I was a latecomer to FPS games. While the world was addicted to Doom and it’s various spinoffs and clones I didn’t own a PC that could handle anything close to those specs and none of my friends at the time even owned a PC. So while the rest of the “mature” gamers in the world were blowing away demons my friends and I happily guided sprites from left to right on our Nintendo’s and Sega’s. I didn’t even encounter an FPS until 1995 when a friend of mine got a Windows 95 PC and a bootleg copy of Wolfenstein 3D. We were completely blown away by what we saw as we guided B.J. Blazkowicz through the corridors of castles and fortresses. Heck he didn’t even have a sound card with the only audio coming as beeps and blips from the system’s internal speaker. Later my entire generation would be captivated by Goldeneye 007 which is really where I came to terms with the genre.
I received my first “modern” PC for Christmas in 1998 and quickly installed Wolfenstein 3D. It was amazing to play the game on a full screen while also having SoundBlaster audio! I quickly blew through the entire game and then replayed it searching for more secrets. Eventually it was time to move on. I yearned for more FPS goodness when a pal of mine invited me over to show me a Star Wars themed FPS he had picked up second hand; Star Wars: Dark Forces.
Dark Forces was essentially Doom in a Star Wars universe and it eventually spawned it’s own franchise which unfortunately has not had a new entry in some time. Dark Forces was released in 1995 and follows the exploits of Kyle Katarn; a former Imperial officer turned mercenary who is hired by the Alliance to retrieve the plans for the first Death Star. Eventually the rebels hire him to investigate an assault on Tak Base which eventually leads them to uncovering a more sinister project.
Unlike Doom, Dark Forces did allow for levels to include multi-story buildings with room stacked directly on top of each other. Textures were more varied with each level having it’s own distinctive look and feel. Each level had it’s own briefing as well as varied objectives to complete and puzzles that needed to be solved as opposed to Doom’s simplistic “find the exit” formula. Gamers were also treated to several cut scenes that progressed the storyline. Lastly players did have the ability to change their viewpoint to look up and down.
Despite these improvements there were several shortcomings. Mid-level saves did not exist opting instead for obtainable extra lives which meant that these rather lengthy levels needed to be beaten in one sitting. Although players could look up and down, there is no perspective correction which means that the levels look “wonky” when you do attempt to look up or down. The game completely lacks a multi-player mode of any kind and there are only 14 levels in the game which is significantly fewer than Doom.
Instead of blasting demons and monsters like Doom, the enemies in Dark Forces come directly from the Star Wars universe. Stormtroopers are the most common adversary of course but you will also encounter Imperial Navy Troopers, officers, probe droids, thermal detonator hurling Gran’s, Gamorrean’s, Dianoga monsters, Interrogator droids, and even Boba Fett. The player’s arsenal also comes straight from the films. If you’re out of power packs you are forced to defend yourself using only your fists. Otherwise you begin the game with an accurate but low rate of fire Bryar blaster pistol and quickly upgrade to an E-11 Stormtrooper rifle. Other weapons include thermal detonators, mines, the concussion rifle, a mortar gun, and various other futuristic weapons. When navigating dark areas Katarn has a headlamp that can be turned on and runs on a battery pack with a finite life span. Batteries can be collected by blasting mouse droids and pulling the battery out of the unit. Wonder why your character isn’t dying despite getting nailed with laser fire? It’s because Katarn is armed with a personal shield unit which can be refilled by collecting the appropriate power ups.
One of the strongest aspects of the game is the audio. Blaster fire, alien grunts, voice samples from Stormtroopers, and the roar of departing ships seem to be lifted from the movies. Lucasarts always had great sound in their games and this is among the finest examples of that. I always loved hearing the voice samples of Stormtroopers shouting “stop rebel scum!” The music is also top notch with several midi compilations that use motifs straight out of the films and combine them with original pieces. Several of the sound effects created for this game would end up being recycled down the road for Shadows of the Empire.
The first mission involves Kyle Katarn infiltrating a gargantuan Imperial base in an effort to retrieve the plans to the first Death Star. As is typical in these sorts of games the plans are concealed inside of a hidden room which can only be accessed by flipping all manner of switches scattered throughout the level. Once Katarn gains possession of the Death Star plans the level is exited by finding passage to the roof of the facility where he’s picked up by his ship the Moldy Crow.
