We recently got our hands on a near-final build of Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. The upcoming Xbox RPG, which is in development at Edmonton-based BioWare, is set 4,000 years before the events seen in Star Wars: Episode I and gives you a chance to participate in the events that shaped the Star Wars universe as we know it. After checking in on different parts of the game over the course of the past year, we've finally gotten a chance to have a go at the game from the start.
When you start a game, you'll be able to choose a male or female character in one of three classes: scoundrel, scout, or soldier. After you select a class, you'll be able to select either a ready-made character who needs only a face and a name or a custom character who can be tweaked to your liking. The custom character option lets you tweak five major elements: portrait, attributes, skills, feats, and name. Portrait lets you choose from an assortment of faces for your character. Attributes apply bonuses or penalties to combat, skills, and force powers. You'll be able to divvy up points between six different attributes--strength dexterity, constitution, intelligence, wisdom, and charisma--and your character's class will determine which attributes you'll want to focus on. For example, if you choose a soldier, you'll want to make sure you bulk up your strength, dexterity, and constitution to complement the character's combat abilities. Your character's skills determine how proficient he or she is at eight different tasks. Finally, feats are enhancements to your character that let you use special items, modify your skill development, or perform new attacks. While the process sounds a bit intimidating, especially if you're used to the less-customizable characters found in other console RPGs, it's actually not that bad. You're given explanations every step of the way, so it's pretty tough to screw anything up horribly.
After you've sorted out your character, the game goes into the franchise's familiar text crawl, which brings you up to speed on what's happened so far. Once you're up to speed, you'll watch a cinema of a massive Republic starship called the Endar Spire being hammered by Sith fighters. Unfortunately, the cinema doesn't bode well for your future, as you're a member of the Endar Spire's crew. You're awakened by your bunkmate, who gives you rather grim status report: The ship is under attack and has been boarded by Sith. The pair of you set out to find Bastila, the ship's resident Jedi, and get off the ill-fated ship before you're captured or killed. You're clued in to the basics of gameplay by your roomie as you make your way through the ship, much like in the first level of Halo. Your crash course will include how to equip items, manage your party, and interact with your environment.
Veteran console RPG players may find that getting a handle on the gameplay in Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic requires some time. The various menus you'll be navigating will require you to accustom yourself to the game's various systems for leveling up, equipping items, and combat. The game's combat system takes a bit of getting used to, as it features a mix of real-time and turn-based elements. Essentially, you'll automatically initiate combat by approaching an enemy. The game will then pause, and a targeting reticle will come up to let you know that combat has been initiated. At this point, you'll have the option of either selecting attack options from an onscreen menu or unpausing and picking your attacks on the fly. Once you're comfortable with the system, you can stack up to four actions in a queue by selecting them with the X button. While queuing up actions isn't incredibly vital when you start out, it becomes more important later on as your character develops and you gain different attacks and collect items like grenades.
The other elements of the gameplay we've seen so far include a few of the side quests, the leveling up mechanics, and the process for managing your affinity with the dark or light side of the force. We've triggered side quests by interacting with various characters on the planet Taris, which is where you'll find yourself following your time on the Endar Spire. An in-game quest log lets you keep track of the various quests as they pop up, which is useful when they start to pile up. Leveling up your character offers you the same options open to you when you start the game. You can let the computer handle the point distribution or do it yourself. We're pleased to see that the other members of your party level up along with you, regardless of whether or not they're with you all the time. Finally, we've faced a few instances in the game where interacting with characters has started to affect whether we're aligned with the light or dark side of the force. Conversations with NPCs, which often lead to a request for your help, end with a note informing you which side of the force you're leaning toward.
Getting around in the game has turned out to be a fairly painless experience, thanks to the detailed map system, which lets you scope out where you are and where you've been. You'll also be able to warp back to your base of operations most any time to manage your party or tinker with items at your workbench. If you've leveled up and have the proper combination of skills, you can choose to upgrade various weapons, pieces of armor, or items into far more useful incarnations.
The graphics in the game are looking pretty good. The individual character models look good and feature little flourishes such as moving hair and clothing, highlights for shiny skin, and armor. The environments are impressively large and feature ambient touches such as people and aliens going about their business on the ground and ships flying to and fro in the sky. The only rough spots we've come across so far are the camera, which occasionally shifts to an awkward angle as you explore rooms, and the frame rate, which dips quite often.
The audio in the game is solid, thanks to good voice acting and a strong soundtrack. The game's cast is a chatty bunch, gabbing at you in everything from Basic (or English, for those of you who aren't Star Wars zealots) to a variety of alien and mechanical languages. The voice acting complements the ambient sound in the various locales you'll find in the game, and the game's soundtrack is a good mix of familiar themes from the films and original music.
From what we've seen so far, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic is coming together pretty well as a whole. While there are a few rough spots in the game, such as the frame rate, the overall package seems to be fairly solid. Once you've gotten the hang of how it plays, you'll find there's plenty to explore. We like the variety of options we've encountered so far, as well as the plentiful side quests. We'll be curious to see what the game looks like with its final layer of polish when it ships later this month.