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SummaryThe Force is strong in BioWare's games
The GoodWhen I heard about Knights of the Old Republic, I knew immediately I had to play it. It turned out to be a magnificent story-driven RPG very much in the spirit of BioWare's seminal Baldur's Gate games.
Since some people got interested in this game thanks to the Star Wars setting, let's talk about it first. I assume most of the readers have watched at least one of the Star Wars movies and know what they are about. I probably cannot add much to what has been written about Star Wars since the release of Episode IV. I consider Star Wars a fine example of modern-day pseudo-mythology, which revives some of the most ancient, "eternal" conflicts, adding to it ethical overtones clearly influenced by Eastern philosophy and religions. It cannot be denied that Star Wars universe can be a veritable treasure if it falls into the right hands. And the folks from BioWare managed to squeeze every ounce of quality out of this setting.
The universe of Knights of the Old Republic is a beautiful, living world, which takes full advantage of Star Wars' unique mixture of science fiction and Oriental medieval fantasy. To put it simply, you'll experience the Star Wars universe in all its glory in this game. You'll be navigating ultra-modern enemy bases with deadly assault droids and security terminals to override. You'll be shopping in booming futuristic cities and settlements. You'll descend into ominous ancient temples, fight with lightsabers in meditation rooms, explore spaceships, forests, deserts, and the depths of the ocean.
The locations come to life thanks to the marvelous graphics. "Breathtaking" is the word that comes to mind when you behold the sunset over the ocean in Manaan, look down into the abyss in the Korriban valley, or descend into the Shadowlands on Kashyyyk. Particularly impressive are the stunningly movie-like cinematic cutscenes, all done with in-game engine. Add to that fantastic music, appropriate sound effects (gotta love this buzzing sound of lightsabers) and above-average voice acting, and you'll be drawn into an atmospheric world you won't be able to forget.
Like famous ancient epics (such as Mahabharata), Star Wars is interested in archetypal ethical questions and the battle between good and evil. Knights of the Old Republic captures precisely the ethical spirit of Star Wars and translates it into RPG mechanics.
The main plot of the game is in many ways comparable to the one of the movie saga, dealing precisely with the same issues - the nature of mankind, the nature of the Force, the nature of good and evil. In fact, the narrative of the game is in many ways deeper - not to mention more detailed - than the one of the movies.
For about as long as halfway into the game, the narrative looks like solid and interesting, yet fairly simple in that traditional "good vs. evil" way. However, just then an awesome plot twist turns everything upside down. No, I won't spoil it for you, and I regret a friend of mine has spoiled it for me - without me asking for that - right after the game was released. Nevertheless, I was impressed by the way the plot twist was handled, even though I knew it was coming.
Remember how BioWare created a complex, living world in Baldur's Gate series, through careful attention to detail and clever dialogues? They did the same for Knights of the Old Republic. Here is where the difference between this game's world and the one depicted in Star Wars movies - and the superiority of the former - becomes apparent. Star Wars movies threw all kinds of weird aliens into the pot, but did little to create an actual background for them. Knights of the Old Republic, on the other hand, builds whole worlds for all those species, adding a lot to their credibility by presenting simple, yet fantastically realistic (if I may say so) small stories.
For example, all you knew about Chewbacca from the original Star Wars trilogy is that he looked like a big furball, and that he moaned instead of talking. In Knights of the Old Republic, however, you are faced with a deep and interesting slavery issue on the wookie planet Kashyyyk - you meet a wookie chieftain who has sold his own people into slavery in order to become what he is, his brother who was proclaimed mad and had to flee the planet, and their father, who was unable to restore justice. This is just an example of the many fascinating quests that you'll undertake while playing the game. They have a broad range of themes - racism, sociology, politics, prejudices, traditions, tolerance, and other issues that were pretty much left out of the movies.
