Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic

Gamestyle Auction intro: this was a fantastic game and marked the arrival of BioWare. Gamestyle actually provided 2 reviews for KOTOR; 1 exclusively for Issue 6 of the Gamestyle offline magazine and the other for the website itself. What we have here is the GSO review, with the other being lost currently. The GSO review arrived first as we were provided with the game in advance of release and it became the main review for that issue. While I wrote the GSO version, the online edition was by Steven and followed at a later date after release; both reviews were positive with high scores.

What else? Well, my future wife was away for the weekend when the game arrived shortly beforehand and a deadline was looming large. So once KOTOR got its claws into me, I didn’t leave the flat that weekend and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. Very few games over the years managed to do that.

Writer: JJ

Developer: BioWare Corp

Publisher Lucas Arts

kotr

2003 has been a period of frustration for Xbox owners; key releases have slipped into 2004, leaving a chasm that can not be bridged by lacklustre releases. Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic has been prominent on every radar because it promises to finally deliver a tantalising Star Wars experience. It is here that Gamestyle should mention the systematic abuse the licence has endured recently in gaming terms, however this is common knowledge. Rather, it served as the catalyst for LucasArts to bring in an outside ‘force’ to develop a game worthy of the Star Wars name. The result of this alliance is Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic.

Collectively, Gamestyle embodies every opinion on Star Wars as there are diehards, sceptics and those with fond (yet distant) childhood memories within our ranks. It must be said that KOTOR manages to break down the barriers between such groups and delivers an experience which does not rely on previous knowledge or fanboy fantasies. KOTOR is an impeccable Star Wars release, but more importantly, the acumen of the game itself is just as impressive. Credentials such as these are hard to ignore no matter what preconceptions you may have.

BioWare has captured the essence of the Star Wars universe and created a template that Lucas himself could use. The fallout of the Mandalorian war is the emergence of the Sith, who begin a campaign against the Republic. The Sith include within their ranks former Jedi members and Republic troops who have turned against their former friends and allies. The period is not covered by any of the films and the benefits of such an era are obvious. This is a voyage of discovery and enlightenment for everyone regardless of previous exposure.

The central character is created, named, nurtured and developed through the actions and choices of the player. The merest hint of RPG traits is enough to dissuade potential players who loathe the reliance and rigmarole of levelling up, linear progression and turn-based combat. BioWare has cleverly avoided such pitfalls by constructing a breed of adventure that camouflages such indiscretions; for instance, when a character crosses a new level threshold this is not only rewarded through improved health points, but also acts as an opportunity to continually shape his/her skills and attributes. Increase one of several characteristics, or adopt a more balanced approach, and the results of such decisions are easily identifiable in the field.

The whole concept of experience remains central to improving character statistics; nevertheless slaying opponents is not the exclusive method for raising grades. Successfully resolved tasks are rewarded not only with credits but all-important experience points. Colleagues left behind outnumber the onscreen trio that are selected and utilised. Thankfully there is no need to continually swap characters to maintain a fair balance of experience; rather, each member of the whole group grows collectively whether they are used frequently or not. This frees the player to use whatever characters are deemed fit for story trails they wish to follow.

The combat system employed can only be described as a mutation of real-time and turn-based systems prevalent in other releases. Characters will automatically engage the enemy when prompted. There is no requirement on commands being entered and the player has immense freedom during battles. Intervention is by discretion, and when engaged, expect to control a character’s movement, physical attacks and mental abilities. Amalgamate with the ability to change character at will and KOTOR has a stimulating combat system.

Many may mourn the demise of tactical elements, and certainly any strategem would not disrupt the sleeping patterns of Napoleon. The details are in the preparation: how the troops are equipped, their actions, skills, and significantly, the trio that are deployed. Combat does become second nature, however the ease of continuous victory is of particular concern. Added with the ability to save anywhere, two group members can fall in battle only to be revived if the survivor is victorious. This combined with no difficulty setting means that KOTOR is not a test of brawn. Rather it is a barometer of the player; the end result is a true reflection of each individual’s qualities, good or bad.

