Game Swap – Star Wars: Dark Forces

Game Swap is a new series in which one person recommends another a game they might like. This week, Alec suggests that Adam return to the vintage first-person shooting of Star Wars: Dark Forces. Is it really still the best Star Wars FPS ever made?

Alec: Choosing a game for our friend in the North is peculiarly difficult, as the bugger’s played almost everything and moreover doesn’t appear to dislike any particular breed of videogame. I cycled through a few options, with really only the belief that he doesn’t entirely tolerate cod-mystical flibber-jibber to go on – just one way in which our tastes tend to align. Finding the gaps is what makes this particular swap so much more intriguing than a straighter “hey, you don’t like things like this, play it anyway” arrangement.

I nearly opted for Mass Effect 2, but stopped short because a) though I’ve broadly enjoyed them, the ME series isn’t truly close to my heart and b) such is the nature of its final mission, it’s something that needs to be played to completion, and that’s an unfair ask of Adam.

And so to Dark Forces, which I chose primarily because Adam has previously revealed he hasn’t played very many Star Wars games but secondarily because it steers clear of hokey religions and ancient weapons, being interested only in having a good blaster at your side.

I will admit to a somewhat troubled relationship with Dark Forces in the cold light of 2017, however. I maintain that it features the best-ever recreation of Star Wars shooting, but the level design comes across as the work of hungover maze builder who’s just in the middle of a messy divorce. Would Adam be able to see past this, and the overall age of this only-just-post-Doom shooter to appreciate its glorious fundamental Star Warsiness?

Adam: The shooting really is glorious. I think the now lo-fi look makes it feel all the better. There’s no pinpoint accuracy to the shots, which feels totally authentic to Star Wars, and makes firefights a big beautiful mess of light streaking through the air. Stormtroopers are like little smudges in the distance, letting out the best pew-pew noises in this or any other world, and their shots streak every which way. And your shots do the same thing – they come out at angles, with just enough of them hitting home to make aiming worthwhile, but nothing like the kind of accuracy you normally get in an FPS.

Bestest best lasers

It doesn’t just make the combat feel very Star Wars, it also makes it very different to just about any other FPS I can think of. It’s important that you can see the projectiles as well. It’s like a lightshow.

And even though the stormtroopers are all smudged and pixellated off in the distance, when you get up close to them they look just right. It’s grainy and muddy in a way that almost certainly wasn’t intentional but is so much more like the Star Wars in my mind than most of the stuff I’ve played or watched. Revisiting the original trilogy recently, I was really impressed by how dirty and lived-in the world feels – I tend to think that Alien got that industrial broken down spacey stuff just right and Star Wars was doing something cleaner and shinier, but it’s not just the Falcon that looks a bit junky, it’s just about everything.

So, yes. Top shooting. And the sound is just glorious. Engine noises, blaster effects, enemy barks – it’s all perfect, and another reminder of what a beautiful thing Star Wars is at its best.

But, wow, yeah. The level design is tough. I finished mission four and was enjoying it enough that I want to finish the entire game, but the third mission, which is not only a sewer level but one that the intro text explicitly describes as a “sewer maze”, with a puzzle based around switches controlling water flow locks – fuck that level. I still don’t even know how I finished it. It’s split into four sections that you visit one at a time and if you take a wrong turn or fuck up a jump across platforms in any of those sections, you end up in a big river of sewage that funnels you back to the start of the level.

It’s a perfect metaphor for what the game was doing to me. Dragging me repeatedly through shit. Except it’s not even a metaphor is it? That’s literally what’s happening. Over and over again. Why would they do that to me?

Alec: Before we hold each other tight and weep until dawn about the level design, let’s go back to the shooting. You’ve touched on why I like it so much, which is that shooting in the original Star Wars was rubbish. No-one in that film could hit the side of a barn from three feet away, at least with handguns, and that’s what gives it its saturday matinee/Western feel – it’s people spraying laserfire essentially for fun, for the joy of sound and vision.

