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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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