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Retrospective: Dark Forces

"You're not authorised in this area!"

I went back to Dark Forces with two things in mind. First, to see if it could still give me vertigo. And second, to find the map of Max's head. This was intended purely as a nostalgia trip, a brief look at an antiquated shooter that I'd once loved. What I'd forgotten was that it's really, really good.

Kyle Katarn, defected from the Empire, works as a mercenary for the Rebel Alliance. Intertwining with the events of the original Star Wars trilogy, the first mission has you stealing plans to the Death Star, in order than someone or other can find its weakness and destroy it. But along the way Katarn stumbles into information about a new Imperial project, the Dark Trooper. Dark Forces has Katarn follow the clues to the location of the various Empire facilities used to create the Dark Troopers, and ultimately to destroy their production.

For many people, when they reflect on the history of the first-person shooter, they go straight to Doom. Sure, Wolf 3D, but Doom is the one that holds a place of love in people's hearts. It was the game that really set the way ahead. For me, it was Dark Forces. Three years later than Doom, and not looking especially more sophisticated, Dark Forces was built in LucasArt's Jedi Engine. Although immediately similar to id's Doom engine, the most significant advance made within was the ability to build levels with a Y-axis: they gave gaming height. And hence, it was the first game to have me creep up to a ledge and say, "Woah!" sitting back hard in my chair.

Getting it running today isn't simple. Dark Forces was built for DOS, Apple Mac and PlayStation, all of which have become rather obsolete. (Zing! at the Mac users.) XP and Vista support a somewhat limited DOS emulation, and since I couldn't find a PSX copy, wedging it into Windows was the only choice.

The cut-scenes are so clearly a part of Full Throttle-era LucasArts.

There's a couple of routes to success with this, and I strongly recommend visiting the excellent Dark Forces fan site (still being updated!), DF-21. I ended up with a compromise. Running straight under XP I had no sound until I set it up with VDMSound, following DF-21's instructions, which then played everything at double speed. Running it via DOSBox worked perfectly, until I Alt-Entered to full screen, where it ran into all sorts of slowdown. In the end, putting up with sped-up speech seemed the better choice, but individual results seem to vary widely. DF-21's forums seem to have addressed most concerns.

It's amazing how clearly this was a 1990s LucasArts game. The cut-scenes were a country light year ahead of the time, beautifully mixing hand-painted and digitised animation, professionally voiced, including a more than fine impression of Darth Vader from Scott Lawrence, and being invariably worth sitting through. Despite being a straight shooter - shoot men, collect keys, find goals - the overtones of LucasArts' adventuring prowess appears, giving things a great sense of depth. It's no accident that Katarn's story is still being told in LucasArts games.

Remember that mouse-keyboard wasn't the norm for the FPS in the mid-nineties? Discovering Dark Force's default setup was two hands on the keys was a time-tunnel flashback. I'd completely forgotten how. While the Jedi Engine lets you look up and down, this can't be mapped to the mouse, and even at its most sensitive it's not possible to use it to turn quickly enough. In the end, I created a Frankenstein's control scheme of WASD, strafing with Q and E, and firing and nudging on the mouse. Like some sort of crutch, I had to have the mouse in my hand to be able to comfortably play, even if I was using it like a big two-buttoned blob. (By the way, to reassign controls, run the SETUP.BAT file in the main directory.)

It really is primitive, there's no denying it. But this was a game with cutting-edge particle effects at the time.

Once the crazed desire to freely look around is overcome (and compared to playing Doom now and realising there's no jump button, this is a small hurdle) it's any other FPS. Except, a really beautifully designed one. Dark Forces has a level design that's woefully absent in modern shooters. Despite the 256 colours, the world-o-blocks, and sneaky use of 2.5D rendering of objects, the crafting is so refined, so intelligently put together, that exploring the levels is still a joy.

Perhaps we fought against the blue key/blue door nature of early shooters too soon. Toward the end of the nineties, the critical response to shooters was to lament being forced to trek back and forth across levels gathering necessary keys for necessary doors. In removing this, we've left ourselves with the corridor, and good grief, it was a pleasure to have a choice of two directions to go in.

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John Walker