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Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic

Review By:  Tim Mitchell

Developer:  Bioware
Publisher:  LucasArts
# of Players:  1
Genre:  RPG
ESRB:  Teen
Online Play:  No
Accessories:  Xbox Live (Content Download)
Date Posted: 

8-31-04

A review of this game is at this point superfluous. It’s been out nearly a year. You’ve heard things. Good things. If you have not at this point at least tried Knights of the Old Republic (Or KOTOR as it is commonly called), you either do not like Star Wars or you do not like RPGs. Now if you don’t like both, then this is probably not the game for you. But if it’s just one or the other you owe it to yourself to give KOTOR a shot. Nevertheless, I will go through the motions, and break down exactly why.

The game is played out in third person view, with the camera following your character and up to two party members tagging along behind. Pressing the black button at any point switches between the characters in your party. Combat occurs in real time from the same view, however, you can use the white button to pause and give/queue up commands, allowing you to (in theory) determine how fast-paced the action is. But no matter how often you pause, battles still occur quickly, and things can go down the drain if a few seconds if you’re not on top of everything that’s happening. Combined with the third person view, this can be troublesome. Enemies are often spread out, and the two party members you’re not controlling will often run off to face them at random, sometimes targeting an enemy far in the distance that you haven’t even noticed yet. So unless you keep switching between them, a party member can die in mere moments, even if they were doing fine the last time you checked on them. This is annoying the first few times it happens, but eventually you learn to keep an eye not on the action onscreen with the character you’re currently watching, but the status indicators for your party as a whole in the corner of the screen. Overall the combat is not as smooth as it could be, but just fluid enough to become second nature after awhile.

There are some other minor gripes to report, but none that should lead you to discount the game as a worthwhile experience. The sheer quantity of items available in this game is at times problematic. There are dozens of different armor, weapon and accessory types, all with different effects, so you’ll want to keep 10-20 of each with you for different situations. The vast amount of equipment and detailed role-playing mechanics (more on that later) can make it difficult to determine if a shiny new coat of armor is worth the asking price or not. For years RPGs have commonly employed systems that would give you some sort of indicator as to whether the purchase you were contemplating was better or worse than your current equipment. No such mechanism is in place to assist you with shopping in KOTOR, and it’s sorely needed. Instead you’re given the in-depth stats of an item, and left to do the math yourself. It’s not a big annoyance, and I’m sure the hardcore statophiles out there might actually prefer it.

”But what about the glitches?!” you say? I, too, have been put off from an otherwise promising game purchase by the news of poor coding and testing. As you’ve probably heard, KOTOR has more than its fair share of bugs, but it really doesn’t affect the overall experience. I’ve played through the game twice and only encountered a couple minor freeze-ups. Indeed, the native glitches are for the most part harmless and even friendly, such as a handy item duplication trick. But there are well-documented stories of rare and malevolent tribes that lurk in the dark, less-traveled reaches of the source code, glitches eager to consume your flesh and ruin your save file. I’ve never encountered them personally, but it’s commonly known that they’re there, and you should be aware of that.  There’s not much else to add to the cautionary portion of the review… The game is riddled with 5-10 second load times between every area. I’ve played games with more, but many with less. The areas aren’t even that large, so I can only theorize that the load times have to do with the enormous amount of recorded dialogue.

“Enormous” is perhaps not even the right word. Every single line of dialogue in the game, no matter how irrelevant, is recorded, and by decent sounding actors, too. Each character in the game has a distinct and recognizable voice. Sadly, this uniqueness does not carry over to character models. The same fifteen faces or so are used for almost every NPC in the game, even for ones with fairly major parts. Perhaps to add more would have increased the aforementioned loading times? Whatever the reason, the ones they have are at least detailed and well animated, so maybe the tradeoffs are worth it. The music does what it came to do then leaves your mind the minute the scene is over, generic and forgettable but with just the right Star War-sy feel. The only tunes you’ll find stuck in your head are the ones that are used over and over again. I’m not even going to mention the sound effects; there’s no need to. If there’s one thing LucasArts has gotten down since their beginnings, it’s how to properly recreate the sound of blasters and light sabers.

Graphically, the game is fairly sweet; no expense was spared in this regard. Sure there’s the occasionally blurry texture, but even then it’s better than in most games, and the environments themselves are so detailed it doesn’t matter. The lighting deserves no such mixed praise; it’s gorgeous. I'm convinced an entire race of fish people that you encounter on one world, the Selkath, were created by the designers just to be consciously pretty. What I mean by that is that they are meant to be gaped at, that the gamer should stop and stare a moment at the way the light reflects off their glossy skin, and breathe, “damn.” It’s a purposeful display of the artists’ talents. This game was made just for the Xbox, and the reasons are clear. Special mention must be made of the lightsaber effects; having six or seven characters going at it on screen with different colors and styles is something to see. The lights and flashes are recreated wonderfully. And do you remember the huge amount of different equipment I mentioned earlier? Well, the upswing is that every one of those unique weapons, armors and assorted other items are distinctly represented on your character models when equipped. So if playing dress-up is your thing, KOTOR will never get old.

