Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic Review
Let's face it; the recent rash of Star Wars games (and even movies) mostly haven't lived up to many fans' expectations. LucasArts seems to not care if half their Star Wars games are mediocre or even just plain crap; the last one I really enjoyed was Jedi Knight 2. And while even that game was hated by plenty, it was mostly considered to be a very good, if not great, game. Still, since JK2 there have been a glut of mediocre-to-decent offerings for both consoles and the PC. Fans are in dire need of a great Star Wars game, and they finally might have one to tide them over for a while.
When Bioware announced they were working on a single-player RPG done their way, it seemed like everyone just shrugged. Well, Knights of the Old Republic is turning out to be one of those few Xbox must-haves simply from the sheer amount of gameplay, plot, and things to do. Never mind that this plays nothing like any previous Star Wars game; the story will hook you just like the better games of the past have done.
It's difficult making a tactical-based RPG that runs in a full 3D world; making all those options work on a console controller simultaneously is no easy feat. Bioware has pulled it off very well, though, with an easy interface and a sort of hotkey bar that houses a ton of actions and spells without overwhelming the player.
Knights is no action game, though; while the action that plays out looks just as good as the movies, it's all being number-crunched in the background. Therefore, you can set up some specific commands and then sit back and watch the lightsabers fly. Of course, it winds up being a bit more complicated than that, but overall the controls allow a full range of tactics that are easily set up with Bioware's slick interface.
Knights of the Old Republic will take you to several worlds, some of which have been visited (and revisited) before in the movies; some of them have been explored in the Star Wars books. You get to see Dantooine, Tatooine, Kashyyyk (the Wookiee homeworld), and a few others as well. All of these worlds have quite a bit of land to cover, although it's not hugely expansive like Star Wars Galaxies does it. That's ok here, though, as this is a tightly-woven RPG with a ton of story and combat. Each world will take you quite a few hours to complete.
For an RPG, the visuals really are impressive - especially when in combat. Bioware seemed to realize from the start that a Star Wars game that can be paused at any time needs to go full-out in the graphics department. Blasters, lightsabers, and even just plain swords all look gorgeous in action, and the actual fighting that goes on looks like it came out of a movie. There are all kinds of attacks, feints, and dodges that characters will use in melee combat, which really helps to make an RPG that is essentially turn-based tactics look more like an action game.
Special effects look awesome too, both for explosions and for the Force powers you and your party will eventually use. The character models themselves are all quite detailed, although you may find the same human faces repeated a few too many times on random NPCs. Your own playable characters are all unique, though, and while they mostly share the same animations, everything still looks slick and polished.
The actual worlds are quite impressive; the one you start out on, Taris, is particularly impressive. The grasslands of Dantooine are almost as good-looking, and even Tatooine's barren desert still has a visual appeal that is hard to explain. The other worlds all have their own unique atmosphere, which really makes it exciting to actually head off to the next world to finish a whole set of new quests.
Some of the in-game cutscenes (and even the pre-rendered ones) don't really look so hot, but that is mostly because the rest of the game just looks that good. It is tough to complain about this, because the majority of your time will be spent talking to NPCs and battling a whole myriad of enemies - and that's the good-looking part.
I also have to mention that the lightsaber battles in KOTOR look wonderful; while at its core it's all RPG, the game does a great job of making it look like Star Wars. If your character misses, it doesn't just show a sword or lightsaber fly right through the enemy's body with no damage; the enemy will actually appear to stop his or her attack and dodge, then counterattack afterwards. Dual-wielded sabers, double-bladed ones (like Darth Maul's from Episode 1), and just the plain old single lightsaber stance looks great, and they all interact together perfectly.
This is a lot more like a Bioware game than the visuals will let you on to. And all the work they've done to make this undeniably Star Wars means that even if it sounds goofy, it still works well. The game actually uses newer Dungeons & Dragons rules at its core (namely, the 3rd Edition ones used in Neverwinter Nights), but then adds in several new aspects like equippable droids and more to spice things up. There are quite a few ways to build your character, but I do have to admit that I'd have liked to be able to pick from at least a few races. As it is, it's male or female human only.
You also are only allowed to choose from three base classes: Soldier, Scout, or Scoundrel. The Soldier starts off with more health and less skills to use, the scout is a bit more balanced, and the scoundrel is physically the weakest but receives a ton of skill points. The myriad of feats, force powers, and skills you gain access to let you configure your character (and the ones that join your group) quite a bit.
The game's story also pushes you towards becoming a Jedi, and from there you can also pick a Jedi class that mimics the three previously mentioned. You can choose one of the three that has the right balance of extra health or extra force powers that you want.