Soon after turning the plans over to Princess Leia the Death Star is destroyed. Kyle Katarn is then contacted again by the Alliance and meets with Mon Mothma who hires him to investigate a massacre at Tak Base, an Alliance military facility on the planet of Talay. This mission is fun and atmospheric as the facility itself is heavily damaged and completely lacking power. Charred corpses litter the ground reminding the player of the massacre he’s to investigate. All manner of damaged buildings and barrier walls litter the stage creating various alcoves and blind spots for Stormtroopers to ambush the player character. The first objective is to restore power to the facility so you can gain entry to the base which is only accessed by crossing a large moat with a rotating bridge. The city is powered by a large hydro electric power plant. After power is restored the base can be accessed where after a shootout with the remaining Imperial garrison troops Katarn discovers a large rifle which is too big for a human soldier and seems rather suspicious. Katarn then takes the rifle with him back to his ship.
Upon further investigation of the weapon the initials “M.R.” are found on the rifle. It is deduced that noted Imperial weapons engineer Moff Rebus designed the rifle which leads to our next level as Kyle Katarn is dropped off in the Anoat system where Rebus is known to be holed up. Apparently Rebus is hiding in a large subterranean sewer complex underneath Anoat City which is protected by Training Remotes, Probe Droids, Dianoga monsters, and a maze of passageways that can only be accessed in order by pushing the appropriate drain gate switches. In addition to the confusing and branching layout of the sewage system is the fact that a large majority of the level is pitch black requiring the use of the headlamp. This is the most difficult level to navigate practically mandating the use of the on screen map, but it is also one of the most fun. The only pitfall of this level is that there is quite a bit of platforming involved which is historically frustrating in an FPS. This level is no different as some of the jumps are pretty difficult without the ability to see where your feet are. Eventually after some trial and error the player will find himself in the lab of Moff Rebus where the Imperial weapons maker puts up no resistance thus ending the level.
Moff Rebus is interrogated after his capture and although he does not provide any direct information he apparently goes off on a series of rants about the impending destruction of the Alliance and the end of the rebellion. During the rants Rebus mentions something about successful test results on the planet Fest. Rebel spy Crix Madine confirms that there is a research facility on Fest doing metallurgical experiments. With few other leads to move on Katarn heads to Fest to see if anything of interest turns up. The facility on Fest is built into some rocky outcroppings in the side of a cliff giving it protection from any kind of frontal assault. After navigating around several narrow paths on the cliff face entry to the research facility is gained through a small tower above the main entrance. Once inside Kyle must kill an Imperial Officer and take his keycard to gain access to the classified section of the research facility. The entire level is heavily defended with various troopers and drone guns protecting the hallways and corridors. Eventually you find an alloy produced with the mineral phrik which you take back to your ship. One cool inclusion in this level is a secret which leads to a chained Ewok. This is not the only Ewok bashing humor found in the game. If you’ll recall, in these pre-prequel Star Wars days the Ewoks were considered the biggest downfall of the entire trilogy. Once Jar Jar Binks “graced” our screens however Ewoks suddenly didn’t seem quite so bad.
Phrik is a rare and expensive mineral that is only found in a few locations throughout the galaxy. Jan Ors, Katarn’s partner on this contract traces the phrik sample found at the Imperial research facility to Gromas 16 where the Empire is mining the rare mineral. Katarn’s mission is to destroy or damage the mine as much as possible to at least create a setback in the Empire’s plans. The player is dropped off on the red surface of Gromas 16 where eventually you gain access to the mine. As is typical in these types of levels the mine is a dangerous location with spinning turbines, compactors, labyrinthine tunnels, and deep pitfalls everywhere. In the center of the mine is a thermal exhaust port where the player plants a sequencer charge. Once planted an alarm triggers which releases a Phase I Dark Trooper; Kyle’s first encounter with the enemy but certainly not the last. Fortunately the Phase I trooper isn’t armed with anything besides slasher weapons and fighting it seems like a battle with an unarmed Terminator Endoskeleton. Once destroyed Kyle makes his way back to the Moldy Crow and flees the planet as the sequencer charge completely destroys the mine.
