Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic

When I first heard that there was going to be a new Star Wars RPG, I was excited but concerned. Having had some difficulty adjusting to PC role playing games, I wasn't sure what I was in for. And it's true that KOTOR's overall design, and the battle system in particular, might take a little while for console RPG players to get used to. It's far more similar to PC games like Baldur's Gate and Icewind dale than most console fare, but not as complex as those titles, and I didn't have much trouble adjusting.

You control a party of up to three characters at a time, switching the leader with the press of a button. You can lock onto tems of interest, NPC's, and enemies using the tigger buttons. Using the default settings, the game will also pause when you get close to an enemy. You can then press a button to have all your characters use their default attacks, or do things more strategically if necessary. It's possible pause and switch between characters to enter new commands, or enter a series of three commands for a character, to be carried out in order. You can also make all your decisions without interrupting combat, it's all up to preference. You can set things up to flow quickly and uninterrupted or constantly pause to take your time and enter new commands, somewhat more like the traditional console RPG.

Different party members have their own strengths and weaknesses, but you can customize them a great deal during level ups, which is is actually one of the best aspects of the game. Since there are so many options for feats, force powers and the like, more than you can actually use before reaching the maximum level of 20, you can end up with a very different kind of party from game to game, even if you use all the same characters. It's good to plan ahead... what's going to be more useful, the second level of force lightning, or the ability to heal the entire party. Do you want to focus on single weapon combat, or improve your skill with two weapons or a double-bladed one?

The game offers the main character three different starting classes, and then a series of three different Jedi classes to pick from later in the game. You can also choose various faces (more would have been nice), and pick between male and female for some slight storyline changes. You're not going to mistake this for an Elder Scrolls game in terms of player freedom, but there's a great number of ways to make a unique character, adding lots of replay value besides the darkside and lightside options.

The level up system here while a little hard to get used to at first is one I liked quite a bit. It allows you to use any characters you want without having to worry about leveling them up to catch up with those you've used more frequently. Everyone, whether they're in your party at the time or not, receives equal experience points. You can then level them up whenever you feel like using them again. Nobody ever falls behind and becomes useless, letting you change characters around as frequently as you need. I once switched to a character I hadn't played once during the game, leveled him up about 10 times and was good to go. There are few things more frustrating to me than having to constantly rotate characters or to be stuck being required to use someone who's fallen way behind.

There are many types of enemies to deal with, some human, and some more along the lines of traditional RPG monsters. Eventually you'll be going up against force users and other powerful adversaries. The game is of average difficulty for the most part, but it can be adjusted to an easier or more challenging mode at any time. Difficulty will also vary a great deal simply based on what skills you focus on.

The storyline is generally very enjoyable with many interesting characters and the many ways of handling different situations. After the initial setup of things on Taris (which perhaps goes on for longer than is necessary), the game's structure becomes more clear. You have to travel to a series of planets to retrieve a series of items and finally confront the dark lord of the Sith. When I first found out about the item collecting, I was considerably disappointed. I was hoping for more epic events, not a 40 hour item search. Fortunately, the concept is implemented very well. When you first reach a new planet, you'll have no idea how to reach your goal. Only by exploring and learning more about your surroundings from the locals will the facts be revealed. Along the way, you'll talk to interesting NPC's, take on some great sidequests, and learn more about your party members in detailed conversations.

The dark side/light side concept comes into play very frequently. Not only in how you handle sidequests, and your rewards, but in how you handle the game's major events. For example, the Sith Academy. You can simply pretend to be a Sith in order to reach your objective, secretly doing good deeds and helping people whenever possible. Or you can actually go through the training to be a dark Jedi without betraying the Sith in any way. Virtually every conversation you have includes dialogue options for lightside, darkside, and assorted neutral options. The game offers enough choices that you can still follow the dark path without being ridiculously cruel to every person you meet. And you can be a lightsider without always taking the peaceful path. There are still a few quests that can't be completed both ways, making them impossible to finish for someone who wants to play completely one way or another, but it's all optional. It's also not hard to restore your alignment if you do the occasional deed that goes against your character's normal way of behaving.

