Original Release: 1997, Platform: PC, Developer/Publisher: LucasArts, Image Source: GOG, Thanks to GOG for providing our review copy.
Back when I was a kid my Mom and Dad, every month or so, would pack us up in the car and drive to my grandmother’s house in Hemmingford, Quebec. The visits were always pleasant (my Gran can bake one hell of an apple pie), but my favorite part was when she’d inevitably give me a five dollar bill and I’d get to walk up the street to a nearby convenience store to buy a comic book or a magazine.
The only magazines I usually ignored were the PC gaming ones. While I had a PC before I was ten, it wasn’t anywhere powerful enough to play the cutting edge games featured in these magazines. Reading about them, in turn, seemed like little more than a tease. Even so, there were a few times where my inquisitiveness would get the best of me and I’d buy one any ways. One such occasion came back in the mid-90s when I spotted a cover plastered with lightsabers. Already a bit of a Star Wars geek, I decided to indulge my curiosity and got my first glimpse of Jedi Knight: Dark Forces II. It looked awesome and I immediately found myself envious of all those PC gamers with rigs powerful enough to run games made after 1990.
Five or six years later I found myself digging through the bargain bin of a big box retailer in Ontario. My Dad had bought a newer PC about six months before and I was searching for older games that its modest hardware specs could handle. By chance I happened upon a copy of Dark Forces II, on sale for seven dollars. Remembering how cool it looked in that old magazine, I eagerly brought it home to see if it lived up to the hype of my memories.
The answer, of course, was no. As has been the case with plenty of other games in my life, I found myself a bit let down by my expectations. It wasn’t bad, by any means, but it also wasn’t the end all be all my frequently over-enthusiastic psyche likes to imagine games to be. That being the case, when the news hit that GOG was adding Jedi Knight: Dark Forces II to its DRM-free catalog, I decided that it could be fun to revisit it and see if playing with more realistic expectations might result in my being more impressed.
To an extent I was, though in places I hadn’t been expecting. More specifically, Dark Force II just feels like a really genuine Star Wars product. The looks, the audio, the music; in many cases they’ve been pulled straight from the films. The whole thing, in turn, feels like an incredibly genuine offshoot of the original trilogy, more so even than other Star Wars games I actually like more. The game’s use of John Williams actual score, for instance, just gives the game this aura of authenticity frequently missing from some of my other favorites like Rogue Squadron or Knights of the Old Republic which are often limited to someone imitating the original soundtrack.The story too, was really enjoyable for me. Following the rogue-ish Kyle Katarn, it centers on his quest to track down his father’s killers. This, of course, spirals out into a quest to master the Force and stop a Sith plot to capture a mythical Jedi ruin filled and the power that resides within. An unlikely hero tapping into hidden strengths to defeat (or command) agents of the dark side? It’s quintessential Star Wars. Granted, most of the plot plays out through B-movie quality live-action cutscenes (that ironically feature better performances than the prequels), but the narrative still works really well. Kyle Katarn is a likable protagonist, the villains never get too cartoonish and the overall story is engaging enough that you’ll want to see how it ends.
In fact, you’ll probably want to see it twice. The game famously features multiple endings depending on whether or not you steer Mr. Katarn toward the light or dark side of the Force. The execution of this idea was, surprisingly, one of the things that I felt a bit mixed on. On the one hand, I really liked how the morality of your playthrough is determined by in-game actions as opposed to “pick a choice” moments a la KOTOR. Even liking that however, I found myself constantly wishing that your decisions were a bit more complex. As much work as the morality system of something like Ultima IV can be, I still love the idea of actually forcing the player to earn their status as a good person by forcing them to do inconvenient things. In Dark Forces II, you pretty much just have to avoid killing civilians to get the good ending.
My issues with the game’s choice mechanic however, pale in comparison some of the problems I have with the game itself. Now, I should state that I actually think this a really solid video game. Even in its most frustrating moments its still fun, and when it hits stride it’s a full-on juggernaut of entertainment. Slicing through Stormtroopers with your lightsaber is endlessly satisfying and I truly can’t do justice to how bad-ass you feel when you reach that point where you can walk into a room and use your Force powers to simply flatten your resistance.
The problem is that it takes some considerable time before you reach that point of Force-powered perfection. The opening hours of the game are basically just a run-of-the-mill first person shooter wrapped in Star Wars aesthetics. You start a level, shoot some enemies, find some keys and then maybe solve a puzzle or two on your way to the exit. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. There are a lot of shooters that do great things with this formula. The thing is, I can’t say that I really like Dark Forces II when it’s just a straight-up FPS. The shooting itself is nothing special and, while I usually love a well-crafted linear game, there’s something about the puzzles and level design in this one that just kind of grated on me. They struck me as being needlessly obscure, as if the developers decided the best way to challenge players was forcing them to track down easily missed buttons, items and keys. I don’t mind having to work for progress, but I waslo abhor wasting my time because a game feels like it needs me to explore every nook and cranny of a level before things can get fun again.
Moreover, even after you get your hands on a lightsaber, it takes some time before you’re really empowered enough to enjoy your status as a budding Jedi. To the game’s credit, you’re given an impressive amount of control over powers you choose to learn. You are eventually forced in one direction based on your moral alignment, but even then you can opt to invest in-game points in certain abilities over others. It can also be a bit conservative however, when it comes to the powers it gives you access to. To be fair, it makes narrative sense that a freshly emerging Force user wouldn’t immediately be able to zap people with lightning from their fingertips. That said, I can think of so many moments in the earlier parts of the game that would have been more fun if I’d had a wider range of abilities at my disposal.
There are some other nitpicky things I disliked. While I loved using the lightsaber, I was not a fan of its slow and, honestly, limited attack arc. I don’t need to be a whirlwind of violence, but there also shouldn’t be a solid two to three second delay between saber swings. Bottom line, it feels kind of clumsy and unrefined. The GOG version I was playing also suffered from fairly persistent technical problems. This is one of those games where saving frequently is an absolute necessity. Saving and loading however, was persistently risky and often resulted in annoying crashes. As much as it frustrated me though, I feel like I can’t really complain too much. Other digital versions of Dark Forces II, to my understanding, are not nearly as optimized for modern machines as GOG’s. It should also be said that I was also playing the game on Windows 8, something that the retailer itself doesn’t recommend.Whatever flaws I found in Jedi Knight: Dark Forces II however, they really do have to be placed in the context of its greater and ultimately satisfying whole. Has it aged negatively in the years since its released? To an extent I’d say yes. The game isn’t perfect and there are elements of it that time hasn’t been kind to. It’s still a ton of fun though, and when the credits started rolling my only thought was how much I wanted to bust out my copy of Jedi Knight II (also found in a bargain bin!) and see how LucasArts used the sequel to polish off some of the rough edges of the original. I’ll be sure to let you know when I actually get around to that.
Next week we’ll be closing off our second round of Star Wars reviews with a look at ten games that we think might benefit from a Star Wars makeover.