Millennium Falcon-like spaceship. Check.
Compelling story. Check.
In covering those four bases, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic is not only providing one of the very best interactive Star Wars experiences, but it's tapped into the very soul of the Star Wars universe that drew hundreds of millions of fans to the franchise in the first place. Developed by Bioware, Knights of the Old Republic is stronger with The Force than any George Lucas-powered movie that's come out in the last 20 years and lands on the Xbox as one of the very best titles the system has to offer.
There's tons of character development, a combat probability system and a giant inventory to manage, so I guess KOTOR gets clearance as a role-playing game. But as both an RPG and a Star Wars title, it strikes a marvelous balance of hardcore authenticity and accessibility for the uninitiated. Pen and paper players can check the log of dice rolls used to calculate the success rate of every trigger pull or lightsaber swing. Freddy Fanboy can geek out for hours at how well the Jawa language has been adapted for a videogame. And even the coolest of the cool hip kids will be able to see the appeal of swinging double lightsabers and choking fools from across the room.
It all begins with a rock solid story that really does begin a long long time ago....
This is Star Wars
Normally setting a Star Wars game 4000 years before the events of the movies we all know, would be a recipe for mediocrity. How many times have we seen a LucasArts game where the adventure is set somewhere "just next door" to what we know from the films, so we're getting to see what Lando or Obi Wan does when he's not hanging out with the superstars of the galaxy like Vader, Leia or that Hoth medical droid. But you've got to hand it to Bioware for mimicking the entire feel of the first Star Wars movie but with original characters and an original storyline.
All of the standards and paradigms of the Star Wars universe --Jedi vs Sith, bureaucracy and politics-- are present in this game and both the gameplay and storyline work within those guidelines. You begin the game as a soldier who simply happens to be strong with The Force and throughout the game you're developing your skills as a Jedi, making decisions that not only affect your leanings to the Dark Side or the Light Side of the force but will also determine how your game's story unfolds. We could tell you exactly how the story for our created characters went and still not ruin the majority of your experience because stories branch and spread all over the place before coming back to a handful of very specific and critical crossroads, but it all fits within the Star Wars universe that we all know and love. We figured we'd just give you a few highlights.
Before you're done with KOTOR, you will:
* train at the Jedi Academy which includes learning the Jedi Code and the meaning behind a lightsaber's color.
* walk into a cantina on Tattoine where the bartender won't like you...and the bounty hunters won't like you either!
* find somebody's lack of faith disturbing.
* explore the forest world of Kashyyk and see what "Return of the Jedi" was supposed to look like if we'd had Wookiees instead of Ewoks in treetop villages
* face your former master again after all these years.
* space-walk on the surface of a battleship
There are multiple side missions that will help expand your understanding of the story as well. So in Knights you may:
* collect a few bounties that you've hunted down.
* reunite a woman and her droid so they can resume their extremely unhealthy relationship.
* fight alongside Wookiees in a fight for freedom.
* try a murder case or two as a Jedi attorney.
* get thrown in and escape from prison once or twice.
* smuggle for the Star Wars mafia.
The original characters and story are interesting enough, but being in a Star Wars setting just makes them like family. You've got your beautiful and mysterious female Jedi who shares a special bond with you. There's the two soldiers, one Mandalorian and one Republic who don't see eye to eye on much but are always down for a scrap. You'll pick up an old Jedi master who's spent most of his life as a hermit but is still powerful with The Force. Star Wars fans will know there's only one way to get Wookiee to follow a human around and you get one in KOTOR along with his Twi'lek companion. There are even a couple of droids to be found in your crew. Your astromech is a beeping mechanical wiz while HK-47 (my personal favorite) is your psychopathic assassin droid who just happens to provide most of the game's comic relief. Dialogue with HK-47 was funny enough to cause many of us to laugh out loud on several occasions and, like all characters, his lines evolve the deeper you get into the game. If C3PO ever grew a sack --of nuts and bolts, heh-- he'd be HK-47. Likewise with all of your crew members in the game; they each borrow recognizable elements from characters in the original Star Wars trilogy. Throw in a major plot twist or two, there's no way you'll see the first one coming, and it's clear KOTOR is built to entertain both as a game and as another volume in the Star Wars library.
