Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away….the Star Wars franchise was full of creativity and life. But we’re far removed from the “glory days” and the fact is that both Episodes I and II were laughable precursors to the Star Wars legacy we know and love. That mediocrity has plagued game developers for years as the majority of Star Wars-based games since…well, since Star Wars-based games existed have been sub-par at best. Sure, there have been a few notable exceptions along the way, but nothing that came close to capturing the mystique that the original trilogy had; nothing has left gamers awestruck in the same way. Nothing, that is, until Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic.

Knights of the Old Republic takes place approximately 4000 years prior to the happenings in Episode I and places you in control of a republic soldier who, despite not knowing it at first, has his or her destiny with the leader of the Sith empire, Lord Malak. It is your duty to save the galaxy from the clutches of this army of the dark side, but it’s not as simple as a carefully timed and theatrically produced battle in which you learn your fiercest enemy is also your father. No, in KOTOR you are required to run the gamut; from interplanetary detective work to reconnaissance missions, quenching the flames of racial prejudice to family counseling. Expect to play as a warrior, diplomat, champion racer, starship gunner, card shark, master of disguise, and of course, a Jedi. This is just a taste of what to expect from KOTOR.

Of course, in order to get to all the in-game excitement, you need a character. KOTOR gives you a healthy amount of control over character creation. While the game lacks the choice of what species your character is (you will be a human), you can choose your sex and character class, both of which impact the game’s events in subtle (and not so subtle) ways; non-player characters (NPCs) sometimes act differently towards the fairer sex, and your class will ultimately determine if you are prone to conflict, conversation, or somewhere in between.

In addition to your character, you will organize a motley crew to assist you throughout your endeavor. In total there will be nine characters available to you, and despite being able to amass every character relatively early in the game, each character (save your droid, T3-M4) has enough room for development to maintain your interest throughout the entire game. Character histories will unravel as you play through the game, and as you converse with each character about their past, you will change their opinion of you, learn more about the history behind the game’s current events, and unlock new side-quests. Aside from their methodical development, your party will also fight along side you at your discretion. You can have up to two other characters in your immediate party at any given time and they will not only aid you in combat but will offer their input on certain situations and even crack wise should the opportunity arise.

With your party in tow, you will venture throughout the galaxy and encounter numerous foes in the form of opposing species and factions, as well as local, hostile fauna. This is where the innovative combat system comes in. Using the Wizards of the Coast Star Wars D20 rules, developer Bioware has managed to walk the fine line between turn-based and real-time combat while governing the actions with a system that has been proven effective. By allowing battles to rage on as you select the actions of your character, as well as your party members’ (if you wish), each fight will be a strategic, yet straight-forward affair. You will be able to attack using your equipped weapon, throw grenades, use shields/stim packs/medkits and use Force powers all at your discretion. As you select an action, it will be added to that character’s combat queue and will be the next action of that character. Should the battle become too intense, you can simply pause the combat at hand and queue up the actions for all of your party members without having to worry about your teammates’ vitality. This system provides an incredibly methodical and user-friendly way to manage each battle your party will engage in while allowing you (the player) to enjoy the impressive combat sequences taking place.

In your quest to defeat the evil Sith lord, you will travel across the galaxy and find yourself at some of the significant locations in the Star Wars universe, as well as some new locales. You’ll venture to the city-world of Taris; the home of the Jedi academy on Dantooine; the Wookie home world in the forests of Kashyyyk; the desert planet of Tatooine; the Sith Academy on Korriban; and the underwater society of Manaan. Each world is truly unique in both appearance and magnitude. While you will find yourself interacting with many of the same species as you did on previous planets, their attitudes will change substantially to depict their world’s atmosphere. It is always a joy to travel from one planet to another, interact with the locals, and simply explore. Eventually you will complete all the challenges a planet has to offer, and then the enormity of the game shines through, as new worlds will await you with all new trials to keep you moving towards your ultimate goal.

In order to travel throughout the galaxy, your party will make use of the fastest civilian ship in the entire outer rim – the Ebon Hawk. When not serving as a means of transportation, the Ebon Hawk is a world all its own. Side-Quests will take place on your ship just as on any planet. Also, your party will be stationed throughout the ship, allowing you to talk to them or get certain items from them such as battle stimulants, grenades, and medipacks. There is also a workbench for you to upgrade your weapons and armor if finding one on a given planet proves difficult. There’s so much about the Ebon Hawk that proves beneficial to your character that there’s little doubt that the ship is not just your means of conveyance, but a safe haven as well.

There’s certainly enough in KOTOR to overwhelm someone new to the game. From the outset you are charged with many a task to complete with many more to be added shortly thereafter. You’ll quickly catch up eagerly anticipate the next of your many tasks. As much fun as it is to complete each mission, the real draw of KOTOR are the Force powers. As you progress and interact with NPCs, you will alter the game based on your actions and responses in conversations. Should you act morally upstanding and strive to help others without resorting to violence, you will begin to lean towards the light side of the force. Should you take the path of the villain and cause violence and suffering, you will lean towards the dark side of the force. As you begin to lean towards one side or the other, NPCs as well as your party members will act differently towards you. Should you gain enough light side points, many will revere you, while enough dark side points will cause people around you to become fearful and spiteful towards you.

