With the recent release of the highly-anticipated MMO titled "Star Wars: The Old Republic" it seems fitting to review a game that predates TOR (The Old Republic) yet has a few stories tied into Knights of the Old Republic (KOTOR for short). Like TOR, Knights of the Old Republic was developed by Bioware; a studio that had great standing with PC gamers was now given the opportunity to create an RPG around the most ubiquitous saga of the 20th/turn of 21st century. Even with the high anticipation by many before its release, KOTOR is one of those rare games that finds a way to exceed expectations.
Taking place around 4000 years before the Battle of Yavin in Episode IV, the Star Wars signature text fills you in on the details about the galactic war between the Sith and the Republic. Upon seeing the crawling text vanish, you're introduced to a scene of the Republic Hammerhead-class cruiser 'The Endar Spire' slowly descending towards Taris while being mercilessly bombarded by Sith Interceptors (essentially TIE Fighters). Upon waking up to the commotion, your character is directed to find Bastila Shan and escape the doomed ship. Though finding Bastila failed, you and Carth Onasi jettison an escape pod in time to one of Taris' many cityscape walkways. After waking up to receive an updated report on the events at hand, the true journey now begins with your character and Carth finding Bastila and a way off the Sith-imposed planet.
Even from that opening, it's obvious to see the homage given towards both the original Star Wars and plays dating back to the Greek era (like that of the Star Wars movies). It also falters on the RPG genre's biggest storytelling cliché: the playable character having amnesia, and slowly remembering events from their past life. Though being held back by failing to be completely original, the story is propelled forward by the great execution. While it should be expected for game based from a movie series to stay true to the mythos, it's also welcoming to see the writers create what feels like a new universe since its revolving around a previously unexplored time period.
Throughout this story, your character amasses a wide variety of different personalities, ranging from loyal friend to exiled curmudgeon. With each of these personalities comes a different stance on the decisions you make. These decisions are also graphed by a light side/dark side meter-each with their own consequences. As you slowly get to know these characters, you're also greeted with backstories that branch off into different side quests that in turn slightly affect the overall narrative. The reason KOTOR holds up as a triumphant success isn't because it was the first one out of the gate with these options, it was just the first time this source material was exponentially expanded upon to where every decision you make affects the entire galaxy. While saying KOTOR is one of the greatest video game stories ever told is a bit of a stretch since it falls victim to a few clichés and expectantcies, it's still a solid story with remarkable twists and characters.
As expected with every Star Wars that's released in movie theaters, the expectation for wonderfully-themed panoramas is high in almost every Star Wars game. KOTOR holds up to that golden standard by delivering one of the best looking Xbox games upon release, both by technical and artistic standards. Different planets throughout the adventure will vary from skyscrapers to deserts every few hours. Not only does the grand scale leave an impressive mark, but also the attention to details you'll come across viewing in this game. The main complaints around the visual design initially fall on the frame rate failing to stay consistent. Whether it's certain in-engine cut scenes or combat with nearly 10 enemies on the screen, these issues will arise more often than expected. Overall, lack of a completely smooth experience isn't to the point of being "game-breaking", but does put a damper on the admiration towards some of the other presentational values.
The expectations for the sound design are either greater or equal to visual expectations when it comes to Star Wars. While many of the great tracks by John Williams are present in KOTOR, there's also been a great amount work done in nuancing the score. Low-toned notes ring in throughout sections that don't require combat while frantic tones kick in when engaging certain enemies. Add that impressive feat on top of the excellent voice acting and you have technical sound design that's nearing perfection.
Like most RPGs, KOTOR starts off with the option of choosing your character’s name, sex, facial features (though they're all predetermined), starting class, and attributes. This customization gets deeper with your initial choices determining what sort of armor you can wear and other typical standards for RPGs. You can even go so far as to customize stats from certain weapons at workbenches. Even the color of your lightsaber can be changed, provided you find different color crystals. KOTOR holds to the customization standard fairly well. Constant loot drops that offer a better stat boost happen at a frequent pace.
Most of KOTOR's gameplay is focused on both a pseudo turn-based style of combat and branching dialogue options, with a few wrinkles in between. The general combat is divided into six boxes: general action (dialog or attack), special attacks, offensive force powers, grenades/mines/etc., defensive force powers (such as healing), and disposable items (like shields or stim packs). Though there isn't any sort of hot keys to attach certain actions with a specific button, scouring through certain moves and inventory is what makes the game feel truly rewarding. To sometimes tip the odds in favor, the likes of stealth and computer slicing can sometimes reap their own rewards. The one fault RPG purists may find is the shooting and melee not being balanced; at the same time, this is a franchise where it's to be expected. Overall, the general feel of the combat and potent mix of being a turn-based/action RPG makes it one of the most satisfying mechanics around.
The litany of different choices that can be made truly hold the back cover's tagline of 'choosing your fate' to ring true. The amount of different minor and major choices made can either let a group of people praise you or make your appearance look ghastly pale. With all of the dialogue fully voiced, barring your character, you're able to become fully immersed in complex decisions to give an impressive amount of weight into some of those harder decisions. It wouldn't be surprising to even spend hours on end listening to each of your character's backstories. From the robotically adenodial speeches of a sociopathic, gun-toting droid (who's actually one of the comic reliefs!) to the trademarked Wookie grunts of Zaalbar, those hours of listening are going to be worth it. Not all characters are going to be likeable, but that makes the characterization feel all the more believable.
It's tough to put a label on KOTOR in where it shines brightest compared to the competition in the genre, but there’s hardly any smudge to be found. What smudges you do find really fall more towards technical aspects of graphics and performance. In the end, KOTOR is just one of the quintessential "But wait, there's more!" RPGs you could find. Excellent variety of characters, enjoyable story, solid combat system, impressive amount of work in the audio and visual departments, wrapped in a 30 hour package (side quests included) that's worth replaying make KOTOR not only one of the greatest games of the 6th generation, but of all time.
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coolbeans' 2003 Game of the Year Award