Reinstall invites you to join us in revisiting PC gaming days gone by. In this instalment, Andy revisits one of the early Star Wars classics, Dark Forces.
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 Dark Forces—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 Dark Forces 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 expanded 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 coloured keycards to the intricate, maze-like levels, Dark Forces 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. Dark Forces 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 Dark Forces 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 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: Empire at War, and Star Wars: 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 Rogue Squadron, Force Commander, Battlefront II, and, er, Super Bombad Racing.
What’s most surprising about returning to Dark Forces 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.
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.
Dark Forces 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, Star Wars Jedi Knight: Dark Forces II, which saw Katarn embracing his Force sensitivity and becoming a Jedi. The lightsaber combat and multiplayer arguably make the Jedi Knight 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.