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Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic

Developer: Bioware
Publisher: LucasArts
Genre: Role-Playing Game
Players: 1
Similar To: Baldur's Gate
Rating: Teen
Published: 08 :06 : 03
Reviewed By: Matt Hart

Overall: 9 = Must Buy


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From the first announcement, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic promised to be one of the finest games ever made; it is. Computer RPG-producing legends BioWare were given free reign over the much-coveted Star Wars license and look what happened--an amazing experience worthy of a spot in any gamer's library.

Gameplay: 9.5/10
BioWare has built its good name by making Dungeons and Dragons games. These games, from Baldur's Gate to Neverwinter Nights, have all been very successful due to BioWare's methods: use a pre-existing universe and game ruleset (previously, it has been Dungeons and Dragons) and then tell a story using a fully-created and graphically represented universe brought to life by talented engineers and a compelling, well-crafted story. And while KOTOR doesn't exactly break new ground by straying from this formula, it does feature a unique battle system, multiple playable characters introduced across 7 unique worlds, ethical dilemmas, several languages, spoken dialogue, customizable characters and classes, a story worthy of its own Expanded Universe book trilogy, and an overall experience that can best be summed up by the word, "Wow!"

Set thousands of years before any of the movies, the story offered by KOTOR is both unique and refreshing in wake of the recent movies (enough said). It features the side of good--the Old Republic, years after the Sith Wars where the Republic succeeded in driving back the Sith forces--the side of evil. However, recent years have seen a new resurgence of Sith strength, calling for a new battle that you, as your player character, play a major role in. Most of the Star Wars iconic races appear--Rodians, Ithorians, Wookies, Twi'leks, Jawas, and Tusken Raiders are all featured prominently with even their native languages intact.

Starting from the load screen, players must first create a character. All D&D veterans know the importance of this step, as a poorly designed character will rarely be fun to play, neither in the beginning, nor in the ultimately frustrating end. The standard 6 attribute system based on Strength, Dexterity, Intelligence, Wisdom, Constitution, and Charisma lays the ground work for all characters. However, newbies to this system (and I'm sure there will be many) can leave the guess work to the nerds, as KOTOR has thought to utilize a "Recommended" system to make these touchy decisions automatically--choosing the skills and allotting the points to make a generic character fun and playable without the rough choices of upgrading Critical Strike or Power Strike. Once points have been distributed, it's up to the player to decide if the player character should be male or female (with coordinating face--15 for male, 15 for female), what of 3 classes (Scout (Rogue), Scoundrel (Ranger), Soldier (Warrior)) to play as, and what starting skills and feats to choose (once again, there is a Recommended option). That done, the game wastes no time in introducing the storyline via the patented Star Wars text sprawl and opening cutscene that will have more than one player happily reminiscing about a certain Star Destroyer bearing down upon a certain Corellian Corvette. ("If this is a consulate ship, where is the ambassador?")

After the initial cutscene, players are thrust into the action. The initial level serves two purposes: to introduce the story, and to serve as a tutorial as players learn about the game system through some introductory combat sequences and on-screen explanations a la Halo. Overall, this opening sequence is very well executed--a break from the training-room tutorials that seem to dominate games these days.

Combat in KOTOR is very, very unique. Everything at it's simplest in KOTOR is based on the accompanying table-top dice system that all modern RPG systems (and the Star Wars table top game in particular) are based on. So behind the lightsaber swings and blaster bolts is a simple dice roll that decides what attacks will hit and what attacks will miss. Dice rolls are based on turns in which each character has an opportunity to attack. KOTOR takes boring dice rolls and game theory, and turns it into a dynamic, seemingly real-time battle of attacks, parries, deflections, and nimble dodges. Players can also choose to pause the game on a per-turn basis to queue up special attacks and skills for the upcoming rounds, or allow the game to progress in real-time and queue up the moves in the midst of the action. The game also features an auto-pause feature, that, get this, automatically pauses the game upon first sight of an enemy, allowing the player to calculate a situation before blindly leaping into the fray. Add to this the ability to switch between your other party members on-the-fly, and tactical strategy game lovers will also find a home in this title as they queue up attacks among three party members and watch the bad guys drop in a flurry of thermal detonators, blaster bolts, and lightsaber strikes--amazing.

