Beware of the dark side. Anger, fear, aggression; the dark side of the Force are they.
Greetings, my young apprentice, uh, I mean reader. I'd like to tell you about a wonderful game called Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. This writeup is guaranteed spoiler-free, so pull up a bar stool, grab yourself a mug of Tarisian ale, get comfortable, and find out why this is a game you should pay good money for.
Developed by the fine folk at BioWare (responsible for such greats as Baldur's Gate and Neverwinter Nights), and published by LucasArts (naturally), comes the first ever single-player RPG based in the Star Wars universe. The first release was for the Xbox, in mid 2003, with a PC version due out later in the year.
KotOR is a highly story-oriented game. In the tradition of BioWare's other RPGs, you don't fight, struggle and quest because you want to blow shit up, or to chase the perpetual hanging carrot of the level-up, or even to prove that you can succeed. You do it because you want to find out what happens next. The resultant sense of intrigue and involvement with the game's characters makes for a deeper and more personal gaming experience than you'll get from a standard shooter or dungeon hack 'n' slash.
Four thousand years before the events described in Episode I, the Republic came under a serious threat. The game takes place in this time period, known as "The Sith Wars". Five years prior to KotOR, the Republic achieved final victory in a war against the Mandalorians in the galaxy's Outer Rim. The Mandalorians were a curious humanoid species who waged constant war; not to conquer, but to gain glory in battle, win or lose. Diplomacy was not an option, and as the Mandalorian forces encroached on Republic space, the Republic fleet suffered a series of terrible defeats against the ruthless and highly organised invasion.
The Senate appealed to the Jedi High Council for their assistance, but the Council refused. They wanted to gain more information about their adversary before committing to the war. Frustrated by the lack of action from their Masters, two of the most powerful young Jedi of that time, Revan and Malak, disobeyed the Council and joined the Republic forces, taking a contingent of like-minded Jedi with them. The two Jedi were invincible in combat, as well as talented tacticians, and soon they were commanding the war effort, with a full third of the fleet under their direct control. The Mandalorian offensive was slowed, then halted, and then completely disintegrated. Revan and Malak were hailed as heroes.
But just as victory was accomplished, Revan, Malak, and all the ships under their command vanished into hyperspace without a trace. The shocked Republic didn't know where they'd gone, or why.
Fast forward two years, and Revan and Malak returned, not as champions but as conquerers. Revan had declared himself Darth Revan, Dark Lord of the Sith, with Darth Malak as apprentice. They, and all the Jedi who had gone with them, had fallen to the dark side of the Force, consumed by anger and a lust for power. To make matters worse, the size of the Sith fleet was unprecedented, bolstered by ships, armour and weapons of an unknown alien design.
Already weakened by the conflict with the Mandalorians, and their own forces heavily reduced by Revan's betrayal, the Republic was near defenceless against the onslaught. System after system fell to Sith occupation. In a desperate ploy, the Jedi set a trap for Darth Revan, and destroyed him, but Darth Malak assumed the title of Dark Lord for himself and continued the conquest with even more savagery than his master.
These are dark times for the Republic, and your story is just about to begin ...
Full of Sabery Goodness
There aren't too many geeks out there who can truthfully say they haven't passionately wanted to be a Jedi Knight. Who among us hasn't dreamed of wielding a lightsaber, or using the Jedi mind trick? Of telekinesis and premonition? This game realises the enormous cool factor of all these things, and capitalises on it fully. There are lightsabers to be had. Long ones, short ones, double-bladed ones. You can even install different crystals in your lightsabers to alter the colour and imbue the blade with various desirable properties. There are swords and blasters and bowcasters, oh my! There are Force powers at your disposal, and plenty of them.
Thermal detonator, anyone?
You see, and deal with, most of the species that we've encountered in the Star Wars films. Twi'lek, wookies, mandalorians, bith, duros, rodians, gammorreans, and many more besides. Remember that colossal beast Luke fights in Jabba's palace? Well, it's called a rancor, and they're in the game too. KotOR even introduces a few new species and ideas. The Selkar are an aquatic species who inhabit the ocean world Manaan. The Rakatan ... well, I'll let you find out about them for yourself.
What this amounts to is an opportunity to explore the Star Wars universe that any real fan would be insane to ignore. The game has values enough to be worth playing even if you'd never heard of Star Wars before, but if you're the kind of person who spent their childhood running around in their Jedi robes with a lightsaber, this game was, quite literally, made for you.
The rest of this writeup is a fairly technical and, admittedly, dry description of how KotOR works. You probably don't have time to read it since you should be out buying and playing the game. But if this sort of thing actually interests you, by all means continue.
The gameplay of KotOR revolves around two things: squad-based realtime combat, and making role-playing choices. There are a few peripheral "minigames" built into the KotOR world that help to shake things up a bit, but the core game is all about these two ides. Details to follow.
