Re­vis­it­ing the clas­sic Lu­casArts FPS.

PC GAMER (US) - - CONTENTS - By Andy Kelly

In Rogue One we’re told the story of hero Jyn Erso, who in­fil­trates a heav­ily de­fended Im­pe­rial base and hero­ically steals the Death Star plans for the Rebel Al­liance. But be­fore Gareth Ed­wards’ film, Star Wars fans knew a dif­fer­ent story about an­other hero. In this ver­sion of events, the fo­cus of the first mis­sion in DarkForces— now of­fi­cially de­clared non-canon by Dis­ney—it’s merce­nary Kyle Katarn who steals the plans from the planet Danuta. And he doesn’t do it by duck­ing be­tween AT-ATs and TIE Fight­ers on a lush trop­i­cal world. He does it by walk­ing down some cor­ri­dors and blast­ing a few Stormtroop­ers. But Dark Forces is an FPS from 1995, and Rogue One is a $265 mil­lion movie from 2016, so it’s prob­a­bly un­fair to com­pare the two. Pro­duc­tion on DarkForces be­gan in 1993. Justin Chin, now an ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer at Tell­tale Games, wrote the story and in­tro­duced Kyle Katarn and the Dark Troop­ers to the Star Wars ex­tended uni­verse, which would go on to fea­ture in a num­ber of other spinoffs. Lu­casArts had seen Star Wars-themed Doom mods, in­clud­ing one set on the Death Star, and this in­spired it to make its own of­fi­cial FPS. And while Doom was eco­nom­i­cal with its story, Dark Forces would fea­ture cin­e­matic cutscenes with full voice act­ing and de­tailed mis­sion brief­ings to give your ac­tions greater con­text. Luke Sky­walker was orig­i­nally go­ing to be the hero, but he was re­placed by Katarn to avoid com­pli­cat­ing things and con­flict­ing with other sto­ries.

It’s hard not to think of Dark Forces as Doom with Stormtroop­ers, but that’s slightly un­fair. Lu­casArts’ in-house Jedi en­gine could do a lot of tricks that id’s game couldn’t, in­clud­ing an­i­mated tex­tures, 3D ob­jects, and haze ef­fects. This is most ap­par­ent at the be­gin­ning of a mis­sion when you see Katarn’s ship, the Moldy Crow, tak­ing off and fly­ing away. A rudi­men­tary ef­fect to mod­ern eyes, but hugely im­pres­sive at the time. Lead de­signer Daron Stin­nett, in­ter­viewed in PC Gamer

back in 1994, said this cre­ated an “ac­tive en­vi­ron­ment” where “ships come and go at flight decks and rivers sweep along”.

So while there are ob­vi­ous sim­i­lar­i­ties to Doom, from the col­ored key­cards to the in­tri­cate, maze-like lev­els, DarkForces uses a be­spoke en­gine that was writ­ten com­pletely from scratch, led by pro­gram­mer Ray Gresko. You can look up and down, which was still a rar­ity in first-per­son shoot­ers in the mid-to-late ’90s. And lev­els fea­ture mul­ti­ple floors, which was dif­fi­cult to achieve at the time. DarkForces isn’t re­mem­bered for be­ing a pi­o­neer­ing game in terms of its tech­nol­ogy, but Lu­casArts was do­ing some re­ally in­no­va­tive stuff here. There’s even some ba­sic plat­form­ing, re­quir­ing you to leap be­tween ob­jects and si­dle along nar­row plat­forms. I mean, it isn’t much fun, but it’s just an­other ex­am­ple of how DarkForces took things be­yond what id was ca­pa­ble of be­fore it re­leased Quake.


“When Doom came out, we set our sights higher, and the Jedi en­gine has quite a bit more ca­pa­bil­ity,” Stin­nett told CD-ROM magazine in 1994. “But there’s no ri­valry. Both teams keep in touch via email, and the guys at id have played Dark Forces, and love it. The most ob­vi­ous dif­fer­ence is that you can look up and down. To cre­ate the right per­spec­tive, the pro­gram­mers em­ployed a clever fish-eye ef­fect, which makes build­ings look like they’re loom­ing di­rectly over you.”