Knights of the Old Republic asks you to do two things really: a)guide the story through your conversations and decision making and b)utilize the hybrid turn-based combat system to whoop ass on whoever needs it. Both elements are extremely rich and very rewarding once you get into the game and understand what's going on.
There are thousands of lines of dialogue just waiting to be unleashed by the crafty conversationalist, but the truth is you're simply not meant to hear everything the first time through. Even before you become a Jedi you can be leaning towards the Dark or Light side of The Force through the things you say to people and decisions you make. Every NPC you interact with is unique so you never 100% sure how someone will react. A heroic, upstanding figure might be easily intimidated if you threaten them with violence just like a ruthless underworld figure might respond to your kind and encouraging words in unexpected ways. The hook in the game's dialogue is that you're presented with several opportunities to branch one way or another during a conversation. After initiating dialogue you may have five responses that may include rude, kind or neutral responses along with probes for more info. The NPC's response to your response may open up a handful of entirely new responses that you can then drop on him. So even in one conversation you can branch off and double back in terms of good and evil.
At times your conversations with NPCs actually lead you to make decisions to act one way or another. On Tattoine you have to solve a problem with Sand People. Standing before the chief, if you say the wrong thing a fight will breakout instantly, ending the conversation. The same can be said for the Twi'lek survivor of an underwater disaster. If you insult him before he finishes his story --you're given the option encourage or discourage his tale at several points during his speech-- he'll draw a weapon and it's on. Assuming you'll win the fight, you've just done an evil act. You earn single Dark Side or Light Side points once you've done enough evil or good things to earn one. These points are separate from experience points which are earned in the conventional RPG manner: accomplishing missions.
KOTOR reaches a level deeper however by sometimes offering more or less experience points depending on how you accomplished a particular task. In the Sand People example above, keeping a cool head and more or less brown-nosing the chief will solve three of the challenges on your list of things to do in one shot and you'll get a ton of XPs. If you get hotheaded, you can still all three of your problems but you'll have to fight tooth and nail to do it and you won't be awarded a lump sum of XPs the same way. In this case, you actually end up getting roughly the same number of XPs doing it the evil way as the good way because you'll get XPs for all the enemies you'll be killing. You'll find this balance throughout the game. You'll get lump sum XPs for hacking into a facility's security system and activating a security to droid to walk around and exterminate enemies for you. If you don't hack the system, you'll still end up killing those same enemies yourself if you want to get through the level, so you're covered either way. Doing good or evil things and gaining experience are only half the payoff. The other half is spending those points to whoop ass.
The combat system in KOTOR doesn't seem intuitive, but that's because it's fairly unique in its design and application. It's a turn-based system, but you're in control of when those turns are initiated to a certain extent. A typical sequence will work like this: you come around a corner with your two party members trailing behind and the game suddenly pauses and goes into combat mode. While paused you can rotate the camera around to survey the situation, swap out armor, weapons and accessories, select the target(s) you want to attack and input a sequence of four commands for each character. So you have 12 potential moves you can have loaded up before you unpause the game to unleash them. And moves doesn't just mean taking a shot with your blaster or swing with your sword or lightsaber. Throwing grenades, turning on your personal forcefield, Jedi powers, using medpacs, adrenaline boosters are all considered combat moves in this case. Now here's where it gets tricky. You don't have to input any moves at all when the game pauses automatically (in fact you can turn this auto pause off) and you can continue to enter new moves for your party members on the fly as their move queue empties. In fact, stacking up new moves in the middle of a fight is an extremely valuable skill about a third of the way through the game.
Knights of the Old Republic streamlines things as much as possible so you don't have to get too tied down in tedious activities if you don't want to. For example, you can control any member of your party at anytime and the other two do an excellent job of following behind and automatically engaging enemies and watching each other's backs during combat. When you interact with NPCs the conversation will always be between your created character and the NPC since you have to make all the decisions in the game. If you need to control only one character, say for a stealth mission where you turn invisible, you can engage solo mode and get your creep on. During most non-combat situations you can instantly swap in new party members and transit back and forth between your current location and your ship, the Ebon Hawk. Should you leave the Ebon Hawk's location on foot, the transit points are reset between the Hawk and wherever you are when you decide to instantly transport.
