This review shall assume the reader has heard of and is somewhat familiar with Star Wars. Don't like Star Wars? Go away! You won't like this game and it won't like you. Shoo! Shoo!!
Still with me? Excellent. Now, if you're a gamer that enjoys PC role-playing games, you're probably familiar with BioWare's work, including Dungeons & Dragons gems like Baldur's Gate. Interestingly, a few years ago, BioWare somehow produced not only the reportedly best RPG for the X-Box, but also the best Star Wars product in years: Knights of the Old Republic . That made people understandably excited for the PC port which came out a few months afterwards.
While, by most accounts, it was still the same allegedly great game as the X-Box version, it also suffered from some serious game-breaking bugs, both in the gameplay and the graphics. The question is: how is it nowadays, after a few patches and a couple years? Is it worth buying today? Read on.
|Knights takes place thousands of years before the films. The Old Republic and Jedi reign supreme, while the evil Sith wage open war on the Republic, unlike in the films which saw the Empire gain its initial strength chiefly through covert, insidious means. At the game's start, the main character (which can be of either sex and have a customized appearance) is awakened by a massive space battle in and around a Republic ship where the character is stationed as a grunt. Quickly, the ship is boarded by Sith forces, including some Dark Jedi. You will quickly escape the ship in an escape pod to land on Taris, a bustling city-planet. It appears that Bastila, a young Jedi with meditation skills central to the Republic's efforts against the Sith, was on the ship and has also escaped to Taris. With Carth, a heroic Republic soldier, your first task will be to find Bastila and help her get back to the Jedi Council. This is no easy task, given the size and complexity of Taris, but it's only the beginning.||
The game's story starts off a bit slowly, but, right about the time you get in contact with Bastila, it launches into a sprawling narrative spread over multiple worlds and featuring nine playable party members and scores of other characters. While the game's ultimate goal is pretty standard - kick the butt of chief Sith baddie, Darth Malak - the plot does feature several twists, one of which is particularly stunning. Suffice it to say that the basic premise's simplicity (you're a nobody that is strong in the Force and is able to rise to destroy the Sith through sheer force of will) is quite deceptive.
The game also does an excellent job by keeping things non-linear. The game's half-dozen or so big chunks can be done in any order (it's a typical "collect n components of artifact X" thing), and Knights did its best to throw in major story events at points when I least expected them, having just settled into an apparent pattern. All told, the story in Knights is a classy Star Wars tale, but the main strength is the structure in which it's told. I only wish the main villain, Darth Malak, held more menace than just his weird mask and his clichιd Dark Side spoutings spoken in a gravelly voice--Darth Vader he ain't.
GAMEPLAY: NOW, THIS IS WHAT I CALL A STAR WARS GAME
Don't let the words "Star Wars" in the title confuse you. This one's an RPG all the way. If you don't like thinking about how a max armor Dexterity bonus really affects your Defense rating; if you neither know nor care to know what a Saving Throw is; or, if you think being a Jedi only involves shooting guns and deflecting blaster fire with your lightsaber; you might want to stay away from this game. Go for Jedi Knight or Jedi Academy , instead.
"This one's an RPG all the way."
Otherwise, welcome to the RPG system of your dreams. Its foundations lie in a fully 3D world, combined with a D&D-like turn-based combat system and a powerful keyboard/mouse user interface. Most of your time playing it will be spent exploring medium-sized 3D environments, very frequently interrupted by combat, which takes place seamlessly in those same environments. Almost as much as you'll be fighting, however, you'll be speaking with a positively gigantic cast of characters from a multitude of Star Wars' fascinating worlds. The dialogue is extensive and interactive, to put it mildly, and usually has huge repercussions on both the flow of quests in the game, as well as the game's subplots and main plot. Add to that a bit of Deus Ex-like hacking/stealth/repair abilities, some puzzles, a couple action-oriented minigames, and a card game - most somehow involving the game's well hidden D&D combat core - and you've got easily one of the deepest gameplay systems of any RPG, ever.
