Knights of the Old Republic Retrospective
Jedi, Sith, and a number of other Old Republic archetypes take the jump into the MMO space this December. With all the excitement around the new online Star Wars experience, it is easy to forget the groundbreaking game that kicked off the entire Old Republic series. In an effort to remember our past, I dusted off my copy of the original Knights of the Old Republic on a quest to find out how it held up and if the transition to an MMO style made sense for the series.
The first thing that becomes obvious when you play through the original KotOR is how MMO-like it feels in hindsight. While there are some basic things like choosing classes, designing your appearance, and quest logs that are shared amongst many western RPGs, this game’s connection to the MMO genre goes deeper. The intro sequences to KotOR very explicitly walk you through the game’s mechanics in a location that is entirely unique to the tutorial. It feels a lot like recent MMOs that give you an instanced, singular zone where only you exist to allow you to test out the controls before joining the real massive community that awaits. After learning the ropes, KotOR drops you into your first town full of missions, morality, and mischief. The only thing that really separates the first quest hub in KotOR from a typical MMO town is the existence of other players in the world. It almost feels like the quest givers should have exclamation points over their heads! Structurally, The Old Republic series was built to be an online game from the start.
The combat in Knights of the Old Republic feels very similar to online RPGs, but it has its own unique touches. Fighting consists of positioning yourself near your enemy and slowly whittling their health down with normal attacks and special skills that have to recharge after use. The combat is methodical and based on behind-the-scenes dice-rolls in a style not unfamiliar to Dungeons and Dragons. This is very similar to how combat in most modern MMOs plays out. The major difference between the two is the ability to pause and control your squad-mates in KotOR, and the limited size of your party. This gives you full control over every part of the battle you are engaged in and removes some of the stress involved in real-time combat. MMOs obviously lack this pause feature, but they also boast larger party numbers. You may have to give up some control over your traveling companions when switching to an online RPG, but you gain something just as valuable in a larger quest group.
My major concern with the transition, and I believe this to be the major concern of most KotOR fans, is how an online MMO will manage the conversation system that was so integral to the original game. The Old Republic does have situations that will involve player choice, and the decision that is made is promised to have strong consequences, but that’s only a small part of what made KotOR so fascinating. Knights of the Old Republic is one of the few games that give your party members a sense of realism in how they act and react to you. The characters in KotOR are not simply vessels for learning about the world around them. Although they serve that purpose as well, they are fully realized characters that you can converse with. They, like us, have their own personal back-stories, which they may or may not wish to talk about right away, and their own set of intentions and goals in life. I found myself arguing back and forth with one of my early party members in a way that felt genuine and not forced. It’s these kind of AI conversations that might be too difficult to replicate in an MMO. Some may say that interaction with actual human players is what replaces that, and I believe this to be a valid point. Despite this, I believe human players can’t draw you into the world the way a well-realized AI character can. Well, unless you play on a Role-Playing server.
A major issue with KotOR that I hope The Old Republic is able to remedy is how stilted and unnatural quest conversations can sometimes feel. When talking with your squad-mates, it’s not completely unreasonable to believe that both of you would just stand still and chat for a while. It becomes a bit unrealistic, though, when someone is in grave danger but shows little to no sign of fear or interest in running away from it. It also doesn’t help that the characters in KotOR are very verbose, perhaps too much so. I typically play games with subtitles turned off, so I don’t read ahead of the dialog, but this game is almost unplayable without the subtitles. Hopefully, Bioware has learned how to craft a strong story that doesn’t rely too heavily on stilted exposition from their experience making Mass Effect.
Knights of the Old Republic is a great game despite its flaws and the passage of time. For anyone interested in getting a Star Wars fix before the MMO releases, look no further than the game that kicked off the universe the MMO is based on. If you’re interested in giving it a shot, though, I highly recommend purchasing the PC version. The XBOX version doesn’t have good emulation on the 360. It frequently drops frame-rate into the single digits and most of the dialog winds up sounding very choppy. For a game that’s so dialogue-centric, this is absolute torture. Given the similarities between KotOR and typical MMO structure, I find myself only more excited for Star Wars: The Old Republic’s release this December.