The Ebon Hawk is one of the most brilliant aspects of the game as well and not just because it's the design ancestor of the Millenium Falcon. The ship is your means of transport from planet to planet in the game and each travel sequence comes with a spiffy movie of your ship taking off, flying into hyperspace and landing. Upon docking, the Hawk is mini-level within itself where you can walk around and talk to your crew members to get information about them --and they all have problems that need to be solved-- and ask some of them to make stuff for you. Grenades, computer hacking spikes, medpacs, adrenal boosts and security spikes can all be had for free on board your ship to do with as you please, even sell. The only gripe we can come up with for the whole game really, is the fact that you can't manage your global inventory while your onboard the Ebon Hawk. You're in control of every single item of clothing gear and accessories your crew members have, but once your party has an item equipped it's out of the global inventory until you get it back. If you want to transfer a particular pistol or implant from one character not currently in your party to another, the tedious procedure of leaving the ship, selecting a character who has the item in question, taking the item away from them and giving it to the new character is a bit of a pain. A game that's otherwise brilliant should have a more sensible system than this.
The minigames in KOTOR are a nice diversion if you ever get sick of roaming the galaxy as a badass Jedi and you're given an introduction to most of them early on. The card game Pazaak, swoop racing and turret battles are all integrated into the story, so you WILL have to learn them and be good, but I see them more as a way of fleshing out the Star Wars credibility that Knights of the Old Republic has in excess.
Also, whatever the downloadable content happens to be, we'll all have another reason to thank Xbox Live for giving us the ability to upgrade an already marvelous game.
Knights of the Old Republic has the look of an action title, not a console RPG. In fact, it'll end up having more in common, in terms of visuals, with this fall's Jedi Knight: Jedi Academy than you might expect. Detailed character models, the lip-synching and combat animations, and extremely impressive environmental effects are the game's strengths and overwhelm any problems it has with framerate. The camera system is very reliable and won't leave you in a lurch like the one found in Pirates of the Caribbean.
The locations in KOTOR are so beautifully rendered, you've got to think that George Lucas himself would want to pay a visit to Bioware to find out how they created such impressive digital mountains and buildings. You'll go from the murky Shadowlands on the surface of the forest-planet Kashyyk, to the bowels of a Sith battleship to the dusty dunes of good old Tatooine in this game and never does one environment look or feel like another. The grasses on Dantooine and Kashyyk bend and sway as you disturb them walking by, an effect that at one time was supposed to be the hallmark of an Xbox game. On Tattoine you'll be able to see little swirls of dust spin up into little whirlwinds and dissipate. Even when you reach the limits of areas you can explore and are looking out at the backdrop painting on, say, the ocean world of Manaan or rocky planet Korriban, that painting is so detailed that it looks like you could venture out across the rest of the planet if only this was an action game with a jump button. We end up getting the same effect in a Star Wars videogame that we get in the movies.
The real-time lighting in the game is a little sketchy, however, because you can get what appear to be real-time shadows when you're trudging across the Tatooine desert or space-walking like Buzz Aldrin, but when you spark up a lightsaber in a dark cave, you won't get any reflections of the cave's inner surfaces. Nonetheless the bloom lighting when you look up at the blazing suns on Tattooine is blindingly spectacular, and you'll really appreciate it when you move your character so that the suns are suddenly blocked out by a gigantic Sandcrawler.
The characters in Knights, all 300 of them it seems, are all drawn and animated with plenty of believable detail and the game's story certainly wouldn't be as compelling if they weren't. Considering you can change the clothing, equipment and weapons of the nine characters that will eventually be in your squad and that these changes are instant, Bioware could've been inviting disaster if they hadn't known what they were doing. You can look at your television and appreciate the difference between Carth's personal blaster and a Heavy Mandalorian blaster that somebody might be carrying. We're still trying to figure out the subtle differences between a Jedi Robe, a Jedi Knight Robe and Jedi Master Robe, but we know they're there because the multiple kinds of armor and battlesuits all have differences that you can recognize.
It's when the characters in this role-playing game start moving and speaking, that all your Star Wars fantasies come true. All of the conversations are letterboxed cutscenes so you can see the text of the dialogue and your responses in the black bars above and below the picture. The fact that you can read, listen and see the character's mouth (if it has one) moving draws you into the experience of this Star Wars story because you see the wrinkles on a treacherous Twi'lek's face or the giant Wookiee looming over your character. If we had one nit to pick it's that using the game engine in the conversation scenes (the camera basically zooms in close) reveals a few shortcomings in the facial expression system but then again it certainly keeps things quick and seamless with loading times between action and dialogue.
