STAR WARS: KNIGHTS OF THE OLD REPUBLIC (2003) – BIOWARE
Given the immense popularity of the Star Wars franchise, it is perhaps inevitable that over the years there have been many games looking to cash in on the stories of a galaxy far, far away. Trouble is though, the balance of hits and misses when it comes to Star Wars games veers worryingly towards the latter. After very strong origins with the Star Wars arcade game replicating the Trench Run from A New Hope, the quality of tie-in games has generally plummeted, perhaps reaching the bottom of the barrel when Vader and Palpatine had a dance off to Deadmau5 in Star Wars Kinect. When the hits do arrive however they tend to be excellent, and for many fans three games stand apart from the rest; the Lego Star Wars series, Battlefront, and the subject of this review – Knights Of The Old Republic (KOTOR).
KOTOR is one of those games, like Chrono Trigger before it, which benefits from having an almost perfect creative blend – the developers were BioWare (Baldur’s Gate) given the blessing of George Lucas to create new Star Wars lore centuries before the plot of the films, and the basic guiding principles behind combat are the established rules of Dungeons & Dragons. This harmonious balance was never going to be a bad thing; with the greatest fantasy playbook ever created providing the framework of the game, BioWare were free to craft a narrative that rivals anything else in the expansive fiction of Star Wars, and as a result KOTOR was one of the first games (along with its fellow Xbox exclusive Morrowind) that fully challenged the traditional JRPG as the top pick of the genre.
KOTOR takes place a couple of thousands years before the events of The Phantom Menace, in a time when the fate of the galaxy hangs in the balance…moreso than usual. During a war between the Jedi and the Mandlorian’s, two of the highest ranking Jedi Knights, Revan and Malak, chase the enemy to the far edges of space and lose contact with the rest of the army. Some time later, they return corrupted by the Dark Side and leading a Sith Armada that catches the Jedi by surprise, before Malak usurps Revan to become Master of the Sith. The player, unnamed and crippled by amnesia at the start of the game, is plonked right into the middle of this conflict with the Jedi on the verge of extinction. After escaping a Sith ambush to the city planet of Taris, the main quest has you lead a merry band of Jedi, rogues, droids, Wookies and other interesting individuals to fight back against Malak by seeking out the ‘Star Forge’; a mysterious ancient monument that appears to be the Sith source of power.
The main story of KOTOR takes you across worlds that fans will be more than familiar with including Tatooine and Kashyyk, but the game never feels the need to recreate the places that Luke and co. visit in the films. Instead, BioWare let you see a new galaxy, filled with people who don’t necessarily always fall under clear divisions of light and dark – there’s more than plenty of murky grey, and it’s your job to eventually settle many differences in a way you see fit with much more scope for being evil than you might initially expect. The interactions that you have with other characters rarely evolve beyond conversations held on your ship, but the characters themselves, especially the gleefully maniacal combat droid HK-47, are more than worthy companions.
And so what of gameplay? As previously mentioned, the integration of D&D rules means that anyone experienced in campaigns will feel right at home with both character creation (pick one of three classes, assign points to attributes such as Strength, Stamina, Intelligence and Wisdom etc.) and the mathematics of combat, but there is a detailed enough explanation to help newcomers blunder through as well. Given its age and console origins, the PC port of KOTOR I played through does suffer from awkward movement and input controls at times (for example, click on a person/object in the distance and your player will walk as the crow flies into walls and other things without manual keyboard movement), but in general the transition is sound – combat can be paused by pressing the Spacebar which allows you to plan ahead and queue up attacks, and menu response is almost instantaneous. Best of all, pressing the Z button will cause your chosen character to flourish their weapon, which is worth bonus review points on its own! On the negative side any skills or powers you unlock cannot be re-specified, so don’t for example pick Force Lightning if you are going to follow a predominantly light path through the game as you won’t be able to use it.
Where KOTOR really shines however is in the amount of stuff there is to do in what is now a decade old game. Alongside searching for the Star Forge, there are multiple side-quests requiring you amongst other things to solve disputes between local factions, cure plagues, collect artifacts, kill Jedi for the Sith and kill Sith for the Jedi. You can also become a champion of the swoop racing scene, play Pazaak (space blackjack) and test your turret skills by fending off enemy fighters between worlds. The maps and eventual route through the game are very linear, but BioWare have succeeded in making sure it doesn’t actually feel that way and that you will get at least 15 hours out of even the most basic playthrough. Make sure to regularly back up saves however, because the autosave system is temperamental at best and you can often find yourself replaying huge chunks of the game if you get caught out by a sudden difficulty spike.
The PC port does ensure that KOTOR looks and plays more smoothly than the original; while facial expressions in particular have moved on, the combat animations are still pretty nifty with added flips for good measure, the more open areas of Taris and Manaan run without a hitch and all the movies and cut-scenes also play without error. The highly recognisable audio cues of Star Wars such as the bleeps of droids and the ‘whum whum’ noise of lightsabers are all present and accounted for, but what does disappoint me in KOTOR is that while there is a lovely soundtrack by Elder Scrolls regular composer Jeremy Soule that invokes John Williams classic score, each bit of music runs for about a minute before cutting off leaving you with long periods of awkward silence. The voice acting, with the talents of regular BioWare collaborators including Jennifer Hale as Bastila, is solid and credible.
Knights Of The Old Republic is a great game on several levels; a top notch Star Wars game, an engrossing D&D campaign, and perhaps most significantly for me the base from which Mass Effect would be formed. It is not without its frustrations late on if you built a poor character, and having the famous plot twist has been spoiled for you then it does impact upon the enjoyability of the final 1/5th of the game. KOTOR’s legacy however as one of the finest games of the past decade is in my opinion well deserved. Available for both PC and iOS at dirt cheap prices, there’s few excuses for Star Wars fans not to pick it up.