Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic
It’s about damn time! That was the first thought that sprang into my head when I learned that Bioware was developing a role-playing game set in the Star Wars universe. Up to that point there had been countless space combat simulations, third person action/adventure titles and even one very lame fighting game that carried George Lucas’ coveted sci-fi license, but not a single RPG. That seemed quite strange to me as the Star Wars galaxy is one that millions of people love exploring, be it through films, novels, games or whatever else they can get their hands on. Bioware assured that their game, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, would do the Star Wars name proud by featuring an epic storyline and nonlinear gameplay that promised to satiate even the most diehard RPG fan’s appetite. But, I remained skeptical.
I knew that nothing less than an absolute masterpiece would leave me, and the millions of other Star Wars fans out there, severely disappointed. Too many games had come before offering up the world, only to end up being a mere shell of what they could, and should, have been. I honestly expected Knights of the Old Republic (henceforth – Knights) to be released, receive mild acclaim from a smattering of forgiving Star Wars enthusiasts, and quickly fade away like so many other Xbox titles that failed to live up to their enormous hype. Well, I could not have been more wrong. Knights has exceeded my expectations in every way possible and surpasses just about every RPG of the past five years in terms of overall gameplay balance, story, combat mechanics, presentation and just plain entertainment value.
I am genuinely shocked. Somehow Bioware managed to take fairly simple pen and paper RPG elements, add the perfect combination of story-driven linearity and gameplay freedom and mix it all together with the elusive mystique that makes Star Wars so compelling. Every single aspect of the game exudes quality, whether it is the masterful voice acting done for both human and alien species or the uncountable small graphical touches like the realistic swaying grass and flocks of birds flying gracefully overhead on the planet of Dantooine. Knights excels in so many ways that I guarantee years from now people will consider it a classic and refuse to sell their copies, even with the inevitably lofty asking prices it will garner at internet auction websites. This game has me so enamored I could sit here and babble about its greatness for hours, but I’ll try my best to refrain from the excessive gushing and present a clear and concise breakdown of why it is such a stunning success.
The events of the game take place 4000 years before the reign of Emperor Palpatine and the formation of the Galactic Empire. A huge Sith armada, lead by former Jedi hero Darth Malak, is sweeping the galaxy and laying waste to all who oppose its awesome might. The Jedi Order is severely weakened, because the Sith war machine is ruthlessly hunting and exterminating its members. Even worse, many Jedi Knights have been corrupted by the dark side and now swear allegiance to the new Sith Master. The character you control is remarkably gifted in the Force and ends up getting caught up in this web of intrigue that spans multiple planets and a whopping 60-70 hours of gameplay time.
This original storyline concocted by Bioware is quite incredible because it captures the magic of Star Wars perfectly, yet it also successfully strikes out on its own due to the ancient timeframe of the game’s plot. You’ll have the opportunity to really delve into Star Wars lore like never before and uncover interesting tidbits like the history of Tatooine’s Sand People and why the Mandalorians (Boba Fett’s kind) gravitate towards bounty hunting. Star Wars aficionados will lap this stuff up, but the uninitiated will also find it easy to get into and equally compelling. Knights’ plot is easily worthy of a feature film, in fact, it’s far more credible then the ones found in George Lucas’ most recent movie efforts (ie – Knights has zero cheesy dialog and no ridiculous fart and belch humor).
When it comes to gameplay, many people describe Knights as the Star Wars version of Morrowind, but this isn’t totally accurate. Though containing a robust number of side quests, multiple paths through the main story and the freedom to go wherever you please (once you get your own starship), this is much more of a character and plot driven game than Bethesda’s epic RPG. Nearly every single individual you talk to has their own back-story and unique personality (that is enhanced by some fantastic voice acting), so you really get emotionally attached to the characters in the game, especially those in your party. Also, there are also a good number of cut scenes shown (though not as many as you’ll find in the average Final Fantasy title) to help advance the plot at key points throughout the game. No other RPG I have ever played strikes such a perfect balance between plot-driven linearity and gameplay freedom – Knights of the Old Republic is a role-player everyone can get into and appreciate.
One of the ways the game is similar to Morrowind is in the player creation process. You are able to choose details like gender, appearance and name, but the most important decision made during this procedure is whether you will be a soldier, scout or scoundrel. Each class has different advantages and weaknesses, so gameplay will be significantly different depending on what is chosen. Not interested in conversing much? Pick the soldier class and let your weapon do the talking. Like avoiding conflict? Choose to be a scoundrel and use your wily skills (such as persuasion and stealth) to get out of sticky situations. Even the sex of your character has bearing on how the game plays out, as people will treat you differently depending on your whether you are male or female. As with Morrowind, designing your own character effectively immerses you into the game, because you feel particularly attached to your personalized alter ego.
After playing Knights for only a short time, you will figure out that most of the gameplay consists of exploration, battling and talking to people (and aliens) in order to advance the plot, complete side quests or just gain general information. Dialog is handled exceptionally well, because you are constantly given the opportunity to change the flow of the conversations with detailed response lists. How you respond during the game’s numerous conversations has a big influence on how much info you are able to receive and, more importantly, whether you end up aligning yourself with the light or dark side of the Force. If you constantly threaten, berate, or torment those you talk to, you’ll find yourself racking up points towards the dark side – act just, compassionate and understanding and you’ll move towards the light side (you can actually see your current alignment via a meter in the pause menu). Depending on your alignment people will act different towards you, the Force powers you can wield change and many major plot points in the storyline will alter. This nonlinearity extends the lifespan of Knights immensely, as you will have to play through two or three times in order to see all of what the game has to offer.
Though using a third person perspective, the actual maneuvering and keeping track of your character is never a chore, because the camera stays remarkably well behaved. Bioware did an excellent job of designing the environments so that everything can be seen without having to tilt the camera either up or down (though you can switch to a free look mode if you want). Sometimes you’ll have to swing the camera to the left or right to get a better view of something, but that is easily done due to the convenient location of the Xbox controller’s right analog stick.
At various points during exploration you will come across armed mines, locked chests and doors, computer panels and other interactive items. When attempting to perform tasks like disarming, unlocking, repairing, etc, the relevant skill level of the character attempting the action determines the success rate. This adds a good deal of importance to which characters you choose to place in your party (which can consist of three members total). Let’s say the group you are using has no party member with a high skill level in demolitions. If you happen to run across a mine infested area it can be a real pain trying to navigate your way through, and there will inevitably be situations where walking over a mine is unavoidable, such as when they are directly in front of doors. Thankfully, the folks at Bioware had the foresight to include the ability to switch characters right from the pause menu screen so you can call up your demolitions expert and have them handle the problem ASAP.
When situations degenerate into violence, which they frequently do if you are following the dark side of the Force, the game’s excellent combat mechanics come into play. Basically, Knights takes simple pen and paper RPG elements and fuses them with extremely cinematic looking battle animations. Lightsaber duelists will thrust, parry and block in a very realistic manner, but under the surface the combatants’ relevant stats and random dice rolls are determining the amount of damage taken or whether or not a block or dodge is successful. This goes for every other method of combat, including the use of blasters, grenades and force powers. Pressing the white button allows you to pause the current battle so you can cycle through each party member and give him or her individual orders. It may sound simple, but I’ll be blunt – the battle system used in Knights of the Old Republic is the best I have ever seen in an RPG. Period. It is so fluid, intuitive and engaging that I doubt I will ever be able to stomach using traditional turn-based systems again. Trust me – it really is that excellent.
Now I know you are dying to ask – does this game have any mini-games?! Well, okay… you probably aren’t. But, regardless, there are some diversionary side games in Knights and (surprise!) they are actually quite good. Sometimes when planet hopping in the Ebon Hawk (your Millennium Falcon-esque spaceship), Sith fighters will attack and you have to man the top-mounted blaster turret to eliminate the threat. This is not terribly challenging, but it does make your episodes of space travel much more interesting. At other points in the game you are be able to enter swoop races (think Star Wars drag racing) or try your hand at the addictive card game of Pazaak (for all you Han Solo & Lando Calrissian types out there). I have gambled away thousands of credits in various smoky cantinas throughout the galaxy playing Pazaak – money that I’m just starting to earn back as I find better and better cards to use.
Graphically, Knights of the Old Republic is absolutely gorgeous. No matter what planet you are traversing, the surrounding environments are so realistically rendered that you often just have to stop and marvel at the beauty of it all. The tall grasses on the planets of Dantooine and Kashyyk lean gently to the side as you pass through them. On Tatooine a brisk wind causes sand particles to wisp about and dusty tent flaps to irritably snap back and forth. Just like in Morrowind, water undulates realistically and reflects the glimmer of the sun just like it would in real life. Though you are restricted in how far you can explore, the dazzling backdrops and enormous draw distance make it seem like wandering the entire planet is a completely feasible option. The only thing that takes away from the visual splendor is a slightly jumpy framerate, though it isn’t terrible by any stretch of the imagination.
The character models are just as impressive as the environments. Metallic armor glistens in the sunlight, hair sways realistically with movement and faces accurately morph to portray a variety of emotions. The attention to detail doesn’t stop with the humans either. Every alien species from Rodians to Wookies are perfectly modeled from stubby earflap to shaggy toe. Also, the animation quality in Knights is astounding. Watching a Jedi Knight wield two lightsabers (one in each hand) gracefully in combat is a real treat, as is witnessing the use of the coveted double-bladed saber. Even simple walking and gesturing animations are wonderfully done and totally believable. My only gripe concerning the character models is the fact that Bioware didn’t develop enough NPC faces, as they are recycled far too excessively.
The voice work in Knights has to be some of the best I have ever heard in a videogame. Professional voice actors handled the entire script (which consists of hours and hours of dialog), so every conversation sounds utterly convincing, no matter if it is coming from Joe Schmoe the janitor or Darth Malak himself. Remarkably, Bioware managed to perfectly replicate the language of nearly every single alien species found in the Star Wars Universe. Wookies roar when riled up, Rodians sound just like Greedo, Jawas emit a high-pitched jabbering and Gamorreans squeal and grunt just like they do in the movies. In fact, the alien dialog is almost too well done, as I often find myself marveling over the authenticity of the language instead of reading the actual on-screen text translation. The rest of the game’s sound effects are all spot-on, whether it’s the hum of a lightsaber or the sound of a blaster shot being fired.
John Williams’ classic score is a bit understated in Knights, but still as poignant as ever. By understated, I mean the music stays in the background for most of the game, though still noticeable enough to subtly draw forth the appropriate emotional response when needed. Memorable compositions like the Force theme and the Imperial March make appearances, as will some top-quality original pieces. Overall, the music quality in the game is first-rate, but that’s nothing too surprising – Star Wars videogames have always had spectacular soundtracks.
It isn’t one thing that makes Knights of the Old Republic such a masterful RPG, but a remarkable amalgamation of brilliant gameplay elements, jaw-dropping presentation and a huge helping of that special Star Wars magic. If you are a Yoda-impersonating, plastic lightsaber swinging Star Wars nut, consider this the best game to be released since, well…ever. If you aren’t really familiar with George Lucas’ immense sci-fi universe, then don’t worry – this is still one of the best RPGs to come down the pipe in a long, long time. Now grab up that trusty lightsaber and make sure those Jedi robes are clean – it’s time to head out on a grand galaxy-spanning adventure that you will not soon forget.