There are few things more magical than that which captivated us in our youth. The first time I read about sorcerers and dragons, I was wholly mesmerized by the fantasy genre and all the wonder it contained. Others may have many different memories from their childhood that had a profound effect on their interests and desires of adulthood. But in almost every history, a fascination of the unknown future has been one of the most enthralling. In an era where flying cars and personal jetpacks were predicted to come about as early as 1970, storytellers created the genre of science-fiction and took upon themselves the obligation of creating interesting tales of humanity’s future. It was from this era of humanity that the legendary Star Wars was born.
But a curiosity of the future did not cease at the turn of the century, for even though many futuristic predictions cited the year 2000 as the birth of a strange and wondrous new future, we in this millennium still look with uncertainty toward what may be waiting for us in the coming decades. This is why timeless epics like Star Wars still continue to captivate us even thirty or more years later. The magic and mystique of lightsabers and the Force knows no generation limitation, and parents proudly pass on the tales of their youth to their own children, thus making Star Wars a living entity that resides within almost everyone.
As such, tackling the universe of Star Wars is a massive undertaking, for even the slightest failure may result in the shattering of the magic contained in the fictional, futuristic universe. BioWare, however, felt up to the monstrous task of recreating the Star Wars universe for the exploration of their players in their dual-platformed release, Knights of the Old Republic. Faced with the mission of masterfully perfecting what most demand to be exceptional, BioWare worked to create a story of a young, unassuming peon who eventually rises to become the Jedi that either empowers the Republic, or destroys it.
Set 4,000 years before the first of the Star Wars movies, Knights of the Old Republic explores the “early” history of the universe with a compelling storyline that captures all of the elements that made the first movies so magnificent. And while there are several identical components found in both the original Star Wars and Knights of the Old Republic, BioWare’s RPG certainly succeeds in throwing a few unexpected twists and turns to make their game an entirely new experience.
The Sith, led by the insidious Darth Revan, are nearing victory over the Republic. It is not until the intervention of a young Jedi Padawan by the name of Bastila, using her powerful Force Mediation, that the Republic begins to see victories. This path eventually climaxes with the defeat of the Dark Lord himself. But very shortly afterward, Revan’s apprentice, Darth Malak, seizes control of the Sith and begins to, once again, repel the Republic advances with a seemingly endless supply of ships. This is where you enter the picture as a young soldier for the Republic fleet, still unaware of the great destiny that is about to befall you. Through Jedi training and the eventual decision to walk the path of either the Light or Dark Side, the course of history will change forever with you standing as either the Savior or Destroyer. The choice is yours.
Spanning across more than six planets, a satellite, and several starships, the story of Knights of the Old Republic is certain to keep interest levels high throughout all of the many twists and turns. The most interesting of the elements introduced in the game is the ability to choose either the Light or Dark Side. Unlike other games where your decision has very little effect on gameplay, or where one side is inherently more advantageous to follow, BioWare does a fabulous job balancing both sides and setting up perfect motivation for whatever the eventual decision may be. Whereas some games may punish an evil character by restricting certain gameplay components or by making the eventual climactic battle of the great and evil entity nonsensical, Knights of the Old Republic treats both sides with equal gusto. Enough, in fact, to prompt players to explore the game twice as a member of both sides of the Force simply to see the many different ways that the story unfolds. It truly is fascinating to watch as the game seems to change its course based on your decisions, and it is refreshing to finally be free in your choices without having to worry about missing certain plot points later.
In addition, each character that follows you has similar struggles that he or she must face. As common in BioWare RPGs, each companion has their own sidequest to explore should you so desire. In addition, all of the followers possess such a unique personality that party decisions can often be made on the basis of character rather than statistics. I found myself many times gimping my traveling party simply to hear the quips of certain characters as they progress through an area. Who couldn’t enjoy the homicidal desires of a bloodthirsty assassin droid or the borderline senile ramblings of an old hermit? Knights of the Old Republic is one of the very few games that made me consider each and every party member as a possible companion for any given quest rather than just automatically defaulting to those that were the most powerful.
BioWare’s creation certainly did its part to carry on the magic of the Star Wars legacy by telling an intriguing story full of delightful characters and settings that often coaxed me into simply listening and watching with awe. But don’t get me wrong, for I was just as eager to hover my hands over the keyboard once again as soon as the dialogue was done to plunge right back into the fabulous gameplay the Knights of the Old Republic provides.
