Title  : Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic
Platforms  : Microsoft Xbox, Windows
Publisher  : LucasArts
ESRB Rating  : Teen
Game Rating  : 8.9
Review by  : Ken Gagne

It is a time of civil war… but much longer ago than you'd expect. 

Four thousand years before Luke Skywalker would face Darth Vader, the Republic is under siege. Revan and Malak, heroes of the Mandalorian War, have seized control of the fleet to lead a Sith force against the Jedi Order. In this third-person role-playing game (RPG), players will explore the Force and decide the fate of the galaxy. 

Surprisingly, players do not immediately assume control of an all-powerful Jedi, but instead play a lowly scout, scoundrel, or soldier. Knights features a highly customizable character generation and progression system, rarely seen in console or story-driven RPGs. Attributes such as strength and dexterity, and skills that include demolitions, cybernetic implants, and persuasion, can be increased as suits the player. 

With such heavy overtures to a traditional, pencil-and-paper RPG, it shouldn't be surprising that the game talks about rolls and saving throws as though there were actual dice. If you're overwhelmed by such statistics, Knights will recommend progressions for your character, taking precise decisions out of your hands. 

Though the protagonist is human, players will meet and be accompanied by a variety of well-known alien races, including Wookiees, Twi'leks, and droids. Switching between each character is a snap, and is necessary to exploit each's strengths in various situations. A party member could repair a discarded droid to provide backup, while another hacks into a computer terminal to overload nearby power conduits. 

Each character can also play a different role in battle, where they attack with both ranged and melee weapons, including single and dual sabers, blasters, pistols, and grenades. Different accouterments offer a variety of bonuses and situational advantages, leading to much time spent in the inventory menu, changing one's equipment. Combat turns are transparent so as to appear to occur in real-time. Similar to Baldur's Gate, the action can be paused to issue commands and patterns to each combatant. It takes some getting used to to see a constant flurry of blaster fire, swordplay, and martial arts, and to not think of Knights as an action game. 

It is instead a role-playing game, as evidenced by the constant storytelling and the consequences of the player's participation. Different actions and responses can be chosen, some of which may produce the same outcome, but the illusion of agency keeps players involved; plus, one never knows when one will fall to the light or dark side. It is often easier and more lucrative to play a reckless, selfish mercenary, but earning Dark Points will transform the player into a force of evil, both physically and in capabilities. For example, the Force imbues only Sith, not Jedi, with Choke and Lightning powers, but such dark warriors are unlikely to illicit trust or friends, and will lead to the game's alternate ending. 

Should a fatal or unwise decision be made, it is easy enough to undo. The game can be saved anytime, the safety of the headquarters accessed from almost anywhere, and character "deaths" are only until the end of the battle. Despite these safeties, the game is no cakewalk, with many puzzles, side quests, and difficult encounters to overcome. 

Adding to that list of pitfalls, unfortunately, is variety of bugs which can freeze the game or disrupt the handling of equipment. Again, these can be worked around by saving regularly. It's something you should do anyway, as this game spans many worlds and many more hours, requiring a large investment of attention and energy. As the real-world days tick by, be sure to check Xbox Live, through which new items and accessories will be made available for download. 

Though the time is long before filmed Star Wars events, and during a war and with characters invented for this outing, the setting is still familiar. Technology has not changed, and players will return to the Skywalker homeworld of Tatooine and see for the first time the Wookiee world of Kashyyyk. Each world is bustling with activity and graphical detail, familiar yet alien. With so many characters with which to interact, and a limited number of models, many will begin looking identical, though small flourishes try to create originality. The camera is a flawless mix of automatic and manual control, ideal for an RPG. The biggest drawback is the occasional but severe slowdown in the middle of a busy battle. 

As with most Star Wars game, the aural component is important and impressive. John Williams' theme is evident, as are several original, subtle tunes that accompany exploration. All dialogue is spoken, regardless of the alien language, though foreign tongues say in ten words what subtitles say in two. Despite lacking an all-star cast of Mark Hamill and Harrison Ford, the quality is quite good. 

Knights of the Old Republic flexes the versatility of the Star Wars franchise with an offering that is neither the usual action game nor flight sim. Gamers who are accustomed to those genres and can't reconcile the far-off galaxy with careful character development and investigation may be put off by the relatively slow pace, but others will find the depth and breadth of this galaxy comprise a forceful adventure.


This article is copyright (c) 2003, 2007 by Ken Gagne. All rights reserved. Not to be distributed without permission.

Original publication: Boston Beacon, 01-Sep-03