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.
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...
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.