Saturday, May 28, 2011

Star Wars: Dark Forces

When you think about it, Doom was one of the best things ever to happen to Star Wars. The franchise had already seen some games released, but they were at times just pitiful Game Boy ports of nearly as pitiful NES games. Even good games like X-Wing and TIE Fighter only granted you interaction into one aspect of the Star Wars universe: ship combat. But with the onset of first-person shooter technology made effective and popular by Doom, they could finally set you in the role of an individual without resorting to stupid side-scrolling levels full of spikes.

Ackbar.In Dark Forces you play as Kyle Katarn, a mercenary running jobs for the Rebel Alliance because the Empire had a hand in the still-not-totally-resolved murder of his father. The game opens with you having to steal the Death Star plans to deliver them to Princess Leia, which of course immediately precedes the first film's events. Cool tie-in, if nothing else. Then the rest of the game takes place between Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back, but by now you're a known entity, and the Empire wants you dead.

Maybe it's just the fact that this is the first time Star Wars has ever been experienced in this format, but Dark Forces is just so full of murderous intent it's a little frightening. Everyone in this game wants to violently end your life. We're not talking about the legions of hell from Doom, or even the dehumanized Nazis from Wolfenstein anymore. These are living, breathing, thinking, presumably otherwise moral human beings. Sure, they may hide under clunky white suits of armor, but for crying out loud, doesn't anyone think twice before pulling the trigger? Has anyone really ever sat back and contemplated what it truly means to end a life?

Magnetized.Maybe it's just that they're too stupid to even reflect on such matters. After all, if you stand behind a transparent forcefield, they will continue to shoot at you with reckless abandon, even as the lasers reflect back into their own armor. Yes, that's right. You can eliminate entire rooms of enemy soldiers without ever firing a shot, simply by standing there and letting them shoot themselves down. They're more efficient at that than at shooting you anyway. Stormtroopers have never exactly been renowned for their accuracy.

But you know what? I think they get judged a little unfairly on that. After all, Dark Forces is the first time we really get to use that blaster rifle for ourselves. And let me tell you - it ain't going to win you any target shooting contests. It's not that the stormtroopers have abysmal aim, it's that the gun the Empire foists upon them can't fire straight in the least. I can only imagine the frustration. We're talking about the dominant force in the galaxy with all the resources you can imagine and they just refuse to equip their infantry with so much as a gun that can fire straight. It's darned irresponsible, that's what it is.

Huttese.Not that accuracy is really going to be working in your favor either here. Dark Forces defies reason and makes all your weapons shoot off to the left instead of the center. Why this is I have no idea, but it'll throw you way off at first. Even your "accurate" pistol has this issue. Once you lock down what the correction is in terms of aiming to the right of what you want to hit you'll be fine on that issue, but there are others. You see, Dark Forces made a couple leaps forward in FPS technology. For the first time, levels are in legitimate 3D. This means you can jump, duck, swim, have rooms on top of other rooms, and perhaps most notably, look up and down. Unfortunately you can't aim vertically with your mouse. You've got to actually hit your page up and page down keys to adjust your vertical aim, and there's no way to restore you to default height automatically.

The game tries to make up for this by auto-adjusting shots vertically to an extent. This creates graphical confusion when you point a gun straight forward and see the laser shoot to the left and downward at a 70 degree angle, but I guess it does make the game playable. I'll give them a bit of a pass, because I understand that nobody had worked out all the 3D kinks yet. I mean, they include "bottomless" pits in some levels that all have visible bottoms. You may even intentionally leap into one because you can see the floor and you think "I might survive that." Nope. You'll just hear yourself screaming from a stock sound effect and have to try again. Works the other way too though - I don't know why, but you can jump like 5 feet vertically in Dark Forces. Don't be silly.

IMIceYou want proof this game wants to end your life?
Why is there an ice level in a shooter?! And don't tell me it's just aesthetic because that crap is slippery for reals. You actually have to find "ice cleats" in the level to stop from sliding uncontrollably, and you know where they put those things? On a narrow cliff over a bottomless (that is to say, bottomed) pit. You also get other little gadgets and extras as you go, like IR goggles that don't actually view anything in infrared (it's more of a night-vision puke green), and a gas mask that is absolutely necessary to survive one section of a level.

What? Plot? Oh, all right. The main premise of the game is that the Empire has begun building "Dark Troopers." These are, for lack of a better word, Terminators. You've got to find out how and where they're making these things and then destroy all associated facilities in their production before blowing up an Imperial ship acting as the mobile launching base for them. Eventually the metal endoskeletons get enhanced with armor, a jetpack, and a giant plasma rifle with an attached missile launcher. Yipes. But they're still not the scariest things in the game. That distinction is reserved for two other baddies.

Boom.The first are the Gran. They're an alien species with multiple eyes protruding out of the forehead. Eyes that in Dark Forces glow green. In the dark. And guess what they do?

Do they lob infinite numbers of thermal detonators?

Absolutely correct!

Good news? You can load up on the things when they die and use them to explode entire rooms of guys who would do the same to you if given half a chance. They've got sick aim too. And those eyes....*shudder*

The other most deadly enemy? Turrets. There are ceiling turrets in various places throughout the levels. They have tons of health, a fairly quick rate of fire, and they never miss (even if you're sprinting randomly). Probably responsible for a healthy majority of the deaths I experienced playing this game.

You'll notice I didn't include any bosses among the game's enemy elite. There's a couple reasons for this. First, there's only one boss in the whole campaign, at the very end. Secondly, if he weren't chatting dialogue at you as the fight started, you wouldn't even realize he was a boss. He acts virtually identical to the Dark Troopers and doesn't seem any more difficult to kill. Who I really feel bad though is the single Imperial officer hanging out in the only room after the boss fight. He was assigned "guard the shuttle" duty, but the idiots had the brilliant idea to load the shuttle bay with explosive barrels. And if you just knocked out the "hardest" enemy in the game, what chance does this fool have? Makes me think that all their efforts to execute me might actually be in vain.



Dark Forces is a somewhat decent game flawed by a number of imperfections that can mostly be chalked up to being the first to attempt the things they were attempting. The cutscenes are pretty good for the era, though I do feel obligated to mention that the line "Stop, rebel scum!" isn't said with as much zest as would feel appropriate. It's a moderately tough shooter that looks and feels a lot like Doom without the demons...though those garbage monsters come pretty close. Don't swim in trash, folks. Shizz is nasty.

Bottom Line: 12/20