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The Force Is Strong With This One
By: Howard Kleinman
Star Wars has more or less defined the epic, cinematic fantasy since its creation back in the 1970s. Few films have imbedded themselves so completely into the fabric of popular culture. George Lucas combined the mythological studies of Joseph Campbell with the spirit of the Saturday Morning Matinee film to create a film series that was both fun and resonant for entire generations of people. Star Wars was so powerfully influential, that it became virtually impossible to grow up without having heard of Luke, Han, Leia and Darth Vader. RPGs found themselves loaded with Star Wars influence. Even the mighty Final Fantasy series pays homage to the series in every installment with the recurrence of walking Star Wars references Wedge and Biggs.
So why has it taken so long for a Star Wars RPG to appear? It certainly has all the right ingredients to make a fantastic RPG setting. Two different Star Wars pen and paper games have been released, but all Star Wars video games to this point have avoided the genre that would best suit the epic grandeur of a Star Wars storyline. The wait is finally over. Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic isn't just a great Star Wars game. It's quite possibly the best RPG ever released on any platform.
Knights of the Old Republic takes place 4000 years before Episode I. Darth Malak, Sith Lord and former hero of the Mandalorian Wars, has assembled a massive army and fleet of starships with the intention of destroying the Republic, which has kept order in the Galaxy for 20,000 years. You begin the game as a crewmember of the Endar Spire, a Republic ship under the command of the Jedi Bastila. Bastila played a key role in the defeat of Malak's master Darth Revan and is believed to be instrumental for the destruction of the Sith Armada. The Spire is hijacked by the Sith and soon you find yourself stranded on the city planet of Taris. Did Bastila survive the Sith attack? Can Malak's Armada be stopped? Before long you find yourself on an epic quest to fight the Dark Lord and uncover the mysteries of the Star Forge.
BioWare, the Canadian developer best known for the Baldur's Gate series, has managed to combine the open ended gameplay of their past games with the strong focus on story and characters present in most console style RPGs. The result is a deep storyline that is well presented and developed while giving you an alarming degree over control over the story's progress. The storyline is told through some very strong voice acting and cinematics. When engaged in a conversation you are generally provided with a large number of dialogue options. Some options are obviously the heroic responses and some will inevitably lead you down the dark path. However, there are times when doing the right thing might hurt the Republic. Do you choose your allegiance to the Republic's losing war effort? Or do you do what you know to be right because the ends don't justify the means? Or do you just say "the hell with it?" and kill the poor people who dare force you to solve their dilemma? The game gives you all these options and even offers multiple endings depending on how heroic or evil you decide to become. BioWare has prepared for just about any type of character you wish to play. Every time you play the game, the outcome will shift slightly and you will be able to find different ways of handling situations. You can even get into romantic relationships with your party members, but remember that passion can be a tool of the dark side.
The gameplay is a variant of the d20 Star Wars RPG developed by Wizards of the Coast. You design your character largely from scratch using the D&D statistics of Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma. The stats aren't randomly generated, but created through a point-buy system granting you a good deal of customizability without allowing you "lucky rolls" that would turn your character into an unstoppable powerhouse. You also get to choose from three initial character classes: The powerful Soldier, the versatile Scout and the skill intensive Scoundrel. Later in the game, you will be offered a choice of three similarly balanced Jedi Classes. The interface is beautifully designed, but due to the game's depth searching through menus for certain items can grow tiresome. Fortunately, BioWare has offered numerous sorting methods for gamers to easy searching through hundreds of items. Any game this huge will have interface problems, but rarely have so many stats and items been juggled so elegantly.
BioWare has managed to create an excellent variant on their tried and true infinity engine for the battle system. First, there are no random encounters or separate encounter screens. All battles occur directly on the field. The battles occur in real time, but you can pause the action to enter commands. You can string up to three commands in a row using the X-button if you so wish. If you want, you can also use one of three AI scripts to control your characters for you if you just want to watch the battles unfold by themselves. The AI is surprisingly strong and character won't mindless waste their force powers or grenades unless they are given the appropriate scripts. You can also use some interesting combat strategies outside of charging the enemy with blasters blazing. You can use stealth gear to sneak up on an enemy and hit them with a sneak attack bonus. Or, you can hack a computer several rooms away and overload the computer terminal in the enemy barracks killing the inhabitants with an unfortunate explosion. You can lay land mines and lure the enemies into them, or you can lob adhesive grenades at your foes and watch them get suck up to their knees in some gelatinous substance while you pick them off from a safe distance. If the battles seem too easy or too complex, the difficulty is adjustable.
Aesthetically, the game is nothing short of breathtaking. The art design is largely original, but it still maintains the look and feel of the movies. The same can be said of Jeremy Soule's soundtrack. While he uses many themes from the movies, the score is largely original, giving the game the feel of an original film within the Star Wars saga. The game's engine handles enormous environments with a large number of characters with few hiccups, though there is occasional slowdown in especially large battles. Also, a few of the NPCs seem to share the exact same head. This becomes somewhat silly before long. Fortunately, the major characters are all well designed. On the whole, however, the game looks and feels like a Star Wars movie, which is exactly what is necessary.
The characters are truly first rate. All of them have solid reasons for joining the party and have back-stories you can delve into as deeply as you wish. Will you reunite the optimistic Twi'Lek Mission Vao with her wayward brother? Why does the hermitlike Jedi Jolee Bindo claim the order abandoned him? You can find out if you want. The characters will have conversations with each other. It's amusing to pair up characters that won't get along to see the sorts of arguments they get into. You can even buy yourself droids! (No guarantees that they won't have the occasional bad motivator, or that their previous owners weren't using them for something illicit). The voice acting is first rate featuring a cast of experienced and familiar voice actors (lots of voices from Grandia II). If there is a problem with the game, it's sadly the villainy. Darth Malak and company aren't particularly well developed beyond their cruelty. None of them carry the imposing presence of Darth Vader or the amazing manipulative skills of Darth Sidious. But they serve their purpose well, and the story offers plenty of twists with your own characters.
Overall, Knights of the Old Republic proves what I've always suspected. The Star Wars universe is fertile ground for great RPGs. It's the best that both console and PC style RPGs have to offer. We can only hope LucasArts calls upon BioWare to give us a sequel.
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