I remember being an avid reader of both PC Gamer and PC Zone back in the mid-90s, but it was a demo disc from the former back in 1995 that introduced me first to Kyle Katarn. Before BioWare had taken historical flights of fancy back in time and dug up Sith tales of Revan and Malak to show people how to do it, before a shaven-headed pouting teen had been tutored and cloned by Mr. Vader, LucasArts used to make good Star Wars games. No, really.
And this was one of them.
It was something of a golden age for a fledgling genre known as the first person shooter. id Software's excellent double whammy of Wolfenstein (1992) and Doom (1993) gave rise to an enromous wave of copycats, most of which did nothing to advance the formula. But there were a few who stepped away from cloned mediocrity and basic key-hunting to actually further the genre.
Marathon, as Jon noted a couple of weeks back, was one such game. Bungie's pioneering FPS was the first game to use free-look but, being a Mac-only title, it's impact was rather ignored by the PC crowd. We didn't really get proper mouselook until Terminator: Future Shock, although Ultima Underworld and System Shock gave it a damn good shot. Dark Forces, however, did stand slightly apart from the regular Doom clones in that you were able to look up and down, the 3D aiming was somewhat improved, you could crouch and swim and the level design and puzzle-platforming elements were deeper than simply running around and fetching keys. The original idea was actually to create a 3D adventure game title (LucasArts were having particular success in that department), and so the idea was to try and introduce more puzzle elements, switches, vertical level design and platforming opportunities and it's clear to see even to this day that there's a big difference in how Dark Forces plays compared to the combat-focused action of id's trendsetter.
Technically, too, Dark Forces stood. out. The detail and texturing is pretty impressive when compared to its PC contemporaries. It doesn't hold up too well today, mind, and even back then it didn't really blow people away visually, with the game still running in VGA when several competitors had made the step up to Super VGA already. However, there were things that the developers wanted to do with the game - such as incorporating multiple floors into levels and rendering fog, haze and more detailed texturing - that existing game engines couldn't satisfy, so the game's engine (named 'Jedi', what else?!) was built from scratch in-house at LucasArts. You don't often hear the words 'in-house' and 'LucasArts' these days, and more's the pity. If I sound bitter, it's because I am.
One can't really ignore the licensed nature of the game either. It was certainly to Dark Forces's advantage that, in the Star Wars universe, it had a lot of cultural capital to play with. I remember just being thrilled by the simple fact of blasting my way through hordes of Stormtroopers while John Williams' fantastic music came blaring out of my speakers. The sound design on the game was fantastic. You'd expect it to be now, but back then, hearing Imperial officers mutter 'You rebel scum!' as a mouse droid squeaked in fear and scurried off while a Williams' directed brass section made the hairs on the back on your neck stand up...it was excellent stuff.
The combat is a bit clunky, certainly. The half-hearted attempts at mouselook have not held up terribly well, and it's understandable how many players reacted unfavourably to the input layout and control system. The game wasn't exactly easy, either, although the difficulty curve was nice and gentle, and there were three difficulty settings, add the insta-fail platforming elements in there as well, and some bits of the game could get a bit frustrating. But there was a certain satisfaction in beating it and, at a time when only rich people even knew what a Mac was, we thought it was pretty advanced. The weapons were satisfying too. The Stormtropper Laser Rifle was pretty much the standard armament of choice, but whipping out the Stouker Concussion Rifle or the quad-chamber Jeron Fusion Cutter always brought a smile to the face.
Plotwise, the game kicked off with Kyle Katarn, an irascible Imperial Stormtrooper-turned-Rebel agent, nipping onboard the Death Star to steal the schematics, but a larger plot began to unfold as the Rebels learned of the Empire plans for a Dark Trooper initiative after an Imperial attack on one of there bases, an attack that Katarn is sent to investigate. From there it's off to garbage facilities to fend of dianoga, hunting down weapons specialists, duelling with Boba Fett, saying hi to Jabba,rescuing another Imperial turncoat - Crix Madine - from a detention facility, and eventually sneaking onboard Darth Vader's Super Star Destroyer, the Executor, to chase down the headquarters of the Dark Trooper project and the man behind it all. The plot was outstanding, the character of Katarn so compelling that the developers gave him his own series.
Dark Forces' legacy is perhaps the game's most impressive achievement. The Jedi Knight series silenced clamouring fans by giving them the lightsaber that they wanted, eventually (with Jedi Outcast) switching to a 3rd person perspective to allow for better focus on the Jedi aspects of the gameplay as Katarn's Force powers developed. Although the series would depart from Dark Forces' first person outlook, the balance between action, puzzles, platforming and exploratory adventuring would remain.
It's still well worth checking out, although probably not on the Playstation. Dark Forces was too short and committed the cardinal sin of going into battle against Doom without any additional multiplayer components, but it was also a cracking little game. You don't need to play it to enjoy the rest of the Jedi Knight series, but it's a damn fine place to start.