Player progression is based on the standard gain-experience-to-level-up formula. New levels open up new opportunities and skills which allow your character to whomp down baddies with an evermore graceful amount of ease. Eventually, the story will lead your character to the Jedi Academy, where the game really picks up as the ways of the Jedi are taught and your character is introduced to the true center of the game. Without giving out much in the way of spoilers, all-things-Jedi are handled with care, right down to choosing the color of your lightsaber. Force powers and combat are meant to appear much like the battles of Episode 1 and 2--fast and deadly duels among warriors with access to higher powers. Lightsaber duels feature many flashy moves, as two Jedis spin, slash, and parry in a very cool display that is sure to please all Star Wars fans alike. Even force powers such as lightsaber throw, force speed, and even choke are displayed on-screen to movie emulating precision. Believe you me, choking an enemy before dealing them a critical lightsaber strike has never been more dastardly fulfilling. But not nearly fulfilling as the sight of a dual-wielding Jedi force jump into the midst of a fray, and three swipes later, come out unharmed--like a true Jedi badass. Additionally, all those Star Wars fans with dreams of a Darth Maul like lightsaber set-up can have their dreams realized, as KOTOR accommodates both dual-bladed and dual-weilded lightsaber configurations.

Party management is handled via your ship--the Ebon Hawk. Part Millennium Falcon, part stolen booty, the Ebon Hawk houses all playable party members, as well as vicious turrets, a workshop for upgrading weapons, and several side-quests centered around the ship. It also serves as a party member forum where conversations among party members can be fleshed out.

On top of this is seven available, explorable worlds. From the Wookie world of Kashyyyk to the series-staple desert planet of Tatooine. Each planet is recreated with painstaking detail. However, exploration is limited to the major spaceport (town) of that planet and the surrounding regions. There will be no bullseyeing of whomp rats, only testing the patience of the denizens of the local Anchorhead cantina. But the detail with which these regions were created leaves little to be desired. There is plenty of desert to explore in Tatooine same as the underwater regions of Manaan can. All in all, it is very fulfilling, and by the time everything on a planet has been accomplished, you will be ready to leave it. All in all, planetary exploration feels very balanced and refined.

Another important part of KOTOR is the affinity to either the light or dark side of the force. As game progression continues, characters must choose how to accomplish quests and complete objectives. BioWare has been very faithful to include options for all sides. Decide to beat orphans and steal their money and you will be rewarded with Dark Side Points. Pet the orphans and feed them and Light Side Points will be dealt accordingly. Depending on which side of the force you decide to play on will not only affect your characters appearance (dark characters slump over and grow pale, while light characters stand tall and look healthy), but also what Force Powers you can use (Dark Side powers are still accessible to a Light Jedi, and vice-versa, but they are used at a penalty). As the story progressions, the ethical decisions become increasingly difficult. Playing as the light side grows harder as players will anger some no matter how good-willed your intentions. While playing dark is easy--kill everyone.

All of this, and I still don't have room to mention all the details in the game that really make it shine: lightsaber construction and customization, the vast number of armor, weapons, and other equipment available, the between-character party interaction. It's all so awesome and painstakingly delivered, it took me a full 23 hours of play to realize how desperately I needed sleep, a shower, and sustenance--only to have my dreams dominated by lightsabers and sand people.

