I sincerely doubt that George Lucas had even an inkling of an idea just how vast Star Wars would become when he released Episode IV back in the 1970s. Sure, I bet he dreamed that it would be a hit and set him up in Hollywood for life, but I somehow doubt he ever imagined the oceans of money to be borne out of his reworking of Kurosawa’s Hidden Fortress. Star Wars was (and is, despite the fact that the second trilogy sucks) more than a film — it’s a piece of America’s collective consciousness. Lucas’ mythos has transcended the mere act of being cinema and has become something more — a parable that speaks about the nature of good and evil, a philosophical treatise on religion, and most importantly of all — a cash machine.
Star Wars is a merchandising juggernaut. From lunch boxes to action figures to beach towels, to a seemingly never-ending series of novels, the story lives on. Naturally, the property has been transported to the realm of videogames as well — with mixed results. Unfortunately, like most game adaptations of popular films, something gets lost in the translation. Perhaps because we all know the story so well, it’s impossible to mix in compelling gameplay with the core storyline. However, even games that have sought to show what the major players in the galaxy were doing before the films (or while other events were occurring) have fallen flat. Part of this is attributable to the sheer number of games out there based on the license — we’ve been buried under an avalanche of games re-telling the tale of the original trilogy (I don’t know about the rest of you, but if I never have to fight the battle for Hoth again, I’ll die a happy man). No one has ever managed to tap into that magical element that makes Star Wars work and translate it into videogame form…until now.
BioWare’s Xbox RPG Knights of the Old Republic is easily the greatest Star Wars game ever made. And while that may seem like I’m damning it with faint praise, believe me when I say it’s head and shoulders above any other Star Wars game ever released.
Set 4,000 years prior to the time of the films, KOTOR tells an entirely new tale that manages to capture all of the elements that made the original trilogy so compelling. Players take control of a fully customizable character (you can pick a face, sex, class, etc.) and are thrust into a new adventure.
The story isn’t much different from the original trilogy. The Sith are seeking to control the galaxy, only it’s not Darth Vader running the show this time, it’s Darth Malak — yet another great character in a long line of Star Wars antagonists. Malak and his master Revan were once proud Jedis — servants of the light side of the force, but after engaging in a war with the Mandalorians, they came back from the outer rim changed men — complete with a mighty Sith fleet at their disposal.
The Republic and the Jedi dealt the Sith a horrible blow when a young female Padawan named Bastila used her powerful battle meditation and allowed the Republic forces to kill Darth Revan. However, this didn’t end the Sith threat — it only allowed the evil Malak to usurp the title of Dark Lord of the Sith.
Your character is thrust into the game as a mere soldier. The force is strong in you, but it is raw and unguided. As the game unfolds, you’ll make allies and enemies, travel across the galaxy (including Tattooine and the Wookie world of Kashykk), build your own lightsaber, train with the Jedi, and choose your own destiny — becoming either a force for the light or a new Dark Lord in the making.
It’s heady stuff to say the least, and any Star Wars fan who’s dreamed of an open-ended RPG that allowed them to choose which side of the force they’d use is going to absolutely love the title.
Gameplay is very similar to BioWare’s other Dungeon & Dragons-based RPGs. Battles are a cross between real-time and turn-based with action that can be paused with a press of the button, allowing the player to switch between characters and issue specific commands before restarting the battle.
Depending on the character, there is a wide variety of options available in each battle. Characters who are Jedis can use a multitude of force powers; all characters have special ‘feat’ skills that provide varied attacks and the ability to use stimulants and other items to aid them in their fight.
An attack’s success or failure is dependent upon dice throws — just like in a traditional pen and paper RPG. I suppose that hardcore D&D fans will understand all the intricacies of the system (and can even watch a log of each dice throw to see what they or their opponent rolled), but the casual gamer can still pick up the title and play without any difficulty. In this regard, BioWare has crafted a game that appeals to as wide a gaming demographic as I can imagine — it appeases the hardcore RPG fans with the intricate roll system, yet satisfies the casual gamer with its accessibility. On top of that, it pleases the Star Wars geeks too, by incorporating just about everything they loved in the original trilogy into a whole new story.
