Game Description: Long before the Galactic Civil War, an epic drama begins. Engage in this saga set in the Golden Age of the Republic—over 4,000 years before the first Star Wars film, when both Jedi and Sith number in the thousands. With the Galaxy reeling from a recent conflict with the Dark Lords, the ongoing battle between the Jedi and the Sith rages on. Your actions determine the outcome of this colossal galactic war—and your destiny as a Jedi.
There have been plenty of times when I've wished my life was structured similarly to the existential glee found in certain videogames, games like Star Wars: Knights Of The Old Republic. Like a scene straight out of Mike Judge's first film Office Space, my editors often hunt me down to say, "I'm gonna have to ask you to come in on Saturday." Right about then I always wish time would freeze and a response menu would pop up in front of me. By Knights Of The Old Republic logic, the choices would naturally look like this:
"Sure no problem sir! My weekend's free."
"Well, first let's talk about... my reward for doing this."
"(Persuade/Lie) I'm getting circumsised this weekend.
"I'm going to enjoy gutting you."
Star Wars: Knights Of The Old Republic, a role-playing adventure set 4,000 years before the first Star Wars films, often puts you in similar situations. What response would benefit you the most? Do you get on someone's good side, even though it would require more work? How would you be able to benefit from this? Can you snake your way out of this without any kind of hassle? Maybe you can just kill the bastard, and none would be the wiser. The main draw of the game is that these decisions will determine your path and characteristics, choosing between the light side and dark side of the Force, the blanket explanation for everything illogical or unexplainable in the Star Wars mythology.
You can start off choosing the beginning characteristics of your character, including sex, race and skills. There are a surprising variety of faces available to the player, with a pleasant mix of white, black and asian-centric portraits. Contrary to that, you get only three choices of what your character can be: a scout, scoundrel or a soldier, all with varying degrees of specialties. Soldiers specialize in straight combat, while a scout would be adept in stealth and computer usage. However, all those attributes can be customized, depending on the frequency of upgrading your abilities. The plot will then follow your character through the rise of the Sith nation, post-Mandalorian wars and the rise of the Republic forces. Eventually your avatar would become a Jedi Knight, the pillar of justice and light that is central to the Star Wars mythology. The game then opens up with more customization options concerning Force powers, which work just like magic spells in most role-playing games, complete with healing spells and lightning spells. Characters can also upgrade feats (which are special powers and attributes, for example allowing your character to dish out an extra hit) and abilities (like hacking or repairing).
Combat is purely turn-based, although it usually doesn't look like it. It's more in the tradition of Squaresoft's Secret Of Mana or computer RPGs in that it often looks like real-time combat. Switching targets is creatively assigned to the L and R triggers, while menu decisions are chosen with the directional pad. The X button queues up commands, so you can micromanage yourself along with the other two allies you're allowed to have per team. Therefore it's easy to make sure the Force-concentrated Jedi (Jedi Consular) keeps healing, while the battle-oriented knight (Jedi Guardian) keeps wailing away with one of his special physical attacks. The game makes good use of the entire Xbox controller, and for the most part the control layout feels intuitive, at least after some initial confusion.
The thing that surprised me the most about the game was how surprisingly good and linear the narrative turned out to be. The game is structured more like a console RPG, following a motley crew of scouts, scoundrels and wisemen while they save the galaxy. However, the characters are allowed to be more identifiable, well-rounded and complex than even some of their movie counterparts. It's probably not fair to say that the story in Knights Of The Old Republic is better than the recent films, given that games have more liberal use of time than film. However anyone who soaks in Star Wars mythology would be pleased that the material is handled expertly and creatively.