Later films have polished this to more of a sheen, and even tried to make the fact that Stormtroopers are terrible at their job an essential element of the universe rather than just recreate the crackpot water pistol fights of yore. I love that Dark Forces, whenever you’re not horribly lost at least, is just about filling the screen with colourful lozenges and presuming that, somewhere in this zip-zappy chaos, the things you need to kill will get killed. It gets harder later, of course, but much of the time it’s basically about being Han Solo’s haphazard sprinting and shooting and getting away with it no matter what.

And yeah, low-tech and grubby. A universe that’s only just making do. It feels like Star Wars in the way the hyper-glossy recent films don’t, even when they’re working overtime to feel like Star Wars.

Worstest worst levels

But boy, those levels. The first one just about gets away with it (that it’s set on an Imperial base that actually would be filled with identical grey doors helps there), but even as early as the second the map’s collapsed into nonsensical spaghetti. In fairness, almost everything at that time, or certainly pre-Quake, was absolutely off the reservation when it came to logical layouts, but Dark Forces is particularly guilty of trying to turn arbitrary keycard/lock placement into something more overtly puzzley, which at best just bogs it down and at worst means running in circles for an age.

Now, we talked about this in front of John, who is adamant that Dark Forces does in fact have all-time great level design. He also noted that there is an in-game map to help when you’re lost. Do you have any sense that we’ve missed something, or that we’ve become too trained to have navigation handed to us on a plate in first-person shooters?

Adam: I think that’s part of it, and I think it comes down to familiarity with a specific game and its levels. I love the Build engine games, particularly Blood, and some of the level design there is absolutely meaningless. And I use that word very deliberately. It’s in the half-way house between abstract spaces that are fun to play in and replications of something real, and it ends up caught between the pillars of the recognisable and the post of the surreal.

Dark Forces seems like a prime example of that to me. The second level apparently takes place in a city, after the Empire have unleashed their latest super weapon (which isn’t a bigger Death Star, pleasingly) on the population. So there are houses and there are bodies in those houses. It’s the aftermath of a massacre. Except it isn’t. Not really. It’s a bunch of boxes, mostly with the exact same texture repeated across them, and occasional burnt corpse sprites that look like Luke’s family post-barbeque. And it’s all tied around an objective that involves switching on a big water turbine.

Attack of the cloned textures

It’s trying to do so much and even a couple of decades on, I can see how ambitious it is, and how much it’s not just being Doom (side note: Doom II had a level called The Suburbs that tried to do houses and it just looks an awful lot like a bunch of boxes in Hell). I think it over-reaches though. There’s still the keycards (well, switches as far as I’ve played) scattered around mazes, but there’s also an attempt to make the levels seem like actual places, with logic to their layouts, and a lot of it falls between the cracks for me, neither satisfying as a playspace or as a credible environment.

John did take issue with me criticising the level design at one point because I complained about the textures, and how they make everything so hard to read. He’s right on that front – it’s not specifically part of the level design, but the texturing is painful. The maps are quite complicated as it is, especially once they go all in on verticality, so it’d be nice if they were at least legible when you’re running around in them. The map becomes necessary because it’s not always obvious what is a door and what is a lift, and every wall looks exactly like the last one. I find it really hard just to figure out what I’m looking at sometimes.

Alec: I imagine that some of that is a direct consequence of trying to (re)create real places, as opposed to the unashamedly artificial nature of Doom. Even Wolf 3D was happily being a cartoon. But the technology, or the experience, or the budget, or all of the above wasn’t quite there yet – basically, it’s shooting for photoreal years before anything like that was realistically achievable. On the other hand, it’s exactly why, as you say, the Stormtroopers look so good close up, and the first level in particular often achieves the Imperial aesthetic.