But the gameplay in KOTOR is inhibited by several small flaws. Inventory management among party members can be a bit tedious, as the party member must be in your party in order to de-equip items, which leads to some party swapping and load screen monotony as you must continually enter and exit the Ebon Hawk in order to change members. Ugh, I don't understand how this made it past QA testing (as notorious as BioWare's rigorous QA testing is). Additionally, party character AI is often erratic, but this is easily combatted by careful planning of your parties' actions before leaping into the fray. Overall, these flaws are forgivable in the face of a game as awesome and magnificent as this.

Graphics: 7.5/10
Sadly, graphics are a sort of stumbling block for KOTOR. While there are many plusses, like customizable faces and items that appear onscreen after being equipped, there are also many bugs, glitches, and slowdown that actually detract from the experience in several places. For one, the cutscenes appear to be of rather low quality. All the in game cinematics are rather dark, blurry, and pixelated. Past this, is a framerate that just can't decide what it wants. Almost every battle is sure to bog down, which is a shame, because watching a Jedi force jump into battle is a beautiful thing--watching a Jedi force jump into battle over the course of three staggering frames isn't. Add to this, an occasional irrecoverable black screen where the game seems to function as normal, just with a black screen, and the hiccups are, at often times, more than a bit annoying. Also, character models tend to repeat throughout the game; expect to see the same green Twi'lek more than a couple times as well as the same human faces on multiple characters.

But in the grand scheme of the game, these hiccups seem more than manageable. Especially when seeing the unique face of each planet. Grass blows and shifts with wind, sand swirls and dissipates, grenade explosions seem very violent and never fail to smoke. The details are most definitely present and seeing a Hutt in full action never fails to send a shiver down my spine. Seeing each cantina, enemy base, starship, and cave detailed in unique and beautiful manners almost makes me forgive the lack of dynamic lighting coming off of my lightsaber...almost.

Sound: 10/10
BioWare must recognize how important sound has been to the Star Wars universe because they didn't miss a thing. On top of the standard sound bank of John Williams' scores, lightsaber duels, and blaster shots, they also bothered to include all new sweeping epic scores worthy of the Star Wars name and spoken dialogue for every single line in the game. Every alien on every planet in every language--it all has a voice over. Whether the character speaks Basic (English), Wookie, or Jawa, there is a recorded accompaniment. And it's good. Very good. The actors have done their best to insure that every line sounds convincing, never halting or sporadic like other big name RPGs (cough, Final Fantasy X). Alien dialects tend to recycle sound bytes with little concern, but it's OK, I'm not fluent enough in Sand People to call their bluff. Each lightsaber strike has an accompanying swish, every grenade an accompanying boom, and every death strike an accompanying death cry. If the rest of the game weren't so damn good, KOTOR could be recommended on the sound alone.

Control: 9/10
After having played the game for over 80 hours, I still can't exactly remember the control scheme. Anytime that a game incorporates the controls so well that the player forgets about them, they have succeeded. Being an RPG, controls are used primarily to input and cancel commands. But being a 3rd person action RPG means that KOTOR also has an obligation to have a functioning camera. Not even once could I trick my camera into a wall or a bad angle, it just didn't screw up. And the menu system. BioWare has conceived a complicated RPG menu that is both intuitive and easy to manipulate. Wow, I hadn't thought it possible. My only complaint is the lack of an onscreen map that would eliminate excessive menu screen access. But it's a minor complaint.

Overall: 9/10
Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic is definitely the best Star Wars game out there, and may even be one of the best games ever made. Every facet, from the combat to the epic story and sweeping soundtrack, from the battle system to the character interaction to the linguistic representation is polished to a glowing sheen. BioWare has overlooked nothing in making one of the finest video game experiences to ever grace the television screen. With only the minor graphical hiccups and erratic behavior holding the game back from perfection, Knights of the Old Republic comes with the highest possible recommendation to old-hat Star Wars fans, the same as those new to the series, the same as those who couldn't care less about lightsabers and the Force. Simply put, this game is awesome. It is the reason I play games. Thank you BioWare, thanks for everything.

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Related Links: LucasArts