When Star Wars: Dark Forces was released, it was compared to Doom. Retroactively, this is a bizarre comparison as little unifies the two games beyond the fact both involve shooting thing and have cardkey systems. Doom is a game built upon motion while Dark Forces takes a much different approach, focusing on constantly presenting new obstacles to the player in each level.
Therefore, every stage of the game provides some dynamic that changes the player’s approach to the conflict of killing enemies and navigating the terrain. For instance, the stock snow level has the player deal with the dynamics of physics as the player slides across icy patches and, once inside the enemy facility, a series of constantly moving conveyer belts. Here, the challenge isn’t the shooting, but the platforming, navigating through the space without falling to a grizzly death.
The level design merges the creative gameplay tweaks with interesting spatial puzzles. Geographical navigation and memory becomes just as essential a skill as reflexes as many levels involve mastering the labyrinthine military and science facilities or multilayered sewer systems and prison blocks. This is perhaps the greatest loss of the modern shooter, as it is almost always clear where the player should go, leaving little spatial skill to be mastered.
However, this isn’t to say that this is just a game about moving around. There’s still plenty of shooting to be had. While it lacks in the grace and fluidity of Doom, it makes up for in a robust set of weapons that constantly prove useful throughout the game. And the game is constantly forcing the player to go back and forth between weapons, not so much because of the nature of the enemies, but because the proximity and number of enemies are best disposed with different weapons.
One lone distant figure is best dispatched with the slow, but powerful rifle while a large group several feet away falls quickly and safely with several burst from a repeater. Even up to the final confrontation of the game, the player is constantly switching between weapons, using the most powerful ones on heavy opponents at a distance, swapping out as they close the distance and then mopping up the ever present stormtroopers with low level weapons.
And now that the stormtrooper has been mentioned, it should be said that this is one of those Star Wars games that was made back when LucasArts could actually make a great Star Wars game. Geeks of the series will love the way the narrative weaves into the events of the original Star Wars as the player takes the role of Kyle Katarn who is most notable in the Star Wars mythos for being the rebel Spy who stole the plans to the Death Star.
As a Rebel Spy, the game captures the spirit of the classic Star Wars film by giving the player the feeling that they’re like Luke and Han sneaking around the Death Star. The game creates these great, suspenseful lulls where the player sneaks about, picking off stormtrooper every now and again until inevitably the player open that one door and there’s an entire squad lying in waiting. In those moments, the feeling of fear and excitement the game captures reenacting that moment from the feature film.
Those are the moments that make the game great. It’s the chance to live out the Star Wars fantasy that almost every kid had. It’s not the lightsaber Jedi fantasy—that’s one to come—yet it captures the feeling of watching Star Wars for the first time and tensely watching Han and Luke sneak deep inside enemy lines. Its clever design and interesting levels make sure there’s more to the game than just a feeling, but damn if it isn’t one of the finest feelings a Star Wars geek can have in a game.
© 2011 James Blake Ewing