A year af­ter steal­ing the Death Star plans, ul­ti­mately lead­ing to its de­struc­tion by Luke Sky­walker, Katarn is hired to in­ves­ti­gate re­ports of a new type of Stormtrooper. This leads to the re­veal of the Dark Trooper project, led by Im­pe­rial gen­eral Rom Mohc. These in­tim­i­dat­ing me­chan­i­cal ex­o­suits were cre­ated specif­i­cally for Dark Forces by Chin. “In­stead of just

There’s a punchy weight to the com­bat that I wasn’t ex­pect­ing

beef­ing up the Stormtroop­ers, I de­signed them to be more ef­fi­cient,” he told PC Gamer in 1994. “I wanted them to be more ter­ri­fy­ing, more om­nipo­tent.” Three pos­si­ble de­signs for the Dark Troop­ers were cre­ated, one of which was ul­ti­mately ap­proved by Lu­cas­film, and they later ap­peared in other games in­clud­ing Star Wars: Galax­ies, Star Wars: Em­pireatWar, and StarWars: Ga­lac­tic Bat­tle­grounds.

The story takes Katarn to Jabba the Hutt’s ship and Cor­us­cant, as well as a few less fa­mil­iar plan­ets, and even­tu­ally aboard the Ex­ecu­tor, Darth Vader’s per­sonal Su­per Star De­stroyer. There’s a good va­ri­ety of en­vi­ron­ments, al­though ev­ery­thing has that blocky, box-like look typ­i­cal of prim­i­tive 3D shoot­ers from the era. Vader him­self makes an ap­pear­ance in some cutscenes, with Scott Lawrence stand­ing in for James Earl Jones. Lawrence is a pro­lific Darth Vader sounda­like, play­ing the char­ac­ter in a va­ri­ety of Star Wars games, in­clud­ing RogueSquadron, Force Com­man­der, Bat­tle­front II, and, er, Su­perBom­badRac­ing.

What’s most sur­pris­ing about re­turn­ing to DarkForces is how much fun it is. The blasters feel fan­tas­tic, and the way en­e­mies dra­mat­i­cally tum­ble back­wards when you laser them is bril­liantly rem­i­nis­cent of the movies. There’s a punchy weight to the com­bat that I wasn’t ex­pect­ing from such an early FPS, al­though you might find it frus­trat­ingly dif­fi­cult by to­day’s stan­dards. I’m for­ever run­ning out of ammo, leav­ing me with no choice but to wade into the fray, fists swing­ing, and hop­ing that I man­age to take a Stormtrooper out and grab his ammo be­fore I die.

Mod Rac­ing

The Steam ver­sion runs per­fectly on mod­ern PCs. It uses a pre­con­fig­ured DOSBox, so most peo­ple should be able to launch it with­out hav­ing to mess with CPU speed set­tings. It even has cloud save sup­port, which is more than can be said for a lot of mod­ern games. But the mouse con­trols do feel a lit­tle clumsy, which is to be ex­pected from a 22-year-old game. It’s amaz­ing it that even runs at all. And if you can’t stom­ach the old-school vi­su­als, you could al­ways down­load a mod, such as DarkXL, which adds real-time light­ing, higher-res­o­lu­tion tex­tures and vis­ual tweaks to make it more ap­peal­ing.

DarkForces was a hit, sell­ing 300,000 copies at launch. It also made an im­pact on the lu­cra­tive Star Wars mer­chan­dis­ing em­pire, with Has­bro re­leas­ing ac­tion fig­ures of Kyle Katarn and the Dark Troop­ers. The game’s suc­cess led to a se­quel in 1997, StarWarsJediKnight:Dark Forces II, which saw Katarn em­brac­ing his Force sen­si­tiv­ity and be­com­ing a Jedi. The lightsaber com­bat and mul­ti­player ar­guably make the JediKnight se­ries more fondly re­mem­bered than Dark Forces, but the orig­i­nal is still worth re­vis­it­ing as a sur­pris­ingly playable piece of Star Wars his­tory. Of course, it’s all non-canon now, along with the rest of the ex­tended uni­verse, but don’t let that put you off. For some diehard fans it’ll al­ways be Kyle Katarn who bravely stole those Death Star plans, not Jyn Erso.

And they say Stormtroop­ers are bad shots.

Aboard the Ex­ecu­tor, Vader’s per­sonal Star De­stroyer.

The voice ac­tor does a re­ally good Vader im­pres­sion.

Shoot­ing my way around An­teevy, an ice planet.

This Im­pe­rial of­fi­cer prob­a­bly de­serves to get lasered.

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