Powerful this one is.
It is a dark time for the Republic. The Jedi heroes of the Mandalore War have fallen to the Dark Side. The Sith have taken over the Outer Rim worlds and their armada approaches Coruscant. Every day they add fallen Jedi to their numbers. Every day more planets fall to them; more races are enslaved. High above Taris, the ENDAR SPIRE, a Republic capital ship, is falling before DARTH MALAK and his Sith Fleet. Republic escape pods trace meteoric trails against Taris’s skyline. It’s up to you to make it on to one of those escape pods, find BASTILA, a Jedi Knight whose Battle Meditation may turn the tide against the Sith, and get her through the Sith blockade back to the Republic.
Such begins Knights of the Old Republic, the first computer role playing game set in the Star Wars Universe (though it is a port of the Xbox game). KOTOR has three starting character classes for the human male or female character and three Jedi classes after your character is trained in the ways of the Force. With a game lasting considerably longer that the two trilogies combined, Bioware has created a rich gaming experience blending traditional arcade elements, story driven role playing, and challenging third person combat.
KOTOR is based on the 3rd edition of AD&D, meaning that while your character is attacking something, behind the scenes the computer is busy rolling virtual dice to see if you are hitting, how much damage you are doing, and checking to see if you are making your saving throws. KOTOR includes the traditional AD&D attributes with their relevance adjusted for Star Wars (i.e. Wisdom affects your command of the Force). Your character also acquires skills (like persuasive speech and computer hacking) and feats, which are largely combat centered. The feats determine the type of armor you can wear and the kinds of weaponry you are proficient with. Finally, once you enter Jedi training, your character can add Force powers, like Heal or Choke and strengthen them as you gain levels of experience.
When I first heard that a Star Wars RPG was making its way to the PC I expected the game would play out from an isometric view point. I would have been pleased with that, but KOTOR is a stunning (if limited) 3D game played from a third person perspective. The limitation comes from a camera which moves 360° along the x-axis, but only has a limited y-axis. What you can see is beautiful. KOTOR contains over five worlds to explore from the lush forests of Kashyyyk to the ocean world of Manaan. These worlds contain ambient life, large populations, and vivid scenery.
As you might expect, exploring these worlds often leads to combat. Combat in KOTOR is real-time, turn-based. Clicking on an opponent activates your character’s default attack. Using the HUD above the enemy allows you to cue a wider variety of attacks including special feat-based ones (like a Sniper attack), grenade attacks, or Force Powers. There are many weapons to be found: the clumsy, random blaster, the elegant lightsaber, thermal detonators, and the more visceral vibroswords. There are also many armor options, biomechanical implants, personal shields, and various useful equipment items for you and your party, including armor and weapon upgrades.
If any element stands out in KOTOR, it has to be the characters in your party. Every character has depth and a detailed back story: murderous droid, renegade Wookie, fallen Jedi, and more. They react with each other, offer their insight on the game’s developments, and flesh out the gaming experience. Unlike most CRPGs, these guys are far more than pack mules or cannon fodder.
I should probably wrap this section up by saying that the music and sound effects in this game are top notch, including hours of the best voice acting I’ve heard. This is vitally important in KOTOR, since so much is determined by conversation. I think the conversation options in KOTOR are the strongest example of role playing in the game. You customize your character far more by determining what to say, than by assigning points to specific attributes.
In spite of all KOTOR has going for it, KOTOR comes off as an unpolished gem. This game is already racking up Game of the Year nods, and definitely deserves it, but doesn’t make the leap to “Best Game Ever”. First off, this release is buggy. There are a few typos, some crashes, and interesting quirks that motivate the player to save frequently.
Here are some other nitpicks:
Aliens speak to you in their native tongue with the translated dialogue appearing in subtitles. This is great even though it seems that each species has the same looping dialogue. However, their speech tends to go on longer than it should. While not everyone reads at the same speed, it would be nice if the designers had either cut some of the alien soundtrack down or used more dynamic visuals during the dialogue scenes—added interesting camera angles, made the characters more animated while they spoke, etc.
KOTOR has three types of minigames found throughout the game. The first one you experience is Pazaak, a card game closer to Blackjack than Sabacc. I think elements of Pazaak will always be problematic, but playing it could be more fun if the characters you played against taunted you, if you could actually see people turn over cards (attempt to read their expressions, etc), or at the very least, print the name of the person you are playing against instead of just having “Opponent” written over their deck of cards.
The other two minigames: swoop racing and a space combat turret sequence, are arcade games you run into while playing KOTOR. While I enjoyed these games, at certain points you have to beat them to advance in the game. RPGs shouldn’t require great dexterity on the part of the player, so I’d call making these minigames mandatory a misstep.
If there’s one thing that didn’t ring true in this game it’s the setting: 4000 years before the movies. I’m not familiar with the Expanded Universe, but I expected a more primitive setting than the one found here. Familiar names like Organa and Fett kept popping up. Sith ships looked similar to Imperial capital ships. Maybe I’m wrong, but think about Earth 400 years ago, let alone 4000.
Finally… well KOTOR is an RPG, but it’s scripted such that your character has to be human and become a Jedi (there’s a level capping issue I don’t even want to get into). It would be nice (in a sequel) to have the chance to play the game as a nonhuman and a non-Jedi. I think more adaptability would redraw the line between RPG and Third Person Action/Adventure—a line that seems blurred in KOTOR.
The Bottom Line
At one point in KOTOR, your character is presented with a hypothetical situation: You are the commander-in-chief. You have intercepted an enemy transmission. In five days, one of your cities will be attacked. In ten days, the enemy will exhibit a critical weakness allowing you to defeat them. Do you alert the city, letting the enemy know you’ve intercepted their plans or do you let your city get destroyed so you can beat your enemy? While this situation is hypothetical, it is similar to the choices your character will have to make throughout KOTOR.
KOTOR is an action-packed RPG, with worlds full of scum, villainy, valiance, and nobility. The story is focused, gripping, and poignant. I highly recommend this game.
FYI: I completed the game in a little under 36 hours.