The first thing most readers notice about a Game Over review is the score. That’s because it’s displayed so prominently above the review text. If you asked the reviewers, they’d probably prefer the score to go at the bottom of the page. That way readers would have to at least scroll through the text if not actually read it. I’m bringing this up here because you might see my score of 93% for Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (which I’ll just call KOTOR from now on), and decide this is just going to be another review praising the heck out of the game. Well, it is, but before you wander off to read Rorschach’s latest blog, let me try to put the score into some perspective. Excluding KOTOR, the highest score I’ve given any game this year is 84%, and the highest score I’ve given any game in the three years I’ve worked at Game Over is 92%. KOTOR beats them all. It’s easily the best game of the year, and it’s the best role-playing game since Baldur’s Gate II in 2000.
In KOTOR you play a young soldier in the Republic army. The game takes place some 4,000 years before the Star Wars movies, meaning all of the characters involved are new, but see if this sounds familiar. You start out on a small ship that is boarded by the bad guys. You flee the ship in an escape pod and land on an alien world. You search for a Jedi Knight there. Then you escape from the world on a smuggler’s spaceship. Then you discover you have some affinity with the Force. Then, over the rest of the game, you have to try and stop a masked bad guy and destroy a powerful space station.
Yes, KOTOR has some weird parallels with the first Star Wars movie, but other than the plot outlines being roughly the same, KOTOR is all new. For example, the Jedi Knight you hook up with at the beginning of the game looks and sounds like Elizabeth Hurley rather than Alec Guinness, which is good from an eye-candy perspective if nothing else. Better still, KOTOR is extremely well written, and that helps familiar plots and plot devices (the main quest in the game involves finding five pieces of something) seem new and refreshing. BioWare, the developer of the game, was smart enough (or rich enough) to hire people to do nothing more than write dialogue, and the quality shows. In most role-playing games, if I’m curious about the ending at all, it’s to wonder how powerful the last boss might be, but with KOTOR I stayed up half the night just to see how the story would turn out.
As for the mechanics of the game, KOTOR should be familiar to people who have played recent Dungeons & Dragons games (like, oh, BioWare’s other game, Neverwinter Nights). Characters have the familiar attributes -- strength, dexterity, constitution, intelligence, wisdom, and charisma -- and the attributes influence the regular things. Characters also get to learn skills and earn feats, and every four levels they get to add an attribute point. Mostly, the changes in the engine have to do with translating fantasy ideas into the Star Wars universe. And so characters don’t have a lock picking skill; they have a security skill. They don’t use magic; they use the Force. And they don’t have an alignment; they have a leaning towards the dark or light side. This all works pretty well, and it was nice to see a familiar rule set put into a new environment.
Also familiar is that characters get some companions help them out. The companions in KOTOR are sort of a cross between the companions in Baldur’s Gate II and the companions in Neverwinter Nights. For example, the companions each have a long story to tell, but they conveniently break it up into small chunks, and then space the chunks out over time (Neverwinter Nights). However, you also get complete control over the companions, including what they do in battle, what equipment they wear, and how they level up (Baldur’s Gate II). You can have up to two companions with your character at any one time, and you can directly control any of the characters while the other two work on their own. The AI is reasonable here, and companions are good about using their skills and Force powers, and so the set-up works about as well as anyone could hope (that is, you won’t have to constantly switch between characters to win battles). The only problem with the companions is that, while they’re well written and incorporated seamlessly into the plot, their side quests definitely feel like side quests, inconsequential and easy to skip.