Rogue 0.5

Of course, the other noteworthy thing about Dark Forces is that it casually does Star Wars lore stuff that these days is subject to entire films or spin-off novels or cartoons. The plot of Rogue One is basically told in ten minutes at the start, and later on it goes into dropping new types of Stormtrooper on you and the Empire’s secret plans to strike back, and then in the sequel the protagonist is Luke’s first padawan and all that.

This was before Star Wars had really resurged and entirely become the ubiquitous popculture giant it is today – they seemed to just throw ideas around casually. As did the original films, really. I miss the ease of it, the cheery shrug of it. Dark Forces really is “hey, have some more Star Wars!”

Adam: Yeah. And the cutscenes are great. Proper talk-y bits with lovely barely-animated characters that look fantastic.

It reminds me a little bit of Outlaws, the wild west FPS that Lucasarts put out a couple of years later. Lots to love but with some big holes in it. I think the jumping is at the heart of it for me. There’s a lot of jumping, to find secrets, to avoid falling in sewage, and sometimes to clamber up ledges. Jumping in an FPS was quite exciting at some point in the nineties – I remember that and being able to look up and down making Doom feel briefly like a goddamn RELIC – but here it’s as if the Dark Forces got so excited that they could implement jumping that they didn’t ask whether they should implement jumping.

If I never have to hop across platforms in a pool of sewage again, I will be very happy. And in the game.

But, despite all of that….on our ‘hit or miss’ rating, I’ll name Dark Forces a…

Hit!

It sounds amazing – I fucking love the midi versions of Star Wars music – it has great shooting, and it’s the most Star Wars-y Star Wars game I’ve played, alongside X-Wing and TIE Fighter.

I’m probably going to finish it, but I’ll almost certainly never play it again once I have.

Alec: May the farcical level design be with you. Now go and play the entirety of Mass Effect 2 and bring me your report by tomorrow night.

Adam: Live long and prosper.

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37 Comments

  1. ButteringSundays says:

    This was one of the few games I owned with my first PC. Along with Duke Nukem 3D and Worms. I remember the comically over-sized boxes that held the CD-ROM.

    I wasn’t very good at it. I remember playing the first couple of levels, a lot. Not sure why I found it so difficult, but I did.

    • ButteringSundays says:

      You know the more I think about it I don’t know if I ever got past those damn sewers.

  2. drezworthy says:

    Dark Forces was like my favorite game when I was 10! I can never go back to playing these old games, though, the nostalgia is great!

  3. jj2112 says:

    I enjoyed it, but the level design was terrible. I remember a specific level with concentric walls locked by forcefields that was a nightmare to navigate.

    • wcq says:

      That’s the level set on Coruscant, isn’t it? And pretty much the first substantial appearance of that planet in any media, too, as far as I know.

      Yeah, I remember the force field puzzle was quite bad. When you finish it you get a boss fight with Boba Fett, though.

      Come to think of it, they RPS boys are right. They really got away with pretty much anything in the nineties: in this game alone you steal the Death Star plans, blast the shit out of Boba Fett and punch a giant lizard to death.

      • mattevansc3 says:

        Don’t forget the Darth Vader robots with jet packs that turn into terminators.

      • jj2112 says:

        Wow that was Coruscant? And Boba Fett was in it? And a giant lizard? Man I’m getting old. Or maybe the game wasn’t that memorable, I can still remember every level from System Shock 2 and I played it in 1998.

    • Jalan says:

      I replayed it last year and this is basically how I felt as well.

      Aside from wishing that there was a source code release so a modern source port could be had (playing it through DOSBox, while not the worst experience, was not a happy one), the biggest thing that stuck out in my mind was the level design. It was a clear case of my mind remembering something that just wasn’t there in terms of real quality design, but the rest of the game was still as fun as I remembered.

      • Syrion says:

        You mean something like the XL Engine (www.xlengine.com)? I don’t think it is based on the source code, but by now it is a very good port of the game with all the modern bells and whistles. I actually preferred playing it in DOSBox as I didn’t like how it handled and looked in XL Engine, but apparently the aim of the XL Engine is to also let you play the games as close as possible to its original form if you so desire, so maybe that has changed by now.

