Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic
I have to admit, this game went completely under my radar. I had spotted it on the shelves in the run-up to Christmas, but didn't even pick it up to read the cover assuming it was yet another Star Wars 'shooter' (though, those are excellent in their own right). It was only several months later and quite by chance that a colleague, knowing I was into RPGs, informed me that it was indeed a true RPG - developed in fact by Bioware, the folks that brought us Baldur's Gate. I rushed to the store the following Saturday to rectify my mistake...
The events in Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (KotOR) transpire 4000 years before the emergence of what we all know as the Star Wars universe/Galactic Empire. But there are Jedi knights, oh yes! And you get to become one during the course of the game. The Sith are playing silly buggers as usual, following the lead of a nasty piece of work by the name of Darth Malak. He's attacking the ship you're on at the start of the game, and your escape from this ship serves as a tutorial to get you used to the controls. Once you make it to the escape pods and then onto the surface of a nearby planet, the game begins proper.
Right from the start, I must say that this game is absolutely gorgeous. I have a 2-year old GeForce 3, and apparently the game didn't think much of my card so set the defaults very low (800 x 600 with no special affects enabled). However, I was manually able to bump the resolution to 1024 x 768 and crank all but one of the anti-aliasing effects up to the max and... wow! Grass that sways in the wind, and beautiful weapon and Jedi power effects are the result. I'm usually more comfortable with traditional isometric RPGs like Fallout and Planescape: Torment, but if this is the way of the future, then I have few problems with it. I had to turn down all the effects though to get through some pesky arcade sequences, but for most of the game I could revel in the brilliant scenery. More about those arcade sequences later.
It turns out that KotOR is a brilliant role-playing experience, and a party based one to boot. During the course of the game you will meet 9 NPCs who could eventually join your party, though you're only allowed to have two of them with you at any time. But that's just the right amount, if you want to manage your party individually in combat, which you must do if you set the combat difficulty to anything but Easy. The full complement of Star Wars characters is available: humans, Twi'leks, Wookies, fellow Jedi, and even droids. Once you have done the necessary to obtain your own ship, your party is based there and you can usually return there instantly via a menu option should you need to change your party composition. If you choose to leave a few of them behind a few times, it's no problem. Once you take them back into the party, they get to level up enough times to put them on a par with yourself. At character creation time, you can choose your class: Soldier, Scout, or Scoundrel - and your gender. But it matters not as there are an infinite amount of ways to develop your character as the game progresses. You get to choose from Skills such as: Computer, Awareness, and Persuade (more dialogue choices), and Feats like: Two-handed Duelling, Implant, and Critical Strike. Once you become a Jedi, you also get to choose from a vast array of Force Powers... and you are not limited to the Light Side :-) First time through, I played the game sticking to the Light Side, but there are ample opportunities to gain Dark Side points and use those Powers if you are leaning in that direction.
Whenever a character levels up, KotOR will recommend certain Skills, Feats, and Powers... they are usually sound recommendations to be sure, but I think there's a lot more fun to be had choosing them yourself!
The dialogue in KotOR is... I suppose the best word for this is 'expansive'. Once or twice towards the end of the game a character actually said "May the force be with you", but for the most part the game is well scripted and the voice acting quite competent. A lot of the NPCs are speaking in alien dialects, but you can just read ahead in the subtitles and skip to the next bit should this become too tedious (which it does - one of the game's few small faults).
As with most well designed RPGs, there are usually several ways to get past the sticky bits. You can use your wits to solve a few puzzles (number sequences and logic conundrums), sneak by, or blast your way through. The Persuade skill also comes in handy by way of giving you extra dialogue choices, though your skill level may not be high enough to guarantee success with a particular choice.
Most adventurers aren't going to be particularly happy with the controls. You can hold down the right mouse button to manoeuvre your character, but I found this option to be a carpal tunnel challenge. The only other option is to use the ASWD keys. The keyboard is fully mappable, but the one thing you cannot do is map movement onto the arrow keys. Well... you can download a 25MB patch from LucasArts support that rectifies this, but a 2 hour download just to map some movement keys wasn't on the cards for me, as I was experiencing none of the other problems that it was meant to fix. Anyway, the lack of point-and-click movement is not as much of a nuisance as it was in Broken Sword: The Sleeping Dragon. For in KotOR, you never have to run away from anything in real time as all combat is turn based. Whenever an enemy comes into your field of view, the game is automatically paused so that you can decide on your first mode of attack/defense at leisure. For easier foes, you can just let your party have a go at them in real time until they are vanquished. But if you don't have the game difficulty set to Easy (which you can change at any time), or towards the end of the game when the going gets tougher, you will probably need to micro-manage your team. I did this throughout anyway, as I'm a bit of a control freak. Just hit the space bar at any time to pause combat, and you can queue up to five commands for each party member, so it's not too odious...
As for the arcade sequences I alluded to earlier, there are about three times during the course of the game where you have to operate your ship's turrets to shoot down some pursuers. Really, they could have done without this, and it's just a small black mark against what is otherwise a pure turn-based RPG.
Money in this game is in rather short supply, so you have to be careful about purchasing big ticket items that only marginally improve your offensive or defensive capabilities. The ratio of an item's purchase value to resell value is usually an outrageous 10 to 1 or thereabouts, so don't bother to buy anything you don't really need. There are two side games built into KotOR that allow you to raise cash though: pazaak (a card game much like black jack), and swoop racing. There are places on each planet to engage in these gambling activities. You can also do some bounty hunting, though as you might expect you will often accrue Dark Side points if the killings aren't justified.
There are a lot of items to be obtained during your quest to save the universe, which takes you across about a half dozen planets of varied fauna and flora - all of them beautiful, and one scenario even unfolds at the bottom of the ocean.
In typical RPG fashion, you can usually open most containers and pilfer the contents right under the nose of the owners. The entire inventory is shared amongst the party. So if one party member gives up an item, it is available for any other member to use. There are many variations on guns, grenades, and mines, but once you become a Jedi, you will almost certainly opt for that old reliable - the lightsaber. These and many of the other weapons can be upgraded using various items you will come across, especially on fallen foes. The inventory can become quite sizeable though, and the items are sorted by type rather than order of reception, so expect to do a lot of scrolling :-)
All in all, this is another solid effort from Bioware, and should hold you in its spell for a good 60 to 70 hours, or even longer if you opt to take all the side quests as I did. We're talking 300+ saved games here. Be on the lookout for another Steve's Guide coming your way soon.
Aside from the occasionally too 'Star Warsy' and drawn out dialogue, the shooter-like controls, and a few gratuitous arcade sequences, this is a perfect RPG. The story is well paced, with many plot twists to keep you guessing, and plentiful side quests to keep you occupied and chasing XP for that next level up. So, may the... no, I must resist!
See the metzomagic.com Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic walkthrough.
Copyright © Steve Metzler 2004.
All rights reserved.
PIII 1GHZ (1.6 GHZ recommended), Windows 98/ME/2000/XP, DirectX 9.0b, 128MB RAM (Win 98), 256MB RAM (ME/2000/XP), 32MB OpenGL 1.4 compatible PCI or AGP graphics card, 4X CD-ROM, DirectX 9.0b compatible sound card, keyboard, mouse