"In that familiar galaxy far, far away, some 4000 years before the long-ago events of the two Star Wars film trilogies, the Republic is threatened by a Sith army led by Darth Malak. Its fate lies with the sultry yet sour-mouthed Jedi Bastilla, who possesses a potent ability called Battle Meditation that allowed her to kill Malak’s former master Revan. She’s not doing so well as the game opens, though, as a Sith armada destroys her vessel and forces her to hide out on Taris, a decaying urban world..."
In that familiar galaxy far, far away, some 4000 years before the long-ago events of the two Star Wars film trilogies, the Republic is threatened by a Sith army led by Darth Malak. Its fate lies with the sultry yet sour-mouthed Jedi Bastilla, who possesses a potent ability called Battle Meditation that allowed her to kill Malak’s former master Revan. She’s not doing so well as the game opens, though, as a Sith armada destroys her vessel and forces her to hide out on Taris, a decaying urban world dominated by gangs and blockaded by the Sith fleet. Rescuing her and escaping from Taris is the first priority for our gallant hero. From there the story takes a predictably epic path as the brave protagonist evolves into a powerful Jedi to combat ever-grander threats.
Larger-than-life? Of course. Even without Natalie Portman, this already feels bigger than Episodes I and II put together.
Indeed, the relentless tension and galaxy-in-the-balance stakes featured here would make an appropriate opening for an action Star Wars title, perhaps an addition to the Rogue Squadron series popular on Nintendo’s consoles. But instead, it is the prelude to Bioware’s much more ambitious effort, Knights of the Old Republic. Producing a Star Wars game is itself uniquely demanding -- the pressure is always high from the moment the ink is dry on this illustrious license. But Bioware’s vision of a massive, galaxy-spanning RPG set in George Lucas’s sci-fi universe seemed too good to be true for Star Wars fans: a chance for personal immersion in the universe of the saga. It doesn’t come off perfectly, to be sure, but it’s an immediately impressive and ultimately enthralling tale -- and its determined aspirations earn it some extra credit for degree of difficulty.
This is the most gripping game I’ve played in a long time. Aside from the respected and famous Bastilla, your troop is a shamelessly motley one, but lovable and engaging all the same. Your first friend, the practical military man Carth, is probably the most boring of them (aside from the obligatory Wookie), though even he has a suspicious tension with the player-character that keeps one interested. But just wait until you recruit a Mandalorian super soldier with a predilication toward the Dark Side and a fondness for heavy weapons -- and trust me when I say that no soft-haired pod-racing whiners will be joining your crew. The villains are no less great, and as detestable as your friends are affable -- Malak’s like a meaner and less afflicted Vader, and a fine assortment of bounty hunters, gang leaders, and fallen Jedi provide him with adequate sidekicks.
Sadly Bioware doesn’t seem to trust its own awesomely woven tale, nor its compelling dramatis personae, to carry the day. Presumably trying to avoid the curse of being “too linear,” they’ve employed a dialogue system based on multiple-choice responses. While a few players may tout such options as evidence of a non-linear plot, more often than not the player feels more trapped than liberated. With the weight of the fate of the galaxy on your shoulders you feel a certain compulsion to avoid the flippant or derogatory response. Insulting potential party members when I’m already nigh-friendless on a hostile planet just doesn’t seem like the smart play. With the constant pressure to suck up, the dialogue system feels more like a multiple choice exam than a natural and freeing conversational engine. Sometimes it feels appropriate -- for instance, when you’re trying to dig information out of a bar patron, greasing the wheels correctly is part of the challenge -- but all too often I have a friendly chat with a party member and am offered dialogue options that seem perfectly calculated to alienate my only ally. All this distraction is an unwieldy solution to an issue of linearity that’s hardly a problem at all: the game’s plot is more than compelling enough to stand on its own.
Moreover, linearity is a non-issue because the larger framework of the game offers the player an amazing variety of relevant and exciting choices. There’s the standard AD&D stuff -- classes (soldier, scoundrel, scout), weapons specialties, and so on. You’re also given a chance to alter your character’s appearance and name, although you’re limited to a small selection of portraits. But these are small potatoes compared to the big question: will you follow the light or the dark path?
Despite the big battles, the Star Wars series has often been about simple, smaller-scale human drama. For instance, we might see a motley crew escaping from a trash compactor, or the effort to free a young boy from slavery. Because of this quality to the Star Wars universe, the little sidequests that seem disingenuous and absurd in many RPGs feel right at home in Knights; but more than that, Bioware has made such simple events the foundation of a compelling alignment system.
To take an example, when you meet a guy in debt surrounded by leg-breaking loan sharks, you can either help him out or join the sharks in collecting the bounty on the delinquent’s head. This isn’t as bad as the “find my pet” stuff you might see in other games but in the grand scale its pretty irrelevant; nevertheless, it’s just the kind of simple problem the film Jedi would stop to deal with, so it feels less of a distraction and more a vital part of the mission. Who you help in such a situation will tilt you toward the Light or Dark Side. It’s that simple, but your alignment is crucial to the game: it affects the cost of Force Powers as you become a more proficient Jedi -- quick tip: if you want Palpatine’s awesome purple lightning, start slaughtering innocents -- and it also affects the outcome of the plot. Certainly most everyone who beats Knights will be eager to fire it up for a second go, this time appealing to opposite instincts.
Bioware’s molding of the Star Wars license to make sidequests worthwhile is creative and deserves accolades, but the license also appeals viscerally. Shortly after beginning the game, I stumbled upon the “flourish weapon” feature, which prompts the main character to swing his sword in an impressive flurry as he runs along -- and having witnessed how sweet that looked, I powered through the next ten hours or so of the game in less than a day, eager to try it out with a lightsaber. No doubt, those signature weapons are rendered beautifully; saber-on-saber battles are a visual show. Knights hides all the RPG dice-rolling and proficiency-checking behind the scenes, a move that allows fights to appear in real-time -- but with efficient action menus and queues for each member of your party, this is decidedly an RPG that just looks like an action game.
The larger-scale battles are yet more brilliant: to take an early example, no player will soon forget the Sith bombardment of Taris. It’s a marvelous display, with the orbiting armada smashing a planet in old-school, pre-Death Star fashion. You can’t help but desire more moments of such power, but I suppose even the Sith fleet is limited – nevertheless, the game is chock-full of other brilliant CGIs. And while the environments tend to be quite lifeless, full of drab gunmetal bulkheads and unadorned walls, when your characters set down to fight the detailed efforts of Bioware are revealed. A huge array of animations, from parries to punishing downward swipes to lethal leaping attacks, make the game’s battles truly come to life.
The end result of all this is a game with all the bells and whistles of an RPG that can just as well serve as an action game. Bioware adds to that by tapping Star Wars for all its worth -- as soon as that yellow text starts scrolling and John Williams’s tunes begin playing, you’re firmly stuck in Lucas’s playground. And it’s clear, although this is the first real attempt, that Star Wars is amazingly well-suited to an RPG adaptation -- even ignoring its success in pen-and-paper RPGs, it’s got the cool collectible items and weapons, the variety of locations, and the wide assortment of characters that are essential to any title in the genre, plus some amazing music and great visual effects easily adapted to a video game. Success was in this game’s genes from the beginning, to be sure, but Bioware has raised it with creativity and skill: the result is a title that easily overcomes its own few flaws with simply staggering appeal. Knights of the Old Republic is a must-play.
Community review by denouement (June 19, 2004)
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