        • Jalan says:

          XL Engine is not quite what I was hoping for (nor does it appear that development on it is fairly consistent – something which isn’t necessarily a flaw, but based on what’s outlined for it to be able to do, it seems like a lengthy wait is in store for things to happen with it).

          Sadly most of the issues could be solved if the game’s source code was released to the public but (somewhat coincidentally, as I see it on the XL Engine site) like Blood, it seems unlikely to ever happen.

  4. mattevansc3 says:

    I enjoyed Dark Forces but I much preferred Republic Commandoes.

    Apart from getting lost the game didn’t feel all that challenging…except for the ice. Fuck that ice level. Fuck that ice level with its fucking cliff edge.

    • SanguineAngel says:

      heresey!

      • Premium User Badge

        CdrJameson says:

        The cleats come in very handy in the slippy-slidey ice world.

        I didn’t notice these were even a thing until I saw in the manual that there was a key to press to use them (along with toggling ‘head bob’).

        Mind you, I played all of Deus Ex:Human Revolution without realising that half of my cyber-enhancements only work when you switch them on. I did wonder why you’d ever bother with the battery enhancements, as mine never seemed to run low.

  5. Blake Casimir says:

    This game really doesn’t show off how old-school level design could be interesting without lapsing into over-designed over-complex mazes and switch hunts (looking at you, Hexen, even though I still love you). I would sooner refer people to the many Cacowards at http://www.doomworld.com where there are many years of examples of brilliant, creative old-school and modern takes on old-school level design and modding.

    But then I would hardly expect interesting hand-crafted level design from most modern games…

  6. Premium User Badge

    Andy_Panthro says:

    I replayed recently, and was surprised at how good it felt to play (for the most part). It gets to a bit of a slog by the later levels though.

    The sequel was quite poor though, not helped by the terrible 90s FMV cutscenes and annoying lightsaber battles (both of which were improved in Jedi Knight 2, which is still probably my favourite of the series).

    • ResonanceCascade says:

      I really liked the sequel, primarily for the level design. The levels were massive in scope without being too terribly obtuse (with a few glaring exceptions). And the locales really felt like Star Wars.

      But yeah, the FMV cutscenes and lightsaber mechanics were garbage. Both were greatly improved in Jedi Outcast.

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      Waltorious says:

      I liked the first Jedi Knight better than the second, primarily because of the level design. I was willing to overlook the crappy FMV cutscenes (and actually, when I was younger, they were pretty cool, just because it was a new thing for video games to be able to do), and while lightsabers were improved in the second game, the first game is the one that originally wowed me with them. Fighting things in Jedi Knight 2 is more fun, but the places are far less memorable.

  7. Syrion says:

    Last year I’ve played it for the very first time in my life and I loved it. Actually I even have the thought stuck in my head that it has incredibly good level design – for the most part. The sewer level truly sucks. Who in their right mind creates sewer levels, anyway? And the Coruscant level also isn’t a high point. And screw those grenade-throwing bastards. Why are they even in every single sequel? It’s beyond me.
    Anyway, apart from these and some other irritations I only have fond memories of the game. Even if levels can be too mazy and too big on keycard puzzles, I always got a great sense of space. I can’t pinpoint the exact reason why, maybe I am too much into nostalgia at the moment, but something always gave me the feeling that yeah, I’m in this really believable space right now, no, this is not just an action game’s level built around some mechanics.
    Also, the shooting really is extremely good and I’ve never played a game that felt so “Star Wars” before, despite being a big fan of Jedi Outcast. Sure, it’s not a perfect game, but all in all it really is a marvel that I can see myself coming back to time and time again.
    Only yesterday I’ve finished Dark Forces 2, and that was very nice, but it hasn’t aged nearly as well as this blurry little 2.5D “Doom clone”.
    Maybe I’m too big on nostalgia. Can you be nostalgious about something you only recently got to know? I don’t know.

