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Dark Forces, a first-person perspective three-dimensional shooter set in the Star Wars universe, has a tendency to be forgotten by many gamers. Either it is overlooked altogether, or, especially by some hardcore DOOM/Quake gamers, disdained entirely. Many believe that it is merely another DOOM clone; at one time it was even rumored that Dark Forces used code from DOOM, although this rumor proved to be groundless. Although it was undoubtedly inspired by DOOM and the wave of 3D games that followed it, Dark Forces makes many improvements over DOOM that justify considering it more than just one more DOOM clone. Unfortunately, many people who did not ignore Dark Forces criticized it for not meeting their expectations of a mindless slaughterfest with no plot as DOOM and its clones were. While there certainly is a place for unencumbered games like DOOM, it is foolish and shortsighted to expect every game to fit that mold; some must have more depth or the art of video game design becomes stunted. Dark Forces was also ignored in large part because it lacked multiplayer. This, combined with the otherwise unjust criticisms mentioned earlier, has alas overshadowed the true qualities of what is both an important game in the development of PC and 3D games and one of the best video games ever made even by today's standards, on the basis of the game's excellent technical and creative accomplishments throughout its program design, art design, and level design.
While Dark Forces' 3D engine, called the Jedi engine, is insignificant in comparison to those of the true-3D games made now, it is superior to those of many of the other games of its era. Dark Forces, like DOOM, is a pseudo-3D game. It utilizes three-dimensional projections of a two-dimensional map to simulate three-dimensional structures, and it use sprites to represent the characters in the game. Unlike DOOM and most of its clones, however, Dark Forces allows multiple overlapping stories in its architecture; this is accomplished by stacking two dimensional maps upon each other. The ability to have overlapping floors distinguished Dark Forces significantly from similar games as it allowed Dark Forces to have much more ambitious and creative level designs. Another aspect of the 3D engine which was generaly unique at the time was its support for atmospheric effects like fog. The engine even had its own scripting language to control the motion of floor sectors and walls; this allowed some rather complex motions to be defined. And, although most of the engine was only pseudo-3D, it allowed for true 3D objects in the game which were used to represent gun turrets, welding arms, and tie fighters among other things. Finally, Dark Forces engine allowed large open areas and tall structures, something other engines sometimes had difficulty with. Open areas were especially a weak point of other games, and many games today still cannot simulate the kind of open, outdoor expanses that Dark Forces could handle.
The gameplay engine in Dark Forces was also distinctive. For one thing, it allowed the player to jump and to crouch. Crouching, something not available in the DOOM/Quake series until Quake II three years after Dark Forces, especially increased gameplay flexibility and allowed for more strategic play. The player could also look and aim up and down, something necessitated by the multilevel design. The controls were not entirely realistic in that they responded almost too fast, which, while not simulating reality very well, greatly aids gameplay. On the other hand, the engine was realistic in points such as deducting health points for high falls depending on their height.
One controversial point of Dark Forces was the inability to save in the middle of a level (games were automatically saved between levels). Some complained about this, claiming it to be poor design or a lack of finishing detail in the game, but that does not seem justifiable given the game's otherwise high development. The more generous explanation is that saving is not allowed in order to enhance the games immersive effect, something it does indeed do quite well. The knowledge that one's game is not saved has an incredible efect on the nerves at the end of a long and complex level, simulating as best as possible the pressure a one would actually feel in that real life situation. At the same time, this feature can also potentially frustrating in some of the more difficult and expansive levels. However, there are certain points in levels where the player is restarted in case of his death with the same resources he had available at the time of his death, albeit with one less life.
The graphics in Dark Forces are quite good. The textures are very well done and many are reminiscent of familiar Star Wars settings, though most are original. The sprites are well done and mostly make up for their planar nature through their realistsic appearance. They are even in correct proportions, unlike most other DOOM clones, or, for that matter, even DOOM itself, in which the human enemies looked about four feet tall. The 3D animations in the cutscenes are good and the rest of the cutscene graphics are tolerable, except when people talk - their mouths move like dummies'. The sound effects are good, and the voice samples of stormtroopers yelling things like "Stop, rebel scum!" build atmosphere well. The MIDI score consists mostly of mediocre arrangements of music from the movies, which is both good and bad; it certainly recalls Star Wars, but one can go too far that way, and it leaves Dark Forces without an original score.
One important aspect of the game's design directly affected gameplay. Although Dark Forces uses keys, few levels require the player to search for keys. All levels have multiple objectives which must be completed, and most have some puzzle which must be solved. Most of these puzzles are logical, although almost all call for a judicial amount of searching, which can often be frustrating, a rare low point in an otherwise very good game.
