by Benjamin Fitzgerald
Release Date: July 15, 2003 (Xbox), November 19, 2003 (PC)
Genre: Science fiction, role-playing
Rating: T for Teen
BioWare has done wonders for the world of role-playing games. They entered the world of cRPGs in a big way with Baldur’s Gate and its sequel, and they continued to make rapid strides with their second RPG, Neverwinter Nights, and its expansions. Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic builds on this legacy in new and interesting ways.
If you are familiar with the setting of Star Wars, you’ll feel right at home jumping into KotOR. Although it is set 4,000 years before the events of The Phantom Menace, it feels thoroughly comfortable. Although this indicates that technological and cultural development in Star Wars is somewhat stagnant, I appreciated that the developers tried to keep things familiar. It was really a brilliant move on the part of BioWare, because it gave them an immense amount of creative liberty in regards to the story and narrative, but enabled them to create environments that felt thoroughly authentic.
When you begin the game, you create a character – either male or female – as one of three classes: soldier, scout and scoundrel. Each of the classes has their own distinctive advantages, and they will come into play even when you’ve become a Jedi Knight. Although you will really only advance in these classes during the first act of the game, you retain their abilities for the rest of the game, so the strategies you pursue throughout the game will be heavily influenced by this first choice.
Character selected, you awake aboard the Endar Spire, a Republic vessel that has come under attack by the Sith under the command of Darth Malak. You are abruptly woken by a Rebel officer named Trask Ulgo, who guides you through the battle on the Endar Spire. As you make your way to the bridge, you are contacted by Carth Onassi, who provides valuable insight into your progress. On your way to fleeing the ship you meet a dark Jedi, and Ulgo sacrifices himself to buy you enough time to escape. You eventually meet up with Carth and flee the Endar Spire on an escape pod moments before it explodes. You and Onassi are alone, stranded on the Sith-occupied world of Taris.
The first act of the game is centered on locating the Jedi Padawan Bastila Shan, who is lost somewhere on the planet. Along the way you infiltrate a Sith base, negotiate between opposing gangs and stage a rescue operation for a captive Wookiee through a series of quests that span three levels of the planet, from the upper wards of the city to the inhospitable surface.
Although Taris occupies a relatively small portion of the game, it is on Taris that you recruit the majority of your NPC companions. You begin with Carth Onassi; as you progress through Taris, you meet the Mandalorian mercenary Canderous Ordo, the gruff Wookiee Zaalbar, the spunky, irresistibly cute Twi’lek rouge Mission Vao and the Jedi Bastila. In addition, you acquire the astromech droid T3-M4 from a merchant, which also proves to be an incredibly valuable ally. All totaled, that’s six out of the nine NPCs. You acquire your ship, the Ebon Hawk, on Taris as well, so Taris is a pretty important stomping ground.
After you have escaped Taris, you flee to the secret Jedi base on Dantooine, where you learn from the remaining members of the Jedi council of your unusually powerful connection to the Force. You train with the masters to become a Jedi Padawan, and it here you choose between becoming a Jedi Sentinel, a Jedi Consular and a Jedi Guardian. Each of these Jedi types have different advantages and disadvantages. Some are better suited to straight combat, while others favor a heavy use of Force powers.
On Dantooine, you discover a piece of a map, a remnant of a long-forgotten race that leads to some unknown location in the galaxy. You seem to bear some inexplicable connection to this discovery, and it is decided that you must travel across the galaxy to locate the rest of the map. From this point on, the game spreads out rather nicely, offering a wealth of worlds for you to explore, including both iconic worlds of Star Wars lore – Kashyyyk and Tatooine – as well as Korriban, the original homeworld of the Sith, and Manaan, an original world created for the game. Each of these worlds is realized in a very individual way. From the dense jungles of Kashyyyk to the water world of Manaan, there are a number of exotic and exciting locations to explore.
