If you read my last review (Star Wars Republic Commando, go and check it out) you’ll know I’ve developed a strange relationship with Star Wars over the past few years.
Essentially, as I’ve grown up, I’ve come to appreciate the inventive and original over everything else especially when it comes to bigger franchises which can often find themselves mired in formula and cliche. Under Disney, I really feel like Star Wars has gone in that direction so it’s led me to start revisiting the old Expanded Universe and start to really enjoy a lot of the games, books and comics that I missed out on when I was younger. Yes, they aren’t perfect, but they are at the very least, products of artist and storytellers trying to make something new.
Last year I played through Star Wars Dark Forces, an old MS DOS doom clone, which I ended up surprisingly enjoying pretty thoroughly despite it being very antiquated. It’s a shooter in the old school sense – you traverse labyrinthine levels, collect coloured key cards and basically have no control over your aiming beyond shooting directly forwards. If you’ve played Doom or Wolfenstein, you’ll know exactly what I mean as it shares very little with the military power fantasy games which dominate the FPS genre today.
What made Dark Forces stand out was that it had such a strong star wars personality. You play as wiley mercenary Kyle Katarn, completing missions for the rebellion and ultimately facing off against Imperial general Rom Mohc, who has fashioned a half robot super soldier – the fearsome Dark Trooper. It’s classic star wars stuff that sees you as the plucky underdog against the evil oppressor and simplistic as it might be, the game actually does a good job of sending you through interesting levels and setting up cool moments. The first time you encounter a dark trooper is legitimately quite scary which is no mean feat for a game that looks like it could run on a microwave. You fight Boba Fett, battle through Jabba’s palace and generally feel like you have an adventure that leads you across the stars.
The game ends with Kyle destroying his imperial antagonist and ending the Dark Trooper project before flying off into the distance with his money – not exactly leaving much hanging for a follow up. I was intrigued to see where the sequel would go, especially given it’s new subtitle – Jedi Knight, as the force was almost completely absent from Dark Forces.
Imagine my joy, after a 12 hour playtime, to find that Dark Forces II is everything that is great about its predecessor and even more. (With some flaws of course)
One thing you need to know before we get started is that the game is incredibly difficult to get working. The Steam version literally does not work and the GOG version (usually very good for older games) is insanely unstable. I constantly had crashes and if I tried to tab out, it bricked my entire PC. You might notice I don’t have of my own screenshots, for some reason it was impossible to capture footage of any kind. So if you decide to dive into this crazy adventure – you have been warned. It’s a bitch to get to work.
On booting up the game you’ll be met with the beautiful swelling music of John Williams and the iconic yellow text crawl that makes this feel like you’re about to watch some real proper star wars. The text disappears into the distance and the camera pans down to reveal a ship being captured by some sort of enormous Star Destroyer. Yes it’s old CGI but it’s just so damn cinematic. It feels like some lost Star Wars film from the early 90s.
That is until the live action cutscenes begin. That’s right, you heard me correct, Dark Forces II has abandoned the 2d animation of its predecessor and has run with the idea of real actors playing the characters in cutscenes between the levels. I use the term “real actors” fairly loosely as the quality of acting on show hilariously bad. Everything from the costumes and delivery, to the way everyone stands in front of greenscreens so the CGi can be pasted behind them just looks so utterly terrible. In 2020 we’ve reached a point where it’s not uncommon to see major actors playing roles in video games, so it’s quite funny to see how different the lay of the land was 20 years ago. I’m sure the game was likely written, directed and designed by the same small group of people. Not a cinematographer or editor in sight.
Thing is – I sort of like the weird live action cutscenes. It’s like watching a horrendously kitchy b-movie where the poor quality is half the charm. Just take Jerec, the game’s evil dark jedi bad guy. He looks utterly ridiculous to the point where it’s literally impossible to take him seriously as a threat because you’ll be smirking everytime you see his weird tattoos or permanently closed eyes. Nick Jameson, the actor of Kyle, comes across like a sort of mixture of Kyle Reese from Terminator and Snake Pliskin. It’s pure B movie schlock and while it doesn’t have any dramatic heft, it’s got a weird lo-fi charm to it which I found consistently entertaining.
Another big change between Dark Forces II and I is that now all of the levels are rendered in full 3D. No longer do we find ourselves in the pseudo 3D of repeating textures and blocky animations but in a fully realised polygonal world. I actually found this to be incredibly welcome as the repeating textures of the first game, paired with the absolutely meteoric movement speed regularly gave me intense bouts of motion sickness to the point where I actually had to stop playing a few times. Luckily I can happily report that the sequel contains literally no vomit inducing sections, beyond maybe the acting.