After the destruction of the mine the game changes course for a moment. The destruction of the mine and the ensuing investigation leads the Empire to Crix Madine where he is arrested for treason and imprisoned at an Imperial detention center on the planet Orinackra. This is my favorite level in the game. It’s very dark and atmospheric with a lot of secrets, branching pathways, and a ton of enemies to blast. The first objective is to gain access to the Detention Center which is done by calling over a repulsorlift craft and riding it over to the entrance of the facility. Once inside your mission is to access the correct cell block. Crix Madine is being held in the high security level of the prison which requires Katarn to take a main elevator down to a central command center and then a separate elevator to the high security detention block “Block N”. Fortunately through some exploration there is an alternate route that offers less resistance. Eventually through collecting various keycards and with a lot of backtracking you make your way to Madine’s cell and rescue the defector. Another cool aspect of this level is that the entire facility is magnetically sealed meaning that laser blasts ricochet and bounce all over the place when they strike the walls. Essentially this is an incredibly difficult and sprawling level which most gamers loved or hated. The fact that it’s my favorite level does not mean that you the reader would enjoy it as I have.
After rescuing Kyle Katarn he reveals that an Imperial named Rom Mohc is the mastermind behind the Dark Trooper project and that there are two key targets that should be destroyed to derail the endeavor. Unfortunately the locations of the targets are unknown to Madine. However, he does know that much of the project is being supplied by galactic smugglers and various underworld elements. Jan Ors and Katarn determine that the next best move would be to place a homing beacon aboard a smuggling ship that will be departing the Imperial port of Cal-Seti which is our next mission. This is a fun mission which begins outside and moves through various administrative buildings and warehouses. In addition to stormtroopers you square off against several Gran’s, and Trandoshan thugs. This level features another comical Ewok defacing Easter Egg as there is graffiti on one of the walls in a warehouse that says “Ewoks Suck”. Not only that but there is actually a scene inside of the complex where you can ambush several enemies as they are standing at urinals. I’ve always wondered how Stormtroopers can answer nature’s calls while inside of that armor.
The ship is tracked to an Imperial Robotics construction facility named Ice Station Beta on Anteevy which is a frozen planet very similar to Hoth. Dark Troopers undergo phase II of their assembly at this factory which makes it an integral part of their manufacture. This mission first requires that Katarn find the ice cleats as otherwise trekking the surface of the frozen planet is nearly impossible causing Kyle to slip and slide all over the place. The robotics facility is dangerous with conveyor belts, moving platforms, and compactors all over the place. The goal here is to plant three sequencer charges throughout the installation in an effort to destroy it. At the end of the level you square off against a phase II Dark Trooper which is considerably more difficult than the Phase I trooper you defeated earlier at the mining complex. This was a cool level and the battle with the Phase II trooper was memorable but otherwise it never really stood out to me.
After destroying Ice Station Beta Jan Ors investigated flights to and from Gromas 16 and Anteevy and found that they all led to Nar Shaddaa the “smugglers moon”, a seedy city filled with smugglers, gamblers, and the dregs of society. Jan and Kyle hope that some kind of nava cards can be found detailing the next stop in the Dark Trooper supply chain. This was a cool level that spans from building to building with several exterior sites where the player sees the night sky, bottomless chasms, enormous sky scrapers dotted with lights, bright neon advertisements in alien languages, and ships coming and going. There are also several viewports in the buildings that allow a view of the city as well. Not much graphically by today’s standards but at the time this was extremely atmospheric and visually impressive. Enemy wise this level is filled with Gamorrean’s, Gran’s, and Trandoshan’s instead of the standard Imperial pawns although Stormtroopers make their appearance as well. I love seeing posters encouraging denizens to join the alliance as well as all manner of graffiti littering the walls. Eventually you find the nava cards necessary and leave the level but your ship is intercepted and captured by the Star Jewel; a giant space yacht owned by Jabba the Hutt. Apparently he’s the smuggling kingpin helping the Empire with the Dark Trooper project.
Jabba communicates via a hologram to Katarn aboard the Star Jewel stating that he is tired of Katarn acting as a thorn in Rom Mohc’s side and will enjoy feeding him to one of his Kell Dragon’s. His only regret is that he won’t be there personally to witness Katarn die. After a little back and forth Katarn is shove into the Kell Dragon pit by a Gamorrean Guard which is where the next level picks up. Without any weapons you are tasked with killing the Kell Dragon using only your fists as offense. After overcoming the odds you move into a chamber with a couple of Gran thugs that you also must overpower. Once you steal their thermal detonators you can use them on two more Kell Dragon’s that block your path. Man this level really throws it at you to start. Eventually you regain your gear and are tasked with rescuing Jan and escaping the ship. The level has some neat elements such as the giant wall murals of Jabba and his court and I liked the premise that you must begin the stage completely devoid of any of your weapons cache.