You shape the main character yourself, choosing either the Light or the Dark way, but this affects not only you, but also your love interest. All your companions have original background stories and fully developed personalities. Party members initiate conversations with each other if you choose to take them with you. This encourages experimenting with various party formations, if only to hear what they have to say to each other. Try taking the Republican soldier Carth and the Mandalorian Canderous, former enemies, into your party, and you'll witness some hefty word exchanges. What's more, often party members will want to talk to you and provide you with plenty of background information about themselves. You can also talk to them at any time, and the conversation lines change as time passes.
The writing is overall excellent. Almost each conversation has numerous "trees": you can talk to characters nicely, ask lots of questions, persuade them, lie to them, threaten them, and so on. By the way, every single line of dialogue in this game is spoken (except your character's lines). There is a lot of humor in the dialogues, typically for BioWare's games. Especially amusing are some of the "Dark Side" answers; your character sounds like some sort of a hyperactive first-grader with his constant "Fine. And now I'll kill you!".
Some of the side-quests also offer good amusement, though perhaps not intentionally. The "alien language" conversations are quite funny - each type of aliens simply says his own kind of nonsense over and over again, regardless the "translation" that appears below. The Twi'leks for example blurt something like "Ka-achi ka, hotonga!" no matter if they threaten to kill you or welcome you to a planet.
The combat utilizes the famed Infinity Engine, pretty much the same system that was implemented in Baldur's Gate games, only now you have three active party members instead of six. You can now "program" your characters for up to three turns - for example, making a priest-type character cast Force Speed, Force Aura, and then attack, without interfering each time the turn is over. The combat system works as well as always, providing plenty of fun.
The RPG system is the same good old AD&D adapted to Star Wars universe. So instead of wearing chainmail you'll go with the Mandalorian assault armor, ion rifles with +10 damage against droids will replace bows with fire arrows, and you'll be wielding lightsabers only usable by Jedi and not a Holy Sword only usable by paladins. The system is very balanced and actually features all the traditional classes (fighter, thief, mage, etc.) in disguise - a Jedi Guardian is a sort of a paladin, Dark Jedis make great offensive evil-aligned mages, Scoundrel is much like a thief, etc. Instead of magic there are, of course, Force powers. Now you'll see how cool it is to stun enemies or lift them into the air by the sheer power of thought and concentration. Particularly cool are such powers as Affect Mind, which allows you to persuade a character to do what you ask during a conversation.
A lot of cool field skills were added to the game. Beside traditional stealth or security skill (which is the same as lockpick) you have such interesting abilities as computer skill, which allows you to access computers, repair droids, and do other cool stuff. Some areas in the game are reminiscent of Deus Ex: you can choose either to take out all the enemies in battles, hack into a computer, making security turrets kill the foes, program a droid to turn against its own masters, etc.
The game has a perfect pace: it firmly follows the main story, yet at the same time there are plenty of side-quests available on each given planet. You'll want to explore every corner of this wonderful world and talk to all the characters, trying to find yet another interesting side quest. The game can get pretty long if you decide to do all the side quests, It has the best parts of both linearity and non-linearity - you never feel you are lost, there is always a goal in mind (the very handy journal also keeps track of all your quests), but at the same time there is always something to explore and stray away from the main quest.
The BadThe structure of the narrative was a bit too formulaic; basically, the largest bulk of the game is occupied by the quest for the Star Map pieces - which, frankly, wasn't the most exciting activity per se. Of course, I hardly paid attention to it, since the smaller quests were so interesting, but perhaps they could have thrown in more interesting ideas into the main one.
I understand that the game has made a transition into 3D, but was it really a hardware limitation that forced the developers to reduce the amount of active party members from six to three? I certainly hope I'll be able to play a party-based RPG with 3D graphics and a six-people party some day.
I remember how challenging Baldur's Gate games were; Knights of the Old Republic is much more forgiving, perhaps too much so. Many battles can be won by simply setting everyone on auto, without applying any strategy.