Monday, January 29, 2018

Star Wars: Dark Forces (1995)

Date: 1995
Developer: LucasArts
Publisher: LucasArts

System Requirements:
 - 386/DX-33MHz
 - 8MB RAM
 - 3.5MB HDD space
 - MS DOS 5.0

Where to purchase?

Last week I played a game that was completely new to me (Alien Odyssey), so this week I am playing Dark Forces, a game which I know very well.  I purchased Dark Forces new when it was originally released and played it through to completion.  Since that time, I have played a number of custom levels, the sequel Jedi Knight, and Jedi Knight's sequels Jedi Outcast and Jedi Academy.  So it is accurate to say I am familiar with this game and I am also a fan.  I'm really looking forward to going back and playing it again for  For this playthrough, I'll be playing the Steam version, which means I'll be playing the original vanilla version through DOSBox.  I won't be using any modern updates or mods, of which there are many.  If you are interested, the most popular update for Dark Forces is the DarkXL engine, which can be found at its's website:  

Dark Forces is an FPS (first person shooter) set in the Star Wars universe just prior to the events of Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope.  To read about its development, my impressions on a playthrough, and my thoughts in a review at the end, read on!

- Development -

Dark Forces was released in 1995 into a market that was overflowing with new FPS games.  To read a quick synopsis of FPS game history, check out my post on BloodBasically, in the early 90s, everyone was wanting to get in on the FPS craze that was started by Doom in 1993.  It seemed that high on many people's list of desired FPS games was one set in the Star Wars universe.  It did not take long after Doom's release that fans began to release custom Doom levels, or WADS, that were Star Wars themed.  LucasArts took a look at the popularity of FPS games, the number of fan Star Wars WADS, and the new possibilities CD-ROMs offered and decided to jump into the market with their own FPS game.

Instead of using an existing game engine like the Doom Engine (Id tech 1) or the Build Engine, LucasArts decided to create their own engine.  The result was the Jedi Engine, created by Ray Gresko.  While similar to other contemporary game engines of the time, the Jedi Engine had a number of new and impressive features.  Arguably the most important feature was the ability for level designers to now build rooms vertically on top of one another.  Previous game engines were limited to levels being laid out in a single plane.  The ceiling heights could be altered and different geometries could be added inside rooms, but separate rooms could not be built vertically.  The Jedi Engine allowed this verticality and so opened the possibility for vertigo-inducing level geometry, something Dark Forces became well known for.

The Jedi Engine also allowed for running, jumping, crouching, and looking up and down; features that were all relatively untried in contemporary FPS games.  This, combined with the aforementioned vertical level building, resulted in much more complicated levels than had previously been seen.  The Jedi Engine also allowed a limited kind of scripting for in-game events and animations.  This allowed the designers to include environmental features like running water, moving bridges, and complicated elevator systems in the missions.  Additionally, it allowed for atmospheric effects like fog and also the inclusion of 3D models (although all enemy and items in the game are 2d sprites).

Speaking of missions, Dark Forces revolutionized FPS action gaming by having a focused story told through cutscenes between missions instead of just having the player jump from the end of one level to the beginning of the next.  These cutscenes featured pretty great 3D rendered space sequences with a little bit less impressive 2D animated character sequences, all of which were fully voice acted.

The protagonist of the game, Kyle Katarn, is a mercenary that eventually became canon in the old Star Wars Universe (before Disney bought the Star Wars franchise).  While there was a mention of a group called the "Katarn Commandos" in the Timothy Zahn book Heir to the Empire, Kyle Katarn has no relation to them.  He is, in fact, named after the Katarn, a predator on the Wookie homeworld of Kashyyyk.

Our dashing hero...the Katarn
So with all that said about how great the Jedi Engine was, did LucasArts make a great game out of their engine and did the game review and sell well?  I think they made a great game, you can read more about my plathrough below.  The game received great reviews I think, I can't find or recall any scores specifically.  And the game sold well enough to warrant a sequel that is itself fantastic.  The Jedi Engine went on to be used in another LucasArts FPS game called Outlaws, but after that it was replaced by more modern and 3D-focused engines.

So that's a quick summary of the development, let's fire up the game and try it out!