Escaping the Star Jewel with the nava card Jan Ors determines that the only way it can be interpreted is by using a computer in the Imperial Security Operations building in Imperial City on Coruscant. What? Are you kidding me? This is kind of a cool level but the premise was always ridiculous to me. Jan and Kyle who are two of the most wanted people in the Empire are just going to fly to the capital of the Empire and break into one of their highly secured administrative buildings during a civil war? On top of that this isn’t even a covert mission. Kyle just busts in like Rambo guns blazing blasting everyone in site. I could maybe buy this one if you were to sneak around like James Bond but the body count in this mission is astronomical. Whatever. I guess it’s just a video game. Jan drops you off in a plaza and the level begins. As you can imagine, this level is loaded with Stormtroopers, fleet troopers, and officers as you go from one Imperial government building to another eventually gaining access to the ISO headquarters to interpret the nava card. As should be the case gaining entry to the room with the central computer is extremely difficult as there is an entire network of security doors that must be accessed in a specific order to enter. Once you interpret the card and retrieve the data tape however? There’s a convenient back door to exit. Geez…. really? It reminds me of that Simpsons episode where Mr. Burns is going to shut down the power plant and has to proceed through various rooms with the security measures becoming ever more complex but when he reaches the central room their’s a rusty open screen door with a stray dog that found its way in. When you find your way back to the central plaza you find Boba Fett waiting for you and must defeat him mono y mono. This mission kinda sucked.
The final assembly of the Dark Troopers takes place aboard a ship called the Arc Hammer. The Arc Hammer is constantly making leaps to hyperspace in order to keep it’s location a secret with only the Super Destroyer Executor making routine trips to the Arc Hammer to supply it. As such, only the Executor knows the location of the Arc Hammer at any given time. In order to gain entry to the Arc Hammer Kyle and Jan determine the next step is to board the Super Star Destroyer while it is refueling at Space Station Ergo. A smuggler ship will be hijacked and used to dock with the Executor. This is a difficult but brief mission which doesn’t bring much new to the game as most of the textures are recycles from previous missions at imperial facilities. In fact, the last few missions get somewhat redundant.
Kyle then boards Darth Vader’s flagship as a stowaway in an effort to ultimately make it onto the Arc Hammer. The coolest part of this mission is seeing some TIE fighter’s moving about inside of the landing bay. Otherwise things really start to run together here and although this isn’t a bad mission there aren’t any interesting objectives or anything that specifically sets it apart from what you’ve already experienced. Eventually you make your way to a cargo hauler to board the Arc Hammer.
Finally the last mission. I didn’t anticipate writing about every level in this game but one thing led to another and…. well here we are. I’m sure you readers can relate as sometimes you wind up at point Z by traversing an entirely different path than you had originally intended. So what waits aboard the Arc Hammer? Dark Troopers. And man are they tough. It’ll take all the skills you’ve learned throughout the game to beat this one, and I’ll be honest with you; I never did. This was the farthest I ever managed to make it into the game but I never completed the last level. I guess I suck at life. I probably should just give up now and go into self exile until I right this incredible wrong. Regardless this level didn’t feel significantly different to me than the Executor and I dare say it’s more of an extension of it than anything. The biggest difference is the Dark Troopers that await and they really throw a wrench in the works. You’ll burn through a ton of lives in this level. The goal is to plant charges throughout the ship. The final boss is Rom Mohc who confronts you while wearing a phase III Dark Trooper suit. This kind of reminds me of the mecha-Hitler you face in Wolfenstein. Kill Mohc and escape using an imperial shuttle and the facility blows leaving Darth Vader to comment in a cutscene that this is an unfortunate setback. He also recognizes that the force is strong in Kyle Katarn which leads us to the eventual sequel Dark Forces 2: Jedi Knight which would receive more acclaim than this game. Thank God for Youtube or I probably never would have seen the ending to this game.
Although the last couple of levels lose some steam for me this has always been one of my favorite games which is why I couldn’t resit the urge to type a 3,500 plus word tribute to it. The music, the atmosphere, the sound effects, the textures, and the very original levels at the start of the game were always a blast. This game also paved the way for even better sequels down the road as Jedi Knight and Jedi Knight II would eclipse this first outing and cement Kyle Katarn as one of the best characters in the Star Wars expanded universe. As of this writing the game can be had on the Steam Store for 70% off at $1.79. If you’ve never played it or enjoyed it and haven’t experienced it in years I highly suggest that you make the purchase. Fortunately I still own my big box version which I can play on one of my various Windows 95 or 98 PC’s I have lying around the house but I know most people don’t have that luxury. If you do, track down a copy on eBay as there’s nothing like playing these old games on original hardware.