BioWare is a vaunted PC developer with games the caliber of Baldur's Gate and Neverwinter Nights under their belt. And while it is rare to see a first-rate Western developed game on the consoles, much less an RPG, BioWare seems to be breaking through the stereotype. True, their recent release entitled Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic is not for everyone, as it is a more PC-styled RPG than a console-styled one. But it is still my belief that the game is a strong contender for Game of the Year. In an era when most of the big RPGs belong to Japan, Canadian-based BioWare shows that the West is not lost yet.
BioWare's Infinity Engine may have worked for 2d games, but was ultimately designed to allow its games to run on a variety of systems without problems. Knights of the Old Republic is the first game from BioWare to really push the hardware on which it is running. BioWare was certainly up to the challenge of increasing its graphical prowess, because character models look spectacular. Faces are articulated well, and the aliens look just like they do from the movies. BioWare did skimp on faces for both NPCs and the Player Character, however, as there are only about 10 different facial structures for each gender for humans, and aliens are distinguished only by skin color.
Environments look absolutely stellar with BioWare's new 3D engine for Knights of the Old Republic. Walking through the interior of your ship, the Ebon Hawk, makes one feel like a smuggler trying to make the Kessel Run in a few parsecs. Walking along the dunes of Tatooine with the shadows of the city of Anchorhead in the distance is absolutely breathtaking. The jungle trees of Kashyyyk and the Sith Tombs on Korriban look perfectly in place, as well. The FMV cutscenes are nice for planet-to-planet travel, as well as for key plot sequences. Sadly, these travel scenes cannot be skipped, so they may grow tiresome after only a while.
Character designs for the major NPCs are quite good. Some of them are cliché, such as Carth, the Republic pilot that lost his family to the war, or Bastila, the young, but powerful Jedi that is incredibly arrogant. On the other hand, some of the designs are simply spectacular. Characters like Zalbaar, who has sworn a life debt to the main character just as Chewbacca did to Han Solo, bring the game to life. Another delightful character comes in the form of protocol droid HK-47, who is certainly on par with wayward Ranger Minsc from both Baldur's Gate games. He was built like C-3PO, with human relations in mind. Instead, the supposedly gentle communicator utters his first words as, "Can we kill some meatbags now, Master?" HK-47 is a smart-mouthed droid with his heart in all the wrong places and an instant favorite character.
Memorable are the sounds of the chattering of the Jawas from A New Hope, the roar of the Wookiee in The Empire Strikes Back, and the snake-like drawl of the Twi'lek in Return of the Jedi. All of these noises are faithfully recreated in Knights of the Old Republic with full lip-synching. Aside from the minor gripe that there are some alien words that are repeated despite having different translated meanings, the sound effects and voice acting are perfect. All the characters are done with Hollywood-caliber voices and truly enhance the overall gaming experience.
The classic Star Wars music is used well in Knights of the Old Republic, even if it is spread a bit thin. The music itself is brilliantly composed, but there are a few sections of the game where the music is distinctly missing. It is not noticeable unless listening for it, however, but the lack of music in certainly places is a bit distracting. Other than that, the music is used theatrically well thanks to masterful direction from David Chan.
Players whom are familiar with the D20 rules from Paper and Pen Dungeons and Dragons or Neverwinter Nights will be right at home with the system used in Knights of the Old Republic. A D20 derivative, the game's engine is perfect for a Star Wars RPG. Players gain levels up to 20, the standard in this particular ruleset prior to the implementation of epic levels. Players have a certain amount of Vitality points per level based on their Constitution. If all three characters in the party drop to 0 vitality points, the game will end. Preventing this is a character's Armor Class, which starts at 10 and goes up based on armor worn and Dexterity. Despite all of these numbers, however, all calculations are done behind the scenes allowing the player to focus on play rather than dice rolls.
Players also gain Skills, Feats, and eventually Force Powers every level. Skills are defined as the player's ability to perform repairs, hack computers, and most other noncombatant activities. A character is allotted Skill Points to distribute based on intelligence. Feats are a character's combat abilities and boosts to their skills. Weapon proficiencies as well as certain combat-related skills are governed by Feats. Force Powers are the Star Wars equivalent of magic. The ability to perform these actions relies on a pool of force points, which are reminiscent of the magic points found in other games. Force points recharge fairly quickly, so they never become problematic outside of combat.
In most encounters, there are generally five options available to the player: Super Light Side, Light Side, Neutral, Dark Side, and Super Dark Side. Based on which the player chooses, their alignment will rise or fall. In addition, different sections of story will also become available. Players will make the ultimate choice later in the game whether to dedicate themselves to life as a Jedi or as a Sith. Sadly, BioWare did not include an option for the player character to remain a non-user of the force. However, most people likely will not take issue with this minor aspect and be content with flinging Lightsabers at their foes.
Aside from the main path of light and dark, there are three minigames available to players. The first is called Pazaak, which is a card game that is amazingly similar to Blackjack. Players are dealt cards valued from 1-10 one at a time in hopes of scoring 20 without going over. The second, Swoop Race, is a very simple racing game where the player must avoid rubble and try to cross boosters. The final minigame hones a player's shooting ability by requiring that he or she fire at ships in a turret. All three games are rather simple and are meant primarily as diversions from the main. Though playing two of the minigames is required at some point of the game.
Combat in Knights of the Old Republic is a hybrid between the typical turn-based system and real-time. While everything does play out in real-time, players are able to issue commands up to three turns in advance. Some interesting options appear once the PC becomes a Jedi. For example, a Jedi is able to reflect blaster bolts back at their targets, a strong counter against ranged opponents.
One of the major concerns in regards to control was whether or not BioWare could optimize a game for the Xbox controller given their history as a PC developer. Thankfully, BioWare has proven their diversity with Knights of the Old Republic. Less important actions that need not be performed spur of the moment, such as pausing or switching party members, are smartly assigned to secondary buttons. Important actions that must be performed quickly, like performing or queuing actions, are assigned to the primary buttons A and X respectively. Players cancel commands with Y and switch between targets with the L and R triggers. Movement is controlled by the left thumbstick, with the camera controlled by the right. Menu movement is done with the D-pad. While they may initially appear overwhelming, it takes only a few minutes of practice to become adept with the controller.
The storyline in Knights of the Old Republic is epic, but not in the same way as the movies. It is obvious the plot was planned in advance, as there are no obvious stretches to include irrelevant portions of the game that were added at the last minute. The lengthy quest begins on the Endar Spire, which is being attacked over the planet Taris. Scurrying to protect Bastila, a female Jedi, the main character and Carth Onasi go to the surface of the planet. After she is found, the revelation comes that the main character is strong in the force and must leave for training in Dantooine and the eventually confrontation with Sith Master, Darth Malak. The game has a solid story full of many interesting elements, but the problems inherent in allowing the player to create a character of his or her own rather than using a stock main character still exist.
All-in-all, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic is not for everyone. Rather than being styled like a typical console RPG, the game instead goes for a more PC-styled set up a la the Baldur's Gate games. Hardcore console gamers that are willing to overlook this will find an incredibly deep and beautiful game that is also quite fun. Whether you decide to follow the path of Light or Dark, of Jedi or Sith, the game is solid through and through. I must recommend that if there is only one RPG that you buy this year, that it be this one. It is my opinion that you will not regret your purchase. As I said before, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic is an incredibly strong contender for Game of the Year for 2003.
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