Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic
A long, long time ago, George Lucas made an iconic science fiction movie trilogy. It was inevitable that these movies would eventually be wed to the second biggest field of nerdom: computer gaming. But this hasnâ€™t always been a happy marriage. Many of the recent Star Wars offerings have been criminally licentious with the source material, and olâ€™ Lucas himself put forth a pair of prequels so poorly conceived that more than a few pale-skinned dudes in their parentsâ€™ basements feared for the franchise.
Enter BioWare and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. As a game, itâ€™s the predictably sterling BioWare quality, but where it really shines is in the care it takes with the concepts and lore from the series. Itâ€™s set 4000 years before Anakin Skywalker uttered his first â€œyippee,â€ back when Jedi Knights and Sith Lords alike roamed the galaxy, waging their war to shape the destiny of the Force. After a long war, the Mandalorian threat has been contained, and amid the ensuing turmoil, a pair of Sith Lords arrives from the edges of civilized space to strike against the weakened Republic. Your character appears on the scene as a powerful heir to the Force, although the path he or she chooses is decided entirely by you.
Initially, though, you arenâ€™t a Jedi. You become one after the first five or so hours of the game. Starting out, you pick one of three Star Wars classes: Soldier, Scout, or Scoundrel. Soldiers are brute force personified; they get new feats every level and are the masters of melee combat. Scouts are nimbler and better with security as well as blaster weapons, and Scoundrels are those smooth-talking Han Solo types. Unfortunately, you canâ€™t pick your raceâ€”youâ€™re always a humanâ€”but the selection of character models isnâ€™t too shabby, and there are plenty of special skills to help you define a reasonably unique character.
Anyone who has ever played a D&D 3rd Edition game (BioWareâ€™s own Neverwinter Nights is the prime example) will feel right at home in the Old Republic. The basic stats are the same, and the concepts of skills and feats have been mapped to more futuristic traits, like tolerance for bio-implants and critical blaster shots. Once you get a Jedi in your party, you find another level of customization in Force powers, which are roughly analogous to magic spells. However, thereâ€™s a key difference: powers are classified as either Light or Dark and, based on the alignment of your Jedi, they may be more expensive to cast. For most of the game, your alignment is controlled by your speech and actions: bad behavior will a nasty Sith Lord make, while those who have let go of their emotions will become pure Jedi.
If it sounds pretty simple, it is. Knights of the Old Republic is far less encumbered by the rigors of the D20 system than, say, Baldurâ€™s Gate II. In this case, thatâ€™s a very good thing, because it allows BioWare to focus on the storytelling aspect of the game â€“ something which, when you have a lore as rich as that of Star Wars, is best not wasted with random dungeons and quibbles over saving throws. BioWare has taken the ball and run with it, providing a delightful cast of party members that are far more endearing than the stars of the recent prequels. Among them, the more memorable include the disputably senile Jedi Jolee Bindo; the angst-addled and moribund Wookiee Zaalbar; and HK-47, an assassin-cum-protocol droid with the driest and darkest humor this side of Colombia.
Parties are confined to three characters, but this limitation really doesnâ€™t impede play. The 3D battles are much better animated and directed than those in the strictly 2D Infinity engine titles. Especially impressive are the melee duels, as characters dodge, weave, spin, and strike with dynamic and well-choreographed animations. The battle system itself is a variant of the pausable real-time also seen in the Infinity engine games. The interface, however, has been drastically overhauled, providing on-screen slots for healing packs, grenades, booster items, and spells, respectively. Individual character attacks is assigned by clicking on the enemy, which opens a context menu containing the attack types for that character.
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If you donâ€™t feel like manually assigning attacks, the AI does a competent job, healing and buffing when needed. Most fights are over pretty soon, though; outside of one puzzle-like boss battle and a few epic encounters, a battle typically ends almost as soon as it starts, in an exchange of blaster fire and repeated light saber hums. Itâ€™s all very flashy and fun to watch, and the growth of your party as effective killing machines is easy to trace as you level up.
The game itself spans six large worlds, including Tatooine and the Wookiee homeworld of Kashyyyk. Each area is beautifully designed and rendered, with evocative environmental sounds completing the stylish portrayal. The voice acting is superlative, and the musical score, while a bit muted, is appropriate. Thankfully, BioWareâ€™s sound staff composed mostly original and fitting material, rather than blaring the Imperial Death March at us for the thousandth time. At around 50 or so hours to complete, Knights is no small undertaking, and variety is especially welcome during the journey.
Thereâ€™s a whole host of largely insignificant nitpicks that can be leveled at the game, like the limited number of NPC models, the overwhelming power of the Jedi characters, and the relative uselessness of specializing in blaster rifle weaponry compared to dual pistols or melee weapons. Despite these minor complaints, Knights of the Old Republic comes together as a polished role-playing experience thatâ€™s slicker than a Huttâ€™s backside, but much, much fresher. Itâ€™s almost unarguably the best Star Wars role-playing game around, and itâ€™s definitely among the best Star Wars titles ever made.
System Requirements: Pentium III 1 Ghz, 256 MB RAM, WinXP