ITT, I want to take you back to a simpler time: the 90s. So, I am somewhat of a diehard Star Wars fan. Born in the late 80s, my first few experiences with Star Wars-games were Rogue Squadron on the N64 and Episode I: Racer and The Phantom Menace on the PC. Craving for more, I once found a game with this awesome cover in a sale at a store:
As stunning as the action on the cover looked, the actual in-game action was a little... rough around the edges, to say the least. At this point, I had played the aforementioned games plus Shadows of the Empire, so I was already used to more advanced technology. Nonetheless, Jedi Knight proved to be very entertaining, not in small part due to the (back then) extremely impressive live action cutscenes. Remember, back in the 90s, these were pretty much our first and only glimpses into a live action Expanded Universe that seemed somewhat on par with the actual movies! Of course, I would later end up being impressed by Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast as well as Jedi Knight: Jedi Academy and blown away by how far gaming had come. But one thing always lurked in the back of my mind: how the Jedi Knight cover said it was "Dark Forces II", so there had to be a Dark Forces I – right?
Well, some quick research showed that DF did indeed exist and already back then, in the early 2000s, it looked like an "old-ass" game to me due to being pretty much a Doom clone, so my interest in playing it was low. Fast-forward a few years, and I got the game as part of a bigger sale on Steam eventually, because why not. So, it had been sitting in my library ever since... until the beginning of this year, when I suddenly had an urge to return to the days of Lucasarts' glory and dive back into some good 90s memories. And thus, my journey into Dark Forces finally started.
This is pretty much what a playthrough of this game on today's hardware will look like. Everything is a pixelated mess, designed to run at a resolution of a whopping 320x200. Not a pretty sight – but tbh, there is a charme to it. Additionally, there is something that I noticed compared to other, modern Star Wars-games of notably the EA-era like Battlefront II, Squadrons or Jedi: Fallen Order; the games of the early 2000s and the 90s, including Dark Forces, seem to do a better job in the art department to convey what I consider to be the "typical Star Wars-look". Mainly, it's the colors. Games like Dark Forces, Jedi Outcast oder Shadows of the Empire really nail that Imperial look from the 80s, where most of the movie sets inside the Death Star and such were artificially lit sceneries. The globally lit stages of earlier games matched that pretty well. In today's games, the colors are somehow off and look much more like generic SF and fantasy to me, as opposed to Star Wars.
So, despite the very rough technical presentation, I found this game to be pleasing from an artdesign POV. No matter how pixelated and blocky, the game looked and felt like Star Wars.
Most impressive presentation
What the game lacks in technical prowess, it makes up for in overall presentation. Already back then, before complete FMVs like in Jedi Knight became a thing, the games strived for a cinematic look and feel. Dark Forces nailed that – in that it featured cutscenes that were part CG-renders of flying starships, and part animated images with recognizable character art. Even more impressive: those cutscenes, as well as dialogue in the game, were 100% voice-acted. So, we didn't just get to see the characters interact, but we would also hear them talk in distinct and relatively clear voices. During gameplay, too, you will hear Kyle Katarn and Jan Ors talk over comm about the mission's progress and get an occasional heads up about where to go and what to do. A surprise to be sure, but a welcome one: this, along other LA games, was one of the earliest examples of games that I can think of that also had a fully-voiced german translation. Back then, it was not uncommon for games to have english voices with merely german subtitles.
The music, despite being some very low-tech midi renditions, compliments the gameplay excellently. You will hear both original themes and well-known Star Wars melodies, combined and mixed together into a great OST. There is also a high quality Remastered version available on Youtube! Added to that are some of the most recognizable sound effects from Star Wars, like iconic blaster fire sounds and others. The sound portion of the game is pretty well done for the time and I found myself really enjoying most of the tunes and the way they complimented the in-game action.
