Review: Star Wars: Dark Forces (16-Bit Dos)

In this review, we check out a first person shooter (FPS) that was released on DOS. This game is called Star Wars: Dark Forces. We find out if this game is worth the re-play.

This game was released in 1995 and would represent a slight departure to other Star Wars games at the time.

This game follows a mercenary by the name of Kyle Katarn as he agrees to undertake an investigative mission into the Empire. It turns out, the Empire is manufacturing an army of Dark Troopers as part of an attack force to be used against the Rebels. Katarn’s mission eventually evolves into stopping and destroying these Dark Troopers.

This game was released during a time when it was popular to call every FPS game a “Doom clone”. This is regardless of whether it was a blatant rip off of Doom or if it was ultimately its own game. Honestly, having played both Doom and Doom II, I don’t exactly get much of a Doom vibe from this game. In fact, the puzzles found in this game are a great example of how this game departs from Doom. Yes, there’s still key cards, but there’s also key codes that you read and put into computer terminals.

Rolling this back to the beginning, you start with a screen that allows you to create your own “save” file. In this save file, you can select any mission you have unlocked. The levels are perfectly linear, so there’s no forks in the mission “tree”. You also have a choice of Easy, Medium, and Hard as a difficulty during the mission brief.

One thing I did find wonky was the saving system. It’s as if it remembers what weapons and ammo you have carried from the previous mission to the next, but you can’t actually save within each mission. You instead have a set number of lives. You can collect them during the mission, but if you run out of lives, the mission is over and you start from the beginning again. If you lose a life during a mission, you re-spawn at an invisible checkpoint you crossed through earlier in the level. I see the positives and negatives here. This system adds a certain level of challenge to the game. It also puts less strain on the player having to save a certain number of times (increasing uninterrupted game time). On the other hand, if you find yourself stuck at a certain point (like a waterway earlier on in the game) and you don’t have explosives to kill yourself, unless I missed a speed key, you have to abort the mission and start over again. This certainly adds a level of frustration to the game and many of the points where you can get stuck are found early enough in the game where explosives can’t be easily obtained yet. Curiously enough, most of the later levels actually have very few parts where you can get stuck.

Your mission objective varies quite a bit, but the mission endings generally boil down to two possible outcomes: either make it to the goal and pull a switch or collect an item or do something in particular deep within a level before you make your way back to the start again. There is variety in how both types are executed, but that’s the general gist of it.

Along the way, you can encounter several kinds of pickups. The first item pickup of note are health boxes. They are standard and help you recover 20 health points each. You can have up to 100 health. The next most important standard item you can pick up are shields. They don’t protect you from everything, but they do protect you from most forms of damage. Each shield pickup is 20 points and you can get all the way up to 200 shield points. You start with 100 health and shields. As soon as you run out of shield, all damage goes directly towards your health.

Next up is ammo pickups. I found six different kinds of ammo that you could pick up. There’s energy that powers your basic laser weapons. There’s energy cells that re-fills a large portion of your arsenal. There are thermal grenades that you can throw (basically, that’s all you can do with them). There are mines that you can lay down directly below you and hide as you watch an enemy activate it as they walk by before they blow up. There are mortar shells that power a sort of grenade launcher weapon. Finally, there are missiles that fill your missile launching weapon. In total, there are 10 weapons found in this game that have their own purposes.

One irritant I did find with the weapons system (besides the fact that you had to know that they activate by pressing a number) is the fact that if you run out of ammo, you have to manually switch to another weapon you hope has ammo still. If you find yourself in a middle of a fire fight, this can set you back a fair bit of health (or even a life depending on the situation). Knowing this, you are forced to sort of plan things ahead of time if you can.

Additionally, there are items you can collect. These include a gas mask (which can be useful for the one area I found that this is even useful in) that activates via F3, the cleats which enables you to walk on ice (automatically activated), and infrared goggles that permit you to see in the dark (activates via F2). The little green lights above your ammo count tells you how much power is left in them. To recharge, you can either pick up another pair of goggles or blow up those harmless little bots and pick up the battery they leave behind (each battery fills your energy up by a fifth). Of course, there are objective items you can collect, but beyond them permitting you to completing a level and advancing the plot, they are generally otherwise useless to you.

There are a few rarer items found throughout the game as well. These include the super ammunition (that increases the overall firing power of your weapons for a limited period of time), the super shield (that basically grants you temporary invulnerability), a free life, and a revive (refills your shield and life). The most useful of these, I found, were the super shields because when you encounter dark troopers, it’s easy to just stand there and fire missile’s without fear of getting damaged from most of the attacks.

