Retrograding – The Dark Forces MOD

"I Fell in Love With a Stormtrooper!" © PC Gamer c. 2002

I’ve always regretted that I never got to play the original Star Wars: Dark Forces game, especially after reading John Walker’s lovely retrospective on it over the weekend. I was introduced to the series by Jedi Knight: Dark Forces II, a brilliant, inventive first-person shooter that gave you – playing as Kyle Katarn, reluctant Jedi – a lightsaber, and a couple hundred stormtroopers, Grans (the aliens, not old ladies) and Imperial Officers to dice up with it, and several Dark Jedi to spar against. It was also liable to give you a good case of vertigo if you dared look down sometimes. Both it, and its expansion pack, Mysteries of the Sith, are woefully dated by today’s standards of course – DFII came out when 3D cards were new and exciting – but its strong legacy was carried on by Jedi Knight: Jedi Outcast, and somewhat less successfully by the confused, non-Kyle-Katarn-focused Jedi Knight: Jedi Academy. It’s a beautiful piece of irony then, that it’s a mod for Jedi Academy that lets me go back to the start of Kyle Katarn’s story with the Dark Forces mod.

Of course, given that I never played the original, I have no idea how this mod stacks up against it, but perhaps its just as worthwhile to see how it fares when pressed up against the eager face of a complete newcomer. (Desperate justification for this review: complete.)

I think the guy on the left is a Los Angeles traffic cop, but I can't be sure.

So, as you can see, it’s all gussied up to be adequately beautiful for modern consumption, managing to look even better than Jedi Academy, thanks to some smart design. The Stormtrooper Rifle model is wonderfully chunky, and positively glistens with the primitive dynamic lighting afforded by the Quake III engine. The Bryar pistol model is similarly attractive, looking a lot less bulky than it has in any DF game I’ve played. The stormtrooper and Imperial Officer models are all as great as the day Raven rendered them, if looking a little worse for wear thanks to the twice-outdated engine.

The levels themselves – and I’m only on the third of the six included in the mod, thanks to a mishap I’ll explain later – are pretty great. Expansive on a scale that you don’t often see in modern shooters, yet very intuitive: I never found myself wandering around looking for what I was supposed to be doing, which is always a hallmark of good level design. The way forward is almost always signposted by a gluttony of enemies, which isn’t exactly subtle, but certainly beats standing around like an idiot waiting for a walkthrough to show up on a Google search.

Probably the biggest shock is how satisfying it was to get back to just shooting people with lasers. Ever since Jedi Knight, the focus has been more and more on lightsaber duels, which was taken to a ridiculous extent on the post-prequels Jedi Academy, with its dual sabers and a frankly stupid amount of saber-wielding enemies. In the Dark Forces mod, it’s just you and your guns, and it’s great. It’s surprising in one way, because the opening levels in Jedi Outcast, where you’re without saber and Force, were roundly criticised as sub-par and restrictive. But in another way, the Q3 engine gave us Star Trek: Elite Force, so quality space-shooty hijinks were always within its remit – which leads me to the conclusion that Raven Software just didn’t know how to design interesting levels for a sans-saber Katarn. LucasArts, on the other hand, clearly did, and its those levels that are lovingly recreated here. It’s a genuine thrill to have to duck and weave in a Star Wars shooter again.

And the story is great. The appeal of the Dark Forces/Jedi Knight series was the feeling that you were actually participating in the Star Wars universe, not just because of fancy graphics and lightsaber duels, but because the story and characters felt… well, at the very least, more Star Wars-y than most of the characters in the prequel films. Katarn’s beginnings as an Empire defector and reluctant Rebel hero are a joy to experience, leaving you feeling like a genuine, Solo-esque rogue. And the narrative is topped off by the actual, primitive early-90’s cutscenes that featured in the original game.

The Quake III engine looks its age, but it does the job. Like Harrison Ford in Indy 4.

All that loveliness out of the way, I do have a bone to pick with this mod. I know it’s a labour of love rather than a professional product, and as such, little glitches are to be expected. And the game does run pretty well. But the menu screens have no writing on them. I don’t know if this is a one-off glitch that’s unique to my PC, but it made navigating the menus tiring at best, frustrating and confusing at worst. But the point where I knew it was truly gripe-worthy came earlier today, when I inadvertently deleted my saved game by clicking the wrong, blank-faced button. Needless to say, I quit in a veritable strop of tears and mild swears, vowing to never return to its glitchy domain.

But, of course, I will. Because from what I can tell, they’ve done a fairly great job of updating the game to a modern standard, tormenting menu glitches aside. I’m not sure if it’s still being worked on – I hope it is, because I’d kill for a similar project to update Dark Forces II. Great game that – first shooter I ever played with a mouse and keyboard!

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