    • MercurialJack says:

      One point to note – this isn’t a 2.5D game – Dark Forces is truly 3D I believe, unlike the original Doom and Doom II.

      • itsbenderingtime says:

        No, it’s 2.5D, with a few little tricks to do things like bridges and such. I know this because I loved that game so much that I tried my hand at making custom levels (for the first and only time).

        • MercurialJack says:

          I’m almost certain DF is 3D. I seem to remember being able to run under and over the same bits of the level, although I could be wrong – it’s been a while since I’ve played it. I know with Doom you couldn’t do that (I made a load of levels for Doom as well, and had to use the trickery you speak of to make bridges etc.), but I don’t recall the same being true for Dark Forces. I may need to research.

    • Kaeoschassis says:

      I really don’t believe nostalgia can be an issue with something you only recently experienced, no. There’s no need to make excuses for loving a game just because it’s older. You’re fine. ;p

  8. tikey says:

    Haven’t tried it but there is a mod that converts the first six levels of Dark Forces into Jedi Academy. It’s a complete rebuild, not just an export. I remember trying an old version of just the first level and it was great.
    link to jkhub.org

  9. Det. Bullock says:

    I liked that the levels were sprawling labyrinthine puzzles, the only one I didn’t enjoy was the sewer one but because I hated the fricking dianogas.
    Of course, playing it on medium without the super shield option is extremely difficult(I only managed to beat it this way a few weeks ago) but that’s because the last levels are chock full of Dark Troopers and you don’t have quicksaves like in Doom.
    The level on Coruscant with the door puzzle was one of my favourites, it looked like the kind of thing that normally required two or three officers to operate normally and wasn’t out of place in some kind of secret facility with top secret stuff you might see in an over-the-top sci-fi movie.

    • Premium User Badge

      Waltorious says:

      I haven’t played Dark Forces in a long time, but I agree with you about the levels. I was stuck on the sewer level for a long time before I figured it out, and later got stuck on a level that required manipulating an elevator so I could access the shaft… I was so proud when I figured that one out! And I loved the vault on Coruscant. It’s an actual puzzle that isn’t too difficult to figure out if you think it over, and it really felt like a high security facility.

      I wonder how I’d feel about these levels today, though? I should go back and play it again.

  10. Forthonswing says:

    I loved the levels. I always thought learning the geometry of abstract spaces essentially was the gameplay of early first person games. I remember a few years later playing my first modern shooter at the behest of my little brother and being gob smacked that they had neatly excised the actual fun.
    Although yes, the sewer level switch system is too opaque.

  11. buzzmong says:

    Thanks to GoG, I ended up playing through this last year.
    It’s suprisingly good, level design is very early 90’s and a bit of a chore, not horrendous though. I do remember getting a bit lost until I started using the map. Sound is amazing throughout though.

    Jedi Knight is a better game I think (Mysteries of the Sith improved in others, but was worse in places), and JK2 is also top notch.

  12. int says:

    Yay Jyn Erso! I mean Jan Ors.

  13. Imperialist says:

    For all its flaws (the sewer level) Dark Forces may be one of the most atmospheric SW games i can think of.

  14. Baf says:

    Re inaccuracy, one thing I strongly remember from playing this game back in the day is that your initial weapon, the Bryar pistol, is a lot more accurate than the stormtrooper rifles. Of course you wind up using the stormtrooper rifle more anyway, just because it can pump out damage a hell of a lot faster than your wimpy little starting weapon, but I did wind up switching back to Kyle’s personal weapon when I wanted to pick off an enemy from a distance.

