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April 2024

Star Wars: Dark Forces Remaster

Platform(s): Nintendo Switch, PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X
Genre: Action/Adventure
Developer: NightDive Studios
Release Date: Feb. 28, 2024


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PC Review - 'Star Wars: Dark Forces Remaster'

by Cody Medellin on Feb. 28, 2024 @ 5:00 a.m. PST

Star Wars: Dark Forces Remaster is a faithful remaster of the classic first-person shooter (FPS) originally released in 1995.

By the 1990s, there were still loads of Star Wars games being made despite the last movie at the time, "Return of the Jedi," leaving theaters and being available on home video for a few years. You had flight sims, rail shooters, and side-scrolling adventure games, and there was at least one Star Wars game on every platform. When Dark Forces hit the PC in 1995, it struck a chord with players because it wasn't just another shoot-'em-up. It's been almost 30 years since Dark Forces' initial release, and Nightdive Studios has decided to add some polish to a remastered version on all platforms.

You play the role of Kyle Katarn, a former Imperial officer who defected to the Rebellion as a mercenary. After a successful mission where the plans for the Death Star were stolen, Kyle and his partner Jan Ors are once again hired by Mon Mothma to investigate a rumor about a new Imperial weapon. After the destruction of a remote Rebellion base, the new weapon is discovered to be a new type of Stormtrooper called a Dark Trooper. Your mission is to verify the validity of these rumors and stop their production before General Rom Mohc ramps up production to crush the Rebellion.

The story is serviceable nowadays, but it was considered quite good when the game was initially released. The expanded Star Wars universe was starting to grow out at this point, and the focus away from the film's main cast wouldn't conflict with the film narrative, especially since this was supposed to be set between "A New Hope" and "The Empire Strikes Back." It helps that Kyle is something of a rogue similar to Han Solo, giving him some instant charm.

From a gameplay perspective, Dark Forces follows the blueprint that Doom made famous. After a small briefing before each level to provide some backstory and objectives, you're immediately thrown into the level with all of your previous guns. Your weapons are varied — including Star Wars-themed pistols, thermal detonator launchers, and machine guns — but each weapon has no reloading, so the action is fast, and the only reason to switch to fists is if you're needlessly depleting ammo, which is usually plentiful. Health and armor aren't regenerative, so you're relying on pick-ups to refill those items. Most of the progression relies on you finding keys to unlock the pathways for objectives, but there are a few instances where you need to hit switches to open passageways. In short, if you're familiar with the pacing of iD's classic, you'll know what to expect from Dark Forces' gameplay.

Based on that alone, the game works fine. The classic key-hunting formula of yesteryear is bolstered by some interesting switch puzzles that force you to thoroughly explore the environment just to make it through a stage, let alone find secret areas. The gunplay feels nice, as enemy behaviors and attack strategies make it distinct from its contemporaries. Since this is a title with older sensibilities, you can often get lost because there's no distinct marker to follow to the next objective, and the maps are sizable enough that you could easily overlook a path that turns out to be your exit. It isn't really a boomer shooter, as modern players would normally dub first-person shooters of a certain vintage, but it remains exciting enough for those who want a title with retro sensibilities without the need for constant gunfire.

At the time, Dark Forces differed from its contemporaries with its sense of verticality. Similar to what was seen by the likes of Duke Nukem 3D, the environments contain more than just single-story stages, with stairs and elevators and large pools of water giving you a sense of height. There are more than a few areas where you'll look at the stage from above. Instead of letting the game automatically guide your shots, the ability to manually target foes above or below you was a game-changer at the time. Verticality is normal in modern first-person shooters, but its inclusion in Dark Forces shows that it was much more than a simple Doom clone when it originally premiered.

When the game originally came out, the main complaints were its overall short length and the lack of multiplayer. Nowadays, those critiques have softened; relatively speaking, the game's overall length is quite good, and the lack of multiplayer means that time isn't wasted on a feature that few modern players will ever try. Where the modern version of the game falters is in its pre-mission screens. These sections were meant to be navigated with a mouse, and while that method works well, large overlays for menu selections will look very out of place for controller players, since they're too modern and plain for an otherwise retro-looking screen.

The core game is great, but there are two things that make this iteration a worthy remaster. There's the presence of extras, which so few remastered games include nowadays. You get a good amount of concept art, along with text blurbs to give each piece more context. You also get a few videos, and while some of those are concepts for levels, there are a few that show off the human actions before the rotoscoping process. Fans of the PS2 era of games where DVD-like extras were abundant might not be that impressed, but as stated before, having extras in a remaster like this is far more welcome than having none at all.

The second element that makes this better for a modern audience is the controls. When using a gamepad, Dark Forces controls exactly as expected, and it has a weapon wheel to quickly switch between weapons. The gamepad controls are always welcome, as the original DOS incarnation never had them, and those playing their PC on a TV or those who aren't comfortable with a keyboard and mouse will appreciate the option. However, the keyboard and mouse players will greatly benefit from this remastered version. Keep in mind that this game was made when first-person shooters were controlled almost exclusively with a keyboard, and while the Steam version has mouse controls and a modern layout, the mouse movement is rather slow, so the game feels sluggish. That has been corrected, so the game now feels very responsive.

If you're familiar with Nightdive's previous works, then you know exactly how far its remastering process goes. The graphics are cleaned up, and while the pixels are still present, the environments look cleaner, and the characters sport more recognizable details than before. They still contain the same animations, so while some things look stilted, it gives the game a modern retro charm that falls in line with the rest of the developer's lineup. The good news is that the cut scenes have received an upgrade in quality as well, and the presence of more pixels means the characters have a clean, old graphic novel look. As far as sound goes, Dark Forces still retains the original audio, but it is cleaned up, like the graphics. The sounds and voices are clearer than before, while the MIDI soundtrack remains awesome. For retro enthusiasts, it sounds just as good as you may remember it.

Steam Deck users will find that the game works well on the system but with some unexpected results. While the opening credit movies default to 1280x720, the game and subsequent cut scenes all run at the device's native 1280x800. Like previous retro games from Nightdive, this title has no problems hitting and staying at 60fps. Those are nice, but there are two negatives. The game doesn't support cloud saves, so those who bounce between a main PC and Steam Deck will essentially start up two different campaigns. The other negative is the battery life, which averages three-and-a-half hours on a full charge on the LCD model. It makes sense, considering that the Kex Engine is modern tech, but it feels odd that a retro title didn't eke out more battery life.

After almost 30 years, Star Wars: Dark Forces Remaster still holds up. The story is fine, with a general Star Wars vibe and overall clean presentation. The level design and action are good, and the objectives remain novel when compared to its contemporaries. Compared to later games in the series, Dark Forces Remaster is simpler and more enjoyable. Those looking to return to the game with this version will be pleased.

Score: 8.5/10

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