I must admit I came into this game a bit unprepared. My previous RPG experiences had been with such lightweights as the Final Fantasy series and other such offerings from Japanese developers, delightful games but not heavy on the detailed game mechanics. Thus I was a little overwhelmed when presented with a more “western” RPG with a tabletop flair. Looking through the manual shortly after my purchase, it was rife with terms like “feats”, “saving throws” and “1d20”. I began to eye the included game disc mistrustfully, as though it might conceal tiny but razor-sharp teeth. But it was Star Wars, and with my life-sized R2-D2 standee looking over my shoulder, I persevered. Thankfully, once I got into it I quickly discovered that Bioware had prepared their game for the uninitiated. Everything is explained but most of the complex mechanics occur automatically in the background, allowing you to concentrate on the action. If you find yourself learning how the game’s inner workings function, it will be because you want to, not because you are forced to. Even I soon found myself salivating over armor that offered a Defense Bonus of 12, a +1 Dexterity Bonus, Immunity: Critical Hits, and Damage Resistance to the tune of Resist 10/- vs. multiple flavors of damage. Everything down to the light sabers has this much detail, with different crystals equippable to alter their effects or appearance. If you’re not big on elegant weapons or civilized ages, there are tons of blasters available with just as much variety; indeed they fall into three distinct classes. Add to that a full range of grenades and bladed weapons, not to mention the multitude of Feats and Force Powers you’ll be able to customize your characters with as they level up, and you’ve got combat that’s as varied as you want it to be.

If you’re considering buying an RPG, you’re probably at least a bit concerned about story. Rest assured KOTOR does not fail to deliver in this regard. Basically, it tells the story of a time thousands of years before the movies, when the galaxy is consumed by war (surprise). This time, it’s between the Republic and the Sith. No, they’re not a secret force with no more than two members; at this point in history they’re a system-spanning empire with hundreds of dark Jedi and thousands of troops and ships at their disposal. I won’t get into the details, suffice it to say they make it mesh fairly nicely with the rest of the established EU, and in that regard you pretty much already know or you don’t care. As advertised, the game allows you to choose between the “Light” and “Dark” paths, with distinct endings for each. Much of the story is accomplished through multiple-choice dialogues with other characters, wherein you’ll be able to select from various responses. Some Dark, some Light, some neutral, and some just silly. Yes, there are some jokes, and they’re not the types that make you want to groan. The game is genuinely funny when it needs to be, and I found myself laughing aloud more than a few times. Even so, the dialogue is believable, and knows when to be serious.

There are really three elements to the story in KOTOR. The first is in the numerous subplots available for your pursuit, each interesting and enjoyable in their own way. The second and arguably most important deals mainly with the characters in your party and how they relate to each other, as well as the game’s villain, Darth Malak, the Sith in general, and Malak’s departed Sith master Darth Revan. This is probably the best of the three, and makes for plenty of plot twists and character depth all around. The third story element is the driving force of the game’s overall journey, and probably the weakest as well. It deals with your quest to discover the location, purpose and origin of a mysterious super weapon known as the Star Forge. This serves as Darth Malak’s command center, while doing double duty as the single largest McGuffin ever conceived. Sadly, this central plot of the game, while adequate, is fairly uninteresting and hard to follow, especially near the end. But by that point you’re unconcerned with it anyway, as the rest of the plot has grabbed you. The Star Forge is really a means to an end, a reason for you to visit the locations you do on your road to the final battle with Malak.

Highs:

  • Great subplots and character depth
  • Insane amount of quality voice acting
  • Deep and engrossing gameplay mechanics
  • Impressive graphics
  • It's Star Wars

Lows:

  • Above-average number of glitches
  • Unremarkable soundtrack
  • Complex item statistics
  • Repetition of character models
  • Short but numerous load times

Final Verdict: 

Knights of the Old Republic is a masterful RPG with a gripping story set in one of the most beloved universes of all time, and developed by people that know what they’re doing. It combines intricate RPG gameplay with remarkable graphics and smart storytelling to deliver one of the best titles on the Xbox and one of the best RPGs on any console. Its flaws are few and forgivable, and if you’re interested enough to have read this entire review there’s really no reason you shouldn’t be playing it right now.

Overall Score: 9.6

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