Star Wars Jedi Knight: Dark Forces II, The Bridge Between Quake and Half-Life

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Unlike <other DOS/Windows 9x game reminiscence articles that I have penned in the past>, where I had previously beaten the entire game at least multiple times in the past and then replayed it in its entirety prior to writing to jog my memory, Jedi Knight: Dark Forces II was a game that I have never finished for reasons that I will outline. Although I do plan to finish it (and the original Dark Forces game) in the near future (and indeed need to, given how important it is for my protracted detailed research on the history of the first-person shooter genre), I wanted to write this up before my many memories of it get distorted any further through finally exploring what the rest of the game has to offer.

For those unaware, Star Wars Jedi Knight: Dark Forces II is a revolutionary 1997 first-person shooter for Windows 95 and one of the first fully three-dimensional FPS games to arrive following Descent and Quake. It is the second installment in the (increasingly convolutingly named) <Jedi Knight series>, which laughs maniacally at the idea of naming sequels in a remotely consistent manner.

I first played Star Wars Jedi Knight: Dark Forces II some time in the late 90s after my cousin gifted me the CDs on my birthday. Even without the box, manual, and whatever else to fawn over, I was immediately struck by the fact that the game was evidently large enough to warrant a second CD to store all of its data. To me at least, this was completely unheard of at the time. Circumstances had dictated that almost all of the games in my little world were early 90s DOS games, most of which could reliably fit on a single floppy disc, let alone a CD.

For reference to anyone who is unaware, a CD holds 650 megabytes of data, and a floppy disc holds 1.44 megabytes. Anybody who has played more modern games knows that is quite paltry by today's standards, but back in the old days, even the latter was more than enough to hold a high-quality game that one could spend countless enjoyable hours in. A case in point being the Commander Keen 4 floppy that I had back in the day, which housed what I still believe to be one of the greatest games of all time, but that's a story for another article. (:

I did not have to get very far into Dark Forces II to comprehend the reason behind its exorbitant size. As soon as the game loaded, I was treated to a <prolonged live-action cutscene> that helped establish the lay of the land, featuring a trademark Star Wars "opening crawl" explaining what has transpired since the previous Dark Forces game, before switching to a CGI-heavy bit of footage introducing the main villain, Jerec, and his band of goofy underlings by having them interrogate and execute Qu Rahn, a wise Jedi Master and friend of the protagonist's father whose spirit later resurfaces to guide him on his journey.

The acting in the cutscenes is apparently considered quite abysmal, something that my rose-tinted glasses apparently thoroughly prevent me from seeing, and the personalities of the characters aren't exactly anything to write home about, but all this is beside the point. Dark Forces II is a game where the object is to gun or lightsabre your opponents down, not engage them in philosophical debates, and for a child, at the time, the cutscenes were astonishing works of art.

However poor they may actually be, the quality of the cutscenes was enough to not only instantly enthrall me, but enough for me to go into the Cutscenes menu in the game and rewatch the few that I had unlocked dozens of times throughout the time I played the game. I vividly recall wondering how I of all people was supposed to eventually take down Jerec based on how intimidating he seemed in the opening cutscene. He is a mastermind who effortlessly cut down a Jedi Master, while I am an incompetent buffoon who can't even shoot straight or make a jump without falling to my death! "By obtaining a lightsabre and a steady slew of Force powers" is the eventual answer to that question, apparently.

Another thing I appreciated about the cutscenes is that while the 1997 era graphics of Dark Forces II admittedly pale in comparison to Star Wars CGI, a lot of attention to detail has been devoted to making locations that show up in both the cutscenes and the game look as similiar as possible. And from what I have seen, cutscenes do often end in the same location the next level begins and immediately after the scripted action ends. It also seems the developers made an effort to leave any events that can best be left as part of the game, such as watching the ship piloted by Kyle's partner-in-crime and pilot friend Jan Ors' take off at the start of the second level, to stay as part of the game that the player can witness while having control of their character, and not a static cutscene.

I should add a side-note here that, regardless of the talents of the actresses/actors in the cutscenes, the alternative would be incomparably worse. As impressive as the game's graphics were for 1997, hardware limitations at the time dictated that the polygon count in models, much like in Quake, was somewhere in the low hundreds. This was perhaps just enough to render the abstract eldritch horrors of Quake well, but is wholly insufficient to render humans and humanoids in even a vaguely pleasant or convincing manner.

