire from behind cover (something that Kyle’s foes don’t also think to do) and replenish with health and shield pickups wherever possible. Dark Forces‘ enemies are pretty dumb, but there’s an impressive variety of them, from endless squads of stormtroopers to alien mercenaries armed with axes. That’s to say nothing of the insidious Dark Trooper droids that come after Kyle with swords and cannons.
When Kyle’s not busy shooting his way through an enemy base, he’s looking around for clues. Dark Forces challenges players to explore intricate environments for keys, buttons, maps—anything that can point him toward the Dark Troopers’ base of operations. The way that these goals are all set up is decidedly less diverse than the goals themselves (go up to the thing, press the thing, end mission) but that style of investigative gameplay adds to the secretive, gritty nature of Dark Forces‘ central narrative.
The story at the core of Dark Forces is more nuanced and sophisticated than its simplistic premise might imply. The Empire remains the chief antagonistic faction of the story, make no mistake, but the narrative does a great job of weaving other galactic factions into its mix. As previously mentioned, Kyle spends the bulk of his time fighting stormtroopers and mowing through Imperial installations, but his journey also pits him against smugglers, pirates, mercenaries and maybe even Jabba the Hutt. This means that Kyle spends almost as much time scouring the galaxy’s seedy underbelly of bars and hideouts as he does the pristine hallways of Imperial bases. It makes for an interesting investigation and allows for more level variety.
The characters in Dark Forces are a mix of big-name stars from the films and entirely new peeps made for the game. The former, like Darth Vader and Mon Mothma, make plenty of cameos, but Kyle and General Mohc have the most screen time. They don’t really develop all that much, but they still cut compelling profiles in this dark mystery. Dark Forces deals out clues about the Dark Troopers at a pretty even clip, giving enough pieces of the puzzle at a quick enough pace to retain attention spans without spilling too many beans. Even decades later, it remains one of the most compelling mystery narratives in the Star Wars universe… even if it’s no longer considered canon.
Dark Forces‘ gameplay is 90’s shooter through-and-through and its story is interesting, but the game emulates a less welcome theme endemic to that period of game development: convoluted level design. Though Dark Forces‘ levels are expansive, the constant inclusion of twisting corridors makes it easy to get turned around or flat-out lost while out on a mission. Most of these areas are intricately interconnected, too, which can make it at once easier or more difficult to return to a previous area.
This level design issue is a problem despite the environmental variety that Dark Forces has going for it. Being able to switch between a ruined city, an Imperial base, and Jabba’s personal starship makes for great variety, but they all seem to pack some loopy level design here and there. Players can game the system by making careful mental note of where they’ve been, but don’t get surprised if Kyle ends up back at the entrance he just broke through. Bodies don’t disappear in Dark Forces though, so if all else fails, just follow Kyle’s trail of carnage. Think of the corpses as jelly beans. Bloody, rapidly stiffening jelly beans.
The other interesting thing about Dark Forces is how it briefly re-entered the national media conscience when the first details about Rogue One got out. Until that movie’s release, the canonical theft of the Death Star plans was actually carried out by Kyle in Dark Forces‘ prequel mission. That story detail obviously didn’t make it into Rogue One (and neither did Kyle Katarn) but it’s worth pointing out the many similarities that Dark Forces and Rogue One share.
For a start, Director Krennic’s Death Troopers look an awful lot like the Dark Troopers Kyle fights throughout the game; they wear black armor, have lethal aim, and their speech is weirdly garbled. Cassian Andor greatly resembles later renditions of Kyle Katarn. Perhaps most significantly, Jyn Erso’s name sounds a heck of a lot like that of Jan Ors, Kyle’s mission partner. This is without mentioning more nuanced details like the comparable personalities of Krennic and Mohc. These may all or mostly be coincidences, but Lucasfilm has done an unexpectedly decent job of referencing stories from the old canon in their new narratives.
Dark Forces remains a fun and pivotal piece of Star Wars history. Not everything about it has aged well, but it makes for a gritty adventure whose gameplay is still accessible to fans new and old (not in the least bit thanks to updated emulation software). Dark Forces somehow forewent the grinding difficulty endemic to many shooters of its day (though the game is by no means a cakewalk) and it would later serve as the launching point for one of the best sagas in Star Wars gaming: the Jedi Knight series. Dark Forces is worth picking up for its murder-mystery atmosphere and easy-to-understand gunplay. Even if it’s not considered canon anymore, it’s still comparable to what the “new” Lucasfilm is putting out these days.
You can buy Star Wars: Dark Forces here.
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