The Star Wars game franchise has certainly had its ups and downs. There are a few gems, but, like so many Hollywood inspired games, the majority of the Star Wars releases have been just more fodder for the bargain bin. However, when a name like Bioware (creators of Baldur’s Gate) joins forces with Lucasarts, the potential for something very special exists.
The storyline of KOTOR is set four thousand years prior to the traditional Star Wars setting, which lets the storytellers work their magic without having to navigate the mess that has been made of the Star Wars universe. Basically it goes something like this: The evil Sith have invaded the Republic with a seemingly inexhaustible supply of ships and the Jedi have been scattered attempting to fend off the invasion. One particular young Jedi has a talent that could tip the scales in the war, and it is your job to protect her.
Your character is created in a simple process that has you selecting one of three professions (explorer, rogue or soldier), setting gender and selecting your appearance form a list of pre-rendered faces. The statistical side of your character is divided into abilities, skills and feats. Abilities are your physical and mental make-up (like strength), skills are the things you are trained to do (i.e. computer hacking) and feats are extraordinary abilities you have that can be used in combat (such as using two weapons at once).
In many previous role playing games managing a party of characters can often be a serious distraction from actually playing the game. I’m happy to report that KOTOR has dispensed with a great deal of that agony. There are many weapons and armor items that can be upgraded through the use of a workbench, which your own personal starship comes equipped with. The ability to upgrade these items helps alleviate the necessity of constantly trying to obtain new weapons. In most circumstances, you can rapidly return to the ship to speak to the other members of your party, heal, upgrade equipment, or of course, travel to another planet. In another convenient touch, you will find that even characters that stay aboard the ship will gain experience on pace with those of the party who are active.
As you progress through the story, you will have the opportunity to become a Jedi yourself, betray the Alliance and join forces with the Sith or even to become an assassin. The conversation tree handles most of these options, and it does a terrific job of allowing you a full range of responses. It is quite possible in this game to befriend someone, gain their trust, carry out tasks for them and gain useful information, then for no reason other than to see what will happen, you can tell them that they are about to die, and kill them. Obviously, actions as evil and arbitrary as that are very much dark side acts, which will reflect on your alignment, not to mention gain you a sound chewing out from some of your companions.
There is no reason to fear that pursuing a Dark Side path will curtail what you can do in game either. There are many possible benefits to going that route, including combat oriented items that are only usable by those who utilize the Dark Side. Force powers fall into three categories; Light Side, Dark Side and universal. Want to strangle somebody from a distance like Darth Vader? You can learn that Force skill (of course, it is a Dark Side power). A Light Side Jedi can actually learn and utilize Dark Side powers, but it will cost more skill points to obtain and more Force Points to utilize the skill.
While you do not have the range of freedom of some games, you are presented with side quests at nearly every turn, so it is quite easy to forget that you are being lead down a specific path toward the story’s conclusion, and for once, the story is worth chasing. The story line is fun, with the kind of over the top dramatics that the Star Wars movies are known for. There are some surprising twists in there, one of which made me sit back and go “Whoa!”
Combat in KOTOR is very much like other Bioware titles. You can direct only one character at a time, while the rest of your party fights in accordance with what they have equipped and which of the three attack modes you select. The party AI is well done; your companions will attempt to keep each other and themselves alive through healing and those using grenades will not thrown them too close to another member of the party.
The graphics are for the most part very pleasing. Character model animation is nicely executed and fluid. The combat animations are the most entertaining, especially when a character engages in melee combat. Here you will see a variety of parries, lunges ducks, and kicks. Add in the buzz and glow a light sabers clashing and you have some terrific fight scenes, especially when a pair of Jedi go at it!
The one serious shortcoming of the graphics engine is in the close-ups. They are simply horrible. Sadly, the designers seem infatuated with theses pixilated zooms, so you will be exposed to this shortcoming far too often.
Fortunately, they recover for this admittedly minor problem with the sound. Considering that Bioware had access to the Lucas sound effects for the making of this game, we shouldn’t be too surprised if the effects are good. However, they aren’t good, they are fantastic! It’s not a difficult stretch to imagine that you are in a theater at times. The voice acting is beautifully done, and with the depth given to each of the main characters, you will soon be able to identify them by voice alone. As well, the music score plays along perfectly with the action, and reaches a crescendo as battles erupt. Otherwise the music score plays a very subtle undertone that you have to focus on to notice.
The sounds of the battles will truly absorb and awe you. Light sabers buzz, blasters blast, and grenades explode. The big battles that occur toward the end of the game are an orgy of chaos and destruction with nary a graphic slowdown to interfere with the action. These mass battles will keep you hopping, not to mention providing some serious adrenalin boosts (not to be confused with the Hyper-adrenal booster you character will be using). Watching your light saber wielding Jedi wade through a group of Sith soldiers, cutting them down with slashes and deflecting blaster bolts back into the poor guy who fired the shot is sure to bring a smile to even the most jaded gamer.
Never fear that you will tire of killing off the same enemy over and over. I quickly lost track of how many groups I had encountered. There are gangs to fight in the early stages of the game; a variety of animals will make appearances on several of the worlds you will visit, and almost all of the alien races will have a go at you at one time or another (yes, even wookies). Eventually you will even be fighting it out with Sith Lords!
Perhaps the grandest and most delightful touch is the alien voices. All of the races that have made appearances in prior Star Wars movies make a showing, and they all speak in their own language. Fortunately, your main character is a gifted linguist; so all the conversations are subtitled. There are even times in the game where you will encounter a language that you do not know, in which case you will have to puzzle out the language before you will be graced with the subtitles.
The sheer variety of adventures thrown in your path is stunning! You can solve a murder case, help a tribe of outcasts journey to the Promised Land (a nod to Mad Max?), become the sector swoop bike racing champion, defend yourself in a murder trial (get this wrong and you will be executed!), collect bounties... the list continues.
When you consider that you are able to pursue the light side or the dark side storylines, and with the different interactions available for male and female characters, you could easily play this game through two or more times. My only regret with this game is my lack of Xbox Live. I am quite anxious to try this out in multi-player.
Make no mistake; this is the new crown jewel for Bioware. Based on the games that have become available so far this year, KOTOR is a shoe-in for RPG Game of the Year, and is destined to make a strong showing for overall Game of the Year. It’s titles like this that are going to really bring the Xbox into the forefront of the console wars.
Playing through KOTOR was one of the most enjoyable and involving game experiences I have had in some time. I spent well over 40 hours on the edge of my gaming chair pushing for the next experience or unraveling the next mystery. This is one of the not-to-be-missed titles of this year, GO GET IT! ... And may the Force be with you.