Combat in the title is as close as one can get to a cinematic experience in a video game. Turn-based RPGs have always suffered from the lack of realism inherent in taking turns. Who hasn’t chuckled at least once when watching a cruel and evil overlord stand politely still while the hero slashes at him, waiting for his chance to do the same? In Knights of the Old Republic, however, turn-based combat instead yields a feeling of urgency and struggle. Upon sighting an enemy, the game automatically pauses to allow the player to give specific commands to his combatants. Then, once the orders have been issued, the game may be unpaused to allow the action to commence. During the battle, the player may continue to pause and assign commands, or give orders on the fly. The results of combat are than determined by the behind-the-scenes rolling of dice with which any player of any Dungeons and Dragons-based game should be familiar.
But it is when your character finally initiates the battle that the true excitement begins. No longer must we watch as our hero stands idly allowing the enemies to thrash him. Instead, his lightsaber darts around, deflecting incoming blaster shots and parrying the blows of his Jedi foe. Combat mimics what would be found in the movie theater, complete with varied saber thrusts and kicks to knock and enemy backward. The use of Force powers integrate seamlessly into the action allowing you to make a swing at an opponent and use the Force to knock him to the ground for another flurry of swings immediately after. It is truly difficult to describe what combat in Knights of the Old Republic looks like as I have yet to see a game capture such a cinematic feel, but suffice it to say that giving commands to your warriors often takes a backseat to simply watching and enjoying. What you have seen in the theaters is amazingly close to what you will see on the computer screen. Combat, being a very major component of every RPG, often becomes tiring extremely rapidly after watching encounter after encounter. Knights of the Old Republic never once bored me with battle animations.
However, more minor components, such as the minigames, seem to have not received such a blessed touch. Of the three primary minigames of the game — Pazaak, a card game that feels like a blend of blackjack and Texas Hold ’em, Swoopbike Racing, and the Blaster Turret — none stood out as being worth the time or effort to play. Pazaak may be enjoyable for those who get a thrill from video poker, but it feels to me like a slow, inefficient, and un-fun method of earning credits. Swoopbike Racing is nothing more than a simplified racing game. And while it was fun the first time when I was forced complete a race to advance the plot, I cannot see myself racing more than what is required. And finally, the Blaster Turret minigame is a chore that either proves frustratingly difficult or pathetically easy depending on your experience with first-person shooters, as the minigame is not much more than a toned-down FPS. But despite my complaints in this area, BioWare did well by minimizing the amount of forced, annoying minigames a la the much-criticized Chocobo Racing of Final Fantasy.
Character creation is simple and straightforward, but still allows for a wonderful array of possibilities. The standard choices of face, sex, build, and the rest are supplied and have no effect on gameplay other than cosmetically. You begin by choosing one of three classes: soldier, scout, or scoundrel. Soldiers are the combat powerhouses and are granted strengths and feats that apply to a straightforward method of dealing with enemies. Scoundrels, while weaker in battle, are given more skill points to allow mastery in more subtle ways of problem solving like droid repair, computer literacy, demolitions, lock-picking, and many others. Scouts are in the middle, competent in both skills and combat, but a master in neither. Later on, when your character becomes a Jedi, you are once again given a choice of three classes into which he or she will multiclass. The Jedi Guardian, like the Soldier, is combat-oriented. The Consular relies less on combat prowess and more on the many powerful Force powers he will receive. The Sentinel falls in the middle and makes use of both combat skills and the Force. Stat progression naturally mirrors that with which the class is most competent. The other companions already have pre-assigned classes (one of any of the six), but all progress in the same way as the main character does. Combined with the allure of either the Light or Dark side and the fact that gender determines a few plot twists, the game can be played more than 24 times with distinct gameplay and story elements appearing each time.
And while character creation is rather diverse, I find myself somewhat disappointed with the minute selection of faces. While the limitation is not terribly debilitating for the main character other than diminishing uniqueness, it is rather frustrating when NPCs all share the same face. It is somewhat disorienting to converse with someone and then, on the other side of the cantina, discover another person of shockingly similar features. I have many times thought I was speaking with a familiar character when it was, in fact, someone entirely new. Combined with the many alien names that are difficult to remember, it becomes disappointingly difficult to distinguish between NPCs.
On the other side of sensory stimulation, the sound and music of Knights of the Old Republic is greatly pleasing. Jeremy Soule, the man responsible for the score found in Bethesda’s Morrowind, composed this game’s aural experience as well. Staying true to his style, the music of this RPG is subtle yet full of mood and is greatly effective. Not once did the music draw from the on-screen action; it only enhanced it. Fans of Star Wars will also be happy to note that a few of the original tunes appear as well.
