My ally is the Force, and a powerful ally it is.
With such great lengths of time separating Star Wars movies, it's been a bit unnerving playing and reviewing two Star Wars RPGs in the very same month. It's also an exceptional treat for a game reviewer, and the sort of thing that gets people mad at me when I talk about it. Then I'm forced to listen to them talk about their lame job at the gas station.
The sad truth is that 90% of the time my job actually involves a lot of hard work, long hours typing at the keyboard and plenty of tedious tasks. There are times, however, when my job is far more fun than it has any right to be, and I have to say that playing Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic has been one of those times.
The other SW game I recently reviewed, Star Wars: Galaxies, had some notable problems, and although I spent plenty of hours dancing the cha cha with my Wookiee (I never thought I'd get to say that), it never really felt like Star Wars. But despite the fact that both these games are Star Wars RPGs, they couldn't be more different. Star Wars: KOTOR is a rich single-player experience with one of the most developed storylines ever seen in a game. And best of all, it feels like Star Wars.
It all takes place an even longer time ago in a galaxy far, far away. It's 4,000 years before a young farmboy from Tatooine asked old Ben Kenobi for the truth about his father. In this ancient past, the galaxy is reeling in the aftermath of the Mandelorian Wars. Two of the Republic's greatest generals disappeared, taking much of the victorious Republic fleet along with them. When they returned, it was as Sith Lords, and they have come back not as returning heroes, but as conquerors.
Your ship is attacked by the Sith fleet, and the few survivors' escape pods crash to the planet Taris. You and a fellow Republic soldier, Carth, are left alone to fend for yourselves in the teeming cities of Taris and to search for another survivor, the mysterious Jedi Padawan known as Bastila.
But first, you must figure out who you are going to be. Knights of the Old Republic uses a tweaked version of Bioware's Aurora engine - the same one used to make Neverwinter Nights - so fans will feel right at home making their first character since the system of stats and D20 rolls is almost exactly the same. There are three classes to chose from: Scout, Soldier and Rogue. Each features different balances of "feats," like two-weapon fighting or sniper-shot, and "skills," like demolitions or repair. I won't give anything away, but let's just say that later there are three classes of Jedi to choose from as well.
Your party can consist of up to 3 people at any one time, so you can focus further to have a heavy combat party, a mix of skills or an all-MacGyver squad of sneaky tech-spies. There are 9 possible teammates you can enlist during the game, ranging from a clever teenage Twi'lek to a psychotic assassin droid.
The action gets frantic, with blaster bolts flying and plenty of fancy lightsaber moves, but underneath the glossy exterior, it's typical RPG combat: your skills and stats vs. theirs. You can pause and unpause the combat at any time to give your characters specific orders and queue up to three combat moves. However, if that sort of micromanagement isn't your style, your party actually fights pretty well on its own and you can just sit back and watch the show instead.
It all depends on how you want to play the game, and there are truly a lot of ways to play KOTOR. Want something from inside that room of enemy droids? You could (a) burst in with guns blazing and try to destroy them all, (b) use your stealth skills to sneak in and steal what you need, (c) use your computer skills to hack the system and turn off the droids, or (d) use your repair skill to refurbish some droids of your own to do the fighting for you.
This is only one example; the game is simply chock full of choices in tactics, conversations and even morality.
But no matter how you want to play, you'll look good doing it. KOTOR has moved the Neverwinter camera in closer, giving the game a more action-oriented feel. And for the most part, it looks great. Character models are much more detailed and animated than in Neverwinter, but they're still a little blocky around the edges and things can stutter a bit during intense combat.
Also, there just aren't quite enough faces in the game. You'll soon notice that a lot of people look the same. One green Twi'lek in particular seems to be following me around the galaxy assuming different identities. These little problems are noticeable, but forgivable when you observe all the little pretty details and the sheer number of people or aliens that might be walking around a given area, like a busy city street. On the whole, the game looks great.
And the sound might be even better. The classic John Williams scoring can be heard here and there, but for the most part the soundtrack is excellent original work. The sound effects are taken straight from the movies, so they can't fail to please. And the voice work is simply exceptional. A whole cast of professional actors (including Ed Asner) was used to give voices to every single person in the game. That's right - every single line of dialogue (other than your own) is spoken. Every shopkeeper, every person in your party, every main character and even random people you accost in the street all speak aloud. Aliens speak in their respective alien languages with subtitles below. When you consider that most conversations have a few different ways to go based on your responses, KOTOR must have more hours of dialogue than all five Star Wars movies put together.
It's your actions and dialogue choices that really define your character in every sense of the word. KOTOR lets you be as good or as evil as you like. Recover the serum for the dreaded rahkghoul disease and you can turn it over to the clinic to help the sick and needy, or you can sell it to crimelord Davik who will supply the cure only to those rich enough to afford it. Your choices will move you towards the Light or the Dark side, and even change your appearance. As I have fallen further and further to the Dark, my character has been cultivating a fine black goatee, much like evil Spock from the evil bearded universe.
KOTOR is truly epic in scope as well, spanning seven planets you can visit using your own starship, the Ebon Hawk (which for some reason, is not black). Bioware claims KOTOR has 40 hours of gameplay, but it took me much longer than that. Those guys must have been rushing through as fast as they could.
Which, by the way, is the wrong way to play KOTOR. There are dozens of side quests you might choose to undertake. There are mini-games here as well, like Swoopbike racing, arena fighting, or a collectable gambling card game called Pazaak. There's more extra stuff here than you can shake a light saber at.
Knights of the Old Republic is everything a Star Wars game should be. In fact, it's everything a Star Wars epic should be, with a galaxy-spanning plot worthy of the first trilogy and better than the second. It might not do anything new that Neverwinter Nights didn't do last year, but it's a fantastic adaptation and a must-have Xbox game. The Force is very strong in this one.