Another quite unique feature of Dark Forces is its possesion of a plot. Probably one of the most distinctive elements of the DOOM clones and, of course, DOOM itself, was their lack of plot. Dark Forces was one of only a few games to rebel against this idea, and it does tolerably well at it. The plot is reasonable and, most importantly, interesting, and the characters involved are also interesting and more or less realistic. And, with the way the plot develops slowly through the missions, one feels like one is actually accomplishing something by all of the missions rather than just slugging through a kill fest for its own sake. Many games today, especially first-person perspective 3D games, lack adequate plots, and even Dark Forces II: Jedi Knight's plot is weak compared to Dark Forces. Yet compelling plots are claimed by some to be the most important development in games in the near future, though that remains to be seen. If solid plots become requisite for video games in the future, we may remember that Dark Forces was one of the few early 3D games to follow this idea.
All of the previous factors, however, must necessarily be subject to the most important aspect of any game: its gameplay. And here, as before, Dark Forces proves itself to be excellent. There are just enough enemies to keep action lively (and fun), but not overwhelming. The control is tight, so there is never frustration on that mark, and the ability to crouch makes combat easier and more realistic. Most levels are designed so that they are not too linear (which they would be in real life); one has choices about how to approach mission objectives and, in some levels, there is practically enough extra space to go exploring. These last two aspects sometimes become a negative point, as one can become lost, but this is an acceptable danger in light of the realism and immersive effect these differences bring to the game. And again, the levels require intelligent play; one can not merely kill everyting until the next key is found, but must instead determine how to approach the level, and watch resources such as ammunition, which are not over-generously distributed.
Most of all, however, Dark Forces is an extremely imemrsive game, probably more so than any other before the advent of real 3D games. The carefully constructed environments, realistic graphics, the sound, the attention to detail, the realism, cause one to almost forget ones external enviornment and focus exclusively on the game, creating a level of immersion almost never seen in other games. Many games have been claimed to be able to make people's palms sweat and heart rates increase, but what is significant is that Dark Forces did not just do this. It was not just the action which was immersive, but the entire game combined so that one actually felt a part of of the very environment itself.
Of course, Dark Forces does have its weak points as well, though they are few in comparison to its strengths. Replay value, like that of any plot oriented 3D game, is fairly low, and there are only 15 levels (although the levels there are are quite large). (This last weakness is largely made up for in all the custom levels that were subsequently designed by Dark Forces users.) The game can be rather difficult at times, between the large and complex (hence disorienting) levels, the lack of a midlevel save, sometimes perplexing puzzles, and the difficult Dark Trooper enemies. Other minor complaints regard some of the cutscenes, which, due to the poor character animation, look almost humorous, and the music, which is unoriginal and often mediocrely arranged. One peculiarity of the game is the perspective correction; deep holes or tall structures can look rather skewed when viewed from directly above or below. A more serious complaint arises with the artificial intelligence, which is rather poor. Stormtroopers do not notice the nearby screams of their comrades, for example, and they will sometimes break off attacks if one retreats. When they walk to the side they are left completely helpless for a moment as their guns are pointed away from the player, yet they often adjust position this way in the middle of gun battles. (This last weakness sometimes made the game easier than it should have been.)
Possibly the most serious problem with Dark Forces was its omission of mulitplayer capabilties. This seems justifiable given the games plot and context, but was often seen as a mistake on the part of Lucas Arts, whether due to laziness, poor planning, or inattention to the interests of gamers. Whatever the reason, gamers were dissatisfied with its absence, and many steered clear of Dark Forces because of it. In the end, Dark Forces II became as much or more about adding multiplayer as it was about extending the plot and adding a truly 3D environment.
Despite its minor problems, though, no one can doubt that Dark Forces was one of the best PC games of recent years. The designers' careful attention to even small details of the game shows through. Its solid graphics, its interesting but consistent level design, and its incredible immersiveness work to make a great game which is stong both technically and artistically.
As a post script, although this does not pertain directly to the quality of Dark Forces itself, one other significant thing about Dark Forces was the quality of its user base. Some of the best level designers ever born went to work on Dark Forces, producing custom levels that in some cases exceed the original Lucas Arts levels. This too extended the life of Dark Forces long beyond what it may othrwise have experienced. In fact, some of the best levels were being made right up until Jedi Knight came out. For more information and the levels themselves, visit The Crow's Nest, a now dead site that in its day ran the best reviews of all the newest and best levels.
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