Another shining point of the game’s sound is the superb voice acting. Each and every line of dialogue is voiced by an incredibly talented staff of actors. Voices are filled with passion and drew me in greatly to what the character was saying. Despite my natural urge to scroll as quickly through dialogue as possible, I very often found myself letting the game advance itself simply to hear the character speak. Every voice is stunningly appropriate for the character and I did not encounter a single moment where I thought that the acting was anything but perfect.
It is also important to mention that Knights of the Old Republic captures the distinct alien dialects as well. Wookies will howl in their puppy-like way, Twileks speak with their own unique style, and the Jawas jabber away in their familiar chattery tongue. And while it may seem that a fictional alien voice would be filled with repetitious delivery, it is easy for me to believe that each character actually was speaking in a foreign language as the diction was varied enough and complete with distinctive changes in tone and pitch to seem real. My only complaint is that aliens often seemed to chatter for far too long, even when their phrase was short. My Wookie companion, for example, howled “Thank you” in the time it would have taken me to recite the standard English alphabet. But nevertheless, voices were a wonderful and captivating addition that integrated into the Knights of the Old Republic universe nearly flawlessly.
However, despite my thus far glowing analysis of the game, I feel that I must point out a few more of the various things I did not enjoy. The first of which is the camera. Knights of the Old Republic utilizes a chase-style camera that follows behind the currently controlled character. And while it is possible to press caps lock to get a different view, the game must be played with this single, static vision. As a result, I found myself extremely limited when moving around. Sapped of the ability to look up or down, or zoom in and out, it was a common occurrence to be in situations where I just could not see as well as I should have. A certain puzzle toward the end of the game that requires that one step on tiles in a certain order is a great example of when the camera failed me miserably. With the WASD-style movement and a much-too-close, static camera that could not be swiveled downward, I had a very difficult time moving onto the correct tile. This made the puzzle a great deal more frustrating that it should have been. Plus, since the game has such beautiful skies and landscapes, it was a shame to lack the ability to look at them directly. I feel that BioWare would have done better to implement a perspective as found in Morrowind which allowed a free range of views. I can’t help but feel as if things were optimized for play on the Xbox rather than considering the full range of possibilities on the PC.
Furthermore, I felt that the handling of items in Knights of the Old Republic was simply sub-par. The items screen is terribly disorganized and becomes a chore to navigate when your list of items begins to grow. While BioWare did attempt to remedy this problem by allowing for a number of different ways to sort ones items (for example: view that showed only equipable items, or only quest items) none seemed to be terribly helpful. The “view new items” option seems on the surface to be extremely helpful, but instead lists the items that have yet to be clicked on rather than ones that are actually ‘new’. Perhaps the items screen would be much less full if it wasn’t necessary to loot the entire contents of a container. I found myself often discovering a crate containing a desirable item along with multiple others that I just did not want. However, I was still required to add the entire list of contents to my ever-growing list of items. Even worse, when being given an item after a dialogue, you are told nothing more than the vague, “new item received” which forces you to search through your entire list of items in the small hope of discovering something unrecognized. This became quite the pain toward the end of the game, and I ended up completely ignoring both containers and new items given to me not wanting to deal with the hassle of sorting through my bloated list of possessions.
And, on the subject of items, I found that both weapons and armor became completely useless rather quickly. It is advantageous for Jedis to avoid armor as they reduce certain Jedi bonuses, and since the best party usually consists of three Jedis, I found it unnecessary to even consider armor. In addition, since all Jedis will use lightsabers, other melee weapons became unnecessary. And finally, in my experience, I discovered that ranged weapons simply were not as effective as melee weapons, and as such found very little use for the ranged fighters. While they did, at times, have their uses, such as in cramped hallways where it is extremely difficult to crowd three characters around an enemy, fighting for the most part occurs in open areas making this point moot.
Yet, despite these complaints, I still found Knights of the Old Republic to be a true work of art. Its success on the Xbox was well expected given the severe lack of other RPG options. But on the PC where a gamer has plenty of choices, BioWare’s newest game needed to be all the better to attract attention. And while this RPG does not succeed in blowing everything else out of the water, it is still a great deal better than the vast majority of other titles currently available. Any self-respecting PC gamer that has yet to play the Xbox version of this BioWare masterpiece would do themselves well to pick it up.