One of the biggest strengths of Dark Forces II is how well it gives the illusion of the game truly being one vast, "lived-in" world (<screenshot>), of which your characters happens to be visiting small sections of as needed for the mission at-hand. Unlike the vast majority of first-person shooter games that had been released at the time (the few exceptions being largely Build engine legends like Duke Nukem 3D, Blood, and Shadow Warrior), Dark Forces II does not consists of abstract labyrinths seemingly brought into existence for the purpose of a mysterious protagonist gunning down demons, eldritch abominations, aliens, mutants, Nazis, and <giant smiley faces>

Instead, one finds themselves fighting through vertical alien cities, marketplaces full of alarmed civilians, futuristic bases, networks of irrigation channels, and so on. All masterfully crafted to give the feeling of simply being small parts of a much wider world.

In case my fawning praise makes it sound otherwise, the aforementioned abstract murder labyrinths are a trope that I will love with all of my heart for as long as I live, but I also deeply appreciate realistic levels, when said realism does not come at the consequence of sapping the fun out of the game! I am a cat who is just as at-home in realistic FPS worlds like Dark Forces II and DUSK as I am in the endless orthogonal corridors of Blake Stone and the abstract labyrinths and outposts of <Doom>.

The very first two rooms of the first level are an excellent enough example of this to be worth mentioning in detail. Meant to be a bar, the area is complete with animated neon signs (<screenshot>), a patron, a grumpy bartender who recognises you as an alleged troublemaker and orders you to leave (<screenshot>), drinks on the counter and one of the tables, inviting music playing from the speakers, and a gorgeous view of Nar-Shaddaa from two sloped and clouded windows.

Even more interestingly, much of the second half of the second level involves you frantically attempting to reach the top of the city by manipulating and navigating its vast shipping system. Operating simplistic machinery, strategically leaping on top of shipping crates moving up elevators and down conveyor belts, and scurrying through piles of giant crates like a mouse (<screenshot>) (<screenshot>) (<screenshot>) (<screenshot>), in sequences that feel oddly prescient of Half-Life, which would arrive around a year later.

The two vistas that stick out for me above all else are two ships that one can spot on the first level of the game. One is absolutely colossal and is seen floating in the air motionlessly. (<screenshot>) Its sheer bulk coupled with its relative proximity to the player had me genuinely fooled into thinking it was an area I could theoretically reach and explore, and I died many times attempting to hop on top of it from a nearby elevator, a jump that is not actually possible to pull off but looks as if it might be.

The second ship is a far smaller one that can be spotted taking off and flying off into outer space. (<screenshot>) (<screenshot>) Although perhaps nothing noteworthy by today's game standards (and admittedly, the way the ship disappears off-screen is quite janky, to say the least), it was a spectacle that awed me enough that I had to actually stop playing for a moment and process what I just witnessed. Beyond how technically impressive it was, it also did oodles towards making the entire world feel more vast and alive to me, hinting at exciting unknown distant locales and events.

On a humourous note, while I did not know this prior to actually making some attempts at it recently, it turns out that it's actually possible to get on top of the departing ship in level 1 (something one should save before trying, as it takes a number of attempts to get the timing just right) (<screenshot>), as well as to leap on top of Jan Ors' ship at the start of level 2 as it takes off. Both stunts, of course, end in certain death as you wind up plummeting to your death after the ship disappears, or even crushed to death between the ship and the sky "ceiling".

As mentioned earlier, Dark Forces II was one of the first truly 3D games to come out following Descent and Quake, and it is quite obvious that the developers were quite proud of this achievement and wanted to make use of it as much as possible. The sheer amount of verticality in this game (<screenshot>) (<screenshot>) (<screenshot>), quite prominent in the second level especially, is something that I feel most FPS games that came after it could learn a lot from. Admittedly, the jumping mechanic in the game is not as good as in some other games (more on this soon), but I'll take the chasm madness of Nar-Shaddaa over the insipid flat corridors of modern FPS games like Doom3 and Halo any day of the week.

This is certainly not how the game was supposed to be played, but for whatever reason, I was not able to get the background music in Dark Forces II to work at all when I played it as a child, and indeed genuinely had no idea the game even had any until I tried the game again this year and was shocked to hear Star Wars music playing when I begun the first level.

It may simply be a stubborn preference for what I am used to, but I quickly came to the conclusion that playing with the music disabled was far more desirable as it allowed me to more clearly hear the various ambient sounds throughout the game and thus become more immersed in the world.

I've found that while I can tolerate it on levels I have only just now managed to get to (although I still prefer them without music), the two Nar-Shaddaa levels that I know so well most just sound and feel infinitely better to me with no music playing. The background sounds consisting of the treacherous howl of the bottomless abyss beneath every catwalk, the enigmatic sounds of unseen ships flying around distant parts of Nar-Shaddaa, the hum of computers, and of course, the friendly tune perpetually playing in the bar at the start of level 1 all come together to add a level of immersion that still feels impressive to me even to this very day.