Party members have various unchangeable alignments, some lightside, some darkside, and a couple neutral. When you make decisions during the course of the game, they'll comment on your actions, offering their unique perspective. It's usually more fun to use characters that come close to your own alignment, or else you'll hear a lot of complaining.

It's important to consider that you don't have to be a Star Wars fan to enjoy this game. It helps a lot to already be familiar with the universe, and fans will enjoy the references and storyline the most. But the game takes place thousands of years before the timeline of the movies, and should be perfectly understandable to anyone playing it.

For all the praise, this is certainly not a perfect game and several aspects quickly become annoying. When traveling from planet to planet, you have the chance of running into enemy ships and having to fight them in a required mini-game. Aside from the fact that you're being interrupted by soemthing not as fun as the main game, each encounter plays out exactly the same, almost impossible to lose and very time consuming. The game also plays movies of the ship departing and landing every time you go to a new world, which also becomes a drag after you've seen them once or twice. When you get to the sidequests that require a lot of galaxy spanning travel, it becomes terribly boring to go through these same sequences again and again.

Worse than this, there are a couple of areas where your character is forced to wear a special suit for spacewalk or underwater exploration. Movement during these sequences is about 1/4 of normal speed, and there's simply no reason for this to be, gameplay wise. While this speed may seem more realistic, it makes these short areas extremely tedious and left me disappointed and perplexed.

Unfortunately, there are also a number of glitches. You'll get occasional freezes when the game loads new areas, but there are some more serious problems that can cause disaster for those who only keep one save file. One glitch completely stalls the game during a conversation, with the only option to load an old save and handle the situation differently. Another glitch puts you in a situation that seems like a normal part of the game until you realize you're really in a beta scenario left in the game code. If you save during this, your file is rendered useless. The PC version quickly received patches, but this wasn't as common on consoles at the time, so you just had to play and hope for the best.

Visually, the game's a mixed bag. You have a third person view of the main character, with your two party members visible at most times as well. The game does a very good job of keeping things visible, but you'll still get the occasional glitch where the camera goes behind a wall or is otherwise not heplful. The game also doesn't make the greatest first impression. The first of the main planets you'll be exploring is a fairly dreary looking place (not without storyline reason of course), and a lot of your time is spent below the surface and in interior locations. Things look decent enough, but I pretty much assumed after seeing this that the focus would be on gameplay over graphics. But then, moving onto the rest of the game, I was astonished at how much better the rest of the worlds looked. The deserts of Tatooine, the enormous city on the water planet Manaan, the dark forests of Kashyyyk... and some even more beautiful areas near the end. Great attention to detail in all these places.

Character models are pretty detailed, with some good attempts at creating believable faces and expressions. The only problem is that, at least with the Xbox version, you'll see the same models used all the time for the NPC's. In one city, you might see five to ten people with the same exact face. This was probably done to improve framerate or some such thing, but it's a bit unfortunate to see just the same. I'm told that the PC version has many more models available. Slowdown occurs from time to time if you're in a large or highly populated area. And it sometimes occurs when flashy special effects are used like Force Lightning, grenades, etc.

Like many modern games, the music didn't leave too much of an impression on me at all and during my second playthrough, I turned the sound off compltely to listen to something else. Unfortunately, you miss out on some pretty impressive voice work. The only real problem here is that when an alien language is spoken, regardless of the subtitled "translation" you only hear a few variations of the same few phrases. It gets old pretty fast, and I always skip past these parts when I play now. About 10 more possible alien "sentences" per species and it wouldn't have been nearly as peculiar and annoying.

Depending on the number of sidequests completed, the gamer's familiarity with RPG's, and the decision to skip or listen to the voice acting, the game can take from 25 to 45 hours the first time through. There's an extraordinary amount of replay value here though, and most gamers will want to finish the game at least twice to try out both paths and see the two endings. But with all the customization options and many available party members, it's possible to keep playing even more without being bored.

KOTOR was an amazing game, one of the best I played during this generation of consoles. Despite some flaws, I give it my highest recommendation to RPG fans.