Knights of the Old Republic Review
Before Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic was released for the Xbox, Microsoft's console had a pretty sad shortage of RPGs. Luckily for gamers, KOTOR turned out to be a shining example of how an RPG needs to be done - it has great graphics, tons of gameplay, a brilliant story, and more lightsabers that you can handle. After a couple of delays, Bioware has unleashed an excellent PC port of this revolutionary RPG. While I can heartily recommend it for any PC role-player, what about those who maybe don't like this type of game? Let's jump in and find out.
KOTOR looks great, both in its ability to show some excellent detail and at maintaining a usually decent frame rate. The game works just fine on a system at its minimum requirements, and while those requirements are a tad steep, it's not far out of line with other recent games. This is the first PC use of Bioware's Odyssey game engine, and there are a couple of features here that take advantage of the new pixel shader features on modern video cards. Granted, this game looks great more because of the quality of the art rather than the engine features, but the engine is not holding the game back in any way.
I'm not really sure why, but KOTOR only allows the "Soft Shadows" feature to work on Nvidia cards - ATI users still get shadows, but they're a bit less realistic. It seems to me that the game caps the frame rate at times, but since you can pause at any time and pure action isn't really the focus, a super-high frame rate probably isn't a big deal.
I particularly appreciate the loading times in Knights - the game uses up surprisingly few system resources and loads & saves very quickly. One could probably attribute this to the game's Xbox roots (where Bioware only had 64MB of RAM to work with), but it wasn't really a given that it would be this way. No matter how we look at it, the game and its engine are both lean and mean.
KOTOR is not without its bugs, though. A few display issues aside, I had the game crash on me several times, and this is one of those games that simply will not behave if you Alt-tab away from it. This usually resulted in a crash or a corruption of graphics that would force me to restart the game. There are also some serious issues with a couple of specific ATI video cards (Radeon 9600 specifically, I believe), although Bioware has issued a beta patch to address them.
So far, my save games have been corrupted twice - anyone who has had this happen to them knows the feeling of having this happen. Since the game auto-saves somewhat regularly, I lost around ten minutes of gameplay each time, but it's still really frustrating. At least the Quick load & Quick save features are nice and speedy.
One thing that's frustrating is that the game does not support 1280x1024 as a resolution. 1280x960 is there, but for those of us with LCD monitors that have the former as a native resolution, it means we have to settle with a screen mode that is non-native no matter what. The thing is, LCD monitors always look better in their native mode than anything else, and it's frustrating to be forced to use a non-native mode.
The PC version of KOTOR has forsaken the gamepad-controlled scheme and replaced it with a standard mouse-and-keyboard setup. This means that the game plays similarly to a standard third person action game or MMORPG. It works perfectly, although I'd have liked to be able to look up and down at all times - not just when I press a key for a temporary first person view.
Bioware also had the foresight to include plenty of keyboard shortcuts for the standard game functions, but there also ways to do just about all of this with a mouse. There are some bugs with the interface, especially when you are holding down the right mouse button (which allows you to freely spin the camera around). There are several situations, like a conversation that pops up without the player starting it, that cause the game to screw up if a mouse button was held down when it started. Some of these issues just cause the game to skip conversations, while others can screw up badly enough to make you restart the game and/or load from your most recent save.
The Xbox version of KOTOR had excellent graphics when compared to the best the console had to offer; the PC version is much the same. The textures look great and are pretty high-resolution on the PC, and while you'll need a video card with plenty of memory on it to set the textures on "high" and get good performance, it's worth it if you have it.
Many of the unique special effects seen in the Xbox version of KOTOR will require a fairly modern video card for the PC version. And while the game will run without these features, you really need a pixel-shader capable video card to get the full splendor of the game. Of course, the great character design and awesome animations remain, and those alone make up some of the best art seen in any RPG.
KOTOR takes place in the Star Wars universe, but it's three thousand years before the events in the six movies. Instead of the Empire, the bad guys are the Sith - they're still run by evil ex-Jedi, and they basically work just like you'd expect the Empire to. Your character starts out as a soldier, but soon finds that his or her ability with the Force is very strong, and over the course of the game you can become a powerful Jedi yourself. The game allows a light side or dark side solution to almost every quest, and you will eventually have to pick a side.