Dark Forces II is not without its flaws, and one that particulary vexed me was the uncanny way that movement seems to work in the game, something I still have not entirely wrapped my brain around enough to describe the exact problem. Although it is not nearly pronounced enough that I would call it debilitating, there is something noticeably "off" about movement that takes at least a bit of time to get used to. It is especially evident whenever attempting delicate movements such as precise jumps, something that is often crucial in the first two levels, especially if one is interested in obtaining all the secrets.

Being <autistic>, <dyspraxia> caused me much difficulty during my childhood even with much more simple and intuitive games such as <Raptor>. In Dark Forces II, it became one of the major factors behhind me never progressing beyond the second level of the game despite obsessively spending months on it. While I am mostly able to work around the game's quirks now, back then every single jump I would try to make was essentially a game of Russian roulette if there was a chance at falling into one of the countless bottomless pits that pervade Nar-Shaddaa. (<screenshot>) On a side-note, I know this is a Star Wars staple, but what sort of civilisation can build a ecumenopolis on a moon yet fail to invent handrails?!

The odd movement mechanics were not the only things causing me grief in Dark Forces II. As with other FPS games that I played at the time, using the proper controls was also well beyond me. <Doom> was punishing enough for me to due to my ignorance of the reason for strafing and subsequent refusal to ever use it, but Dark Forces II took my incompetence to an entirely new level due to the increased need for using the mouse alongside the keyboard, stemming from the game's fully 3D nature and reliance on full up-and-down freelook.

Without a mouse, the only way to look up and down is to using the "page up" and "page down" on the keyboard for "look up" and "look down", respectively, which is obviously painfully sluggish and inaccurate compared to simply moving the mouse. Thankfully, the developers were kind and prescient enough to anticipate and accommodate hopeless nincompoops like myself and implemented auto-aim similiar to that of Doom's, which lessened the need to aim vertically and allowed me to progress even while I bumbled through the game by pecking away at the keyboard for freelook.

Dying constantly due to incompetence was significantly more annoying than it should have been to me due to the long waits to get back in the game afterward. while this is not evident if you are running the game on an even remotely modern computer, the level loading times for this game could be utterly brutal back in the day, at least on the Compaq Presario 5461 I ran the game on, owing to their vast size, fully 3D nature, and lack of any modern intra-level loading screens. Patient as I tried to be, it became quite grating eventually to have to sit in purgatory every time I bungled a jump I had no earthly idea how to properly execute.

The flipside of the ultra-fast load times that more powerful computers provide for Dark Forces II is that the loading screens blink by far too quickly to be able to read the synopsis telling you what your objective for the next level is. However, these are usually rather intuitive, can be inferred from the cutscenes or looked up in the "Objectives" menu while pausing the game, and are usually things that you accomplish one way or another by simply plodding on further into the level.

Amusingly, the endless replaying of the first part of the game essentially cemented the layout of that part of the game into my brain to such a degree that after I picked the game up for the first time in over a decade prior to writing this, I found that I still remembered the entirety of the first level and the first quarter of the second level as perfectly as ever, right down to the secret areas. Lamentably, despite having seen several of the Star Wars movies on television and watching Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace in a movie theatre with my mother when it came out, my memory of the actual cinematic portion of the franchise which it is best known for, is now bordering on nonexistent.

As far as I can remember, much of the reason I never progressed past the second level in particular was the nigh-impossibility of any meaningful backtracking. While the first level is perfectly traversable from start to finish (minus one side-room that gets locked away after pressing a necessary switch), the second has a tiresome habit of constantly locking you out of any areas you previously visited via jumps down holes that are too deep to climb out of. (<screenshot>)

I found a lot of enjoyment (and safety!) in repeatedly revisiting locales from earlier in the first level, and relished the ability to spelunk for secret areas on my own time instead of having to make absolutely sure I had uncovered every possible secret before venturing further. From what I have played recently, this seems to be a phenomenon that unfortunately recurs on-and-off in the game. The level taking place in the irrigation channels is especially obnoxious with how often it permanently cuts you off from the previous areas of the levle.

The NPCs in this game are also something that, while adding a fine layer of realism and atmosphere, are also primitive to the point where even my easily-impressed child self quickly became disillusioned and started killing them for the lulz. I, in fact, suspect that their main reason for existence is purely for the player to kill them in order to provide a reason for why the player switches to the dark side later in the game, if they choose to pursue this route.

