Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic Preview

We check out BioWare and LucasArts' upcoming Star Wars RPG on the Xbox.

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A wide array of games have made use of the Star Wars license. While the first few games stayed close to the films, later titles have explored the rich history and varied worlds that have been touched on in the Star Wars canon. The latest and easily most ambitious Star Wars game to date, Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic, is the result of a collaboration between LucasArts and Edmonton-based BioWare, whose Baldur's Gate RPG series has earned critical acclaim and established a devoted fan base. We recently had a chance to get a closer look at the game at BioWare and have come away impressed with its progress. Knights of the Old Republic features a healthy mix of eye candy, RPG-style gameplay, and strong story elements.

Could this be C-3PO's cousin?

Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic will tell an original tale set 4,000 years before the events of Episode I, during the formative years of the Jedi order and the Republic. The rather vague amount of information on that era has allowed BioWare a great deal of freedom to play to its strengths as a developer and craft a game that features a rich story and deep gameplay. The developer's collaboration with LucasArts has ensured that the various elements drawn from the Star Wars universe work within the franchise's continuity and has even allowed BioWare to create new characters and locations that will become part of the official Star Wars universe. The game's story drops you into the middle of a conflict between the Jedi and the Sith that, as usual, threatens the whole galaxy. The big bad guy you'll be facing is a nasty fellow by the name of Darth Malak, who lives up to the grand tradition of all evildoers named Darth and causes mischief on an epic and deadly scale. In true Star Wars fashion, you stumble into the action during a planetary bombardment and wind up becoming a key figure in deciding the galaxy's fate. As if that weren't enough pressure, you'll also have to keep tabs on what path of the force your actions lead you down.

You'll find that some the local wildlife isn't terribly friendly.

The gameplay in Knights of the Old Republic is shaping up to be a truly impressive balancing act that will walk the line between the deep gameplay and options available in BioWare's PC RPGs and the far more simplistic RPGs found on consoles. Rather than opt to cannibalize both styles of game, BioWare has layered them to offer two distinct levels of play in Knights of the Old Republic. The core gameplay uses the basics of all RPGs and focuses on exploration, character interaction, quests, and character development. The exact mechanics, especially those revolving around character creation and development, can be tailored to suit your preferences. If you're accustomed to the fairly limited options in console RPGs, it will be possible to create a character and hop into the game with a minimal amount of work. You'll just pick a name, a gender, and a class; choose some default options the game offers you; and then hop into the game. If you prefer PC RPGs or you're hankering for more to do with your virtual self, you'll find the ability to customize nearly every aspect of your character's attributes and abilities. This duality extends to the game's combat as well, as you'll be able to pause the game to carefully consider your options or just hack and blast away until your foes stop moving. The combat is enhanced by the use of your party, which is made up of whichever three characters you select to accompany you on your adventures. As you progress through the game, you'll encounter a motley assortment of characters you can encourage to accompany you on your travels. Each character will have his or her own strengths and weaknesses, and you'll be able to review your available party members and pick those you feel would be the best companions before you leave the Ebon Hawke, the ship that serves as your base of operations. You'll also be able to swap party members out as conditions change during a quest to ensure you have the best group with you at all times.

As far as quests in the game go, Knights of the Old Republic will keep you engaged with the main quest and a solid assortment of side quests and minigames. You'll gain experience and items by completing quests, and the interactions you engage in with characters while on those quests will affect your force leanings and the game's environment. For example, you'll find some rather harsh conversation options open to you when you're talking to characters, and such options have the potential to bring about bloodshed. If you make a habit of engaging in those types of conversations, you can pretty much guess which side of the force you'll be batting for by the game's end. Along the same lines, you'll be presented with different ways of dealing with each situation you come across. The easier option may have destructive results, despite getting the job done, while the more difficult choice may be far safer. In some cases, picking the quick, destructive way out may do a lot more than just add a notch to your karmic dark side column--it may impact the entire universe. For example, the damage you cause may actually impact the availability of weapons or items in the game permanently.

The sea life in the game is not as friendly as you'd think.

In terms of its presentation, the game is very impressive, offering a broad platter of eye candy that should please Xbox owners and Star Wars fans alike. While the game's showing at E3 was a bit underwhelming, given the anticipation for the title, what we saw of the game on our recent trip differed pretty dramatically. We had a chance to check out a modest sampling of the different environments that will be featured in the game, including Datooine, Tatooine, Kashyyyk, the interior and exterior of an underwater complex, and the Ebon Hawke. Datooine featured grassy plains that reacted to our movement and overbrightening techniques much like those seen in the Halo 2 trailer. Tatooine had the look we've come to expect from the most-frequented out-of-the-way dust ball in science-fiction history. The buildings had a washed-out, sandblasted pallor to them, and small tufts of sand billowed up in the streets, forming miniature tornados. Kashyyyk had made been improved quite a bit since the last time we saw it, and it featured shafts of light coming down through the treetops of a wookiee settlement, as well as quite a few NPCs milling about. The interior of the underwater complex was a sharp contrast to the natural, spacious outdoor areas and featured narrow corridors with steam billowing out of pipes and pools of water forming from drops that fell from overhead pipes. The exterior of the complex, which you could explore once you and your party donned the appropriate underwater gear, offered a murky and foreboding vista. Our journey around the complex was complicated by ravenous sea life that was eager to make a meal out of us. Finally, the interior of the Ebon Hawke hasn't changed a tremendous amount since the last time we saw it, although we were able to check out a few more compartments. As far as the characters go, you'll find an impressive amount of detail on the game's cast and smooth animation.

You'll find a rather deadly assortment of droids in the game.

But the most impressive part of the game's graphics are the subtle details we've seen everywhere, such as the billowing sand in Tatooine, the moving grass and lighting in Datooine, the reflective pools of water and the moody lighting in the complex, and the animation of the characters during combat. The impressive graphics engine is also used to tell the game's story. You'll find a mix of real-time cutscenes and slick CG sequences on hand to move the game's narrative along. The game's audio had been only partially implemented in the build of the game we saw. Some character voices and sound effects were in, as was some ambient sound, but the game's score was still being worked on.

Judging from what we've seen so far, Knights of the Old Republic has all the makings of a solid RPG in its early state. We'll be keeping tabs on it as BioWare and LucasArts polish the game in the coming months. Look for more on Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic later this week from LucasArts' upcoming media day.

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