22 August, 2015

Dustin' Off - Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic

Join us once again in revisiting the games of yesteryear. This time with Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, a game that somehow still manages to work its way into headlines in 2015.

Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic

Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic

Knights of the Old Republic has long been regarded by many, as the defining Bioware game and indeed one of, if not the best Star Wars game. Knights of the Old Republic (KotOR) released in 2003, first on the (original) Xbox, of all places, and later on the PC, but it can now be played on Mac OS X, iOS, and Android.

Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic Trask Ulgo
Trask, the real hero of the Endar Spire.
You awake amid fluid dreams of Jedi and Dark Jedi, only to find yourself in the middle of a very real battle between those two forces, aboard the Endar Spire, an ambushed Republic Hammerhead-class cruiser above the planet Taris. Apparently, you’re only on duty when everyone else is asleep, because you have no idea who you bunkmate Trask Ulgo is, nor your Jedi commander Bastila. Who you are and why you are aboard the Ender Spire isn’t really addressed either, when it does come up your character just sweeps it under the rug. One thing leads to another and you find yourself locked in an escape pod with one Carth Onasi, jettisoned towards the planet below. Unlike Trask, who was upbeat and raring to take the fight to the enemy, Carth prefers to whine, argue, and generally mistrust you at every turn. I to this day, have never forgiven Bioware for Trask’s untimely end at the hand of Darth Bandon, a bald gentleman who hates computers – it should have been Carth dammit... Anyway, using your combat proficiencies, technical skills, and smooth talking – in multiple different languages – you quickly begin to amass companions from Taris’ seedy underbelly and eventually rescue Jedi Bastila.  After a brief trip to Dantooine to become a Jedi yourself, as all good videogame protagonists do, you and your companions, still growing in number, find yourselves on a quest to locate the ‘Star Forge’ and stop the maniacal Darth Malak.

Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic HK-47
HK-47, arguably one of the most memorable characters in the history of the industry.
The galaxy opens up after Dantooine, using your ship the Ebon Hawk, a respectable stand-in for the Millennium Falcon, your quest takes you to; Kashyyk, homeworld of the Wookies, Korriban, home to the Sith, Manaan, the centre of Kolto production, and Tatooine, which won’t be notable for another 4000 years or so. In addition to the Star Maps you’re sniffing out on the planets, there is a central story arc tied to each world, and a host of completely optional side quests. Of course, each of your companions have their own stories to tell and old acquaintances to meet. Though your companion’s story arcs are far more basic than those in the later Old Republic games; you either hear their backstory or don’t. That isn’t to say they are poor, there’s some great writing in KotOR, but the companions are generally quite linear in their progression. Also in typical Bioware fashion, characters have alignment meters, in this case Light and Dark side. Your alignment is dictated by points acquired by performing good or evil deeds, which change the direction of your story, alignment also has an impact on the combat systems and some of the equipment you can use.

Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic

The combat of KotOR, of which there is a lot especially towards the end of the game, is not totally unlike Dragon Age: Origins’, though even in the case of the PC version, it has clearly been designed towards controller usability. There are three wheels of options during combat; your weapon attacks (for either melee or ranged weapons), Force attacks, and explosives (grenades and mines). Hitting spacebar pauses the combat, making it easier to queue up orders for your whole party. The combat system itself is fine, but encounters can feel artificially slow because attacks have a high chance of missing. However, there are a healthy amount of environmental options to offset many battles, depending upon your character’s progression; perhaps talk enemies out of attacking in the first place, repair a damaged droid to fight alongside you, or if you’re a slicer you might spy a room of enemies and detonate a nearby terminal, killing them all without so much as raising your blaster. A certain amount of fighting is unavoidable, after all, this is Star Wars not Deus Ex, and the lure of the lightsaber is strong. Each time I start a new game I inevitably end up switching from conventional weapons to the more traditional lightsaber/Force combination as soon as I’m able – it’s more civilised and everyone in KotOR shoots like an Episode IV Stormtrooper anyway. The Force powers are denoted in red and blue, the colours of the dark and light side; dark side powers are generally more concerned with killing or debilitating enemies, while the light side is geared towards bolstering characters through buffs, there are also universal powers, like Force Speed. There is a cost penalty associated with using Force powers opposed to your alignment; sadly there is no way to angle the use of Force Lightning into a morally defensible position.

KotOR hasn’t received the additional resolution treatment that its sequel recently did, but for the most part it still looks respectable for its age, in my opinion. The animations are I feel, more damaging than anything else; faces are stiff and the combat system is such that you’re going to see the same four attack moves over and over again. KotOR was also unfortunate enough to release during a time when pre-rendered cinematics looked noticeably worse that the game engine itself. I would have provided screenshots of these monstrously compressed videos, but the arcane magic that spawned them defies all efforts to be captured. Some environments hold up better than others, the darker areas are the least pleasant, with Kashyyyk’s surface, the Shadowlands, being a nest of horrid grey angles, as seen below. The Taris Undercity – every bit as rancid as it sounds – and indeed anywhere with grass, remains hugely broken for me. Despite having played on as many as six different computers over the years, I’ve never seen these environments the way the developers intended, the grass usually doesn’t load correctly, but it does cause character’s legs to vanish. The grass can be turned off completely in the options, but where’s the fun in that – legless Jedi are too good to pass up. Still, as ugly as it can look in spots, there’s worst being dumped on Steam every single day!

Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic Kashyyk

KotOR wasn’t just a good game in its own right; the legacy it left is impressive, one that continues to birth new stories today. Knights of the Fallen Empire, the upcoming expansion for Star Wars: The Old Republic, itself a continuation of KotOR, seeks to recapture the magic of its progenitor. Whether or not it will succeed, we’ll have to wait and see, however Knights of the Fallen Empire is adopting an episodic approach, which is new for both The Old Republic and Bioware alike, with one episode landing each month, in addition to many other changes coming to the game. Honestly, I’d rather see them try to recapture Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords, but that has a somewhat tarnished reputation, and was not developed by Bioware. But expect more on that game very soon!

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