- The Game - 

The game starts up just fine under the DOSBox config that comes pre-configured with the Steam version, so that is a relief.  It opens with the standard LucasArts logo that we haven't seen a long time, unfortunately.

This used to be a sure sign of a quality game
 Then there is the eponymous Star Wars opening and backstory crawl that sets the upcoming story:

The music in this game is fantastic.  According the manual, the music and orchestration is by Clint Bajakian, and he NAILED it.  It is MIDI representations of various Star Wars themes with his own small flourishes, and it really sets a great Star Wars mood.  It is also great MIDI music if you ever want to get into the mood of 90s gaming.

Instead of describing the story, I'll just post a copy of the backstory crawl here:

The New Order of the Empire stretches its evil clutches across the galaxy, consuming planets with devastating results.  Through many struggles, the Rebel Alliance has learned of a new Imperial battle station, the Death Star, with enough power to destroy an entire planet.
Unable to acquire the plans to the deadly space station, the Rebels have employed the skills of Kyle Katarn.  Known to most as a mercenary for hire, Katarn is a rogue figure who has a partial alliance with the Rebels.
Armed only with a blaster pistol and an intimate knowledge of Imperial methods, Kyle prepares to infiltrate the Imperial base where the plans are kept...
After the title screen above, I am dumped to the main menu, which doesn't have a lot of options.  We can create a new player, delete a player, exit to DOS, or begin mission.

Selecting Begin Mission brings me to the mission briefing by Rebel Alliance leader Mon Mothma herself.  I think the Alliance is maybe putting too much trust in a mercenary.  Don't they have anyone of their own that can do these kinds of things?  I understand that Kyle brings inside knowledge of Imperial methods, but it still seems risky to put such a critical mission in the hands of a mercenary.  Also, why the hell did they give me nothing but a blaster?  Sending me in unprepared is an understatement.  I'm assaulting a pan-galactic empire's highly defended base with a pistol as my only weapon.  Thanks for the faith you place in me, Mon Mothma. 

I'm going to play on Medium difficulty.  I need to get the Death Star plans and return to my ship, the Moldy Crow.  Let's start the mission!

Mission 1 - Secret Base

Opening location
The mission opens with me taking an elevator down to this corridor.

First enemy - an Imperial Officer
My first enemy is an imperial officer, the guys dressed in brown in the movies.  These guys actually are weaker than regular storm troopers and can be taken down with a single direct hit from my pistol.  Around the corner from this guy are some storm troopers and Imperial Commandos, which also gives me the Imperial Blaster rifle.  The rifle is more powerful and shoots faster than the pistol, but it has worse accuracy.

I always liked this rotating Death Star model
I make my way through the base pretty quickly since its the first level and not very long. After grabbing the Death Star plans and making my way to the roof, I'm giving the message to end the mission:

Escaping in the Moldy Crow
 After ending the mission, a cutscene starts with the Moldy Crow flying off after a mission well done.  The cutscene then cues up ominous empire music and shows some nasty looking Star Destroyers, including the Executor, Darth Vader's Super Star Destroy flagship, and the Arc Hammer, a factory ship used to produce a new Imperial super weapon: the Dark Troopers!

Executor and Arc Hammer
 The scene then cuts to Darth Vader addressing a General Rom Mohc, and telling him the Emperor is expecting results from the latest test of Mohc's pet project: the Dark Trooper project.  Mohc assures Vader that everything will go as planned (that's what evil bad guys always say).

Mohc and Vader
The Dark Troopers are then loaded into drop pods and launched into a planet below:

Dark troopers being loaded into drop pods
I always though the animation of the Dark Troopers was super impressive for its time.  CGI was relatively new in computer games, and to see something that could rival movies was pretty impressive.

The music then turns upbeat and we are given in impressive scene of a Rebel Alliance flotilla passing by. 
Rebel Alliance fleet
 I looked up the ship types out of curiosity, and the lead ship we are shown here is a Nebulon-B frigate, originally manufactured for the Imperial Navy but then captured (I assume) and used by the Rebel Alliance.  Next to the Nebulor-B frigate, there is a CR90 corvette like the one used by Leia in A New Hope and what looks like some blockade runners from Empire Strikes Back.  

