Star Wars games are usually pretty hit and miss, sadly a lot of the time they're mostly misses and there have been, to my knowledge, no Star Wars RPG's until now. Say the name Bioware and you will instantly think of Neverwinter Nights and the hoards of sword waving, spell casting fans that enjoy that kind of game.
However horses, swords and spells have been swapped for starships, lightsabres and force powers with their latest game on the Xbox (Soon to appear on PC) - Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (KotoR for short). KotoR takes place long before the events of Episode One and is set around 4000 years before, but still takes place after the Tales of the Jedi series.
A new threat is rising in the Galaxy and many of the Jedi are being turned to the dark side of the force. Revan and Malak are two brothers who were once Jedi who followed the ways of peace and harmony, until an event transpired that changed them forever, they became powerful in the ways of the dark side and set about hunting down their former comrades, with the help of the newly established Sith. The Sith of KotoR is more an ideal than an actual race for it is rumoured that the true Sith died out a long time ago.
The game opens with an attack on the Old Republic's ship, the Endar Spire and you waken from a strange dream to find the vessel spinning out of control and in serious trouble. This sets the scene for the events that are about to unfold quite nicely, and also becomes a simple (effective) tutorial level. Informed by one of the many colourful NPCs (Non Player Characters) that you must go and save the Jedi Bastila Shan you set off with a friend in tow.
KotoR is based on the d20 RPG system or more importantly the Star Wars variant of that particular franchise, so before you get into the game proper you get to create your character. You have a fairly simple character generation where you can pick from 3 main classes.
Scoundrel: Can we say a rogue, a thief and a heartbreaker? Yes we can.
Soldier: What more can we say here, this is a true powerhouse of a class.
Scout: A mix between both classes - balanced and deadly.
There are also 3 other classes later on in the game you can branch into.
You can also choose between male and female for each. Once that's done you're off to customise the character, change the head and all the statistics, which are exactly based off the Star Wars RPG ones: Strength, Dexterity, Wisdom, Constitution, Intelligence and Charisma (Not in order) and form the basis for all things D&D. You have a number of points to split between them, and the whole thing can be automated letting the game pick, or you can pick yourself and fine tune to your heart's content.
Select feats and skills, then you're off into the main game after you have named your character, from here on in everything that you do, and your allies do will shape the way this character grows. Not like the game Fable however, but more from your relationship with the dark and light side of the force.
The Character Generation in KotoR is highly polished and will appeal to newbies and veterans alike.
Gameplay takes place from a third person view of your character and you can interact with various people and objects as you unravel the mystery of who and what you are, the controls are easy to use and simple to master allowing you to concentrate on playing the game and not worrying about missing a command in the middle of combat. Talking of combat, I feel I have to mention the pause-time combat system and the stacked actions menu.
KotoR uses a simple system of gameplay that is both fun and useful, the game has several options that can be toggled on and off and the pause-time system is one of the best that I have seen. You can play the game in a mix of turn based, real time or pause when you like to change character targets, attacks and everything. On one level this can be used to simply dictate the flow of battle and makes for a more relaxing game, on the other level you can also use it to pre-load the character's actions/abilities and attacks then let the whole thing run, changing tactics on the fly.
For this there is the action stack, which can take a number of different actions, the character will perform those and then move on to default actions as dictated by the AI in control, there are several scripts that can be attached to your character and they will govern the way the character acts in combat when you don't have direct control.
For example, you can order your main PC to attack, flurry of blows, shoot with a blaster and use a force power. It's easy to pick up and you'll find the best mix that suits you. When this is done, the PC will go back to the script they have been assigned (If any) and perform actions based on that, attacking and using grenades/powers where applicable.
At any time you may switch between one of the three characters you have in your party, your main PC is always the leader but you can have up to two others walking, running and fighting with you at any time. Sometimes the game chooses this for you depending on story and other times you are free to switch party members in and out, as long as you're not in a location where this is not allowed.
While I am here I'll also mention the fact that there's a quick-travel system as well that allows you to visit certain locations quickly, especially your home-base (room or starship) where you can take a breather and fully heal.
The base is usually where the workbench is found, here you can customise weapons and equipment, put a new crystal in your Lightsabre to give it a different colour or change the way it applies damage. Again this is fairly consistent with the Star Wars RPG rules. There's a good spread of weapons and equipment that you can either find or buy from the many shops, spread around the various planets and locations.
Once again you have to bear in mind how you approach adventuring in KotoR, your allies are people too and you can find out information that can help you, by talking to them, being nice or threatening. Usually the game gives you several options in dialogue and you can play as nice or as nasty as you like, play too dark a character and you will succumb to the dark side, unlike the RPG where it's game over time - in KotoR it means that people will react differently to you and treat you in different ways. As you progress you'll come across quirks from each character, they like or dislike each other, the way they interact with each other will come into play - this really helps bring atmosphere to the game.
As you'd expect from a RPG it's packed with automaps, and various features like inventory and character management. Do quests and side-quests and you are rewarded with Experience Points (XP) and eventually after enough of these and combat, you'll rise to a new level and can tweak your PC some more, one of the nice things I did notice about the way KotoR handles XP and levels is that characters who are not in the party, will gain enough XP to bring them into line with the rest of the PC's if you switch them in, so if you have a level 5 Scout and you swap in Carth Onassi (One of the 1st characters you'll meet) he'll get enough XP to match your character and the group, so you're not left with a useless NPC in the game at all - Bioware should be commended for this, it rocks.