The most mundane and least remarkable - though by no means unpleasant - part of the game is exploration. The world is divided into typically RPG-sized zones. You've got a minimap, which you'll gradually uncover as you walk through each zone. Zones are usually littered with various containers, full of stuff you want, so most players will want to explore every corner of every zone, and probably will be able to do so. In indoor environments, the game places the usual barriers like locked doors, etc. Most can be broken into or lock-picked using the Security skill. Some are controlled by computers or simple puzzles. Regardless, depending on your combat prowess, you'll be able to more or less lay waste to and strip clean any place you enter, whether it be an ancient Sith temple, an underwater Republic base, or even a Tattooine Sand People hideout. In fact, this got easier and easier (oddly enough) as my run through the game progressed, and really isn't a big deal.
The combat system, on the other hand, is a big deal. It is simultaneously both heaven for the RPG geek and for the Star Wars geek. To an observer, a battle will look much like an action sequence from a SW film: The flashing of the lightsaber, the squeaking of the blaster shot, sparks flying, a Jedi performing acrobatic tricks, a Sith performing the Force Lightning attack, and so on.
There aren't any pauses in the action that make Final Fantasy battles, for example, appear so obviously turn-based. But behind that surface, the computer is basically playing simplified D&D: throwing dice, adding in various stat modifiers, comparing against the target's defense, performing saving throws for special attacks, etc.
Now, I've never played Dungeons & Dragons itself, so it's all the same to me, but the combat system does appear quite flexible. Each character in your party of three has a class. The main character is created when starting a new game, and can be of either sex and be of one of the three basic classes: Soldier, Scout, Scoundrel. Later in the game, this character - who is at the center of the story - will also get to pick a Jedi class (Guardian, Consular, or Sentinel). The other playable characters that follow the main character around all have preset classes, spanning the aforementioned classes - plus there is an Expert Droid (a-la R2D2) and a Combat Droid (an extremely homicidal version of C3PO). Regardless of the class for each character, during level-up you'll get to pick exactly which of his/her/its characteristics you want to improve. However, the points that can be spent on each characteristic are distributed in such a way as to underline the strengths and weaknesses of the underlying class.
These characteristics are many and varied. The basic attributes - Strength, Dexterity, Wisdom, and so on - affect pretty much all of the gameplay, including, but not limited to, the combat. Skills such as Computer, Security, Treat Injury, and Repair affect exploration and certain battle actions. Feats provide passive bonuses to various stats (e.g., Gear Head gives bonus to Computer/Security/Repair skills), and also introduce direct abilities (such as the Sniper Shot attack for blaster users, or Flurry for sword and lightsaber aficionados). Finally, Force Powers are straight from Star Wars - Jedi Jump, Force Choke, Force Lightning, Force Push, and many more. Force Powers are almost the coolest part of the battle system - I especially enjoy how a character's Light or Dark Side alignment affects the point cost of a Force Power depending on whether it's a Light or Dark power - but I did say almost.
That's because lightsabers have always been the coolest thing about Star Wars, and this game is no exception. Despite a VERY wide variety of weapons - blasters, rifles, heavy weapons, swords and doube-bladed swords - lightsabers are both cool-looking and overpoweringly effective, both in single- and double-bladed varieties. This is made even more so by the ability to upgrade the abilities (and appearance, of course) of a lightsaber by embedding various crystals into it. In fact, once I got a Jedi or three traveling with me, it was very hard to convince myself to put some lousy non-Jedi blaster-wielding soldier into my parties. I almost did it out of pity, since the Jedi were so much more powerful than everyone else at combat, and combat is what drives this game. This did feel rather imbalanced - a Star Wars film always separates the Jedi from the others so that they, also, can be useful in their own ways. This game only features once instance of this, albeit a very cool one where one member of the overall company gets to save the three main characters, working alone.
"...lightsabers have always been the coolest thing about Star Wars, and this game is no exception."
In battle, you will directly control the actions only of the current party leader, which can be switched at any time. The other two characters will play themselves - fighting, using grenades, Force Powers, healing as necessary - in the meantime. This works surprisingly well, although the AI-controlled fighters do often focus on opponents inefficiently, such as each character attacking a different enemy. However, it's a breeze to switch between the characters to set them on the right track, when necessary.
