|Can we just mandate right now that Bioware create all RPGs going forward? The company has turned out some of gaming's best CRPGs, from Baldur's Gate (and its sequels) to Planescape: Torment to Neverwinter Nights. The Edmonton-based company scores another win with Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. This game is one of the most satisfying, addictive RPGs I've played since, well, Neverwinter Nights. |
Knights of the Old Republic (KOTOR) takes place 4,000 years before the movies. The Republic has just defeated the Mandalorian invasion and now faces the Sith armies. The game begins in the timeworn tradition of System Shock 2, Halo and others: You're awakened on a starship falling apart under a Sith attack. That allows for some basic training, not to mention talk of the mysterious hero with a hidden past. In fact, that beginning is a staple of Bioware games: See the Baldur's Gate series and Planescape: Torment. No points to veterans of those titles who correctly guess the player character is more than he or she seems, and will come to realize that during the course of the game.
Anyway, the player and a Republic soldier named Carth Onasi escape to the nearby planet of Taris. Carth insists on searching for a Jedi named Bastilla, who also crash-landed on the planet and is being hunted by Darth Malak, a Dark Lord of the Sith. Off we go, then, on a fun adventure that spans many of the Star Wars universe's most prominent locations.
Let me back up a bit. You begin by choosing a sex and profession (soldier, scout or scoundrel), which determine statistics and skills for the first few levels. It's no secret that you soon enough become a Jedi, at which point you can choose again a profession (sentinel, consular or guardian) with its own associated skill and stat bonuses. Yes, sex is more than cosmetic; it affects gameplay including the now-expected Bioware romance subplot.
Bioware's penchant for subplots remains intact for KOTOR, which adds nice dimension to the game. The first few are quick (some just one conversation long) designed to nudge the player toward the dark or light sides of the Force. Oh, yeah, Bioware also loves letting the player choose between good and evil. Here, dark or light affects force powers, the player's appearance, some conversation and of course the ending. In fact, there's so much typical Bioware here that veterans of the other games will be able to anticipate what leads where.
This is not a bad thing, incidentally. The subplots make the game a richer place. That's essential, because by CRPG standards (at least for PC), KOTOR is limited. Worlds are small, with only a few explorable locations on each, and gameplay is probably 40 hours tops rather than often double that for most PC titles.
I also have to wonder, since I'm in critic mode, at the time period. It's 4,000 years before the movies, but the weapons and clothing are pretty much the same. Apparently, the storyline is based on a comic-book series, but the feel of the game is more like a century before the movies than four millennia. Yeah, I'm getting really geeky here, but dudes: It's a video game review. I'm allowed to be geeky.
Gameplay on the XBox is very intuitive, and doesn't take long to pick up. Combat is handled with an auto-pause feature (which can be deactivated), letting the player plan a first move. Or, really, any move, seeing as the game can easily be paused at any time, including during combat. Otherwise, just select a general attack or specific powers/weapons. Conversations are handled with the familiar tree system, with plenty of options (good, evil, neutral) and the wonderful addition of the Jedi mind trick. Man, I loved getting out of paying for stuff. Certain decisions make the player more good or evil, which can be a lot of fun.
You can travel with up to nine NPCs, each of whom has a short subplot that can extend the game a bit. Sometimes the subplots are joined to the main plot, but for the most part they can be ignored. I wouldn't recommend that, though, because they really help you get lost in the game. KOTOR also has a few side games: Pazaak, a card game very much like blackjack; swoop racing, sort of the precursor to the new movies' pod races; and the occasional man-the-turret space battle.
Of the three, the space battles feel most tacked on. Sith fighters come out of nowhere; the player blasts away from a turret view; the game moves on. It could be taken out and not be missed. Pazaak is a fun way to make money, though I have to say it's less interesting than 3DO's Arcomage, a sort of Magic: the Gathering clone that appeared in some of the Might & Magic titles.
Swoop racing is a far tougher way to make money: The view reverts to a swoop racer, which the player must guide over booster pads while avoiding obstacles. Unlike the long races of the Episode 1 movie and games, swoop races usually take less than 30 seconds and move in a straight line. Challenging, yes, but not at all integral to the plot, and easily skipped.
Graphics for the entire game are good; the cutscenes really show off what the XBox can do. Sound is good, too, with the familiar Star Wars music actually playing a more subtle role than in other games based on the series. The voice acting is uniformly good.
Frankly, KOTOR should be Lucasarts' template for future CRPGs, both for consoles and PC. It helps that Bioware currently owns the genre. Players should be happy that Lucasarts loves to release sequels to its successful games (see the Dark Forces series), so we'll get to see a KOTOR 2. Or maybe a title based during the movies' timeline, or set in the future described by the various novels? Together, Bioware and Lucasarts can rule the galaxy.