If linearity is the current gaming beelzebub then open-ended approach is the new messiah. Unquestionably we enjoy a good story and until recently the player was shackled to the tale without much freedom. Morrowind heralded an open-ended approach that proved detrimental to the game itself, as players became confused with the multitude of options, roles and routes available. Zelda: Ocarina of Time wove quests and activities into the fabric of the overall tale giving the illusion of freedom, when in reality it was just a series of new options. KOTOR manages to maintain the overall picture of the Sith and Republic struggle whilst telling separate tales of individuals within the group and adding various mini-games for further distraction.

Thanks to the technology of hyperspace travel, KOTOR facilitates journeys between the planets with no reference to order or plot structure. The key instrument in its success (notwithstanding the licence) is the struggle between good and bad, which affects each group member. A meter displays the current standing – a beacon of goodness or a future evil dictator? Each task, each action, each answer has ramifications for the dark or light side. The path of the righteous is harder to tread when base emotions such as anger, revenge and power are ready to tempt any straggler. A slave may suggest a massage, which is indicative of the adult humour evident throughout the game, but does the apprentice accept such an offer? The crux rests on the shoulders of the player. KOTOR tests attributes such as greed, desire and honesty moreso than any Sid Meier creation.

The presentation of Star Wars titles has been above-average and KOTOR manages to eclipse previous releases. BioWare has ignored the bourgeois approach and brought its own style to the game. It would have been too easy to cherry pick moments similar to the Rogue Squadron series; instead knowledge and respect of the Star Wars universe and culture has been used to envisage and preserve a new era. Presentation extends beyond mere character and environment designs, encompassing story, voice acting and a high measure of skilful implementation. With Baldur’s Gate, BioWare proved that they could successfully weave these elements into a singular experience. The story contains many facets that impel the player to return for more or to play a little while longer; while the voice acting represents one of the finest examples available in a videogame. KOTOR was crafted to evoke feelings and provide an unforgettable experience.

Sporadic releases deserve the tag of epic, but KOTOR creates a universe that could not exist on any other console. The initial world on its own easily rivals other releases in terms of size and scope. And with the realisation that several more await, perhaps epic does not begin to convey its monumental breadth of vision. In an era of annual updates and quick development turnarounds, projects such as this are increasingly rare. The Xbox has suffered countless releases that fail to take advantage of the possibilities offered by the platform. Gamestyle must concur that KOTOR is not the most visually stunning release available, but the hard drive is utilised to create a universe in which the player can almost reach out and touch.

With an ambitiously epic project such as this, the inherent pitfalls of PC design become ever more obvious than before. No matter how much emphasis is placed on debugging, issues will always breach the safety net. It is disappointing to note that many of these were well documented after the American release and could have been rectified or at least addressed in the PAL version. The temperamental framerate has if anything increased in tenacity and the work that has gone into the Dolby Digital soundtrack is hampered by timid playback. Audio speech can at times lag behind onscreen events or miss complete sections, while CPU characters become stuck on scenery. However, placed into context, these are relative but not altogether detrimental issues. A point also worth considering is the repetitive gameplay, which manifests itself across each world. The tasks and challenges may vary but underneath the same actions and decisions are required. Zelda suffered by forcing players to endure several dungeons, and KOTOR is similar in many respects.

For Xbox owners, Star Wars: Knights of the Republic represents a defining moment in the life of the console; a release to be savoured but one that ultimately shows its limitations the further you progress. After the summer drought and a year of disappointing releases it would be far too easy to become swept up in the ensuing hype. But equally, here is a game which stirs up feelings and emotions on a grand scale, and certainly Gamestyle has not felt this good about an RPG since Final Fantasy VII. It may fall short of evergreen status, but moments like these are few and far between.

GAMESTYLE SCORE – 9

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