Not only does this have implications for the game's plot, but it also affects gameplay as well - the closer you are to one side, the less Force Points it costs you to cast Force powers from that side. It means that if you pick up a bunch of dark side powers and change your alignment over the course of the game, you could be at a disadvantage later. Plan carefully.
A few of the Xbox bugs managed to make it into the PC version of the game, and a few other gameplay-related bugs have come up as well. The pathing for the AI-controlled characters leaves plenty to be desired, and you'll have to retrace your steps occasionally in order to get your buddies, who are stuck, to catch up. The game also has a few bugs revolving around setting your characters' stats and health to their lowest possible numbers. From what I understand, the game is still keeping track of them correctly, but the numbers are just being shown wrong. It's a bit alarming, though, to de-equip an implant from Canderous and see him drop to "1/1" health.
The most obvious thing that makes Knights of the Old Republic stand out from its competitors is that the story is hands down the best seen in almost any game to date. The characters have hours and hours of dialogue, and the plot, while a bit slow at times, turns into something beyond anything the usual RPG fare. When I reviewed the Xbox version of the game, I compared KOTOR's story to its console peers - essentially, Japanese RPGs - and found that in one fell swoop Bioware blew away the plots seen in all the Final Fantasies and Suikodens. Again, that's my opinion, and it's one that I understand many gamers do not share.
Now I get to compare KOTOR to PC role-playing games, including previous Bioware titles. First, this game's single player campaign thoroughly trounces Neverwinter Nights, and I consider it even better than Baldur's Gate 2, Morrowind, and even the story-oriented favorite Planescape: Torment. Not only is the gameplay tighter, but the specific Star Wars license and time period they picked allowed Bioware to create a game filled with familiar elements while adding plenty of their own inventions.
One notable thing about KOTOR is that the animations and well-hidden turn based gameplay make the whole thing look more like an action game than an RPG. While it's not quite as acrobatic as Darth Maul from Episode I, there are plenty of kicks, swings, dual sabers, and cool force powers to throw around.
In my recent re-play-throughs of the game on the PC, I tried some party combinations I never bothered with before, and was rewarded with a few really hilarious conversations. Many of these characters, of whom you can choose two to come with you, have little arguments and things as you play. It's always good to see a game surprise a player - one who is on his or her seventh or eighth run through it - with something new.
For the PC version, Bioware has added a small new area for you to explore. Basically it's just a small space station orbiting Yavin IV (the scene of the end of the original Star Wars) with a guy who plays Pazaak - one of KOTOR's mini games - and can also sell you some of the best equipment in the game. There's also a quest here, although it's short and only really results in reduced costs of his very nice equipment for sale. Overall, it's not a hugely compelling reason to rush out and buy the PC version of the game (the high-res graphics and textures could be, though), but it's a nice little bonus area.
For more on how the game actually plays, and less on the differences between the PC & Xbox versions, you might want to glance over my review of the Xbox version. Even those who hate Star Wars or RPGs have a good chance at enjoying this game, although people who hate both probably won't be swayed by KOTOR's excellent gameplay.
I'd also like to take the time to blast LucasArts for not only refusing to support mods, but for taking the time out to actively stop people from making mods for KOTOR. Take a look at this thread on Bioware's official forums for more info - this is simply pure stubbornness, and even though they supposedly don't want players to modify any Star Wars canon, that didn't stop them from allowing Raven Software to release plenty of mod tools for the Jedi Knight games. People will make mods anyway, so why not help these people make even better ones by releasing the game tools?
Everything from the Xbox version has been reproduced in KOTOR for the PC - this includes the excellent Jeremy Soule soundtrack (which is very reminiscent of Star Wars without constantly using the same old tunes we've heard for the last 25 years), hours and hours of almost Hollywood-quality speech, and the excellent mix of classic and new sound effects that helps to create a unique atmosphere.
Bioware's awesome RPG Knights of the Old Republic feels right at home on the PC with high-res graphics and an excellent control scheme. While the rather sluggish frame rates, miscellaneous bugs, and lack of any major new content are at the least a bit disappointing, any fans of RPGs or Star Wars would be committing a crime not to give this game a shot. It's an instant classic that only got better on the PC.