Saturday, 23 January 2016

Star Wars: Dark Forces

Since seeing The Force Awakens, I was reminded of the rich history of Star Wars games on PC. As well as various X-Wing and TIE Fighter games, the stand outs also included the Dark Forces/Jedi Knight series. So I figured it might be a nice idea to reacquaint myself with these slices of classic gaming.

I began with Dark Forces, a 1995 first-person shooter, where you are first introduced to the series hero: Kyle Katarn. A gruff mercenary, he works for the rebels on a freelance basis, and ventures where they cannot. The game itself plays in a very similar way to Doom, which had been released a couple of years prior. As such, I played it entirely with the keyboard, which was an odd experience after so many years of using the mouse to freely look around.

It's the Star Wars elements which raise this beyond an otherwise good Doom-like. Saying that, it takes a lot to re-acclimatise to the old-fashioned nature of the game. FPS games of this era were big on maze-like levels, puzzle sequences and plenty of platforming/jumping, and Dark Forces was no different.

The levels are tied together with a reasonable story about a new line of super-stormtroopers, called Dark Troopers. You have to investigate these rumours and then destroy each section of the production, concluding with the Imperial officer in charge and his ship. I enjoyed the Star Wars plot, the cameos (in cutscenes anyway) of Star Wars characters (including Darth Vader), and the music and atmosphere (nothing beats hearing "Stop right there, rebel scum!" before you gun down an imperial officer).

The gameplay way very much of its time though, and I grew tired of the mazes and hunting for keycards and buttons. I was never much of a FPS fan, and I would never have been bothered to complete this without being able to cheat (ah, the days when games had a list of cheat codes you could type in at any time...). Next up: Dark Forces 2: Jedi Knight.

Obviously the first game had no lightsabers, no Jedi vs Sith, and this was considered a bit of a let-down by some fans. The sequel rectified this with gusto. You still controlled Kyle Katarn, but rather than being set before/during Episode IV, this time it's after Episode VI and there are new Dark Forces to worry about rather than the Empire.

It turns out your father was murdered by a Dark Jedi, and so seek the name of the murderer, where he is, and why he did it. It turns into a race towards the Valley of Jedi, a powerful, hidden place where the souls of the Jedi are located. After a visit home to decipher a code-disk, you receive a message from your father and a lightsaber, which obviously you decide to use immediately.

This game has probably aged worse than the first one, primarily because it's at that point (1997) where 3D graphics were still in their relative infancy. So everything is rather chunky, and low detail. It also has similarly maze-like levels as the first, so hasn't really improved on that point. Levels are designed with challenge in mind first, and logic is basically thrown out of the window.

It also employs FMV cutscenes, rather than the animated ones of the previous game. These are a bit of a mixed bag, as the special effects and acting are very variable from scene to scene. Again, without the Star Wars content, and the lightsaber fighting, I doubt this game would have been remembered so fondly!

There's a very interesting mission towards the end though, in which you have to escape a falling spaceship. It's very disorienting, and the use of alternate angles is welcoming, but confusing. This is yet another maze-like level, and it has a time limit to boot. What this game gives with one hand, it takes away with another!

The missions are occasionally punctuated by lightsaber duels, which I found a rather frustrating experience. The idea is very good, but the execution leaves a lot to be desired. Using the lightsaber is simple enough, but it really doesn't feel that powerful. You also lack free movement with it, and instead you can direct your attack in a limited sense by using the direction keys whilst using the primary attack.

The rogues gallery of Dark Jedi is varied enough, one particularly troublesome fight involves a pair of opponents attacking simultaneously, one large and one small. It really requires you to be on your toes, and know your force powers well.

On that note, one major positive point towards this game is the choice between Light and Dark sides of the force. This is governed by your actions, but basically boils down to how many civilians you murder as you progress through the game. You then get to choose your powers, with a different selection for light and dark. The dark ones seem a bit better for combat purposes, I chose the light side (of course) and felt a bit under-powered.

Jedi Knight also has an expansion: Mysteries of the Sith, but as I was having trouble with getting it to display in a decent resolution I decided to give that a miss. Not sure I could have faced many more levels of this sort of game so soon either!

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