Aside from being a great Star Wars property, Knights of the Old Republic is a sublime role-playing game.
To make a successful Star Wars game there are some requirements. First off you need to come up with a diverse cast of instantly lovable characters. The reason we all love the films is because we all connected with Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Princess Leia and the rest of the crew straight away. They were all individual personalities, but they had a great chemistry between each other. You just have to see the way Han and Leia are constantly at each other's throats, fighting against their obvious attractions to each other. It shows just how well they were developed as characters. You need an epic conflict between good and evil – or as it is in the Star Wars universe a conflict between Jedi and Sith. You need interesting locations and an array of different aliens. Remember the Cantina scene from A New Hope; remember how full of life that place was? You need to get this sense of feeling across in a game. Oh yeah, and you also need a kick-ass Millennium Falcon style light cruiser that the heroes constantly rely on to get them out of a sticky situation.
Luckily the Canadian-based developers BioWare have hit the nail right on the head with Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, their forth RPG. Knights of the Old Republic (or KotOR as it is often abbreviated to) takes on all the requirements necessary to succeed as a Star Wars property, but when this is mixed with BioWare's talent for developing role-playing games, it stands in a league of its own. You don't need to be a fan of RPGs or the source material to like this game, but fans of either or both will connect with Knights of the Old Republic in ways that other games simply don't allow.
Through all of BioWare's RPGs one common link is that they all have extremely strong narratives. BioWare are one of the best in the business at crafting stories and believable worlds, and Knights of the Old Republic showcases their talent in ways even their other masterpieces don't. The Star Wars universe was already strong and rich in lore before BioWare got their hands on it, and they have used all this to their advantage. Set roughly 4000 years before A New Hope, in the time of the Old Republic, BioWare takes us through a journey of pain, suffering, hope and redemption. It is a time of uprising. After the Republic won a bloody way against a band of brutes called the Mandalorians, the galaxy was supposed to be in a time of peace, but merely a few years after the war ends a Sith uprising, lead by the evil Darth Malak, strikes the Republic just as it started its rebuilding process. Malak was once a powerful Jedi that fought for the Republic in the Mandalorian war, but after disobeying orders, he and his Jedi Master Revan pursued what little Mandalorian forces were left out of sight and knowledge of the Republic, past the outer rim planets. When they both returned, they were changed. The Dark Side of the Force corrupted both of their minds.
You assume the role of a nameless, amnesiac Republic solder, who wakes upon a Space Cruiser called the Endar Spire just as it gets attacked by Sith forces. While you are clearly confused, you need to escape. The opening of any video game needs to be strong and get across its point. There have been many games that started badly and never recovered, but Knights of the Old Republic instantly puts your skills to the test. Unlike BioWare's previous PC exclusive role-playing games, Knights of the Old Republic isn't played from an isometric perspective; instead it's played from a third-person perspective like most action-adventure games. As you travel and command your party of three characters, you'll encounter many difficulties. You'll meet many people who are in need of your aide, whether they need money, your help to prove the innocence of a loved one or needing you to kill somebody. Knights of the Old Republic offers a lot for players to do.
One of the best aspects of the games story is that your very actions can completely change how characters react and interact with you. There are two choices in the game, you can play as an apprentice of the Light Side of the Force, or as a follower of the Dark Side, and depending on which you choose the games story will alter. You don't choose which side you want to follow at the beginning of the game when you create your character, rather the way you talk to people and your physical actions during playing determine which side you sway to. As an example, if you go to a droid shop to buy the droid needed to communicate with Sand People, you can haggle the shopkeeper to a more reasonable price through Jedi force persuasion or by talking nicely to him. Or you can threaten his life as an action of the Dark Side to lower the price even further. Both ways will work and result in a price drop, but if you threaten the shopkeeper's life he will no longer do business with you again afterwards, meaning you'll have to find a different shop at which to buy and sell things next time. But this is only one of literally hundreds of examples of situations that change depending on your actions.
Another one of the more impressive aspects of Knights of the Old Republic is the amount of voice acting in game. The script is 15, 000 lines of dialogue, many of which you'll never hear on your first play through. If you play the game once following the light side and once following the dark side, you may very well get a completely different script both times, which shows a level of incredible game design. Also, something Star Wars fans will like is that each alien race talks in their native tongue. The alien languages aren't as impressive as the human dialogue, mainly because certain patterns of dialogue can be repeated in conversation, but it's still nice BioWare went to the trouble of adding their dialogue at all.
In total there are 10 playable characters in Knights of the Old Republic, including your own character, all of which are designed well as a personality. Just like in the films BioWare have been able to come up with a diverse and lovable band of characters and have executed them well. The characters do follow the basic stereotypes you would come to expect in the Star Wars universe, but this isn't a bad point. You have the hero, whose destiny is to save the galaxy. There's the beautiful heroine whose feelings for the main hero are all too obvious. You have a confused, but faithful ex-Republic soldier who'll help you out of a tricky situation. There's a Jedi companion who's always on edge of turning to the Dark Side, and who'll seek your reassurance to keep in the light. You have a Wookiee companion and his faithful, young Twi'lek friend who goes wherever he goes, especially once the Wookiee has pledged a life debt to the hero. You have the rough looking guy who you're not too sure about at first, but who'll stick by you no matter what your actions. There's the old guy that seems quite mad, but at the same time is handy with the Force and tells some fascinating stories about past events in his life. And, of course, you have a couple of droids. Gaining the trust of your colleagues is key to completing the game and saving the galaxy.