However, it's not often necessary. Most of the art of combat, especially later in the game, is in properly equipping everyone for battle. In fact, the only two criticisms I levy against the combat system in Knights are the relative ease of the battles, and the seemingly imbalanced classes. Basically, Soldiers and Jedi Guardians (which are the Jedi version of Soldiers) are extremely powerful, able to overwhelm 95% of their opponents easily. The first two sections of the game can actually be pretty difficult from time to time, but after that things become rather easy. Since a large portion of the game is spent on planets that you can choose to visit in any order, the first planet you'll visit might seem tough, but the others - featuring enemies of about the same skill level - will be very easy because of how much you've leveled up. Generally speaking, unless you're familiar with D&D rules, you'll possibly be confused about the inner workings of the system - since it's so well hidden away behind the game's graphics - but that's unlikely to seriously hamper your progress. If you don't like this, there are difficulty levels that can be changed anytime to give a stiffer challenge (but not fix the class imbalances).
Dialogue is as important as the battles in KOTOR. Not only does it allow you to play Jedi by saying things like "[Force Persuade] You do not want to fight me. You want to go home and rethink your life.", but it also has a direct effect on quests and plot. The amount of branching in this game is absolutely ridiculous, easily putting to shame the same elements of, say, Deus Ex or other plot-based role-playing games. Even more importantly, the game just features some awesome characters. Of particular note is HK-47, a "protocol/assassination droid" you'll buy on Tattooine, most conversations with whom are just pure comedic gold. He's some sort of warped, squinty, evil version of C3PO, who just cannot resist calling the main character an "organic meatbag." In all, every character in your company has an interesting back story, some figuring prominently in the main plot. And your own possible responses to these people will give you the chance to be as bad (or good) as you want to be. Non-playable characters also show a lot of awareness, frequently referring to something you did on another planet (such as solve a murder or win a swoop bike tournament) - this is all the more impressive since much of the game can be completed in any order. And if you start getting confused about what all you're trying to accomplish in a particular place, there's an extensive quest journal to help you out.
"The amount of branching in this game is absolutely ridiculous..."
Unfortunately, it did glitch a couple of times for me, though that's hardly surprising with the amount of interrelated quest possibilities this game offers.
KOTOR, despite being another D&D RPG - something BioWare specializes in with Baldur's Gate - seems fully aware of its responsibility to the Star Wars license. To further this end, there are a couple of good-looking but extremely simplistic mini-games heavy on Star Wars mythos: a spaceship turret sequence, plus some swoop bike racing. These are nothing to write home about, but they do give the game some action-oriented texture.
But, really, Star Wars absolutely permeates this game in every fashion. In many ways, this game expands on the details of the universe to a much greater extent than the films themselves, whether through the mini-games, dialogue, battles, or even the available weapons and armor. Even if you find fault in some aspects of the game, such as the mundane exploration and certain battle system imbalances, they're likely to be wiped away by the facts that: You've got a starship, a Wookiee, two droids, and a bunch of Jedi, not to mention Kashyyk, Tattooine, and a huge evil space station to explore. You'll truly feel like you're in the Star Wars universe, something no Star Wars game had delivered before this game. Gameplay: 9.
IS IT PURTY?
This one was released a couple of years ago, and I've heard rumblings about it being buggy, glitchy, and graphically slow. It has been patched many times since then, and I encountered no such issues playing it recently, with settings turned all the way up. Therefore, it's probably a safe--and cheap--purchase, nowadays. I do sympathize with those that have bought this earlier and have had to suffer through these issues; there's no excuse for this. However, this review was written recently, not two years ago, and will score the game accordingly.
That said, graphics have improved much in the last two years. Does KOTOR still look good? In short, yes it does, with some reservations. While not featuring anything fancy like real-time lighting, the environments do feature nice textures that look just like something out of a Star Wars film. Water and the grassy areas of Dantooine look good, even by today's RPG standards. The character models all look nice and high-poly, and they feature some pretty lifelike (though not very varied) facial animations, as well. The game also features plenty of classic Star Wars-inspired views of space and space battles, of which I'm particularly fond.
