Which power will you serve, Light or Dark? Be wary as you answer, for it will determine the fate of the galaxy.
This is the world of Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (KotOR), and it’s been a long time coming, but far more worth the wait then any of us could have imagined. Through its own innovation, presentation and brilliance, KotOR easily towers over the hype it has received. From the beautiful glow and swooping battle motions of the light-sabers to the intricate, variable and ever growing storyline, this game easily sets a new standard for the RPG genre as a whole.
In one fail swoop, BioWare have not only released one of the best games of the year, but the best Star Wars game ever to grace a console. It magnificently appeases the hopes and wishes of the RPG-starved Xbox owners and Star Wars aficionados alike. KotOR is the kind of game that carries its every aspect into vast amounts of depth, thus allowing everything you do to subtly affect and influence how you play, what you see, and eventually, even the outcome of the game, too–though the specific fate of the universe rests directly in your possession as the game comes to a close. Whether you’re viewing digital printouts of the script, reading behind-the-scenes D&D-like dice rolls to perfect battle tactics, or using the super-customizable level-up process, you’ll not find a more detailed game experience.
From the moment you leave the title screen, every decision you make has a great effect on how you continue through the game. You, as the player, are allowed a male/female choice of three character classes: Scoundrel, Scout and Solider. The first of which is of a weaker variety, but gains skills quickly (i.e. lock-picking, demolitions, computer use); the second is a status of moderation, gaining both skills and feats at the same rate; and the third is, of course, the physically strongest of the three, gaining feats the quickest (i.e. power attacks, two-weapon fighting, specialty equipment use).
Choosing your character type will determine a great amount of how you compete in battle, how effective you are at certain tasks, and how you are received by other characters in the game. Every status and character type–good and evil included–has its own pluses and minuses; this allows the player to choose the kind of characters that best that fit their style of play while suiting a full range of players. Whether you’re the gung-ho melee type that likes to see the whites of the enemy’s eyes before they proceed to slaughter them, or you’re the ability/item using type who enjoys controlling the battle from afar. The battle system is a combination between real-time and turned-based combat. There is little pause between the actions of your three characters and that of the enemy in battle. Character actions are controlled through a six option menu for standard attacks, specialty attacks, Dark Force powers, universal/Light Force powers, attack items and personal use items, instead of using buttons for things like punch or kick that define a true real-time fighting system. Adjustment to these menus may take a few hours but, once acquainted, even the most inept players will be flipping through options and executing tasks with ease, accuracy, and quickness.
As with any RPG, to effectively compete in battle, one must take into consideration what actions will be most effective to the situation, exploiting every enemy’s weakness to the fullest extent. In addition, players must keep an ever watchful eye on how the rest of the team is fairing in the fight. Much too often, in the more massive encounters, letting the computer completely control the actions of your other two characters will get them killed. Generally trying to keep the characters within reasonable proximity of your main protagonist will produce the most responsive results in battle.
Though the kick-ass battle system is a blast to both watch and play, being the real-time/turn-based hybrid that it is, you’ll often need to slow the pace of the energetic conflicts by pausing the action, examining the field and cueing up the next four moves for each member in your group. It is the action pause ability that makes this battle system, and the battles themselves, more manageable, allowing the player to the see the intricately laid method behind the madness of quickly paced skirmishes and marvelously grandiose battles. As a bonus, however, the pause ability allows you to rotate the camera around each character so you can examine your player positions, watch the effects of grenade explosions, marvel at the slicing of light sabers and create Matrix-like rotating effects around characters about to inflict major pain.
What’s best about the battle system is how well integrated it is with the game’s storyline. Depending on how you respond in a conversation with the NPCs you talk to, discussions can end with abrupt quickness and lead your characters straight into battles that you simply weren’t expecting. Such as when you enter the Sand People’s complex on Tatooine; you must watch your tongue, for saying the wrong thing will end the delicate discussions and result in your party having to destroy a full colony (20-30) of well equipped fighters. This is one element that continues to impress and turns out to be crucial to how your characters develop throughout the game.