Another gripe we have to point out is the limited number of faces in the game. You get 15 male and 15 female to choose from in creating your character, but we were flabbergasted to find some of the ones we didn't use, or at least variations thereof, in the game as NPCs. The character we created looked remarkably like a younger version of Jolee Bindo, a key character in the game. And this is even more noticeable when you start looking closely at the alien races. Now we know why Greedo kept popping up in the original Star Wars movie, they literally all look alike.
You won't get much of a thrill from the combat early on because using ranged weapons is your best bet in the beginning. But getting your hands on a lightsaber or two upon becoming a Jedi really opens things up. There are unique dueling animations that take into account the number of sabers involved in the fight and the proficiency of the combatants. A lightsaber fight against a Dark Jedi early in the game may look nothing like a fight against a Dark Jedi Master later on because both you and your enemy will be stronger by then. At first you're simply happy to see your Jedi whirling and slashing a saber by throwing multiple flurry attacks against an enemy. By the time you level up to a 15 or 16 Jedi, you'll be mixing in force powers in between lightsaber swings and enemies (even soldiers wielding conventional blades) will have better defense. This is how you'll get spectacular lightsaber clashes with all of that glowing energy and that crackling sound. But you'll actually see your character and enemy lunge and parry and end up with their blades crossed, each pushing into the other trying to get the advantage. It's all very quick and subtle but also very satisfying if you pay attention.
The performers in Knights of the Old Republic, as a group, might have delivered the best voice-acting we've ever heard in a videogame. They're all outstanding from top to bottom and consistently deliver heavy doses of personality and emotion that help make this such a compelling Star Wars story. And this isn't limited to the melodramatics either; there are some lines in KOTOR that are genuinely funny. Afterthoughts, comments made under the breath and all kinds of little details like that are used liberally throughout the game to convey meaning and wouldn't have been possible with low-budget voice talent. The sound effects themselves are a no-brainer as Bioware dipped into the same library of Star Wars sound effects that every developer from Raven to Factor 5 has used to bring their games to life. The surround sound is well applied in a game of this type and really punctuates the importance of a battle after you've been walking around talking for extended periods of time.
Everybody's got plenty to say in Knights. The only person who doesn't speak is your character. The voice acting talent on board for this game is impressive but once you get into the story, you will stop trying to remember who is being played by Ed Asner because all the dialogue, from all the characters, major and minor, is top notch. Whether it's a Sith soldier trying to goad you into a fight, a drunken mercenary trying to swoop on a couple of space chicks or a Jedi's disapproving mother, there's nothing canned or fake about the responses you get from these people. This goes for non-English (or Basic for the Star Nerds out there) speakers too. A Wookiee's voice goes from a whining whimper to a roar when he starts talking about something emotional, just like Chewbacca showed us back in the day. Droids beep and bloop but will make that robo-flatulation sound R2D2 used to make when they disagree with something. All the Rodians sound like Greedo, the Twi'lek's like Bib Fortuna and the Duros sound like those two guys talking at the same time and arguing with each other in the cantina in the original Episode IV. Exactly what you expect from a Star Wars game no?
The only sound more satisfying than the crackle and hum of a lightsaber starting up is the sound of two sabers lighting up. The sound effects in KOTOR are perfect. Beginning with the lightsabers and blasters, on to the roar of a ship's engines to the clanging of metal on metal when a blast door shuts, this game has the sounds of the franchise nailed. And that's all we have to say about that.
The music in the game is subtle but it's always there and is equally outstanding. Bioware's clever move to simply replicate the Episode IV-VI feel with new characters is reinforced with the themes we know from those movies. You'll hear the Imperial Death March even though it'll take Darth Vader 4000 more years to write it. Many of John William's themes are present as background music when you're shuffling around Tattoine or Dantooine. The original music in the game is brought to the forefront whenever you're travelling in the Ebon Hawk during a cutscene but it all fits in the larger program Bioware has given us: "This is Star Wars, but our version."
Click here to see more Microsoft Xbox Video Game Reviews