We then get a scene of Mon Mothma telling Kyle the Empire attacked the Rebel Tak Base with a new super weapon (Dark Troopers), and she wants Kyle to go investigate these new weapons and destroy them.  Jeez, that's a tall order.  Don't worry, the Rebellion will equip me with all of the most advanced weaponry, a few regiments of elite Rebel soldiers, and task force fleet under my command.  Just kidding!  It will be me and my pistol and that rifle I picked up in the previous mission.

My mission briefing from Mon Mothma
The hero - Kyle Katarn (not to be confused with the quadriped jungle predator of the same name)

Mission 2 - Tak Base

Here's my first look at Jan Ors:

She looks different than in Jedi Knight and its sequels.  Kyle also goes through quite a change to his final form in Jedi Outcast (2002).  

Jan and Kyle in Jedi Knight (1997)

Jan and Kyle in Jedi Outcast (2002)
My mission is restart a hydro electric generator and find a clue about the Dark Troopers.  I will be entering a base that has already been destroyed, so this level should showcase the difference in textures LucasArts was able to use for all their different levels.

Starting area
Immediately I notice this is a dark level since it is night time and there is no power at the base (remember, I need to restart the generator).  I forgot the mention the HUD, so I'll do that here.  On the left hand side are three numbers.  The green number is my shields, the red number is my health, and the "3" number is my lives remaining.  Yep, Dark Forces has lives AND no in-mission saving or checkpoints.  This was a mistake by LucasArts that I'll talk about later I'm sure.  On the right side is my ammo count, represented by the number (281), and my battery level, represented by the 5 green lights in an arc.  Battery is used for the headlamp.

Bridge to the base
My health and shields were depleted in the above screenshot because I was trying to get some good screenshots while also being shot at.  Or I'm just terrible at old FPS games.  This is the entrance to the base, it was guarded by a bunch of storm troopers, imperial commandos, and imperial officers, who I dispatched with my pistol and rifle.  

The generator
I've activated the generator, and this provides a good example of the moving, 3D geometry made possible by the Jedi Engine.  I should have taken a GIF of this scene, but in the screenshot you can kind of make out the blades of the turbine extending out from the white building in front of me.  Those blades are going around in circles to create power.  Kind of neat, now the level is lit up properly so I can go take a look at the all the darkened areas I passed on my way here.

Dear God!
Corpses!  Now that the lights are on I can see too much!  Turn them off again!  This is morbid but its nothing worse than we've already seen in Doom or many other FPS games that had already come out by this time.  These are supposed to be the former residents of the base that were killed by the Dark Trooper attack.  Poor people obviously didn't stand a chance.  Luckily I've got my pistol and rifle to take on the pan-galactic empire and its legions of super soldiers!

Just a nice shot of an imperial commando
Something that I think Dark Forces does really well is juxtapose different environments on eachother in the same level.  For example, in this level I go from the grimy, destroyed base exterior to the interior which looks suitably Star Wars-y and futuristic and clean:

The game does this a few times, particularly when entering into Imperial buildings or bases.  

I had a nice video of me clearing out the room above, but the resulting GIF was filled with green color noise that made it look terrible.  So instead, in your head try to imagine me doing it.  Sorry.

I found a weapon in one of these rooms and made it back to the landing pad from the start of the mission and got the end mission message.  Mission successful.  After pressing "ESC", the game jumps right into the next mission briefing without any cutscene.  

Mission 3 - Anoat City

My goal is to find and capture a technician who supposedly worked on the Dark Trooper project.  He apparently lives in the sewers on this planet...

Mission 3  starting area
Ugh...I'm not looking forward to this mission.  The only thing I remember about this mission is that it involves a puzzle of raising and lowering sewage water levels and redirecting the sewage or something along those lines.  I just remember it being confusing.  

I've run into my first new enemy - the imperial probe droid.  These guys can be nasty in that they do a fair bit of damage, take 3 or 4 shots to kill, and they explode after falling to the earth.  