It’s great because one of the big issues in Dark Forces I was simply recognising what you can and can’t interact with. Buttons often blended into wall textures and secret passages were almost impossible to spot. It’s all a lot easier in 3D and the levels flow a lot easier from one objective to the next.
That being said, that slight benefit is completely outweighed by the new level design. Dark Forces I had a habit of being a touch hard to navigate, with some of the objectives being either somewhat obtuse or impossible to locate. Dark Forces II has unfortunately not just doubled down, but quadrupled down on this element as the vast majority of the levels are sprawling mazes that are not only hard to get around but require almost prophetic knowledge to progress through.
I mean just look at the frankly token map which the developers have designed to “help” you –
I think that I probably had to revert to using a walkthrough to work out where to go in maybe 14 of the game’s 21 levels which is crazy. I’m sure to my younger self, with countless hours and endless patience, it wouldn’t have been so much of an issue but being able to make continuous progress through a game is a big need for me. It loses big points for this.
Part of the issue comes from the game’s surprising emphasis on verticality. There are regular moments where the game expects you to utilize all of the force abilities to be able to reach a far away location or notice a small ledge which you need to access to continue. Once you get into the rhythm of this design language, it’s not too bad and you learn to just try jumping over to everything possible but in the early levels, it can feel really unnatural.
Luckily, while charging blindly around the levels, you’ll likely have an absolute blast using all of the weapons and engaging in combat against a variety of different classic star wars enemies. Dark Forces I had you fighting maybe 2 or 3 different types of enemies with 80% of them being Stormtroopers. A lot of effort has been put into mixing up the combat situations and we now get a really big spread of things to kill and fight.
You now fight against bug eye’d Malastarians, Rodians (made famous by Greedo from Episode 4) and a horde of sand people from Kyle’s childhood home. Near the end of the game you even have to fight against two massive dragons. Now I don’t remember there being dragons in the original movies but remember, this is the expanded universe and anything goes. Don’t worry yourself though, you’ll still spend many levels churning through the best the Empire can muster.
On the subject of stormtroopers – the game never really makes the relationship between Jerec and the empire overly clear although having just looked it up, the Star Wars wiki assures me that this game takes place one year after Return of the Jedi, so presumably he’s taken control of part of the Imperial remnant. Makes sense I suppose. The Imperials do seem to love putting evil Jedi in charge of their operation.
Most of the weapons from the previous game return, which is great news as the varied arsenal of original weapons was one of the best features. Rather than going with standard loadout of shotguns, snipers and rocket launchers – we are treated to 8 different types of weapons that all really carry the star wars identity. You’ve got the imperial blaster but also thermal detonators, a laser repeater and a wookie bowcaster among others. My personal favourite is the utterly over the top energy cannon. At first you’d think it’s more akin to the BFG from Doom and meant to be saved for shit hitting the fan situations but actually the game gives you loads of ammo for it so you can enjoy blasting everyone to pieces with it as much as you like.
The biggest change to the game play occurs about 4 levels into the game when Kyle revisits his childhood home and is given a lightsaber by a hologram of his dead father. From that point on you can switch into third person and wield a lightsaber to combat the Jerec’s forces. This could easily just be a glorified melee attack but they do a good job of making the lightsaber feel like the best weapon in the game. Not only does it deflect enemy laser fire without you having to do anything but it also kills virtually every enemy in the game in one hit. Considering the ludicrously fast movement speed, you can literally fly around the levels hacking down enemies left right and centre and feeling like an incredibly powerful Jedi. It’s fantastically fun.
This gets even better when paired with the new force power system. Every level you beat will give you a couple of points which you can spend in a skill tree that unlocks and improves a variety of different force powers. It’s not hyper comprehensive but you do get a nice spread of different powers to choose from – Force Speed, Jump, Heal, Protection etc. On top of this depending on decisions you take in the game and how merciful to civilians you are, you can embark down either a light or dark side path which opens up a whole different tech tree. I clearly went for the lightside as I refuse to believe Kyle Kataran would join forces with a man who looks so unrelentingly lame.