When players aren’t doling out the smackdown with their lightsabers (which come in a multitude of varieties — double-bladed, regular, and short — with the single sabers capable of being equipped in each hand for those who want to fight Miyamoto Musashi style), they’re taking care of any of a multitude of sidequests. Speaking to the locals on whatever planet you’re on yields lots of optional quests for the player to undertake for various rewards. Completing the quests is often open-ended, with a variety of options for the player to choose from. Those who are sticking to the light side will want to settle things diplomatically and without violence. Those who favor the dark side of the force will undoubtedly wind up killing lots of people and taking what they want.
Actions in the game have consequences on the player’s standing with the force. A bad action gains dark side points, while doing the right thing will make the player more aligned with the light side. Determining which way you want to go early on is a good thing, although not necessary — if you start down the light path and find yourself annoyed at being the goody-two-shoes, you can always switch direction and embrace your darker nature.
While much has been made about the game’s graphics, I found them pleasing but not jaw-dropping. Each world has its own unique look in terms of backgrounds and whatnot, and they’re all visually appealing. What disappointed me most was the complete lack of variety in NPC faces. It’s a common occurrence to talk to a man, walk a little ways, and talk to another man with the exact same face. The effect is a little disconcerting to say the least. A few more face models would have certainly fixed this problem and made the graphics seem that much nicer.
Famed game composer Jeremy Soule (who was also responsible for the music in Bethesda’s Morrowind) provides the new music found throughout the game. Like most of Soule’s work, it’s quiet, moody, and effective — the score rarely overwhelms the onscreen action.
It’s also worth noting that some of John Williams’ classic Star Wars score turns up from time to time as well.
One area where KOTOR really shines (and there are many) is in the voice acting. The entire game is voiced (except for the main character who never speaks aloud) and the voice work is all phenomenal. The little Yoda-type guy sounds like Yoda (although he doesn’t have the same odd way of phrasing everything, which bummed me out a little), Wookies howl just like in the films, and the Sith all sound slightly stuck up thanks mostly to their British accents.
Taking things a step further, the game features the original dialects for all of the aliens in the game. Wookies always talk in the howling voice, Twileks have a weird language all their own, the Hutts sound like Jabba, and even the Sand People and Jawas sound exactly as they did in the film. It’s a great effect, adding immeasurably to the feeling that you’re playing the film and not just some videogame.
However, I’d be failing in my duties as a reviewer if I didn’t mention a few of the flaws that mar the experience.
In what’s becoming an alarming new trend with Xbox games, KOTOR was shipped to the general public with a lot of bugs. The bugs and glitches in the game run the gamut, really — from some that completely mess up the game, to others that are more annoying than anything.
I experienced freeze ups, a dirty disc error, a game clock that jumped from 19 hours of game time to over 1.4 million, teleporting NPCs, and cutscenes that stuttered with regularity (which, supposedly can be alleviated by clearing the Xbox cache). Others have reported bugs that make advancement impossible and require the player to go back to an earlier save and do the events again. Granted, few of these bugs are quite as annoying as the ones found in Morrowind, but since console games can’t have a bunch of patches to fix things, this new lack of proper play testing is bothersome.
Ultimately, though, the bugs are an annoyance and not a game breaker. Knights of the Old Republic is the Star Wars game fans have been wanting for years. The bugs do detract a bit from the score, but not in a major way — they simply lower the game from near perfect status to the very very good level — which says something about the quality of the title as a whole. If you loved the original trilogy and have yearned for a new adventure of that magnitude (and not one like the crap in Episode I & II) then picking up Knights of the Old Republic is an easy decision. Now, quit sitting there — run out and get the game. There’s a galaxy for you to save or destroy out there.