BioWare went in to a lot of detail in regards to giving each character their own stories and backgrounds. You can talk to your squad members at any time, whether outside on a quest or inside your ship. The more you talk to your companions the more you learn about them. And once you talk to them enough they'll tell you pretty much everything you need to know about them and fully pledge their loyalty to you and your cause. Jolee Bindo, the old guy, is one of my personal favorite characters. I won't talk too much about him or the tales he tells you, as I don't want to spoil the game for anyone, but as a personality he brings a bit of a comedic touch to your squad at times.
BioWare's first three role-playing games are all based on advanced dungeons and dragons rules. Knights of the Old Republic isn't, but the games battle system does use the rules of the Star Wars tabletop role-playing games by Wizards of the Coast to determine attack damage, defensive power and talent success. At a glance the battle system looks to be action-orientated, but in reality the battle system is in fact turn based. When you engage an enemy the game pauses so that you can issue commands individually to your squad members (although the games AI will control the two characters you're not using if you don't issue commands to them), and once the commands are set you will commence fighting. Basic attacks are issued roughly in six-second intervals, but you can also use the d-pad to flick through and select your talents to use at any time. Talents are basically Knights of the Old Republic's equivalent of a magic system. Some of the talents are offensive, and some are defensive, and each talent has two or three ranks of strength. For instance, you may have a Jedi character that uses the Force Push talent, but if you upgrade this rank it will eventually turn in to Force Whirl, which is a more powerful version of Force Push with extra-added effects. The talent system works really well, and only helps to further the strategy and enjoyment of battles.
In the usual mould of role-playing games killing enemies and completing missions will gain your characters experience points, and when you reach a certain amount numerical amount of experience points you'll level up. Whenever you level up in Knights of the Old Republic you get to customize your characters skills and unlock them new talents as you see fit. When you start the game you create your character and assign them a class, and to get the best out of your characters you'll have to strategically assign them new skills and powers at each level increase. If you're a techy RPG fan such as myself you'll love the amount of choice you have when reaching a new level. But to keep things simple for less-experienced role-players BioWare included an auto-level feature that, when used, will automatically assign skills to your characters corresponding to their class. Automatically leveling up does take away the freedom of customization, but it's a great feature for those who are new to RPGs.
Whenever you complete a side mission in Knights of the Old Republic, the experience awarded to you can vary depending on your actions, which I thought was a really great idea BioWare implemented. For instance, you may be confronted by a guy trying to attack you, and if you talk to him, calm him down and manage to avoid fighting you may gain more experience than you would have done simply from getting stuck in. Or you may be sent on a mission where the mission giver tells you to get rid of some people for him, and you may be awarded more experience points from resolving the situation in a non-violent way. When you're encountering situations such as this, the game really gives you a great deal of choice, and the amount of choice available really helps to engross you more in the gaming experience.
Exploration in Knights of the Old Republic sees you traveling to several locations in the Star Wars universe, some of which will be familiar to fans of the films and others of which are new. The first planet is Taris, and for the beginning hours of the game you're stuck there. But once you get your ship and leave Taris you can go pretty much anywhere. You'll visit the familiar Star Wars planets of Tatooine and Kashyyyk, as well as the Sith home world of Korriban, the water engulfed planet of Manaan and Dantooine, the place where your character trains to become a Jedi. Each planet is designed well and offers a fair share of things to do. When you're not traveling, you're able to enter and freely walk around your ship, the Ebon Hawk. It isn't very big and the camera can sometimes be problematic in its narrow corridors, but the ship will serve as your main central hub when not on missions.
Of all the things the Star Wars films are known for, the music is one of the most impressive and well-known aspects. Composed by John Williams, the soundtrack of the films are arguably the best any set of films has ever had. So it's imperative that Star Wars games have good music also. One I thing I particularly liked about Knights of the Old Republic is that it has a brilliant sound track, but it doesn't contain any actual compositions from the films outside of the opening and ending credit role compositions. As much as I love the Star Wars music, I've heard it all before in the films and other video games. Instead the games composer Jeremy Soul, one of the best composers to ever compose for a video game, composed an entirely original soundtrack by taking influence from John Williams' work. As a result Knights of the Old Republic's soundtrack more than rivals anything any other game has ever achieved musically.
In a game such as Knights of the Old Republic it's hard to find any significant faults. In retrospect, the few problems Knights of the Old Republic suffers from don't interfere with the game dramatically, but they are evident. The biggest problem the game suffers is frame rate drops. At the beginning of the game, when combat is lighter, the game performs admirably. But towards the end of the game, when you're fighting many enemies at one time and using all your characters talents, a lot is happening on the screen and the game can sometimes fail to keep up with the action. Like I said, this isn't a significant fault, because the frame rate drops aren't so bad that you'll want to stop playing, but it can be annoying when it happens while you're concentrating on fighting strong enemies or a boss. Also, while solid graphically, the games FMV sequences are dreadfully animated, which really loses their sense of grandeur.
BioWare are one of the best role-playing game developers of all time, and what they achieved with Knights of the Old Republic is something very special indeed. While many Star Wars games have come and gone without any of us caring, Knights of the Old Republic is worthy to stand aside Tie-Fighter as a game that will still be remembered for years to come. It's such a fantastic gaming achievement. It is the absolute best Star Wars game ever made, BioWare's finest achievement and also one of the greatest role-playing games of all time.
Review by: James Widdowson