As a quick side point – in doing some outside research for this article I’ve been on the Star Wars WIki quite a bit making sure names and places are correct. Imagine my shock to discover that in deep Star Wars lore, Jerec was supposedly trained by the librarian from Attack of the Clones who gets shirty with Obi Wan Kenobi about the records. I know that the Star Wars wikipedia has a reputation for adding in utterly pointless additional detail to character backgrounds but I think this one takes the biscuit. He was trained by an extra from a movie who is regularly memed online. Dear god…
Returning to the matter at hand, the force powers are hilariously overpowered which is actually pretty great. The jump sees you flying through the air, the speed power moves you so quickly you’ll actually take damage if you run into things and the protection power is so powerful you can spam it to take no damage from the last boss. It utterly breaks the game but it’s actually pretty fun to feel like you’re breaking the rules like an actual Jedi would be. The ridiculous force powers have also led to a really interesting speedrunning community springing up. I’ve included a clip below of someone beating the game in 29 minutes and the speed with which they play the game is astounding. Definitely check it out although it is very much not representative of my experience!
There are now also six dedicated boss fight levels which gives the gameplay a nice mix up. Jerec has six dark jedi apprentices which you’ll fight throughout the game and each one is introduced with a little cinematic and voice over from your father (presumably through the force?). It’s a little weird but it certainly builds anticipation of the fight.
What I really like about them is that while they could easily look like wild mashing of the sabers, they can actually turn into a proper duel and the later boss fights can be quite difficult. If you and your opponent swing your saber at the same time they’ll clash together and you’ll do no damage which means you’re always trying to position for a better attack. On top of that they have access to a lot of the same powers you do, using heals or pulling weapons out of your hands. Jerec, the final boss, even has some puzzle-like mechanics to his stage that need to be completed before you can do damage to him. Much like everything else in the game, by today’s standards, it’s fairly simplistic but it’s got charm and just enough complexity that I think makes it very enjoyable.
The bulk of the game’s story consists of chasing Jerec and trying to prevent him from taking control of the ancient valley of the Jedi, which appears to be a “place of power” that will allow him to take over the universe. Of course there is also the added element of revenge as he killed your father trying to get hold of a map that would take him there. To be frank, there isn’t a huge amount of story here and I think that it’s likely because of the live action cutscenes. While they’re great for adding in schlocky humour (unintentionally) it does mean the game misses out on expanding on it’s world. We never really find out Jerecs intentions beyond being evil and there isn’t much background to the places you visit. It’s very likely that a lot of this information was in the game’s manual but unfortunately I’ve got no way to confirm this. Overall, it’s a perfectly competent framework to base the game on but you aren’t going to be returning to this for it’s dramatic chops. This is a gameplay experience first and foremost.
How much enjoyment you get out of Dark Forces 2: Jedi Knight will really boil down to two factors – How much you would enjoy a b-movie style Star Wars story and how much you can enjoy an older shooter trying to mix up the formula. If Star Wars is an incredibly serious melodramatic world in your mind, you’re likely not going to get on with the goofiness present here, but if you can appreciate that and pop it in the place in your mind that enjoys Predator or Universal Soldier, there is a lot to be happy with here.
It’s also a great example of everything that a sequel should be. It takes a fairly good doom clone with a Star Wars skin and not only expands on everything but also adds elements that make it feel like even more at home in that universe.
I feel like Disney could really learn a lot from this game when it comes to making future Star Wars games. Not only does it involve all new characters with nobody from any of the films turning up at any point but it’s not afraid to take chances with its formula and do something new. Almost every single game released under Disney has essentially mined the depths of nostalgia in order to draw people in, rather than trying to make enticing characters and stories that just happen to be set in this universe.
It’s really no coincidence that the most beloved games in the franchise’s history all stay well away from the films and take you to new and original locations. The old Battlefront games take you into areas of the wars that we never saw, Jedi Knight crafts a whole new tale of a hero becoming a Jedi and Knights of the Old Republic doesn’t even take place in the same millennium. With a boundless universe to use, why not go for broke and make something entirely new. From the looks of Respawn’s Star Wars Fallen Order, an original Star Wars tale not linked to any movie, it looks like the message might have finally sunk in.
Hopefully that’s the sort of experience we can expect from Star Wars going forwards and we can see the franchise return to it’s creative and imaginative roots. It would be fantastic to see new Star Wars games of all shapes and sizes – funny and serious, complex and simple, single player and multiplayer. Until that day we’ll simply just have to continue to support those parts of the franchise and hope the message lands.
(Unfortunately no credits shot for this one. Due the games instability it was very hard to take screenshots of! You’ll have to take my word for it!)