"Re-watching Star Wars: Episode III lately, I marveled at the complex politics that the ill-fated prequel-ogy introduced to every nerd’s favorite very, very distant galaxy. Indeed, before the vicious Empire and the heroic Rebellion, there was the noble Republic and the scheming Separatists, and, ho! Before all that, there were the Jedi and the Sith—the religious zealots, if you will, of the interstellar Crusades. "
Re-watching Star Wars: Episode III lately, I marveled at the complex politics that the ill-fated prequel-ogy introduced to every nerd’s favorite very, very distant galaxy. Indeed, before the vicious Empire and the heroic Rebellion, there was the noble Republic and the scheming Separatists, and, ho! Before all that, there were the Jedi and the Sith--the religious zealots, if you will, of the interstellar Crusades.
But the Star Wars history never seems to end, and Knights of the Old Republic, the first RPG to feature smart-talking protocol droids, establishes a period over 4 millennia before our beloved snot Anakin Skywalker was even born. Here, four years after the Mandalorian War--yes, the Mandalorian War--the Sith, led by the ruthless Darth Malak, threaten to conquer the Republic’s domain with an inexplicably massive fleet. Luckily, the Republic has a few good men (and women), including a couple Jedi, willing to retrace Malak’s steps, discover his secrets, and bring his snooty, Force-bred arrogance to a halt.
Where the politics come in is mostly bare-bones warring-factions fantasy fare, but all the Episode III elements are there: there’s a Jedi Council, led by a mystical whatever-species-Yoda-is; a dwindling Republic obsessed with valiance and justice; planets and species taking sides in a pervasive war; and starships that seem to look cooler the older they are. BioWare has created a faithful extension to the Star Wars universe, dressing the stage with enough gusto to appropriately present the main attraction: an RPG with enough of its own ideas and mechanics to offset any of its gimmicky potential.
KotOR’s most famous element is its alignment system, where the player’s decisions and actions affect her alliance with either the Light Side--the path of honesty, justice, and humility--or the Dark Side--the path of arrogance, passion, and, frankly, more fun. A player’s alignment is mostly affected by her encounters with the game’s numerous NPCs. A typical scenario:
Alien Peasant: Thank you, Jedi, for saving me! Those bounty hunters are vicious, soulless creatures who’ll surely continue to hunt me down unless I repay my 300 credit debt.
1) “Oh, my! My, my, my. Here, I’ll pay off that debt for you.”
As you can guess, paying off his debt is the Light option, while outright killing the alien nails you some of those sweet, shameful Dark Side points. Throughout the game, certain pivotal moments require important moral decisions, further affecting your alignment, and the attitudes of your allies, your own physical representation, and even the game’s ending depend on your ultimate decisions.
The majority of the gameplay, however, is spent exploring settlements, meeting what seems like hundreds of characters, and solving various quests. The main story, like most RPGs, has you traveling the galaxy collecting the five pieces of an ancient artifact you’ll use to save the
world galaxy, though the game is littered with optional side-quests that provide the bulk of the Star Wars atmosphere. Some will ask you to simply dispense of some pesky raiders, while others, like one of my personal favorites, require you to take out your licensed Nancy Drew magnifying glass and solve a murder case that’s stumped the local Twi’lek authorities.
Combat, meanwhile, is less varied. Pretty much every battle requires the same tactics, save adjusting stat-boosters or Force powers for more powerful enemies. Fights occur in “real-time,” but they’re turn-based; characters with higher stats have an advantage, but the success of attacks depend on random “dice” rolls; weapons can be upgraded, but only barely--all in all, the combat system is effective, but confusing. The dice-roll system is explained in detail, and I suppose it’s possible to account for the mathematics, but it’s easier to simply resign to letting fate take its course: an attack either hits or it doesn’t. Though the fights occur in turns, commands are issued on-the-go, and thankfully the game provides a pause option. Micromanagement of your party is key, as is a thorough, strategic understanding of the strengths, weaknesses, and abilities of each of your three (at a time) party members.
Character upgrades consist of Skills, Feats, and Force powers, and leveling up is mostly at your discretion. Skills include things like Security, Intelligence, and Resist Injury; Feats are things like Armor Level, Power Attack, and Weapon Proficiency; and Force powers include everything from stat-boosters to lightning attacks. Customizing your character’s Feats and Force powers provides much of the adventure’s strategy, and there are incentives to choosing abilities that fit both your alignment and your class.
KotOR borrows much of the already brilliant Star Wars soundtrack, and the voice acting is superb, though alien races tend to use only two or three different voice tracks, endlessly repeating the same gibberish over the subtitles. The sound is mostly ambient and quite well executed, but the visuals are a different story. The character models are clean, and it’s often fun to see how your equipped inventory affects your party’s appearance, but the NPCs tend to all look the same. Environments are likewise smooth but sparsely detailed, and my machine crashed often enough to warrant a complaint about stability (I even had to turn off grass, which my computer couldn’t even render without choking up and freezing). The game has several other unnecessary bugs, such as stupid ally movement and, occasionally, a graphical dead-end. Not only are the battles, which often look beautiful with several lightsabers dancing at once, marred by slow frame rates, but even walking around town causes noticeable, unforgivable slowdown.
Nevertheless, Knights of the Old Republic shines in its presentation and execution. The alignment system ensures at least two or three varied and exciting replays, and there are enough surprises, such as potential romances with your party members, to keep things steamy. The main adventure is relatively short--only about 25 to 30 hours--but for players looking to squeeze out all the midichlorians they can, there are a few (forgettable) mini-games, many entertaining side-quests, and dozens of possibilities for either evil or grace.
And, of course, there’s always a history lesson to be had. Did you know the Czerka Corporation has outposts on several different worlds as a result of the Republic’s loose trade laws?
Yeah, me neither.
Community review by Knux (June 21, 2007)
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