The diverse cast of characters is one of the most compelling aspects of Knights of the Old Republic, and it is one of the areas in which BioWare best improved upon their previous titles. Baldur’s Gate had a diverse cast of characters, but they were generally lacking in depth and character development. By the end of the game, I pretty much disliked everyone except Imoen. Neverwinter Nights, BioWare’s second role-playing title, reduced the cast of characters and improved the character development and depth, but this too at times felt shallow – all the characters had some problem they want you to help solve, and their stories rarely go beyond this.
In KotOR, the characters who choose to travel with you really do feel like real people with their own reasons for doing things. There are still some quests to accomplish with many of these characters, but they are incorporated much more naturally into the game than in its predecessor. For example, Mission wants to find her big brother, but it isn’t the reason she’s traveling with you; you can quite adequately finish the game without ever finding him. Other characters have side quests that you will only discover over the natural course of gameplay. For example, Zaalbar will not discuss his personal life with you, and you cannot trigger his story until you travel to Kashyyyk.
I don’t want to write too much about the characters; discovering their personalities and individual quirks through conversations and quests is one of the most rewarding aspects of the game. Still, a review of this game isn’t complete without considering some of the interesting companions you acquire.
My personal favorite character is Mission. She’s smart, feisty and she knows how to take care of herself. She’s practically a kid, abandoned by her older brother and left to fend for herself as a street urchin with just her brains and determination to get by. Like any good smuggler, she teams up with a benevolent Wookiee who serves as the brawn to her brains. Before I met Mission Vao, I never thought much of Twi’lek. I certainly didn’t understand why they had a reputation in the Star Wars universe for being attractive, but she’s adorable! Her ability to sneak around makes her an excellent rogue; she’s smart and sassy and I just might have a bit of a crush on her…
On Kashyyyk, you meet up with a most unusual Jedi named Jolee Bindo. As far as character and backstory goes, I don’t think there’s a more interesting character in the game. On the surface, he is a stock character: elderly, wise, eccentric. As you get to know him and his story, you realize how perfectly he embodies the archetype. You can’t afford to miss any conversations with this crazy old geezer.
The great characters in this game don’t stop with your companions. The world is full of interesting persons that you will interact with. There are hundreds of NPCs in this game, and there’s no way I can even begin to cover all of them. Some of the NPCs are generic grab-and-fetch quest-types and others are more fleshed out. By and large, though, none of the characters feel like they’re thrown in the game as padding. For example, at one point early in the game, you meet an attractive Sith soldier. If you’re playing a male, you can flirt with her, which leads her to invite you to a party. This is just one example of how well interactions are handled in this game.
Of course, no summary of the characters would be complete without a discussion of Darth Malak, who is hands down one of the most awesome villains we ever see in the Star Wars universe. I can’t delve too deeply into what makes Malak so powerful without major spoilers, but his motivations and history are deeply rooted in Star Wars lore. He is not a villain who is evil just so the game has an antagonist. He is fleshed out, he has powrful motivations, and he is deadly in his competence.
As far as characters are concerned, KotOR was a major stepping stone for BioWare as well as role-playing games in general. The only cRPG before this to have such a collection of vivid, life-like companions was Black Isle’s Planescape: Torment. With titles such as the Mass Effect trilogy, BioWare has established themselves as masters of character. Thane Krios, Mordin Solus, and Legion stand nout as some of the greatest NPCs to ever grace a video game, but it was Knights of the Old Republic that got BioWare headed in the right direction.
Like Baldur’s Gate and Neverwinter Nights before it, Knights of the Old Republic is based off of a d20 tabletop RPG system. Star Wars is not Dungeons and Dragons of course, but the game mechanics used are virtually identical; anyone familiar with Forgotten Realms character creation will feel thoroughly at home with KotOR.
In terms of game mechanics, it plays a lot like Neverwinter Nights. Both use a combat system that adapts turn-based combat into a faux real-time. You can queue up a sequence of events to use in combat, but combat is based on rounds of about two seconds. Whether you hit your opponents is decided by automated dice rolls. It may sound simplistic, but successful combat depends upon careful strategy and management.