In your travels, you meet a variety of NPCs who join your group. In all, there are nine individuals who will ally themselves with you, but you are only ever able to take up to two of them out with you as you adventure. For those who are accustomed to journeying with six or more party members, this may seem somewhat limiting, but I found the simplicity of controlling three characters refreshing. KotOR tries very hard to shift the focus away from the micromanagement of your team, and towards enjoyment of the unfolding plot. I believe the choice of a three-member party serves this goal well.
Unfortunately, the game has no means of controlling your party's formation. This produces tiresome consequences in a number of situations, where you need to manually position your team (before opening a door, for example) to make sure they will start the upcoming battle effectively. Otherwise you can easily end up with your melee characters engaging the foe while your ranged attacker is stuck around the corner with no clue what's going on.
At all times, one character in the party is the "leader", and under your direct control. You can only issue instructions to the currently selected character, and there is no facility for selecting all characters. In party mode, any other members of the party will follow your leader around. In solo mode, the other party members stay put and operate on passive AI only. One button cycles through the party members as leader. The camera is positioned in a third-person perspective, so that in most situations you can see all of your party leader's body on the screen at one time. Motion is relative to the camera, and highly analogue in nature.
Anything which can be interacted with, is close enough to you (think in the same room), and within your line of sight is a potential target. Targets are selected using the left and right triggers, which cycle through the available targets based on their relative position to the current character. Depending on the nature of your target, different options will be apparent. When you select a new target, the camera automatically swings around to bring it into view. It's a very easy to use interface system.
If you've played Baldur's Gate, Neverwinter Nights, Dungeon Siege or anything else in that vein, you will find the combat system of KotOR very familiar. If not, well, it isn't hard to learn. Combat occurs in real time, but you pause the action to issue orders to your characters. For this reason, this mode of play has sometimes been referred to as "turn-based real-time combat".
It works like this. When an enemy is sighted, it triggers an "auto-pause". Unless you've turned that option off, but seriously, don't go there. You cycle through each of your characters and issue them appropriate battle orders, or alternatively you can leave them to their own devices. You can queue up to four actions per character, who will execute them in sequence as soon as you unpause. It is possible to delete an action from the queue, as long as that character hasn't already initiated it. There are several predefined "scripts" that you can set each character to. These govern how the character will behave in combat situations if you haven't given them a specific order.
Once you've got the hang of KotOR's combat system, the majority of the battles are relatively easy to win, and towards the endgame even become rather routine. These "typical" battles are interspersed with the occasional difficult encounter, involving either one or two extremely powerful foes, or a whole slew of lesser ones. In these cases you need to take your time and use creative tactics to survive.
Many games which lay claim to the role-playing genre actually involve very little playing of roles. This is unfortunate, because it is primarily the idea of guiding and acting out the development of a fictional character that made role playing such a popular activity.
I am pleased to say that KotOR embraces the spirit of role playing with gusto. Your main character's demeanour and choices are up to you, and the decisions you make have serious and lasting consequences. For the most part, this is controlled by conversation. When your character engages in a dialogue with an NPC, the game offers you a set of options at each point in the exchange. These options are usually delightfully various, ranging from noble through dim-witted, mischeivous and antagonistic, all the way to downright evil. Your selection can have a wide range of effects, modifying your alignment, permanently changing the way an NPC treats you, avoiding (or starting) a fight, making (or losing) you money, and even, in limited circumstances, getting you killed.
The dialogue sequences are made highly enjoyable by the meticulous attention to detail by the game developers. Not only are the options available to your character cleverly designed, but the NPC's responses are well scripted, and the voice acting is of a very high standard. During a conversation, you will usually see an in-game close up of the character whose turn it is to speak. The range of facial expressions is amazing. Every character model has a fully developed set of emotive animations, so you can forgive them for recycling the models pretty extensively.
Based on how you wish you play your character, you will make the effort to complete certain side quests, and refuse to take on others. There will usually be more than one way to finish a quest, and there will usually be more than one possible outcome. Not only does this make the game fascinating to play, it means you can come back and play it over and over, exploring different paths.
KotOR greatly emphasises the internal struggle between light and dark, by constantly presenting you with moral dilemmas and making it clear that to follow the Jedi Code, you must have discipline and walk the harder path of honour and generosity. The option to simply throw decency to the winds and rampage about "kickin' ass and takin' names" is always there, but as Master Yoda will tell you, that kind of behaviour will buy you a one-way ticket to the Dark Side.
There is also a recurrent theme of finding intelligent solutions to problems. Logic puzzles, number sequence problems, riddles and other brain strainers abound, and they really are good fun. Some were easy, others were hard, but either way I think it's great that this game seems to say to the player "alright mister, let's see you think your way out of this one!"
There is one large aspect of the game in general which hinders your enjoyment, and that's the walking. With such a large game world, there's bound to be a great deal of transit involved, and you spend a lot of time simply walking from one location to another, solving quests, running errands, going shopping, and so on. Your party has a fairly low maximum speed on foot, and while it's perhaps more realistic, it sure can get tedious. There is a rapid transit system which allows you to instantly travel back to your home base, and then back again, but it's only available from locations which aren't immediately hostile. Even if you use the rapid transit system to full effect, you're still going to do a whole lot o' walking.