Finally, there are keys and keycodes. Keys operate like you would expect. There’s red, blue, and yellow keys that unlocks doors. Meanwhile, there are keycodes. While they appear to just behave like normal keys, they actually just tell you what the codes are for certain terminals. You can see these codes by clicking on the INV icon via the F1 menu. Replicating the three symbols on the correct terminal will unlock/open doors.

Throughout the game, you’ll encounter numerous puzzles. Sometimes, it’s using a series of switches to complete a line. Other times, you are moving platforms in such a way that you can access new areas. There’s huge variety in these and, ultimately, I found these puzzles to be a real strength in this game even though it was irritating to be caught under a crusher.

Also, throughout your missions, you encounter numerous enemies. You can encounter a brown dressed officer (which is the weakest enemy), a storm trooper (next in line) and a black dressed officer (slightly stronger still). These are the most common enemies you’ll encounter throughout the game. There are other enemies such as the water monsters, grenade throwers, axe wielding hog guards, and the dark troopers of various phases (the most difficult to defeat in the game).

As you complete certain objectives, you’ll be treated to various communications between characters. While this is simply a superficial feature, I thought it added a fair bit to the game as a whole. Also, between missions, you’ll run into numerous cut scenes. While they aren’t exactly the brightest spot in the game, it was nice to see so many in a game like this.

One of the strengths of this game is the huge variety of levels in here. There’s about 14 levels in all, but a vast majority of the levels aren’t exactly push-over easy and short. In fact, you can spend a good half an hour on each level. Believe me, the hours you spend in this game aren’t exactly repetitive for the most part.

One weakness in this game, though, is the fact that certain critical corridors can be very easily hidden. Sometimes, the textures blur enough together as you are running through with the shift key so that you miss a neatly tucked away door that you only find if you are practically on top of it. This can turn a mission that typically takes 25 minutes into a frustrating 50 minute level as you scratch your head at both what you see in the level and the auto-map found when hitting tab.

Another downside to this game is the fact that the controls are not only not exactly intuitive, but also cannot be changed for the most part if you are using a keyboard. Unless you use a hex editor, the controls are, for the most part, completely uncustomizeable. The current key layout makes it almost impossible to strafe, move forwards or backwards, and fire at the same time. So, just hope you have a joystick handy, or this game will be a bit restricting for you. As for intuitiveness, I am not personally accustomed to using the F keys as critical game buttons. So, I found it awkward to having to use them just to access the inventory or turn on night vision. I would have liked it better if there was a speed key on the regular QWERTY section of the keyboard to activate these things instead. There are no shortage of keys there that are not in use (unless you are typing in cheat codes of course).

One strength a lot of people have suggested was the level designs in each level. I agree with this assessment to a point. The “city” maps, I found, were a bit touch and go, but the rest of the levels were pretty good.

Graphically, this game was nicely done. The huge number of environments, the atmospherics, however primitive they are by today’s standards, and every thing that moved was good. I wished the HUD was more informative, though. How much of each kind of ammo do I have for weapons not currently equipped? what number corresponds with what weapon? If that was displayed on the HUD (Heads Up Display), I would have liked it a lot better. As it currently stands, I thought it was more uninformative than minimalistic. It could have been better.

The music was half decent. There wasn’t a whole lot that was special with it, but it was definitely doable. In fact, it often changed within each level, depending on the situation. A strength in my books. The sound effects worked well. I thought they really sold me on the Star Wars vibe. Still, I think the strongest part of the audio in this game was the voice acting. Very enjoyable to hear so much voice acting in this game. It wasn’t excessive, but it was enough to get the point across – especially within the missions themselves. Overall, I would say the audio was pretty good in this game.

In general, if you are looking for a good 90s FPS game that isn’t Duke Nukem 3D or Doom, you could do a whole lot worse than giving this game a try. There’s plenty of entertainment to be had here. The controls aren’t exactly perfect, and it can be frustrating at times, but there’s plenty to like in this game with the large variety of levels and atmospheres. Overall, this was definitely a good game to play.


Furthest point in game: Died fighting the dark troopers at the end of the last level on easy.

General gameplay: 19/25
Replay value: 7/10
Graphics: 7/10
Audio: 4/5

Overall rating: 74%

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Google+.

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