Then come the different pathways. The game is not nearly as open-ended as I first perceived, and it strictly follows the narrative, no matter what path you take. There are several opportunities to deviate from the main quest to gain experience, money, items or even historical information. The minute-to-minute decisions you make directly effect the outcome of certain quests, but the main goal always remains the same. Near the end, a dramatic plot twist occurs and your decisions in the aftermath affect the outcome. Suddenly the rift between light and dark would become evident (if it weren't already with choices like "Sure I'll help!" to "Shut up and die!") and effects the outcome. I might complain about the fact that this structure is not revolutionary, and that certain games (Fallout, Deus Ex) have handled this before just as well, if not better.
However, there are enough elements in the story to make both paths in the Force work perfectly within the context of the plot and its themes. I can't reveal much, but falling all the way to the dark side of the Force makes just as much sense as being a goody two shoes throughout the entire game. This respect towards logic and narrative coherency goes a long way for my appreciation with this game, and both outcomes are equally rewarding.
The game overall is nearly as rewarding, with several unfortunate technical issues holding it back. The item inventory screen is pure hell to navigate. It's separated into quest items, usable items, equippable items and new items, as well as the hellish "all items" menu. Spoiled by Squaresoft's user-friendly inventory handling, I was shocked that there's no way you can sort your inventory by category or type of weapon. Instead all the items are listed in alphabetical order. Of course, the menus still serve the function, but the new items menu was the only real problematic one. Often times I would finish a task and the game would say that I received a new item without specifying what it was. I'd check the new menu item, only to see nearly every single item I've ever received! It's not clear what the time frame is for this new items menu, and for the most part I never checked it because it is so unreliable. And you get a gaggle of items, each specific to one time of ability or another. So usually you wouldn't even use most of the items, since your character concentration wouldn't have any need for items of other concentrations.
Then there're the bugs. There's one instance before entering the Sand People enclave where the game consistently freezes up while loading the next area (and I hope you love loading screens, because the game's loading screens are many). Other times characters would warp around the immediate area or clip in and out of doors. Sometimes characters would lock up and lose their ability to move, act, talk or anything. It's not that there are bugs, because it seems to be a requisite in videogames to have bugs now. But some of the above mentioned are so unpredictable and disorienting that they had a profound impact on my comfort level while playing.
Still, the level of artistry and imagination that went into this game is astounding. Some of the set pieces and their busy backgrounds are a marvel to witness. It's hard to determine whether the Star Wars aesthetics inspired Bioware to apply a wide arrange of color and life into the galaxy of this game. But they've successfully applied the dynamics of a text adventure to the light/dark dynamics of the Star Wars universe. It's a natural fit, and it all comes together when the player is presented with difficult decisions like the one I illustrated above.
It's important for me to remember, however, that even with the difficult situations presented in the game, my life could never be that simple and inconsequential. I could never live with outside the reins of my role as a member of society, therefore there'd be no possible way I could gut my boss. It's probably why I enjoyed this game a great deal. I can ruminate on consequences for a few minutes, before deciding to kill the bastard and no one will be the wiser. I didn't really get any answers or solutions from playing the game. But Star Wars: Knights Of The Old Republic game has helped me acknowledge my appointed limits, all the while giving the illusion that there are less in this videogame galaxy.
Disclaimer: This review is based on the Xbox version of the game.
According to ESRB, this game contains: Violence
Parents be advised, some of the darker situations in the game are straight up vindictive and evil. It's all very carefully orchestrated, but the fact that the player is given a choice might be of concern.
RPG fans, particularly Xbox owners, will want to check it out, if only to indulge in an RPG taking place in the ripe Star Wars mythology.
Xbox owners probably have another must-buy game in a console with so few.
Star Wars fans have no excuse to not have this game as part of their memorabillia collection. It expands on the universe in a creative and imaginative way, with plenty of aspects that Star Wars fans will love without being too self-absorbed to please fans.
The Deaf and Hard of Hearing have plenty of subtitles for them to help along the way, and there don't seem to be any necessary audio clues of note.