While I must give the game a lot of credit for adding female and robotic NPCs (<screenshot>), none of them seem to do anything beyond uttering a few stock phrases (e.g., "I know nothing", "what's happening?", "leave me alone" if they're human, or beeps/alien gibberish if they're robots) if they are bumped and running away if they are attacked, barring a few scripted cases, such as a woman screaming a warning at you regarding a nearby enemy in level 2.

Friendly NPCs weren't common in FPS games at the time, but they weren't brand new, and Dark Forces II's implementation was not impressive even for the time. 1996's Strife allowed conversing and trading with NPCs, and even 1993's Blake Stone, which I had played prior to Dark Forces II had NPCs that would give you items, occasionally offer a bit of advice on certain levels, and who could also turn out to be enemies waiting for you start a conversation to suddenly attack you.

If you are interested in trying the game out for yourself, be forewarned that it is now over a quarter century old and time has not been exactly kind to it. If you are lucky enough to still use Windows XP (or earlier!) on at least one computer, you should not have many, if any, problems, but anything beyond that can be perilous. I was able to get the game running on Windows 8.1 (yes I've been too lazy to build a new computer and switch over to Linux, still!) after buying it on GOG, but I did need to use <dgVoodoo2> in order to get 3D acceleration working and thus play the game at my monitor's native resolution of 1600x1200 instead of 640x480.

Although I am not yet able to personally comment on the situation on the Linux side, the game appears playable based on <the anecdotes on ProtonDB>, albeit with some tweaks required for some players.

Aside from briefly revisiting the game some time in the late 2000s after downloading it out of fleeting nostalgia, I moved on from Dark Forces II in the early 2000s due to no longer having the CDs, and because I fell in love with more modern and technologically impressive games like Half-Life, Doom3 (a love affair that quickly collapsed after I actually got a chance to play it), and <S.T.A.L.K.E.R.>.

I also never had the opportunity to try out the multiplayer parts of Dark Forces II but I did fiddle around with the character "creator" enough to remember it pretty well, largely out of curiousity, and it is something that I am hoping I will be able to play with someone one of these days. Most fascinating to me was the ability to customise the colour of the lightsabre your character wields, as well as to play as some of the enemies and bosses you encounter in the game, the latter of which provided me a way to finally see what sort of opposition I would be encountering if I could only progress past the second stage of the game. (<screenshot>)

Dark Forces II is not the last game in the (again, very confusingly named) Jedi Knight series, although it is the last one that I currently have an interest in playing, given that the next two games (the last two in the series) are built on modified versions of id Software's id Tech 3 engine, the engine used for id's Quake III, as opposed to original and unique engines like their predecessors. As such, they are automatically far less fascinating for me.

From the levels that I have played, both of the original Dark Forces games are still well worth playing, even if you are not a naïve child that has never witnessed a game more technologically impressive than Doom before. Dated as the game may be, it is still quite easy is to get gleefully lost in this game due to its riveting old school FPS gameplay and the sublime and ever-evolving vistas that it plays out on.

Amusingly, despite all the time that has gone by, I find myself almost as impressed by Dark Forces II now as I was as a child, after having obtained a proper historical context for its existence. What started off as a series inspired by the quite (comparatively) primitive Wolfenstein 3D, and later by <early Star Wars-themed total conversions for Doom>, has, in the span of its first two games, evolved into a monster that arguably surpassed anything else out at the time and, in a number of ways, paved the way for the even more awe-inspiring behemoth, Half-Life, that would follow a year later.

The original Dark Forces game is certainly no slouch, being a titan by 1995 standards that pioneered many of the advancements of the legendary Build engine a year prior to Duke Nukem 3D's release, but despite all of its splendour, it still comes off as a very sophisticated Doom-era first-person shooter. Something one would perhaps expect from a revolutionary 2000s era Star Wars WAD for Doom's massively extended source port <ZDoom>, which is perhaps not surprising given its inspiration.

The original is certainly a fun game from what I have had the pleasure of experiencing so far, and something I plan to play all the way through as well. However, for me, I will always hold very fond memories of Dark Forces II as the first game that truly transcended the already monumental era of Doom and allowed me to feel like I was playing not a game, but an actual movie.

A great many thanks to <Mr. Alec Lownes> for providing <the CSS behind the CRT effects> in this section, and to <Mr. Zeh Fernando> and <LÆMEUR> for the <More Perfect DOS VGA> font!!

Thank you for taking the time to read this article! If you have any feedback at all, please feel free to leave a comment in my Guestbook and/or stop by my IRC network at, main channel # and let me know what you think. It always means a lot to me. (: