Reviewed: August 29, 2003
Released: July 15, 2003
Leave it to the wizards at BioWare and LucasArts to join forces and create the ultimate Star Wars role-playing game. The fact that this title is currently an Xbox console-exclusive (PC version is in the works) certainly gives Xbox owners a reason to brag and GameCube and PS2 ownerís reason to sulk.
Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (KOTOR) is a game of epic vision and scale. Normally I shy away from these types of games since they often get drawn out and repetitive, but BioWare has managed to infuse the traditionally stale RPG genre with a heavy dose of Star Wars flava, including a rich history that details the origins of the Jedi, the Republic, and of course, the evil Sith. Encompassing events dating more than 4,000 years prior to the movies, KOTOR will certainly appeal to the countless masses of Star Wars followers.
KOTOR is built around the traditional pen and paper role-playing games, but all of the messy paperwork and complicated d20 modified die rolls are all handled behind the scenes leaving the gamer free to explore and marvel at the wonderful worlds BioWare has created. There is more gameplay here than any two other RPG games and plenty of reasons to replay the game at least twice, if not more.
Part of KOTORís brilliance is the relative freedom you have while playing. Never before has your destiny been left in your hands. Not only can you choose from a potential gallery of nine characters to form your three-person party, you often have multiple solutions to nearly every puzzle in the game, often determining your light or dark side affiliation with the Force. This leads to multiple side quests and two very distinct endings where you decide your fate and the fate of the galaxy.
Despite the 4000-year time difference you will visit several familiar locations and several new ones. There are six planets and you are given the freedom to choose the order you visit four of them. Each planet has a main quest and at least a dozen side quests. There are hundreds of NPC characters to interact with, side quests, and mini-games like Pazaak and Swoop Racing to break up the monotony and allow you to earn extra income. Many of these are optional so if you are like me and just canít stand one more swoop race you can skip it and move on toward your ultimate destiny.
There is so much about this story that I want to share but anything I might say here could potentially spoil the game. Suffice to say there is more intelligent storytelling going on here than the last two Star Wars movies combined. Never before have I been this riveted to a game, coming back night after night for my KOTOR-fix.
Itís a good thing KOTOR is so awesome otherwise I would have snapped the disc in half three weeks ago and never looked back. It is most unfortunate that the best game currently available for the Xbox is also the buggiest. Iím currently on my third copy of the game and Iíve tried each copy on multiple systems so this is definitely either a manufacturing defect or something is seriously wrong in the code that handles the data stream from disc to memory.
To date, I have experienced 114 lock-ups, every CG movie stutters, stops, or simply skips to the end, and my save files corrupt themselves showing 11437+ hours of gameplay. This covers all three copies, two different Xboxís and more than 67 hours of gameplay. Lock-ups occur at random but generally during disc access such as saving, loading, movies, or just starting the game. My first lock-up took place ten minutes out of the box while trying to type in my character name. Sometimes Iíll start KOTOR and it just dumps to a white screen. Other times it will take 2-3 minutes to load a new section of a level and when it finally loads my main character has no head.
Iíve learned to live with the bugs and save religiously every 15-20 minutes. Itís still a shame that the best game Iíve ever played on the Xbox is also the most troublesome. I should also make note of the horrible load times, not so much each one, which may range from 5-20 seconds, but the fact that the game loads way too often, sometimes after only one or two rooms. Swoop racing is particularly annoying when you have a race that is 23.47 seconds long but it takes 40 seconds to exit the race after you lose and another 40 seconds to try again. But enough of the problems - Iíve vented my three weeks of frustration and am now ready to sing the praises of KOTOR.
For those of you who have played third-generation D&D rules role-playing games you will know exactly what is going on from the moment you start creating your character. For everyone else, you really wonít care because creating your character is incredibly easy and lots of fun. Each character has a set of attributes, skills, and feats, and these are slowly expanded and built-up throughout the game. You have the option of letting the game make these decisions for you (bad idea) or taking the time to thoughtfully mold a character that might be useful in the later levels.
You get to choose between male and female then pick from three classes, which basically translates, to fighter, thief, and something in-between. Later on when you unlock the powers of the Force you get to further define your character as one of three types of Jedi. All of this freedom makes each game quite unique and allows you to approach puzzles and side quests from various angles.
To aid you in your epic quest you have a varied cast of characters that hook-up with you along the way. These characters then become available to add to your party, which cannot exceed more than three members (including yourself) at any time. Youíll quickly find your favorite crew but with choices like a psychotic assassin droid, powerful Wookie, spunky teenage Twiílek, computer hacking, lock-picking astromech droid, and several others, youíll often need to tailor each party to complete the immediate tasks at hand.
Each member will often have skills that others lack so by combining the perfect threesome you can have a multipurpose team of players that can solve most any problem. And best of all, experience points are awarded on a global level, so even the members you leave back at your base will level-up the next time you add them to the party.
Despite all of the imaginative side quests and innovative gameplay, KOTOR still finds its roots in turn-based combat and typical adventure-style puzzle solving. Admittedly, the puzzles are great fun and wildly diverse, even when itís something as simple as going to get object A and returning it to a person at location B. The combat system is where a lot of people are going to get thrown for a loop, but it is actually quite simple and perfectly implemented.
Each time you encounter an enemy the game pauses (this is an option toggle) and you can dictate the actions of your party. You can preload a series of four moves for each character or simply select targets for each member and let them do their default attack. You can also setup AI scripts for the two party members you arenít controlling. This allows you to have members who will prioritize their attacks with grenades, Force Powers, or rush into standard melee.
Itís all turn-based and all the results are determined by the roll of unseen dice combined with modifiers based on your stats, skills, and any items or equipment you have equipped. The combat will actually play itself out if you leave it alone but by fine-tuning the combat you can be a devastating force of nature.
Take this example. My party of three Jedi enters a hangar and is met by a pair of Dark Jedi, a Sith Captain, and four Troopers. All three of my characters do the best damage with their double-bladed lightsabers but in the time it takes to get into melee range I can get off some initial range attacks. I use Force Stasis on the Sith Captain (the obvious big target) then follow-up with some critical strikes on the same target. I have one of my other Jedi target each of the Dark Jedi and disable their Force abilities so they cannot attack us with Force powers then I follow-up with Force Whirlwind to get then spinning in the air. My third character targets each of the four Troopers and uses Force Stasis on them. It will take four rounds for all of them to become paralyzed but the actions are queued nonetheless.
Returning to semi-real-time, all of these actions begin to unfold in turn-by-turn events. Assuming none of the enemy can meet their saving throws I have a bunch of paralyzed guys with two of them spinning helplessly in the air after the first four rounds. Then itís just a matter of moving in and beating on them with lightsabers until they are dead. This is just one example. You also have droids with flamethrowers and lasers; plasma, ion, poison gas, and concussion grenades you can throw, and proximity mines you can use to setup elaborate traps.
During combat you can use the D-pad to select various sub-commands like real-time healing, additional Force powers, or activating shield generators or other equipment. You can only control one character at a time but pushing the black button cycles the characters. It gets pretty hectic trying to do it all mid-combat, so you can always pause with the white button and pre-load your character commands at any time. It sounds complicated but the game eases you into it through progressively more difficulty combat, so without even knowing it, you will learn how to program complex battle tactics. Iíve often cleared out a room in my initial attack simply through careful selection of tactical abilities.
The trick is to use the various skills of each team member to complement the others. Have one person in charge of disabling and paralyzing while another does range damage and another gets in close for melee attacks. The game is even smart enough not to use grenades when other party members may be in splash damage range.