Before the hate mail starts coming in for giving it an eight, let me say that Star Wars: Knights Of The Old Republic is a good videogame. It's doubly good on the Xbox, since it's the only substantial role-playing game (RPG) for Microsoft's machine outside of The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, Metal Dungeon, and possibly Pirates Of The Caribbean, though it's safe to say that they all stray from what one usually expects of a console RPG. However, would I call it a great game? I guess that would depend on your love of the Star Wars license.
Me? I'm definitely a Star Wars fan, though not a fanboy. The original trilogy of films will live forever in my personal hall of fame (sans Ewoks), and I continue to look forward to games set in the universe George Lucas created. Therefore, a big part of me is thrilled by Knights Of The Old Republic. The characters are excellent, and very reminiscent of the original Millennium Falcon crew. The voices are just as good and the amount of dialogue quite robust. Noteworthy on their own merits, the way these things combine to establish the weight of choice between the Light and Dark sides of the Force really satisfies. This aspect of the game shines, and my hat is off to BioWare for it.
In fact, although Gene was somewhat hesitant to say it, I will: I found Knights Of The Old Republic to be far more enjoyable than the last two Star Wars films. Of course, comparing games to films is difficult and somewhat pointless, but the fact remains that after just two hours of Knights Of The Old Republic I was far more enthralled in its story and personalities than I was throughout the entirety of Lucas' recent special-effects orgies. I wish that George had the BioWare writing staff on board when hacking together Episodes One and Two, since he and his writers can definitely learn a thing or two here.
Stepping out of my role as Star Wars cheerleader for the rest of this review, I'm sad to say that the level of technical quality is strong with the Dark side of the Force. So strong, in fact, that I agonized over scoring it even lower. People who aren't Star Wars fans could conceivably take a point off of my final rating due to several issues that really can't be glossed over.
As a whole the game feels pretty rough, the lack of polish and number of bugs very disappointing. Originally designed for play on the PC, it's clearly not optimized to run as smoothly as it could on the Xbox. To illustrate my point, I actually had a save file corrupt during gameplay and destroy my progress. In certain locations my entire party would freeze, leaving me unable to do anything but restart the machine. I also had one character irretrievably materialize on the wrong side of a locked door, necessitating yet another restart. Leaving this many potholes in such a high-profile title is unthinkable.
Moving on to smaller issues, the Xbox's considerable strengths seem to be largely untapped. For example, I was shocked at the amount of loading the game requires. With use of the hard drive and some streaming techniques, there's no reason these constant pauses during gameplay couldn't have been avoided. The graphics are fairly blah as well. The character models are simplistic, and the number of times you'll see faces repeated on non-player characters is totally unacceptable—especially since Shenmue on the Dreamcast had entire towns full of unique individuals. In addition, the framerate is wildly inconsistent. Going from silky-smooth one moment to missing entire animation sequences the next, another few months of cosmetic work to iron things out would have done wonders.
Finally, not a complaint but more of a heads-up, the game is not tailored to console sensibilities. As Gene noted, the menus are extremely cumbersome (evidently nobody at BioWare ever played a console RPG before) and the combat is based on a PC-style "point-and-click" system. The game looks like a fast-paced Action-RPG with its 3D exploration and over-the-shoulder viewpoint, but appearances can be deceiving. I'm not saying this is a bad thing, but don't come into the game expecting finger-blistering immersive combat. With a detached approach built from a foundation of Dungeons & Dragons rules, success in battle is more about good stats and lucky "rolls" than it is about sharp reflexes. Familiar ground to PC vets, console players may be in for a bit of culture shock.
Despite the heavy PC feel, unpolished appearance, and more glitches than I'm accustomed to tolerating, Star Wars: Knights Of The Old Republic still manages to deliver a compelling experience. It may not be the most balanced, well-paced or graphically stunning game out there, but it's definitely got class enough to warrant a purchase thanks to the intelligent dialogue, smart characters, and the true spirit of Star Wars that's been missing for far too long. Oh, and the lightsabers don't hurt, either.
Disclaimer: This review is based on the Xbox version of the game.