If KotOR resembles Neverwinter Nights in terms of combat, it presages Mass Effect in terms of cinematics and conversation. The first time I approached Mission and Zaalbar in conversation, I was struck by how similar it looked in presentation to the later Mass Effect. KotOR game takes a much more cinematic approach than BioWare’s previous titles. It’s still much lighter on cut scenes than the Mass Effect trilogy, but it was a step in the right direction.
Another major innovation was the full voice-over. When KotOR was released in 2003, it was common for adventure games to have full voice acting, but it was unusual for role-playing games. Neither Neverwinter Nights nor Elder Scrolls: Morrowind were fully voiced, and I’m not sure if Gothic was, so the acting in KotOR was huge.
One of the things I really appreciated was that not everyone spoke galactic common. Wookiees spoke Shyriiwook; the Sand People spoke Tusken; Jawas spoke Jawaese. Many aliens, including Hutts, Twi’lik and Rodians, speak Huttese. I thought this provided a very authentic touch, and it really enhanced my enjoyment of the game.
To round out the experience are three mini-games. The first of these is a card game called pazaak, which I found an entertaining way to pass a few hours of the game away. In addition to the base deck, there are a lot of extra cards that can be purchased from various merchants in the game that play a major factor in whether you win o lose. If you want to practice, Mission is always up for a round, although she’s not interested in betting. The second mini-game is called swoop racing, which is sort of a precursor to pod racing. You are first introduced to it in Taris, and you can compete on Tatooine as well. The third mini-game has you manning a turret aboard the Ebon Hawk and is automatically triggered when fleeing certain planets such as Taris.
The Light and the Dark
BioWare has always been good with choices. Your character in Baldur’s Gate could be merciful and just or blindly cruel. Neverwinter Nights continued this trend and improved it. Your alignment – and the way people responded to you – was heavily influenced by the way you treated others. Star Wars is the perfect setting for the moral dichotomies that BioWare so expertly presents. You will have the option in many of your interactions to make decisions that will affect your leanings either to the light side of the Force or the dark side. Behaving in a benevolent manner will obviously increase your affinity to the light, whereas cruel behavior is a sure path to evil.
I am a goody two-shoes kind of gamer – I almost never choose evil options. I will occasionally choose renegade actions in Mass Effect, but Mass Effect was less good/evil than KotOR, and that Batarian’s speech was dragging on. Your party may at times react differently if you behave in an evil fashion, and embracing the dark side leads to a completely different ending for the game. You can defeat Darth Malak or you can take his place as ruler of the Sith. To this end, using evil Force powers increases your affinity with the dark; they are more powerful that light side powers, but if you wish to pursue a good course, you might want to be avoid using them.
There is a current of despair that runs the course of the game. No matter what you do, Malak always seems to be right behind you – or even one step ahead of you. As the game progresses, you must deal with terrible losses, both in your party and throughout the galaxy. Your actions have consequences, even if they are merely moral. These help to make for an incredibly compelling story.
There is very little I have to say about KotOR that isn’t positive. My only real critique is that the final level of the game, when you take the battle to Malak, drags and drags. It isn’t the fight with Malak itself – this is actually quite interesting. It’s the fact that on the way to Malak you are stormed by wave after wave of Sith soldiers, which isn’t challenging so much as it is tedious. I wanted to get to the final climax, and the never-ending stream of enemies just seemed an unnecessary means of prolonging the adventure.
In spite of this one minor complaint, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic is one of the greatest computer role-playing games ever created. The Mass Effect trilogy may be BioWare’s crowning achievement, but it was KotOR that paved the way for its massive impact. I don’t think that there is a single game in the Star Wars catalog – save perhaps Obsidian’s sequel – that serves better justice to the Star Wars universe.