In general, the characters and environments look suitably high-fidelity, and never offend the eye - with one exception: Facial models repeat constantly. Each alien race/sex gets one portrait, and there are, maybe, ten facial models for the humans, altogether. Given that the game features a cast of scores and scores of characters, this gets very tiresome, especially when one of the main evil characters looks just like fifteen old guys on the streets of the same town, and like a leading member of the Jedi Council. Or how about Darth Bandon, supposedly second in evilness only Darth Malak himself, looking just like a bunch of other Sith guys? Blah.
To offset this quite a bit, the battles look absolutely outstanding. Lightsaber and blaster combat looks just like it should look, grenade explosions look so hot one can almost feel them, and Jedi and Sith combatants consistently and smoothly perform acrobatic feats and Force tricks. It all looks so convincing that it's easy to forget that in the background it's just a bunch of die rolls being compared to each other.
In addition to the many in-engine cutscenes, the game also features a few CG movie sequences, especially involving your starship the Ebon Hawk. These are kept brief, and, while they are faithful to the Star Wars license, the production values on them are nowhere near the top tier, such as the games in Square Enix's Final Fantasy series, or the recent Star Wars films themselves. They're okay, but a few of them really don't pay off on a sufficiently grand scale. Specifically, I thought this of the space battles toward the end of the game, and the Light Side ending sequence. In addition, they're rather low-resolution.
All in all, this is still the best-looking PC RPG I've played to date, which is enough to net it an 8, but do realize that (a) the PC market isn't exactly bursting with quality RPGs, and (b) upcoming games will probably eclipse this easily.
"All in all, this is still the best-looking PC RPG I've played to date..."
DOES IT SOUND LIKE STAR WARS?
Take a guess. It's not exactly rocket science: This game has a Star Wars license, and Star Wars films feature some of the most recognizable sound work in sci-fi, whether it be blaster fire, starship engines, droid speak, or weird alien languages.
But while the sound effects are all completely spot on, it's the voice acting that truly shines. Since the quality and sheer amount of dialogue are truly mind-boggling, it makes sense KOTOR also has the biggest video game voice cast I've ever witnessed at work. There's no Hollywood talent here, but I'm pretty certain most of the video game voiceover talent pool, period, was exhausted by this game - I kept recognizing voices from all manner of voiceover-heavy games I'd played in the past. Everyone does a fantastic job - it would be impossible for their performances to be any better - though special mention again goes to HK-47, the killer robot. The only complaints I have here are that most non-human races still get only one voice per sex (which makes sense, I guess, since the same is true about their faces), and that the alien language gibberish, while generally convincing, repeats too quickly to be entirely believable.
|The music, which I expected to very bombastic in the John Williams vein, was actually rather subdued. Williams' staples are used very sparingly, while the rest of the music is original. It never gets in the way, but never grabs one's attention, either. This is definitely nowhere near the top tier as far as RPG music goes. Perhaps it could have come out better if BioWare didn't restrict themselves to Williams' orchestral style, or if they'd hired the man himself. However, the voiceover script and acting, as well as the classic sound effects, still make Sound an easy 9.|
PLAYING THIS GAME SEVERAL TIMES: NOT INCONCEIVABLE
Look. I know I'm supposed to explain why I give a game a 10 in Replay Value, but I'll just keep it short this time.
- First play-through: 60 hours. Subsequent passes: 30+ hours.
- Number of quest-affecting choices made per conversation: 1-5.
- Number of conversations: One hundred, maybe more.
- Number of Light/Dark Side opportunities: Fifty, maybe more.
- Number of possible endings: Several.
- Number of ways to finish any one quest: 1-5.
And, keep it mind, these things aren't just you going through the motions. The Star Wars-iness of the game will make certain you'll want to take all of the paths, and like it.
IT'S PRETTY GOOD
OK, it's better than pretty good: 9 on Gameplay, 10 on Replay Value, good graphics and sound scores, a more vibrant Star Wars universe than in at least two of the actual films, and a heavy dose of gameplay originality. The Force is strong with this one: 9.3/10
"The Force is strong with this one."