Destroying an imperial probe droid
The mission is set up like wheel with a central hub that has a spokes going out from it, except the spokes all lead back to the hub.  The hub has a switch that lets me open only one spoke at a time, so I need to go down each spoke one a a time.  The goal is raise the sewage level in a room in the 2nd spoke to a point where I can get through a door is up by the ceiling.  The only way to raise that sewage level is by hitting switches in all the other spokes?  Make sense?  Not really, but that's Star Wars for you.

Switch that opens up the spokes, right now the 2nd spoke is open
Each spoke is a passageway filled with flowing sewage and some adjacent connecting rooms.  I have to go down all of them, so I might as well get going down the first spoke.

Nice! Thermal detonators
In the first spoke I pick up thermal detonators, so that is a nice bonus.  Although they don't do as much damage as I would expect, given the fear everyone has at Jabba's palace in Return of the Jedi when Leia pulls one out, but they do a good enough job.  After running through this spoke, it dumps me back out at the beginning.

Next up is the second spoke, this is the one that has my final goal.

I need to get up into that doorway in the upper left
After making my way through this spoke, I end up in a faster flowing sewage pipe that loops around to dump me out back at the hub room.  This is a good time to show the automap, which is actually pretty nice.  It's a standard map like most other games, it does the job.  I can keep the map open as I play, so that is handy.

Back at the hub
I'm going to head into the next spoke and try to get through this section ASAP since there is a certain enemy in this level that can do some significant damage.  Melee damage in this game bypasses shields and so directly takes away health, and health pickups are much more rare than shield pickups.  The melee enemies I'm taking out on this level are the "swamp monsters".  They creep around in the sewage and pop up to attack.

Swamp monster
While trying to get a nice shot of these guys, I let one get too close and this happened:

Notice my health
So that is one life down and 2 to go.  After more switch hitting and sewage raising, I'm able to access that doorway and move into the next part of the level.  Here I run into another new enemy - the three eyed things again from Jabba's palace.  These guys mostly either throw thermal detonators or punch.

He is kind of tough to see in the screenshot above.  There is also a thermal detonator flying towards me in this shot as well.  Moving on I run into a few more of these guys and I'm starting to run low on ammo for my pistol and rifle.  I had to resort to using thermal detonators to kill the last few droids and enemies before getting to my target.

Why do you live in the sewer sir?
Simply walking up to this guy ends the mission, I don't need to run back to my landing area or anything, which I am thankful for.  I'm a little worried about my ammo situation, note the "000" on my ammunition counter.  All I have are 24 thermal detonators and my fists.  I won't complain about the Rebel Alliance not giving me proper support again, but if they send me to the next mission without ANY ammo, I will be a little irritated.

Pressing ESC cuts right to the next mission briefing with Jan, so no cutscene.

Mission 4 - Research facility

I need to infiltrate an imperial base, find some metal samples, and return to the landing area.  Let's see about my ammo situation.

Oh come on!
Looks like its just me, my fists, and some thermal detonators to take on this imperial base!  I'm starting in a canyon area and there is a nice sound effect of blowing wind to make me feel like I'm high up on a mountain.  I like it.  This also gives a good demonstration of the Jedi Engines good use of cliffs and high up level geometry.

OK, so most pressing concern right now is to find some ammunition.  Looks like I'm going to have to use my fists for a few enemies until I can get some ammo.  If I recall, this mission is all imperial troops so at least I know what to expect.

Kyle's a lefty
I punched out a few officers and stormtroopers and took their ammunition, so now I'm back in the game.
The aftermath of my punching 
I am making my way through this level very carefully because it is easy to fall off these edges and instantly die.  Dark Forces does not have mouse free-look, so that makes things more difficult.  I'm using the PAGEUP and PAGEDOWN buttons to look up and down, which is not convenient at all.  But as long as I make jumps across chasms carefully, I seem to be doing OK.  I haven't fallen and died yet.

I keep running into training droids, like the one Luke duels in A New Hope.  They don't do a lot of damage but they are really difficult to hit and they tend to wear down my shields.

They are like flies 
They really did a nice job of making you feel like you are traversing high up canyons and ledges.  I know it doesn't look like much today, but back in 1995 this was vertigo inducing.  This level also gave me a nice opportunity to show the nice use of elevation and some thermal detonator action:

I like how there is an imperial officer at the head of a group of stormtroopers, LucasArts is trying to show how even the Empire follows military doctrine.  It's just too bad they never produced accurate soldiers or weapons...

