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.