Review: Star Wars: Dark Forces

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Do you remember your first FPS? I get the feeling that your original experience with the genre colors your perceptions of it, for good or for ill. Dark Forces was my first FPS, and as both an avid gamer youth and a massive Star Wars fan, it was like living a dream. To be dropped right into the Star Wars universe in such a visceral way, exploring Nar Shadda and Coruscant while trading blaster fire with stormtroopers and bounty hunters, was enough to fuel my imagination for years. I’m much older now, more experienced with the FPS genre and less enamored with Star Wars, but honestly that only makes it easier to see why Dark Forces is such an enduring classic.

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Long before Rogue One, Kyle Katarn was the Rebellion’s go-to guy for black ops work. After proving himself by stealing the original Death Star plans, Mon Mothma entrusts Kyle with what could be an even more pressing assignment. A general within the Imperial ranks has developed a new kind of automated stormtrooper that can destroy a Rebel base within minutes. The production facilities and deployment methods are a mystery, precisely the mystery that Kyle is brought on to unravel. Partnered with the resourceful Jan Ors, he’ll search the galaxy for clues to defeating this new threat, stopping by several notable locales and stocking up on powerful weaponry to waste the enormous opposition he meets. By the end of the campaign you’ll strike deep into the heart of the Empire, and face off against some of the nastiest characters in Star Wars.

Dark Forces was the first Star Wars FPS, dating back to the heady days of Doom and Duke Nukem 3D. It ran on its own special engine, which allowed its fourteen massive levels to be packed with sliding doors, rotating plates, precipitous cliffs, bridges, and even animated ships zipping around some of the areas. These elements are used to incredible effect to sell the player on the sense of infiltrating massive Imperial facilities, blasting through the decks of star destroyers, and exploring futuristic cities with their scale and detail. Levels truly do feel straight out of the original trilogy films themselves, with familiar structures, iconic foes like stormtroopers and probe droids, and chaotic shootouts that would make impressive movie moments on their own. It’s all tied together with moody music selections and perfect effect work for a game set in the Star Wars universe.

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Being immersed in such a storied setting is a great accomplishment, but the gameplay manages to impress all on its own. Dark Forces apes much of what made the original Doom great, such as making the player incredibly mobile and deadly and pitting them against hordes of foes that must be outwitted. Imperial soldiers of varying ranks are your usual opposition, posed in such numbers that quick reflexes and a quicker trigger finger will be key to survival. Even your most basic weapons dispatch them in two or three blasts, so their numbers are what make them deadly. Another wise decision was having only one type of enemy with a hitscan weapon late in the game, meaning you’ll be trading blaster bolts with stormtroopers and always have the option of juking or diving for cover. Further into the game you’ll encounter a wide variety of Star Wars denizens, including bounty hunters with lobbed explosives, deadly self-destructing probe droids, and terrifying sewer monsters.

The combination of detailed, immersive levels, many kinds of alien foes, and an overall dark and moody atmosphere makes Dark Forces an intense and thrilling experience that often sits between fully action-packed FPSes and more horror-focused titles. One level filled with tentacled beasts still manages to frighten me as an adult, and the dark streets of a seedy spaceport lend themselves way more tension than a game from 1995 normally would. It can be challenging at times as well, though the three difficulty levels do a lot to even out the curve for players of any skill level. Some enemies are incredibly deadly if you don’t handle them carefully, and some traps are downright insidious. The only element I genuinely dislike are the enemy land mines, which get tucked away in more and more awkward spots as you progress and can seriously mess up your health situation.

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In truth, that’s about the only complaint I can level at the game at all. It’s dated, of course, and hasn’t benefited from the glut of source ports Doom has or the remakes Duke3D got. There’s nothing approaching modern display resolutions, and vertical mouselook (which is pretty important here) is only possible through a fan patch released in the last few weeks. But whatever technical troubles you’ll have to overcome are more than worth this singular experience. Few games, even into recent years, have so thoroughly captured the feeling of adventuring through the Star Wars universe. And even fewer have offered such solid, thrilling gameplay to enjoy as you venture forth into that galaxy far, far away.

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