LucasArts' Dark Forces
Star Wars meets Doom in this classic first-person shooter from 1995
Antique Code Show With the release of Doom in 1993, and Bungie’s Marathon, the year after, the first-person shooter was firmly on the gaming map, so it was no surprise LucasArts wanted to be there. If there was one thing a Star Wars fan wanted, it was to get in on the action, to grab a blaster and take out some Stormtroopers. In 1995, Dark Forces let them do just that.
Up until then, LucasArts’ Star Wars games had focus on starship combat, most notably X-Wing and that flag-flyer for the CD-Rom, the on-the-rails space shooter Rebel Assault. Dark Forces was different. This was a game you could play and feel - if you closed your eyes a bit and squeezed your imagination really hard - that you were in a Star Wars movie, a sensation aided by its clever ‘i-Muse’ music tech, which played synthesised sections of the movie soundtracks selected to match the tempo of the game’s action.
'That's too big to be space station'
Where Doom pared back storytelling to focus solely on blazing away, Dark Forces had a film-like plot that grew as it was told through the situations you encountered as a player and through the level-separating cut-scenes.
Abort the Imperial starship Arc Hammer, General Rom Mohc is in charge of a project to create a new breed of Stormtrooper: cybernetically enhanced Dark Troopers equipped with powerful new weaponry, jet packs and other cool stuff, though you first encounter them as blade-wielding Terminator-style skeletal droids.
Your adversary, Rom Mohc, communicates with Vader while you get your orders from Mon Mothma
You are Kyle Katarn, a mercenary with Han Solo’s gun skills but none of the Correlian’s wisecracks. The Rebel Alliance has got wind that the Empire is up to something nasty and, having proved your skills and loyalty in Dark Forces’ first level, Mon Mothma you’re sent off to uncover the scheme.
The plot neatly ties in to the movies’ storyline. In the first level, for instance, you break into an Imperial base to steal the plans for the original Death Star - plans that, off screen, make their way into Princess Leia’s hands and set in train the first film. A later level has you track down Imperial renegade Crix Madrine who will eventually become a rebel and, in Return of the Jedi, brief the troops on the assault on the Death Star 2.0.
Shock! Horror! Probe droid!
Level by level, you’re taken to some of the Empire’s most famous ships and locations, from Star Destroyers and Jabba the Hutt’s private yacht to Imperial capital Coruscant - years before it was depicted in Phantom Menace. Even the planets created for the game run the gamut of the sewers of Anoat City, the ice planet Anteevy, Nar Shadaa the vertical city, and the desert world of Gromas. This was not a game made entirely out of just a handful sets of textures as so many other FPS of the time were.
This ship will look familiar...
...though you may not have seen the urinals before
Hokey religions and ancient weapons are no match for a good blaster
All that said, Dark Forces was still loyal to its FPS origins too - some might say slavishly so. Its list of weaponry follows the classic fists, pistol, machine gun, mini-gun, rocket launcher, BFG ladder, just with some real Star Wars weapons thrown in, plus some cool new ones like the Fusion Cutter and the Concussion Rifle. No lightsabre, mind, or Force powers. They would have to wait for the sequel, 1997’s Dark Forces 2: Jedi Knight.
Likewise, there’s a clear hierarchy of bad buys, with Death Squad Commanders, Stormtroopers, Imperial Officers - whose hats cutely fly off when they’re shot, remotes, interrogation droids, mouse droids and probe droids being joined by Trandoshans - represented in the movie by the bounty hunter Bossk - plus Ree-Yees with their three eyes on stalks; slime dwelling Dianogas; and Gammorreans.
And there’s even a brief cameo from Boba Fett.
Not that Dark Forces didn’t extend the genre. While Doom prevented the player from looking up and down, Kyle Katarn can. He can also crouch and jump. Some areas were literally pitch black, with only droids’ lights and - if you found them - power ups or infra-red goggles to help you see. To make it tougher, you can't save the game during play.
Dark Forces also features some of the most extensive locations to explore in an mid-1990s FPS, with some levels positively labyrinthine in their complexity - made more so with sections built on top of other sections for some very impressive three-dimensional architecture. Parts of which could move, too. Not merely up and down like Doom’s elevators, but sideways and rotationally. There are conveyor belts and drag-you-along sewage streams. There’s slippery ice. There are hazy, poisonous fumes.
And while, yes, Dark Forces had three colours of key - red, blue and yellow - just like Doom, and the inevitable but unrealistic secret rooms, at least it imposed a broader array of mission parameters than ‘find key, open door’. There were sequences of different-speed elevators to ascend, multiple switches to hit to open up computer cores or to detonate the Arc Hammer’s reactors.
True-to-the-movie architecture fills each level
The FPS feature that Dark Forces didn’t offer was multi-player gaming, but this was early days for LAN play, let alone over-the-net gaming. Its absence didn’t diminish my enjoyment of the game, played on the Mac, though in a form that’s long been incompatible with modern Apple machines. I tried it again recently using the DOS emulator DOS box - I still have the original CD - though in DOS’ grainy 320 x 240 pixel-doubled graphics rather than the full 640 x 480 the Mac version was capable of, albeit only with a top-of-the-line Power Mac.
Come on, George, free up the source code.
DOS and Mac discs can still be found on eBay and such, if you fancy rekindling fond memories. Just never fear being told: “You’re in violation of Imperial law!” ®
Release Date 1995
Platforms Initially DOS, Mac, later PS1.
More info Dark Forces info at Moby Games
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