In addition to creating a preconception about your character, Light, Dark, and Universal Force powers will become available. These powers act as the magic system in KOTOR, and it is an appropriate and well-executed one at that. Force powers will allow you to heal your party, choke an enemy, or persuade NPCs to do what you want, among other things. Each Force power draws energy from your “Force meter” which acts as pool for your magic points. The amount of Force energy depleted when using any of your powers is not stated, but as you progress your force meter will not deplete as quickly. Your Force meter refills automatically, allowing for a healthy use of the Force throughout your endeavors.

Even as a Jedi you’ll need the occasional rest and relaxation. To provide this, KOTOR comes complete with several mini-games. The dueling ring will allow you to battle it out to earn credits and experience. Pazzak is the galaxy-wide card game that is similar to blackjack. You can also try your hand at Swoop-Racing, a straight-forward (literally) racing game. At times, the Sith patrol will attack your ship, the Ebon Hawk, leading to a mini-game in which you have to shoot down the enemy starcraft. Each game is very basic but provides a break from the rigors of your quest, and adds another dimension to an already deep gaming experience.

From an artistic standpoint, KOTOR’s visuals are as wonderful as the game is massive. Level designs show characteristics unique to each world, yet perfectly in line with the Star Wars license. Character designs are equally impressive, however the same character models are used entirely too often. The attention to detail and subtleties are the real upside to the visuals. Such inclusions as sunlight reflecting off characters’ armor, sparks that fly up as a lightsaber strikes a droid, and detailed backgrounds that turn mere levels into sprawling worlds that appear ripe for exploration. It’s clear that the art team for KOTOR utilized the Star Wars license to the best of their abilities.

On the other hand, from a technical standpoint the graphics are mediocre. Designs and effects are done well, but there are bouts with jaggies as well as some framerate drop off at times. Both issues affect the overall presentation in a minor way, but they do occur throughout the entire game from time to time. The more prolific shortcoming is the lip-syncing, which is in a word, bad. For the alien species in the game, this is a non-issue (who really knows if their lips are moving in sync with their speech?), but for humans the poor lip-syncing can become a nuisance provided you have subtitles turned off. This too is a minor annoyance more than a major drawback, and none of the graphical imperfections hinder your ability to play the game. Still, it shows that there are weaknesses in this overall strong title.

If you wish to be spared the details, the audio presentation in KOTOR can be summed up in one word: Amazing.

Knights of the Old Republic absolutely shines when it comes to audio. The soundtrack for KOTOR, much like the gameplay, is epic. While it favors John Williams’ classic Star Wars themes yet Bioware did not simply settle for the same music we’ve heard countless times. The name Jeremy Soule may not be immediately recognizable, but you’ll no doubt recall his award-nominated soundtrack for Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind. Soule has composed more than 90 minutes of music for KOTOR that provides a perfect blend of the classic Star Wars melodies with new, game-specific harmonies, creating the ideal music for each setting and situation. The sound effects feature pull from the LucasArts archives to make each clashing of lightsabers, every shot from a blaster, and all effects in between sound just as they did in the movies. But the voice acting in KOTOR is most impressive. Literally thousands of hours of voice recordings went into the game, and the efforts of the voice actors are loud and clear in the well acted and always appropriate dialogue within the realm of the Star Wars universe. Perhaps even more impressive than the well-acted human dialogue is that of the other species. Each alien species has a distinct language that for the most part is accurately used and differentiates different words and phrases (with the notable exception of the Twi’leks who seem to have only 3 different phrases for anything they say). Considering the scope of the game, it is amazing that such superb voice acting remains constant throughout, and few games have as impressive a combination of spoken dialogue, sound effects, and musical score as does KOTOR.

Replay Value
From the moment you engage your first enemy through your final battle with Darth Malak, Knights of the Old Republic is captivating. The plot develops rather quickly and hooks you. Before you know it you’re completing every possible side-quest to try and squeeze out every last bit of the game. The reality is that no matter how hard you try, you’ll never be able to do everything possible in KOTOR by only playing through the game once. The game is such that with every response you give and each action you take, you alter what will happen next. The focus of the game remains the same, but the means to your end will be quite different from game to game. To fully experience KOTOR, it’s imperative that you play through more than once under different sides of the force, with a character of the opposite sex. Fortunately, the game is well worth the additional 40+ hour investment you’ll have to make. With all of the side-quests, character development, mini-games, and the promise of downloadable content, it will be more difficult to pull yourself away from KOTOR than to pick it back up at a moment’s notice.

Knights of the Old Republic defies many of the lowered expectations placed on it from individuals jaded by poor movie license-based games in general and specifically Star Wars-based games. Much to the delight of every RPG and Star Wars fan, KOTOR delivers a game that features a compelling story, robust character development, a well-refined combat interface, tons of extras, downloadable content, and the ability to explore the Star Wars universe and use all the Jedi tricks you could hope for. Despite the delays and the naysayers, KOTOR is the definitive Star Wars game, and certainly the best Role Playing Game on the Xbox to date. The game is not the definition of perfection and begins to show a bit of roughness the more you play, but with everything that is done right in this game, it is inevitable that the minor issues will escape your consciousness. KOTOR is unquestionably a must have for anyone who fancies themselves an RPG or Star Wars enthusiast, but more importantly, the game has enough well-executed aspects to draw even the most unlikely of players to enjoy it. KOTOR is magnificent on so many levels, and is certainly one of the finest games to come along in this console generation.

Brett C. Jones