RPGs thrive on excellent character development, stunning plot twists, and hidden revelations; all of which Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic carries in spades. The story is set 4000 years before the appearance of the Galactic Empire (which omits all of your favorite/famous characters like Han Solo, Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker), starting anew with a whole cast of unknown characters. Generally speaking, such an endeavor reads as a recipe for complete failure, but The Force seems strong with BioWare. Simply put, this game is the best thing to come out of the Star Wars universe since Episode VI. KotOR is authentically connected to all that we know and love about the original Star Wars movies (i.e. intergalactic politics and bureaucracy, corruption, smugglers, bounty hunters, gambling, growling Wookies, hot Twi’lek girls, slobbering Hutts, incredibly epic stories, intense battles, blazing lightsabers and vast amounts of space travel).
You begin your adventure as a newly transferred member of the Republic force escorting a Jedi named Bastila. Because of her key role in defeating the most powerful Sith Lord in recent history, Darth Revan, and her Battle Meditation skills–which provide confidence to your allies while inflicting doubt and fear into your enemies–she’s been deemed a savior of the galaxy. Revan, however, fell in a battle with Bastila and was succeeded by his apprentice, Darth Malak. Now, Malak has become far more powerful then his previous master–or so he boasts–and is attempting to capture Bastila so he can abuse her Battle Meditation skills to conquer the rest of the galaxy.
The beginning of the journey drags somewhat, and seems a bit random since you’re considered nothing more then a common Republic solider. Along the way to toppling Malak, either to save the universe or conquer it for yourself, you’ll discover many reasons as to why you’re so important to the outcome of this particular conflict, besides the fact that you’re strong in The Force–that’s a gimme. With this, KotOR produces the kind of story that inspires morality, incites anger, and personifies humor. It’ll have your jaw dropping with amazement, your fists punching the sky through proud conquest, and your mind seething with wrath and torment. But one must always control their passions if they wish to become a true Jedi… “There is no emotion; there is peace.” If you do not care for the Jedi way, however, you can always adopt the ideals of the Sith, but you’re in for a whole different journey then… “Peace is a lie; there is only passion.”
This story will captivate you for hours on end, there simply aren’t enough words for this kind of gaming enjoyment. But the best facet of KotOR is in that you directly affect the storyline through conversation options and your characters’ actions. The player is given a number of options when talking to NPCs to either inquire, demand, or respond in nice or insulting manners. Based on the options you choose, you will affect how the game reacts to your characters, moving towards the path of the Dark or the Light. And, for this reason, if you’re looking for replay value, this is your game.
There is simply no way around playing through this game less than twice, which is at least a 50 hour journey, either way. There couldn’t be a more drastic difference between the path of a Light Jedi and a Dark Sith. They make for two completely different experiences and both sides need to at least be tasted before anyone could put this classic upon their shelf with satisfaction.
As a Light Jedi, you must abide by the rules of the Jedi Order, helping those in need, caring for others while refusing compensation, showing mercy to your enemies, trying to return those who’ve been blinded by darkness back towards the path of the Light and saving the galaxy. As a Dark Sith, you feel, think, and act as you wish, as long as those actions lead you to victory. You kill whoever you want, help no one, insult belligerently (yet tactfully), extort money, destroy lives, torture on a whim, and conquer the galaxy. Each side will give you different reactions and response options during conversations. You can allow people to make fun of you to your face as you ask for information, or you can threaten them with death if they don’t tell you what you want to know (and even after they tell you, you can still kill them and take their money).
Since the Dark side allows for a greater variable freedom for the player and is easy to fall to, the game has been structured to make completion as a Jedi much more difficult, though the Light side is compensated in the end. The balance between Light and Dark sides are controlled by points given when the player takes certain actions on missions and through conversation options. If you choose to speak in a more cruel and threatening manner, thus killing off as many people as you meet, then your character will slide towards the Dark side with ease, receiving Dark points fairly quickly. The Jedi, however, have a much more difficult time gaining their Light side bonuses, being only offered specific chances at gaining points every few hours of gameplay. For example, before leaving the game’s second world (there are 8 in total) as a Dark Sith, I had my Light/Dark gauge maxed out at ‘Ultimate Dark’ status, whereas it took me near 30 more hours (or 4 more worlds) than that to acquire the ‘Ultimate Light’ status when playing as a Jedi.
