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SummaryThe Force is still strong in BioWare's games
The GoodWhen I heard that BioWare's was doing Star Wars, I knew that I'll have to lay my paws on this game the moment it comes out. By and large, I was satisfied: Knights of the Old Republic is a well-crafted, reasonably deep RPG adorned with exotic planets and Jedi powers.
Anyone familiar with the company's most classic offering, Baldur's Gate II, will recognize its design traits in Knights of the Old Republic. It doesn't offer as much freedom and content as open-ended RPGs, but it is skillful at substituting quantity for quality in its optional content. The game firmly follows its interesting main story, yet there are well-written, engaging side quests available on each given planet. You'll want to explore every corner of the world and talk to all the characters to get maximum value out of the game.
The RPG system is a successfully implemented modification of 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 well-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 entertaining are powers such as Affect Mind, which allows you to persuade a character to do what you ask during a conversation.
Several useful field skills were added to the game. Besides traditional stealth or security skill (which is the same as lockpicking) 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 almost 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, instruct a droid to turn against its own masters, etc. The real-time-with-pause combat system works the same way as before, though with unfortunate reduction of active player-controlled combatants. 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.
You can shape the main character by choosing either the Light or the Dark way of the traditional Star Wars lore. This affects not only you, but also your love interest, and the game keeps track of your decisions and alignment at all times by adjusting certain gameplay elements (such as the Force powers you are able to learn) accordingly. Like in Baldur's Gate II, much of the fun is derived from interacting with the characters who join you. All your companions have original background stories and fully developed personalities. They would 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 teaming up the Republican soldier Carth and the Mandalorian Canderous, who were formerly enemies, and you'll witness some hefty word exchanges. Often companions will want to talk to you and provide you with more information about themselves. You can also talk to them whenever you want to, 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 questions, persuade them, lie to them, threaten them, and so on. By the way, every single line of dialogue in this game is voiced (except your character's lines). There is quite a bit of humor in the dialogues; especially amusing are some of the "Dark Side" answers, where your character sounds like some sort of a violently hyperactive first-grader with his constant "Fine. And now I'll kill you!".
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 slightly Oriental fantasy. You'll explore ultra-modern enemy bases with deadly assault droids and security terminals to override, shop in booming futuristic cities and settlements, descend into ominous ancient temples, fight using lightsabers in meditation rooms, access spaceships, forests, deserts, and the depths of the ocean.
Those locations come to life thanks to superb graphics. 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 great music, appropriate sound effects (who doesn't love the buzzing sound of lightsabers?), and above-average voice acting.
Knights of the Old Republic intuitively captures the storytelling spirit of Star Wars and translates it very well into RPG mechanics. Like most good epics, Star Wars is concerned with ethical archetypes - the eternal battle between good and evil. The main plot of the game is in many ways comparable to the one of the movie saga, dealing with similar issues - the nature of mankind, the Force, and so on. In fact, the narrative of the game is in many ways deeper - not to mention more detailed - than the one of the movies. It also has one of the best plot twists in recent memory, almost reaching the heights of the famous paternal revelation in the second movie.
Attention to detail is where the difference between this game's world and the one depicted in Star Wars movies becomes apparent. Star Wars movies threw all kinds of weird aliens into the pot, but did almost nothing to create backgrounds for them. Knights of the Old Republic, on the other hand, builds whole worlds for those species, adding a lot to their credibility by presenting simple, yet convincing 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 an interesting 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 comparable quests you'll undertake while playing the game.
The BadKnights of the Old Republic was the first BioWare RPG jointly developed for a console. I'm not sure whether that was the decision to blame, but the game displays certain symptoms of simplification, as if the designers wanted to cater to a larger crowd and were determined to make their product mainstream, easily accessible, and user-friendly throughout. You can sense that in the game's overly symmetric structure and formulaic elements creeping into what is still infused with the spirit of the company's earlier work.
I understand that the game has made a transition into 3D, but was it really 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 an RPG with 3D graphics and six people in my party some day. I expected at least that the reduction to three combatants would increase the difficulty level, but it is not so: Knights of the Old Republic is noticeably easier than Baldur's Gate games, so you'll need to play it on Hard for a more authentic experience.
There also seem to be less variables in combat and party-building, as well as less items to experiment with. A bottomless inventory and the option to let the game outfit and level up your companions also seem like unnecessary nods to casual players. The game world could have been more expansive; particularly the planet surfaces suffer from artificial borders that cannot be overcome even if you train your jumping ability.
Advancement in Knights of the Old Republic is too convenient. I felt that the game was holding my hand more firmly than necessary. You never have to think about what to do next, and your tasks can be as formulaic as they are predictable. The bulk of the game is occupied by the quest for the Star Map pieces, which involves visiting a few different planets and completing the quests there. The downside of that arrangement is the knowledge that none of those locations is optional and you'll have to complete their main quests to get on with the plot.