Throughout the entire game you are constantly making decisions that alter your alliance with the Force. Almost every puzzle and quest has multiple solutions, one pushing you toward the Dark Side and another moving you into those angelic clouds of the Light Side. You alignment factors in to the cost of various Force powers. While good Jedi can use Dark powers they do so at an enhanced cost of Force points and likewise for Dark Jedi using Light powers. There are also universal powers that anyone can freely use.
Between adventures you and your party members are gathered together at your base. This is an abandoned apartment on the first planet but soon turns into a cool spaceship called the Ebon Hawk. The Ebon Hawk is amazing and you are free to explore its many rooms almost like a mini-level. Your party will scatter about and you can engage in idle conversation that furthers the story. Each member also has a specialty and can build items for you like grenades or computer spikes. There are even a few adventures that take place on the Ebon Hawk like a stowaway and an infestation of rapidly multiplying creatures.
The Ebon Hawk also as a workbench that allows you to upgrade a variety of weapons and armor. Throughout the game you will locate pistols, armor, swords, etc. that can be upgraded by installing components to enhance their damage or give them other modifying bonuses. This is particularly useful for your lightsabers, which use three crystals, one for color and two for enhancements.
There are a few mini-games that crop up from time to time on various planets and in various establishments. Pazaak is an additive little card game that resembles Black Jack only with some really twisted rules. Itís a lot of fun, but you wonít get rich quick playing it. Swoop racing is another pastime that you will have to play on Taris. It is basically the predecessor to pod racing, but you are racing the clock in a drag racing event. These sprints are all about proper acceleration and hitting the turbo pads. You can also race on Tatooine and Manaan. The Tatooine races will help you fulfill a side quest while the Manaan races are simply about money. The only other part of the game that deviates from the norm is the turret battles. These are usually integrated into the story but you can also talk to HK-47 and trigger a simulated attack just for fun.
There are a few quests that stand out so prominently they are almost mini-games of their own. These include a crime scene investigation on Dantooine and a murder investigation and trial on Manaan where you actually act as arbiter in a real courtroom drama. These are brilliantly written and crafted as such that you will never guess your way through them. You actually have to think and act like a real investigator and collect all the clues. Itís brainteasers like these that keep KOTOR from becoming just another mindless hack-n-slash RPG.
Kudos to what is easily the best interface of any console RPG game to date. Making excellent use of the right and left triggers to shift through pages of data, quest logs, maps, character sheets, etc., everything is at your fingertips. On character specific screens you can still use the black button to cycle party members. Equipping your character is simple. Just pick one of the many slots for hands, arms, head, body, and any available items for that slot are displayed. Choose an item and it will be added to the slot and any attributes updated in real-time. Itís pure genius.
And while I donít know what BioWare has in store for us, the option for downloadable content has been included. I canít imagine what they could possibly add to what is easily one of the best RPG games ever made and one of the best Xbox game currently available.
KOTOR has a third-person style to it that might cause some initial confusion. It look like an action game but you canít jump, crouch, or do anything other than walk or run around and interact with objects that are highlighted. Objects that would otherwise blend into the background are easily distinguishable with the action circle and you can cycle this target around the room with the left and right trigger.
The game is an odd mix of stunning backgrounds and environments combined with excellent primary character design. In areas of great population you will see some very obvious doubling-up of character models. Some characters like Sith Troopers, Jawas, and Sand People are easily explained away when you use the same model, but youíll still get tired of seeing the same aliens and human models used over and over again.
The character animation is superb with unique animations for each character and any type of attack or action they might take. Naturally, melee combat offers the best action and there is nothing more exciting that seeing three of your Jedi battling multiple foes with swirling beams of light. Thereís no blood, dismemberment, or any gratuitous violence. Enemies will just drop dead when they run out of hit points.
There are plenty of excellent special effects and most of these are tied into the huge library of Force powers. Naturally, attacks like lightning, whirlwind, and stasis are the most impressive but there is something to be said when your little droid rolls up and unleashes his flamethrower. Concussion grenades, healing auras, and shields all cast obvious glows and particle effects around your characters or the enemy.
