Canadian developer BioWare is well known for producing high-quality role-playing games, thanks to its successful Baldur's Gate series, and offers up what is in many ways its finest such game to date in Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. LucasArts wisely delegated the task of producing a deep and involving Star Wars-themed RPG to BioWare, which has done a remarkable job of making Knights live up to the Star Wars name. In fact, Knights arguably lives up to the Star Wars name better than any other Star Wars property in years, including the last two theatrical films. The game's greatest accomplishment is its focused yet open-ended plot progression, which gives you the freedom to play as either a morally good or evil character, or shades in between. The struggle between good and evil is of course central to Star Wars and manifests itself extremely well throughout this outstanding game. For good measure, Knights features hours and hours of top-notch voice-over (all the dialogue is spoken), so you'll certainly be impressed by how different characters respond differently to you but also by the sheer size of the game.
Knights takes place thousands of years before the Star Wars films, but you'll recognize a lot of the technology.
The Xbox needed another great RPG--one that was more accessible than last year's great but sometimes-bewildering Morrowind--and it's finally here. Those who've played BioWare's computer RPGs--either the Baldur's Gate series or last year's Neverwinter Nights--will recognize the influence of those games on Knights of the Old Republic. In fact, the main difference between the gameplay of Knights and BioWare's previous games is superficial. This one is played from a third-person perspective and thus resembles a 3D action adventure game rather than one of BioWare's older isometric RPGs.
Other than that, gameplay is similar. You create a main character and then explore many different areas, interact with many different characters, settle many different disputes, solve many different puzzles, and engage in plenty of combat. Combat appears to be real-time but actually uses a turn-based system "under the hood" just like Neverwinter Nights, which means your character's statistics and attributes (and your strategy) make all the difference, and your personal reflexes and hand-eye coordination have no bearing on the outcome. Most importantly, Knights is very different from the typical console RPG in that you'll always be an active participant in the storyline, rather than a passive observer. You don't just read, watch, and listen to a lot of text, cutscenes, and dialogue--your character is constantly invited and required to make difficult decisions, and that's ultimately the most entertaining, impressive, and rewarding aspect of the game.
You'll meet a wide variety of interesting characters in the game, a number of whom will join you in your journey.
Knights of the Old Republic actually takes place thousands of years before Star Wars Episode I, though you'll still see many of the same sorts of alien creatures and technology in the game that you probably associate with Star Wars. The story begins in the midst of a power struggle between the Republic and the Sith, an evil imperial power that's encroaching on Republic space. Your character seems to be just another Republic trooper, and at the beginning of the game, you manage to avoid certain death as your spaceship is attacked and destroyed. Your escape pod lands on a world that's been put under quarantine by the Sith, so your first order of business is to find a means of escape, and also to find out what happened to Bastila, a gifted young Jedi who is key to the Republic's war efforts and who also managed to flee your doomed ship. Later, you'll be charged with uncovering the secrets of an ancient relic called the star forge, apparently the key to the Sith's seemingly limitless supply of weaponry.
You'll end up visiting a number of key Star Wars locations, including the wookiee homeworld of Kashyyyk and the desert planet Tatooine, in what's by all means an adventure of epic proportions. The game's main storyline isn't remarkable and eventually boils down to squaring off against your standard bad guy, and the main plot twists along the way don't really seem plausible. But you'll encounter so many great little subplots and characters along the way that this really won't matter. You'll investigate murders, become a bounty hunter, resolve cultural disputes, find a cure for a deadly disease, take sides or play both sides against each other in various ambiguous conflicts, and find out how life really treats both citizens of the Republic and followers of the Sith. There's just a lot to see and do in this game, and it'll last you a good 40 hours or so from start to finish, yet you'll never see all that the game has to offer if you finish it only once.
It may seem strange, but Knights of the Old Republic actually uses a slightly simplified version of 3rd Edition Dungeons & Dragons rules both for combat and for character generation. So despite the obviously different setting, fans of BioWare's D&D-themed games will be in relatively familiar territory here. Your main character starts off as a male or female soldier, scout, or scoundrel. These three basic classes roughly correspond to D&D's fighter, ranger, and rogue. The soldier is straightforward but very strong and begins with proficiency with various types of weapons and armor and gains the most vitality points per experience level. The scout is slightly less tough than the soldier but gains more skill points per level, allowing him or her to do such things as repair droids, pick locks, and disarm land mines. The scoundrel is physically the weakest class but can disappear from sight using special cloaking devices and can then inflict great damage if he or she catches a foe unaware. The scoundrel is also best suited to talking his or her way out of situations where the other character classes might have to resort to violence. Your choice of gender also has a bearing on some of the situations.
Will you choose the light or the dark side?
It's not spoiling anything to point out that you eventually gain access to Jedi powers. In turn, there are three different Jedi classes available, which emphasize either the Jedi's prowess with a lightsaber or his or her Force powers--or a balance of the two. Force powers are basically like magic spells, allowing you to do such things as stun opponents, knock them down, and choke them, as well as heal yourself and use the Force to persuade characters to see things your way. Some powers are inherently light-inclined, while others are dark-inclined, and though Jedi characters may gain access to any Force power as they gain experience levels, powers that match a Jedi's moral alignment can be used at a lower cost in Force points (which steadily recharge, allowing you to use your powers continuously).
The game does a fine job of letting you customize your character and his or her companions. Nine different characters will join you over the course of the adventure, and you'll be able to travel with up to two of them at a time. Most every character has an interesting story to tell that unfolds as you converse with him, her, or it over the course of the game, though some are developed better than others. The most entertaining of the bunch is probably HK-47, who's like a homicidal and slightly insubordinate C-3PO. As you and the others gain levels, you develop your abilities by choosing from a wide variety of skills (repair, stealth, persuasion, and so on) and combat feats (critical strike, two-weapon fighting, toughness, and so on).
Ultimately, the 3rd Edition rule system works quite well for the game and makes for an experience that seems consistent with the Star Wars mythos, namely that Jedi are extremely powerful, and conventional weapons are practically useless against their lightsabers and their Force powers. However, a few things don't quite make sense, such as how your strength statistic (as opposed to your dexterity) is tied to your proficiency with a lightsaber, and how ranged weapons generally seem too weak, offering practically no advantages over melee weapons since it's easy to close the distance with a gun-toting opponent. Also, much like in 3rd Edition D&D, fighter-type characters in Knights of the Old Republic can become overpowered to the point where they're virtually unstoppable. If you focus on building up such a character, you'll find that most of the combat in the game will be rather easy at the default difficulty setting, though you can crank it up to make your enemies stronger.