It’s been quite a few years since I really liked the Star Wars universe. I’m a fan of the original three movies, and a couple of the games, but that’s about it. I like the Star Wars universe, just not how the latest movies used it, and the shallowness of the nearly endless supply of mediocre Star Wars games. It’s been a while since Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic was released on the XBOX, but it was the one game I needed to play in order to renew my faith in saga. When it was first released you can say it split gamers into two groups; the impatient lot who wanted instant action, and the more patient ones who wanted to live and breath an adventure that’d take them a long time to finish. It wasn’t a perfect game, but ultimately one of the best of its kind.
Most of us know it’s a great game, but now that it’s out on PC, it’s easy to question how well the controls were ported, and whether the low framerate of the XBOX release has been improved.
The storyline takes place a long time before the first movie episode. The Republic is at war with the Sith, as usual. At the start of the game you wake up on a nursery table inside a huge space ship. Unfortunately it’s under attack, but after meeting a friendly soldier you head for an escape pod, and manage to flee before the big explosion we’re used to from just about every similar scenario. Obviously the character you play is without memory, so you need to somehow figure out your identity. Soon you meet up with the Jedi council and learn of something called the Star Forge, a weapon of some form that you have to investigate. To find its location you have to travel to a number of planets and find these big hidden artifacts that tend to be heavily protected. Throughout the game you meet a host of diverse characters, ranging from a wookiee to your typical war veteran, to a gorgeous female jedi, and so on. All of them play a more or less important part in the storyline, and have skills and abilities of their own. More specifically, when adventuring you can bring with you up to two other characters, but during the game you can change control between each of these to use whatever abilities they have, be it hacking, the art of persuasion, or the ability to disarm mines. You earn experience points by killing villains and solving quests, but a nice detail is that every member of your team levels up at the same time, not just the three people in your immediately controlled gang. The person who does the kill will get a bit more experience, but it tends to even out nicely, so that at any point in the game you won’t have any particularly weak members. Each character can grow in skill, feats and abilities, but those that are force sensitive will have more to choose from. It’s smart to balance your team a bit, so you have some that specialize in melee combat, some that do ranged combat, and some that specialize in for instance security – if the need be.
It's great to see that the interface has been heavily reworked for the PC version - it could perhaps have been even more intuitive, but it’s great to see the amount of work that was done as is. The controls have also been tweaked nicely for the PC, and are arguably even better than in the Xbox version – there definitely are some advantages in playing RPGs on PC.
During the game you’ll also gather a huge load of items, ranging from armor, to weapons, to health packs, to bio-mods, and to a whole lot more. Like in other RPG games, most items have certain requirements, such as whether he or she is force sensitive, armor ability, etc. On the various planets you’ll find retailers that’ll sell you things, but interestingly enough you can also make contacts with secret organizations that’ll allow you to buy truly powerful things. Dressing up the characters is fun, because they tend to look really cool wearing some of the more expensive items, not just because of the textures and shaders, but also because of the animations. It must also be noted that a new special trading area has been added to the PC version – but it's up to you to find it.
Another very interesting feature is that you can choose whether you want to be a good guy or a bad guy, and have the plot progress and end depending on that. During the conversations you’ll have to make some difficult choices that dictate where you’ll be on the light/darkness meter. For instance, if you see some people picking on a weird alien you can choose to defend him, and then rob him yourself – or be good and do the right thing. It’s hard to play the game strictly as a good or bad character, so you’re likely to find yourself at about three quarters to the light side. It can be tons of fun to try alternative choices, and that’s actually the one thing that gives the game so much replayability. Playing as a bad guy can let you do some fun sub-quests that you otherwise wouldn’t do, possibly letting you earn some extra bucks.
And if there’s one thing the game doesn’t lack it’s sub-quests. To get more powerful it’s important to gather as much experience and money as possible. You can usually find some way to spend whatever money you have, because the retailers always seem to have some armor or rifle that costs more money than you’re carrying. Upgrading usually doesn’t make the hugest difference in battle, but it obviously helps. To get money and experience you’ll want to do sub-quests, and while some may have you chase and assassinate villains other may have you do mini-games. These mini-games can be racing, card games, or other things. These are all nice diversions.
At a glance it can seem as if the combat is in real-time, but it’s actually quasi-turn-based. When fighting you issue commands, such as doing normal attacks on someone, using an ability, or an item. Force sensitive characters have a limited supply of Jedi power, but that’ll regenerate slowly. The fights themselves are fun and all, but I’m sure many gamers wished they’d be in real-time. Since the XBOX hardware isn’t extremely powerful it suffered from a relatively low framerate compared to other titles on the console. It did however look very good, and it’s even better on the PC. But even here you will need some really powerful hardware of course, but being able to use a higher level of anti-aliasing and anisotropic filtering will help immensely – although users on mid or low-end range PCs are advised to keep the details on default settings, in order not to ruin the gameplay experience. The texturing is really nicely done, and the accompanying shaders do a good job at making it just a bit more lifelike. Since you travel across a handful of planets you’ll find some truly graphically diverse worlds. You’ll fight in dense forests, underwater, in hot deserts, on futuristic space installations, and so on. The levels may be quite static, and you don’t interact with them to such a huge extent, but it never feels notably static or anything along those lines. At the same time the character models aren’t spectacular, more variety of thereof wouldn't hurt, and the facial expressions could've been better. It must also be noted that there are still some significant bugs in the game, such as problems with Radeon 9600 graphics accelerators, and Intel i845 and i850 chipset motherboards, which were addressed in the unsupported beta patch v1.01 recently released by Bioware. There are also some stability issues, and bugs can be discovered from times to times. It's fortunate that Bioware has a great reputation when it comes to releasing patches in timely manner, with the first beta patch for KOTOR released only a few days after the game has hit stores, so we can be sure the game will be fully patched up soon.
In terms of audio the game is extremely good. This is a pretty long game, and you’ll run into a huge number of characters – not just humans, but plenty of aliens. Each and every one of them has voice-overs, and not just parts of the dialogue; every word in the subtitles is spoken. Some of the dialogues are rather funny, and really bring the whole story to life – the quality of the voice talents is impressive. The alien voice-overs aren’t exactly “authentic”, since some fragments are repeated every so often, but that’s not really a big deal. The sheer amount of highly appropriate voice-overs is truly impressive, but it’s not like the background music is any bad either. Most of it is done by an orchestra, and it sounds just about as good as in any of the movies.
It’s a little annoying that you have to run so much from x to y, but you can at least use a form of recall teleportation that in most cases takes you back to your ship. Ah yes, in the best traditions of Star Wars, you'll have your own ship that will be used as the base for your team. And to be honest, there's a lot of similarities between it and the Millenium Falcon – but that's up to you to discover. On the other hand, a prerequisite you need to play this game is patience, so having to spend a few minutes running is rarely a problem.
The PC port of Star Wars: KOTOR is in my opinion excellent, and those who like it should be happy to know that a sequel is in the works, and that Jade Empire, the next RPG (with similar mechanics) from BioWare is well on the way. While I did get the occasional feeling that the game would be better off if more time was spent ironing out the remaining bugs and testing different hardware configurations, there are no major issues with the port.
Overall, this is probably the best RPG of 2003, for both PC and XBOX, and a must-buy for every fan of the genre.