Also, even though KOTOR uses an advanced version of the Neverwinter Nights engine, it doesn’t look anything like Neverwinter Nights. The camera is locked at about head level, and you can’t zoom it or tilt it, and so what you get is a perspective usually reserved for action games. As a result, everything is bigger and clearer and easier to watch. Plus, KOTOR wasn’t designed using a toolkit (or at least not a toolkit intended for the general public) and so locations look much better than they do in Neverwinter Nights. In fact, with all the graphics options turned up and using a high resolution, KOTOR has a nice cinematic quality to it. But with all that being said, the thing that struck me most about the graphics in KOTOR is the character models. The faces in particular, with numerous points of movement, including the eyes and lips, are incredibly expressive, and do a wonderful job of bringing the characters to life. The only downside to the faces is that, apparently because of how complex they are, there aren’t very many in the game. You get to choose between a couple dozen faces for your main character at the start of the game, and companions each get a unique face, but all the other characters in the game share a limited number of faces, and so you get a lot of repeats, which is distracting. (“Hey, you look like the bad guy I just killed.”) Aliens have it worse than humans, with usually only one or two faces available.
Combat also looks good, especially after you pick up some Jedi companions. KOTOR includes single- and double-bladed lightsabers, and characters can wield two single-bladed lightsabers at once, and so once you get a ways into the game and get a few Jedi and Dark Jedi characters fighting each other, the effects are downright cool. Plus, with blasters included as well, KOTOR’s fights are certainly more colorful than you usually see.
Speaking of combat, BioWare did a nice job of balancing combat and questing in the game, and of giving you options for playing different types of characters. For example, many times in the game you have to assault somebody’s base (or the equivalent of a base), and if you’re skilled with computers you might be able to use the base’s computer system against it, to perhaps open all the locked doors (if you’re not a thief-type character) or blow up or otherwise disable some of the defenders (if you’re not a warrior). Many situations also have a way for you to talk through them rather than fight through them, and of course there are numerous opportunities to follow either the dark or light side of the Force.
Of course, KOTOR isn’t perfect. If I ever claim a game is perfect, that’s when you should check to see if I’ve been bribed or if some relative of mine is being held hostage. So I’m going to list some problems here, but these aren’t things that should prevent you from buying the game. They’re things that maybe somebody from BioWare will read and decide to fix in the future, when hopefully they make a KOTOR 2.
First and foremost, the balance is a little off in the game. KOTOR is a little easy to play, even on the highest difficulty setting. There are all sorts of things like stimpacks and shields and grenades, all of which should be useful, but which aren’t often needed. Bosses can be difficult to kill, but most other conflicts are a walk in the park, and all too often somebody decides to attack you or ambush you when they are hopelessly outclassed. In fact, there’s a bounty hunter that the game takes a lot of time to build up, and then when you finally face him it’s no contest at all. Part of the problem is that lightsabers are way too powerful -- they’re powerful to start with and then you can upgrade them -- but mostly enemies are just too easy to kill. There is also an issue with skills. They help characters so little there isn’t any reason to pursue them, making it straightforward to create powerful characters (among other things, you can take points away from intelligence and put them elsewhere).
Another problem is the interface. BioWare made the interface look slick, but it doesn’t function as nicely as it should. For starters, there aren’t any user-defined hotkey slots (like in Neverwinter Nights) to make it easy to use Force powers or to switch equipment. Instead, KOTOR comes with some predefined slots -- one for stimpacks, another for grenades, and so forth -- and that works well as long as you only want to use one thing for each slot, but if you want to use two Force powers or two grenades, then there is too much clicking (on very small arrows) to cycle through the available options. Also, in what sounds like a good idea, your party shares a single inventory, so you don’t have to divide up stimpacks and such, making it easier to swap in and out companions. The problem is that the inventory gets pretty big, and BioWare didn’t provide a good way to search through it. There’s a button that lets you cycle between “new” objects (using some unknown definition of “new”) and usable objects and other odd classes of objects, but the way to do it is to use tabs, and to let the tabs filter by way of weapons and armor and other typesof equipment. Too often in the game I’d find a datapad and then spend way too much time tracking it down in my inventory.
But, as a whole, KOTOR is an excellent role-playing game. I wasn’t really a fan of either of the first two Neverwinter Nights games, which made me a little pessimistic about the post-Infinity Engine quality of BioWare, but KOTOR puts them right back at the top of the heap. That’s a good thing, especially since some of their competitors have had a rough time of late, and who knows who else might be producing good role-playing games in the future. So if you haven’t played KOTOR yet, and if you like role-playing games at all, go out and get it.