    The reason I remember this detail in particular so well is that it made so much sense. In the first film, Ben says “only imperial stormtroopers are this precise”, and a lot of people have made fun of him for it, but, well, come on! Look at what they’re working with! You could be the greatest marksman in the world and you’re still going to miss most of your shots if you’re using one of those blasters. I assume they’re standard-issue only because they’re cheap to produce in quantity and because mostly what the stormtroopers use them for is firing into crowds.

  15. ansionnach says:

    One of the best things about Dark Forces is that you can’t save mid-mission. Makes hard mode really hard, but very rewarding. That final mission almost drove me mad!

  16. bill says:

    I remember most of the levels in Dark Forces being pretty good. At the time.
    I guess that in those days my brain was much better at making the leap between the boxes that the level was made of and what the level was supposed to be. I remember the levels in DF feeling like real places. I remember the 2nd level with corpses feeling like a burnt out town. Etc..

    The sewer level was always a complete bastard though.

  17. UnknownDev says:

    Glad you guys liked this : ] I played it when i was little. Games could be a little more punishing and mazey back then for me without making me stop enjoying them for a few reasons. 1. no internet meant i needed something to do for more hours of the day, so games that demanded more time were more welcome. 2. i was twelve and being challenged was more fun at that age. Now im old. Being challenged in most ways is no longer that appealing. The challenge i seek now is pretty universally pvp. 3. the use of a manual map was more the norm back then, so your skills may have atrophied a bit. i don’t remember having too much trouble with dark forces. i finished it. and i remember when i was done i was a little more exhausted than normal. i loved the game. it wasnt in my top 10 at any point tho. i agree that is mostly due to level design. the sewer level doesnt ring a bell as a choke point. i think for me it was the last 2 or 3 levels. be prepared for some heavy fatigue if you get that far. all in all, i give the game an 8, for the same reasons you mention, though not necessarily on the level you mention. i think this gripe probably applies to most single player shooters tho doesn’t it? what fun is there really in a mazey gatey puzzle in an fps? have you ever really enjoyed that aspect of the genre? it is chaff in my mind, and i kinda hate gates and dumb switch/card hey puzzles. im not sure but if i encounter them in the future i dont know if i would ever play through, or just switch to MP and never look back.

  18. Rituro says:

    I remember the sewer level being a grind when it came to jumping puzzles (or, as my Dad called it, “playing Cliffhanger”). I can’t remember it being obnoxiously laid out at the time (ah, my young tolerance!) though I don’t doubt for a moment it would be madness now.

    I did beat the game, I’m happy say, so I can always hold my head high in that regard. Never managed the feat with Jedi Knight, though, and the memories of that horrible, HORRIBLE first level (bad map design ahoy!) keep me from trying again.

  19. greatbird says:

    Awesome! One of my all time favourite games and a definite inspiration for Consortium: The Tower. I actually love that you can’t save everywhere, it creates fun tension.

    Also the sequel is awesome.

    -Gregory from Interdimensional Games

    Love RPS!!

  20. drygear says:

    It was interesting reading the comments about the level designs attempting to create real places because I kept thinking “you guys should try Outlaws!” and then I saw it was mentioned.

    Outlaws uses an upgraded version of the same engine and it’s a big step forward in designing levels that are like real places. The 2nd level is probably where they achieved it the best. It’s an old-west town with streets lined with shops and it’s wide open. You’re getting shot from every angle so you have to choose your approach carefully. There are shootouts between buildings and the glass windows break, it’s really cool.
    The final level is a big mansion and it’s also very open. There are multiple entrances and ways through, so it’s not about finding the path the game has for you but making your own way through, finding the safest angles of approach.
    It recreates the feeling of Western-style shooting very well. The enemies are good shots and you’re vastly outnumbered, so finding cover is essential, especially on the harder difficulty levels, where a few good hits will take you down.

    The level design does get mazey in a few places. The sawmill level makes DFs sewer look like Call of Duty. It fits the tone pretty well though, because this is a Spaghetti Western game and it likes to get surreal sometimes.
    I just played it last year and it holds up pretty well.