The balance of the gameplay is highly satisfying when playing on either the Light or Dark sides; you’ll feel ‘just’ in one sense and ‘free’ in the other, though I often found myself annoyingly reloading the game after committing Dark acts that didn’t seem to be all that ‘dark’ to me. The ability to play through this game for good or evil is worth its purchase alone. What you’ll see and hear playing on either side will be so vastly different than the other that you’ll be amazed. Not to mention that depending on how you talk to your own party members, they can end up hating both you and one another, turning them further towards the Dark side as well as yourself. I feel this is only the beginning for such a game structure; it’s inevitable that more developers will notice and begin taking advantage of this possibility in future games.
While the battle system, storyline and Light/Dark features of KotOR are highly impressive, and set quite a unique precedence for games in the future, the graphics fall on the more mediocre side of the equation. There are certainly plenty of impressive and beautiful level designs, like the swooping grass planes and waterfalls on Dantooine, the lush Caribbean-like environments of the Unknown World and the canyons of Korriban; but the character designs are a bit lackluster in comparison to other Xbox efforts. The graphics are in no way bad, but they simply aren’t as impressive as other parts of the game. Then again, it’s not like it matters all that much anyway, once you see the mesmerizing glow of your lightsaber slice through enemies like butter, you’ll then realize that it’s the only graphical element that truly needs to be impressive… and oh how wonderful it is.
I’ve been debating whether I like seeing or hearing the lightsabers more, and I’m beginning to think it’s a combination of the two. Because every bit of sound in KotOR is remarkable. From the cast of over 50 excellent voice actors, to the blaster deflection sound effects, this game has a super high quality level of sound production–similar to the films in that respect. It’s got the kind of perfectly resonating ambient hums befitting of star ships, the eerie and naturally enveloping atmosphere of the Shadowlands on Kashyyyk (the Wookie homeworld), squishy footsteps in water, screams and roars of various strange and humongous monsters, the fantastic buzz of clashing lightsabers and much, much more. KotOR also has the kind of musical score that you’d find only in a Star Wars movie–one I would probably end up listening to without the game.
However, though I enjoyed almost every moment, KotOR is not without its faults–hence the imperfect score. The real-time battle engine suffers severe slowdown when there’s a fairly large conflict of enemies on screen. I know calculating dice rolls and AI for 12 enemies with different weapons and features while animating a load of different movements can take up a lot of processing power, but slowdown here is simply unacceptable at some points. Especially near the end of the game where you’ve got near relentless amounts of high-level Sith warriors and Imperial guards running at you from every direction. At a few points in the game, the frame rate and slowdown became so poor, that I could no longer control my characters’ actions, as if all my buttons had been deactivated and I was simply getting attacked without being able to counter or heal.
In addition to the slowdown, KotOR has a particularly annoying combination of problems that consist of massive backtracking, dragging story (only early on), and unbearable load/save times. It’s bad enough that I have to hold the controller in the direction I want while running across a huge desert, rolling plains, or through a forest, but the fact that I have to sit through load times that can last anywhere between 10-30 seconds in-between areas of the same level, is almost more aggravating then I could bare at times; patience is not a virtue I have. (Dark side player, then? Ed) When you have to run from point A to point B (four load points) and back to A (four load points) before going to point C (five load points), crossing at least 12 load points in the process, it gets to be a bit much to take. Thank goodness I fell in love with the real-time battle system (or maybe it’s just the fact that I can wield two lightsabers with ease), or else my experience with this game would have been much less enjoyable.
But even in light of these faults and shortcomings, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic easily stands as a fantastic game that should be experienced by all gamers. As of now, I feel that I’ll be hard-pressed to find a more enthralling experience for the rest of the year. There’s only so much one can say about an title such as this without cheapening its flavor. I already feel bad for those who will ignore, miss out, or scoff with distate at KotOR, for it’ll be a sad day indeed if a game of this stature doesn’t get all the respect and attention it deserves.