I am literally sneaking into the base as I crawl through an air duct and surprise some poor stormtrooper's shins:

Now that I'm inside, I'm starting to run into ceiling turrets.  Remember how I mentioned how cumbersome it is to look up and down?  Now I've got ceiling turrets that do a SHIT load of damage.  It seems like they can kill me in only a few hits.  I am making heavy use of strafing in and out of cover to get a few shots off on them at a time.  I tried to get a good screenshot of them but every time I tried I just ended up dying.  Here see for yourself:

See the turrets?

Whelp, nevermind
Besides having to fight turrets awkwardly placed on the ceiling, this level is relatively straight forward.  There hasn't been any places where I can get lost or stuck, which is a nice change of pace from the previous sewer level.  Plus, I've always liked the imperial aesthetic so I don't mind running around in these kinds of locations.

As I make my way through the level, I come across the first keycard door of the game.  This is not strictly true, there was a red key door on the first level, but this level has a proper Dark Force keycard door.  By that I mean it has a door opened by a code that I need to retrieve off of a keycard from an officer.  Here is what the code station looks like:

The three symbols can be changed by hitting the USE key on them.  Somewhere an officer  has a keycard that I can take into my inventory, and this keycard has the correct series of symbols on it.  So I need to keep my eyes peeled for an officer.

Wait a second...gah!  I just ran out of ammo for my rifle and pistol, and the game automatically switched me to the imperial repeater rifle!  When did I pick this up?  I hope I didn't have it the whole time I was punching my way through baddies at the beginning of the level.  I must have totally missed picking it up.

Wish I knew I had this earlier...
And then it dawns on me that I have an inventory screen (to look at my keycards when I pick them up).  My inventory also lets me see my weapons I'm carrying.  Doh!  I should have checked earlier when I was low on ammo.  Oh well, I don't think I had this gun at the beginning of the level.

Turret killed me again
After getting killed by a turret again, I am being more careful now.


Keycard in my inventory
I was able to find the keycard and use it to open the door I needed to open to progress in the level.  And now I've come to the centerpiece of this mission: a giant pillar in the middle of a huge room with the metal sample sitting on the top of the pillar.  Along with high cliff drops, Dark Forces was also known for these kinds of bizarre puzzles that allowed it to show off its engine and the creativity of the level designers.  Here is the pillar:

See the door in the upper part of the screen?  There are a couple other doors like it going further up the outside of the pillar room.  At the top of the pillar room is a set of buttons I can push that moves a bridge up and down and around in circles around the pillar.  I can use these buttons to line up the bridge with the doors along the outside of the pillar room and the buttons on the pillar you can see in the screen above.  In this way, I can slowly press each button on the pillar by moving the bridge from door to door.  It sounds more complicated than it really is.  While writing about games on this site, I've discovered how difficult it is to describe video game puzzles in words.

Surprise! I love the  way their little hats fly off 
Here is the control room to control the bridge.

The metal sample

Bridge starting position

I moved the bridge to the first door
I won't show you each step of the way because that would be pointless.  But I did all the button pressing and that opened a door so I could get the metal sample and make my escape.  After getting back to the landing area and exiting the mission, I got a quick cutscene of the Moldy Crow flying towards a Mars-like looking planet:

Again I got overzealous with the screenshots and detail and filled up too much space and now I need to break this game up into multiple posts.  I'll try to tone it down in subsequent posts (I said that about Crusader: No Remorse too).

But overall I am still enjoying my time replaying Dark Forces.  I'm having more fun than I did when I played Blood, but that could be partly due to nostalgia.  The only thing that is really bothering me is the lack of in mission saves.  Otherwise it plays surprisingly well using a mouse and keyboard, it even allows me to use WASD for movement.  The game actually has rebindable keys, but not in-game.  To rebind the keyboard keys and mouse control keys, you can run install.exe file and choose to configure controls, which can be done without needing to actually reinstall the game.   

So I'm enjoying the game so far with missions 1-4.  But will it continue to hold up?  Read part 2 to find out!

Dark Forces - Part 2

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