Knights also fully allows you to use the Dark or Light sides to their fullest extent. Most quests have both good and evil solutions to them, and the game doesn't really try and punish you more for being evil. Usually the dark side solutions will result in more fights and more credits in your pocket, but fewer cool items as quest rewards. You can use any force power on either side, but using powers opposite to your alignment will cost you more force points to cast.
Those that have played Bioware's previous games know that having a full set of tactical options can be a lot of fun; there are a hundred ways to try and take down the game's tougher opponents. Knights of the Old Republic is the same, although Bioware did have to throw in stuff like several types of new blaster weapons, upgradeable melee and ranged weapons, mines, and grenades - very few of these are totally true to Star Wars itself, but it all integrates nicely into the game.
The upgradeable weapons is a nice touch, although I find that only the lightsabers offer any real choice as to how to upgrade your weapon. Most of the rest of the weapons only have one upgrade for one particular slot, so once it's finished, that's it. Lightsabers, though, have all kinds of crystals you can install; some will change the saber's color, while others will give them different (or improved) types of damage. This is kind of necessary to keep with the Star Wars theme; it's not like Luke ditched his own saber and picked up Vader's just because he thought it did another +1 damage.
The game's plot just about qualifies as an epic; you will play an otherwise unknown character that becomes a Jedi and will challenge the evil Sith empire. Even though Knights takes place a few thousand years before the events of the movies, not a whole lot seems to have changed. Much like the first Star Wars movie, the Republic that you fight for are very much the underdogs; the first world you land on is completely under the control of the evil Sith.
One of my favorite parts of this game is that the production values are high enough to actually make you care about the characters. All zillion lines of the game's voice acting are very well done, especially for a video game, and the plot is affected by your actions as well as your words.
Knights also includes some conveniences that Bioware fans may truly enjoy. There are no inventory or weight limits, and your characters all share a community inventory system which means there's no trading back and forth required. Well, if a character has an item equipped, you will have to take control of him or her to de-equip it - then anyone else can put that item on.
Speaking of characters, the game will eventually let you choose from 9 totally unique characters to travel with. Except when in dangerous enemy territory, you can return to your base instantly and even quickly switch characters at any time, which is very handy for certain situations. On top of this, characters that join your party will automatically level up to catch up to the rest of the group, and you can choose all of their powers. So while you only create one character, you do control how they all progress.
KOTOR includes a few mini-games to keep you busy; you'll have to play a couple of them once, but the first time through they're not too hard. The shooting and racing scenes might need a bit of practice by players who aren't used to those types of games, but they'll get through it pretty quickly. And on other worlds, you can do further races to try and drum up some extra credits. For anything more than the first essential race, though, you'll need some skill at these games, some practice, to succeed.
The Pazaak card game is also interesting; it's a bit like blackjack except you are going to 20 instead of 21 and you can pick from a pre-set "side deck" of cards to fine tune your total number. Add to that cards that can actually subtract from your total, and it winds up being somewhat deep and entertaining. It won't appeal to everyone, but it is a cool addition that isn't essential to gameplay.
When the whole package is considered, Knights of the Old Republic is a shining example of a great game with plenty of polish and a broad, entertaining atmosphere. Even if you aren't a huge Star Wars fan, or if you really don't like RPGs too much, this game is worth a try. Now if you hate both, well, ok, skip Knights of the Old Republic and go cry in the corner or something.
KOTOR has so much voice acting, it's unbelievable. I have never seen a game with so many lines of dialogue; the best part about it is that about 99% of it is really well-done. There aren't any major stars that do any work, but that is just fine. And you don't hear the same guy doing 30 voices with only a slightly different voice, either; I'm glad Bioware spent the effort and money to get quality voice work for this game.
Many of the alien-spoken dialogue is repeated for completely different lines, which shows that at least Bioware knows just the right spots to cut corners. The music is mostly new but vaguely Star Wars-themed; you won't notice it that often, but it does add plenty of atmosphere to the game. Overall, the music is very subtle and yet highly effective.
Many of the battle effects sound like they come straight out of the movies, which is probably expected for a Star Wars game. The lightsabers of course sound great, the blasters have that unique high-pitched effect, and the explosions will rock your stereo speakers. Great stuff.
Knights of the Old Republic is a near-perfect execution of a new and bold idea: a traditional computer RPG, done in full 3D, brought to a console, imbued with the Force. It all works very well, and while the similarity to previous Bioware games shines through, you probably won't mind it one bit. This is one of the few essential Xbox games, and it's great fun even for non-Star Wars fans.