Each of the planets is quite unique and maintains a consistent theme throughout. Youíll start off in the high-tech city of Taris, which looks remarkably like Bespin, with towering spires and smooth curved lines. Dantooine is a mix of grasslands and wilderness settings while Tatooine looks just like it did in the movie complete with bright sun, yellow desert stretching to the horizon and adobe huts making up the spaceport city of Anchorhead. Kashyyk is home to the Wookies and is a mix of tree house architecture and the sinister Shadowland surrounding the base of these kilometer-high trees. Perhaps the most stunning of all levels is Manaan, a futuristic city even more impressive than Taris that is built over an ocean. Youíll even get to take a mini-sub to an underwater base and don a diving suit for some action on the ocean floor.
The cutscenes are a mix of game-engine graphics used for most of the conversations and in-game narratives and some excellent CG movies used between planets to tell major plot points. No matter which type of movie you are watching, they are all very professional and blend together seamlessly.
As always, the music is total perfection using traditional Star Wars themes and blending them into subtle background tunes that enhance the gameplay and add emotional punch. There are specific tunes for specific planets and places on those planets. I was disappointed that with all of the cantinas I visited there wasnít any jazz combo playing. It was mostly heavy rhythmic dance tunes.
The sounds are equally as perfect as the music. Drawing from the vast library of Skywalker Sound you have all the audio goodness that we get in the movies and every other Star Wars game ever created. Lasers sound like lasers and lightsabers have that unmistakable hum. There are plenty of ambient sounds like idle crowd chatter on busy city streets, the hum of your shipís engines on the Ebon Hawk, the howling winds on the Dune Sea, the hollow echoes of the underwater research station on Manaan and the metallic thunk of footsteps when you are space walking on the outer hull of the Leviathan.
Of course what really steals the show is the amazing voice work, both in quality and quantity. Every line of dialog other than your own is spoken, even that of the aliens. The game helps you out by making your character a master of alien languages, so even when the Jawaís are babbling in their alien tongue you can read a perfect translation below. The only time you need a translator is for the Sand People. All of the alien dialect is flawlessly reproduced and some of it is totally original. Youíll end up reading the subtitles and skipping the alien voices, but youíll be mesmerized by the amazing performances of all the Basic speaking characters. Everyone has unique accents and delivers their lines with perfect emotion. Bastilla has an incredible English accent, Mission sounds like a typical rebel teenage girl, and HK-47 steals the show with some of the best lines in gaming history.
The entire sound package is presented in a Dolby Digital mix that surrounds you in audio bliss. You will hear conversations coming from various speakers and the sounds of battle, clashing lightsabers, and cosmic Force powers will come from all directions. This is one of the few Star Wars games that actually rivals the movies in overall sound presentation.
If you want the ultimate bang for your gaming buck then look no further. My first pass through KOTOR took me 72 hours (nearly a month of nightly playing). This was going down the Light path. The Dark path is substantially shorter since many quests arenít available and others are more quickly solved through violence rather than cunning and diplomacy. While I havenít finished the Dark path even estimating half the playtime you are still looking at a single player campaign with more than 100 hours of original gameplay.
And this isnít even taking into account the three character classes at the beginning of the game or the three Jedi classes later on. Choosing male or female can influence possible future romantic involvements with party members but there are no substantial changes in the gameplay associated with gender. Donít even think about renting this game - just go buy it now.
Even if Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic wasnít built around the legendary Star Wars universe it would still be an amazing RPG. The gameplay is fresh and exciting and the interface is flawless. The story has been meticulously crafted and interwoven with intriguing side quests that you are free to complete or ignore.
And there lies KOTORís most valuable feature, total freedom, freedom to go where you want to go, do what you want to do, and let the adventure unfold at your own pace. This is what RPG gaming has always been about and thanks to BioWare we can hopefully see a paradigm shift in the way future RPG games are created. For now, anyone with an Xbox owes it to themselves to make this game a permanent addition to their Xbox library.