Of course, it does give you a chance to admire the absolutely stunning scenery that the boys at BioWare put together, and full points to them on that score. The environments are gorgeous. Sometimes you literally have to stop playing and just stare at it.
KotOR offers three minigames to keep you busy when you need some time off from saving the galaxy and upholding justice.
This is a fictional card game based on a bizarre kind of fusion between blackjack and poker. If there is a real world analogue to this game, I've never heard of it, but it is quite compelling in its own right. The cards are numbered 1 to 10, and the goal is to beat your opponent's score without exceeding 20. What makes the game interesting is the "hand" cards. You start each Pazaak match with four cards in your hand, selected from your own personal side deck. These cards are modifiers, with values such as "+4" or "-2". You can even get "+/-n" cards which allow you to choose the sign before playing them. This means that, if you have the right cards in hand, you can recover from a bust (exceeding 20 points) by playing a negative, or immediately raise your score to something desirable by playing a positive. The winner of the match is the first to win three sets. Many NPCs in the game will offer you a game of Pazaak, and while playing Pazaak has no effect whatsoever on the central plotline, it is fun and, if you're good, can earn you some quick cash.
Another way to bolster your funds is to engage in a little swoop bike racing on the side. There is one swoop race which is critical to the plot, the rest are purely peripheral. There is a lot of money to be made on the swoop circuits, but it isn't easy, and I for one am absolutely terrible at it. A swoop bike is twin jet engine propelled craft that hovers a metre or so above the ground. You may be thinking that this is beginning to sound at lot like the "pod racers" from Episode I, and you'd be right. In fact, the swoop bike could be some kind of ancestor of the pod racer. One key difference is that swoop racers only take the track one at a time, and attempt to beat each other's best times. Another is that swoop racing is not dangerous. You can't be killed, although there is humiliation to be had in abundance. The idea is to swerve from side to side, avoiding the obstacles, hitting the speed booster pads, and changing gears at the optimal moments.
There will come a time when you will need to man a ship's gun turret and do away with a squadron of enemy fighters. Sound familiar? Yep, that's because they borrowed this straight from the turret scene in Episode IV. Each fighter makes its approach, fires a few rounds at your ship, and turns away to begin another approach. Your turret is mounted on the top of the vessel, and you can turn it through 360 degrees azimuth and about 45 degrees elevation. The aim is to destroy all the fighters before they can destroy your ship. This is the only time in KotOR that you participate from a first person perspective, and frankly, it's fairly dull. Your foes can take about three hits from your gun before exploding, while your ship's shields can absorb a seemingly ridiculous amount of incoming fire without batting an eyelid. With only six fighters arrayed against you, there is no sport in it. Unless you're blind and / or asleep while this minigame happens, you will wipe the floor with those fighters without even really trying. You don't even need to shoot accurately. As long as you fire in the general vicinity of the enemy craft, the game registers a hit. In this case, the developers seem to have forgotten a critical aspect of gameplay -- action sequences aren't fun unless the player experiences a sense of danger. No danger means no risk. No risk means no excitement.
The game's system is derived directly from 3rd edition AD&D. Success or failure of a given task is determined by the ubiquitous d20, and the structure of attributes is exactly what you would expect. However, the feat system has been completely redesigned with Star Wars in mind. Magic spells have been replaced by Force Powers, and instead of having n spells per day, your Jedi characters have Force Points, which functions like mana and recharges over time.
There are three classes to choose from, Scoundrel (!), Scout and Soldier. Scoundrel basically equates to Thief, Soldier to Warrior, and Scout is a kind of middle ground. Jedi have a different set of classes; Guardian, Sentinel and Consular. Guardians are Warrior types, Consulars are your Magi and Sentinels are a bit of both.
There is a skills system, consisting of such things as "Computer Use", "Demolitions" and "Persuade", and these determine your ability to perform difficult and specific tasks, like hack into a security terminal, deactivate a mine, or convince an NPC to see things your way.
Oh, and you have to be a human. Sorry to all of you who had ambitions of playing the game as a Hutt, but it's not going to happen.
The conventional Lawfulness / Goodness matrix of alignment has been replaced by a one dimensional scale of Light Side and Dark Side. Altruistic actions gain your character Light Side points, aggression and greed gain you Dark Side points. NPCs in your party have a fixed alignment, and will chime in and offer their suggestions at various points if their nature prompts them to.
After I bought this game, I spent five days doing nothing except playing it, and sleeping. Unhealthy, to be sure, but it demonstrates just how playable KotOR is. It's been a long while since I was that drawn in by anything. Notwithstanding a few minor areas for potential improvement, this game gets my thorough recommendation. Everyone out there in nodespace, give it a try. I doubt you'll be disappointed.