I'm not gonna lie: when I started up Dark Forces, I didn't know if I would pull through with this playthrough. The game was so... old! And that doesn't limit itself to the graphics or sound capabilities of the engine, but the overall handling and gameplay as well. Bringing up the menu to look at the map, your inventory or mission objectives takes a whole second, and you have to use does big chunky buttons on the right side to navigate the map. You remember those mid-90s point 'n click games? Yeah, something like that. So, more often than not, I ended up not navigating the mapscreen in detail at all, but just zooming out so that I could see everything at once and try to make sense of it in its little detail. That being one obstacle, and the other being that everything in-game was so badly rendered and so pixelated, especially at a distance, that often it wasn't easy to fully understand what you were looking at; all in all, all signs pointed to this game being a confusing and frustrating mess and bound to make me get lost endlessly on every map. And occasionally, it did, but surprisingly... most of the time, it didn't. After about 3-4 levels in (out of a total of 12 playable stages), I couldn't help but actually find myself admiring the developers for how they designed and laid out the stages. It's not that gaming was just in the dark ages back then and nobody didn't know any better – I got the deep sense that when making the game, the developers perfectly knew about the shortcomings and possible problems of the limited graphics and designed the maps' layout with regard to that. So, very often, I would be able to make my way through the stages by just wandering and continuing to go on; sometimes, I would run in circles a little before I discovered where to go, and I think twice during my playthrough, I had to look for help in a guide on how to progress. But all things considered, it was a lot better and more userfriendly to navigate the stages than it had any right to be given the game's limited visual capabilities.
One thing that I was not too fond of, however, was the game's relative overreliance on puzzlesolving. Being a Doom clone, the shooting portion of the game was pretty fun and it felt good to gun enemies down with your assortment of blasters; sadly, in a lot of stages, you would only get occasional shooting action and spend most of your time tracking the place for switches, hidden passages, keycards or even some light platforming challenges. Had the game had a little more focus on action and less on hidden mechanisms and locked doors, it would have helped with orientation in stages as well, in my opinion. But overall, it was pretty well balanced and when you have shootouts with your enemies, they tend to be good fun.
The mission parameters tended to be varied and interesting; while the gameplay variety was kinda limited in that kind of game, the developers definitely made an effort to not make two missions feel alike, and succeeded. Between missions, you would normally get a detailed briefing, embedding the stage well into the overall narrative of the game. At all times, it was clear what was going on and why you were sent to the places you visited and what you wanted to achieve there. Technically, the mission goals were always the same: go from point A to point B, and in some instances, once you arrived at B to find/retrieve something, you had to return to point A in order to complete the mission. But still, it felt diverse because every map required you to do something different before progressing to the next stage. Once, you would infiltrate an Imperial facilty in order to steal some data and get extracted from the rooftop; another time, mission objectives would require you to set explosives in order to blow up a laboratory and get out in time. Another time, you would be held prisoner by a crime syndicate and have to escape from their clutches or in another stage, you would have to search the sewers of a city to find the hiding place of an Imperial moff. Things felt fresh and interesting and I especially liked when one mission sent you to infiltrate the Imperial Security Bureau right in the heart of Imperial City on Coruscant; it felt much like stepping into the lion's den. I felt that every stage had distinct characteristics and was quite unique, and that it was always motivating to see where the story would go and what kind of world you would visit next.
My original intent when starting up DF was to dive back into a time when Star Wars-games were starting to really take off, quality-wise, and respecting the source material a lot more. Ever noticed how in the 90s, every Star Wars game seemed to be about the galactic civil war in general, about Rebels and Imps fighting each other; and after the year 2000, there began this shift to focus almost solely on the Force- and Jedi-centric side of the franchise? To me, personally, games never felt as much like Star Wars as they did in early entries like Shadows of the Empire, Rogue Squadron or X-Wing Alliance. Much like the movies, beginning with TPM, started to shift their focus almost entirely on lightsabers and Force users, the games mimicked that development and by the time Jedi Academy hit the scene, I was personally almost oversaturated with the Jedi gameplay. Sure, it was still fun to go around and swing lightsabers, but I couldn't take the storylines seriously anymore (remember, this is the game that had Tavion Axmis go around with a staff and suck the Force energy out of historic Star Wars places like a vaccuum). So, when I decided to look to older games, I found that there was a whole treasure trove of content that entertained my personal preference of Star Wars a lot more than later iterations would. Playing Dark Forces has definitely struck a chord with me in that regard; I'll take conspiring Imperials and outnumbered Rebel troopers over big, epic Jedi vs. Sith battles anyday. So, I will eventually continue this journey; after all, from here on out, at least in a technical sense, it will only get better. I hear that some people worked on a full-fledged Dark Forces-mod for Jedi Academy, which could be fun; and as always, people experiment in UE4 with bringing those old ideas back, though I doubt that there will ever be a complete release of anything in that regard. Still, there's a number of games in my backlog that I will now have to look into, like the older X-Wing games as well as the continuation of Jedi Knight that I never played through: Mysteries of the Sith. I can't wait to dive right back into the next "old-ass" game, but wanted to give a detailed impression on my latest one first. Dark Forces was a surprisingly well-done experience and still a fun game after all these years, despite how much time and technical progress might make it pale in comparison to modern gaming.