There are a number of small mini-games as you play KotoR like Swoop Racing and defending the Ebon Hawk (Your ship) from attack, these are quite well done and don't pose a challenge to veteran gamers, non-veterans will soon pick them up and there hasn't been a subgame yet which has been too hard, Pazaak offers you a chance to compete in a game similar to Blackjack and is very well done, I can't help feeling it might be the forerunner to the universal Star Wars card game: Sabaac.
KotoR is one of the best looking games on the Xbox in my opinion, it has luscious graphics and the level of detail on the models, textures is nothing short of sumptuous, bringing to life the Star Wars Universe in glorious vistas and dark foreboding terrors as you venture deeper into the plot. Across the game's 9 planets, which can eventually be visited at any time, due to developments in the story - the game brings a sheer graphical feast of sunsets, sunrises and alien worlds. There's nothing wrong really with KotoR's graphics and as the shadows are cast, the models and characters move around, the frame rate seems to remain constant at all times. The eyecandy is impressive and really adds to the game, explosions are excellent and the force power effects can be truly dazzling.
Once again the character models and the whole range of models in KotoR are excellently done, there is a real attention to detail and you can see that it has paid off totally. The Ebon Hawk is fully designed in her exterior as well as sporting a wonderfully modelled interior with a number of nicely created control stations. Those people who love the Falcon should fall in love with the Ebon Hawk.
From combat to walking/running the whole of KotoR has some very fine tuned animations, it's once more another visual feast and breathtaking to watch when the Jedi engage in flawless sabre combat. They are always moving and performing parries, strikes and attacks, it's the closest to the films yet and looks utterly wonderful to see in motion. There's nothing wrong with them and they are some of the best I have seen, even my wife who is normally not that interested in games actually sat and watched a few combats, commenting that the game seemed to match up to the movies in looks and feel - there you go Bioware, this from the woman who spent most of her time ogling Snake's butt in Metal Gear Solid 2.
KotoR features some of the nicest levels seen in a game to date, the outdoor planet sections are extremely atmospheric and the indoor parts are once more brought to life with a slick attention to detail, panels and markings, you name it. It's all there, making the interiors feel like the places they are trying to represent. The scuzzy undercity of Taris is suitably wrecked and grimy, while the Sith base is bright and clinical almost. But still, my all time favourite location has to be the interior of the Ebon Hawk - where you can wander around and explore the whole ship.
It's pretty good and it functions as it should, it's nothing mega stunning but it doesn't have to be in this kind of game, your allies are suitably intelligent enough to work their own attacks and defences out, you can alter their strategy on the fly and the enemy are also often fairly cunning as you play further into the game, they have certain attack strategies and they change them based on what you are doing. It functions and it doesn't make many mistakes, and usually the mistakes are prioritising the other enemies instead of the ones that you would like them to.
Music and Sound effects
From the swish of the swords to the buzz-hum of the Lightsabre, this game has it all and it's all perfectly tuned. Blasters have a satisfying whine to them and the spot effects are impressively realised, the game engine is a nice one and the sound engine has no gripes from me. Music is suitably Star Wars with some gorgeous feeling tracks to it, atmosphere up to the eyeballs and evoking the Star Wars feel right away, from the opening credits to the closing symphony. I want it on CD and I want it NOW! (Hint hint Activision)
This game can do no wrong in this department? Why? Why you ask?
What do the Green Lantern, Samurai Jack and KotoR have in common?
Phil Lamarr...ok, don't know him? Then go now to http://www.imdb.com and do a search for KotoR, find his name and you'll see he has done an awful lot of work for cartoons, animations and games. I love this guy and they got him for KotoR alongside some of the best Voice Actors in the business - Bastila Shan (Jennifer Hale) has also done work on Justice League alongside Phil, amongst other things...ok Fanboy mode off now.
The script is a bit clichéd in places, but again, it's Star Wars and it's pretty good at that. The Voice Work is nothing short of stunning and every character, NPC or otherwise has a proper voice - no little bits of text without voices in this game...top marks!
This has to be one of the best RPGs to come out on any format in a long time, it has me utterly enthralled and wrapped in the world that Bioware have created, the sales figures alone should show that most people agree with me on this, I've only got one thing to say - it has a few annoying bugs which stop it from being the best game ever of all time (predated to the Stone Age)
Watch out for the Carth bug, this happens when you have someone using stealth in the party that Carth has to talk to, if he can't see them, he can't talk to them so the game appears to lock up in a cut-scene. What is actually going on, is it's rolling against the characters stealth v awareness check, if the game succeeds as Carth all is well and good, but if not then around and around it goes until he does. It can take a few minutes or a few hours, the only way to stop this is to make sure you're never stealthed or keep regular saves and go back to the previous one, stop stealthing and pray it works.
This is an annoying bug and really does lower the score of the game, since it can spoil people's enjoyment. However that said, it hasn't happened to me yet but then again I don't go around sneaking everywhere - I tend to wade in twin-Lightsabre John Woo style and kick some ass.
This game is excellent and it has to be our Editor's Choice, there's no doubt about it...so...there you go, you need it...you need it now!