Bioware has recently gotten a lot of attention for their Mass Effect series, and for good reason: it’s awesome. The Mass Effect universe is beautiful, expansive, epic and very, very well-written and acted. When I played the first game (I’m about two-thirds of the way through the second), it reminded me of nothing so much as the modern world of video games’ take on Star Wars: you start out as a capable, badass space marine instead of a farm boy, but you become part of a semi-legendary, cross-galactic group of operatives (who, unlike the Jedi, have no particular philosophy or moral code, and they’re sort of subject to the government, but sort of not…) and proceed to save the entire galaxy from a huge, epic threat (at least, that’s what you will have done by the last game. The first game ends in much the same way as the first Star Wars movie (that’s A New Hope, people): a major part of the evil threat has been destroyed (the Death Star/Sovereign), but the heroes have really only scratched the surface of the problem and now the bad guys are actually ticked off instead of mildly annoyed).
What I was getting to in that overly long introduction was that, before Mass Effect, Bioware made another, sort of similar game that actually was based on Star Wars, and while it lacks some of the graphical polish and acting finesse of the Mass Effect series, Knights of the Old Republic (KotOR for short) is clearly its spiritual predecessor. 8 years after it was published, it remains a thoroughly enjoyable experience as well as an interesting time capsule of gameplay mechanics that have partially disappeared and are partially still in use today.
Story: I will admit that my initial first impression of this game was not very good. After a typical (yellow text scrolling while Imperial March plays) Star Wars opening, you wake up on a Republic ship under attack by Sith forces, and a poorly-drawn soldier yells the movement tutorial at you. It’s a little disconcerting that almost all of the tutorial sections are delivered by characters in the game telling you what bits of the screen to look at, but that’s only an issue in the tutorial-y first section of the game, which is very short, and (little spoiler alert) the poorly-drawn and annoying tutorial solider dude dies. After you get onto the first planet, the game really picks up and becomes a much more enjoyable experience.
“Wait!” you might exclaim if you were a Star Wars nerd (I’m not, OK? I just remember things…). “Didn’t somebody in one of the movies say that the Sith hadn’t been around for a really long time?” Why, yes, they did. However, this is the Old Republic, 4000 years before the Empire. Don’t expect to see Han Solo or any Skywalkers running around; I’m pretty sure even Yoda isn’t old enough to be alive for this game. In my opinion, that’s for the best, because it allows the game to have its own story, but one that’s still set in (and compatible with the tone of) the Star Wars universe. You’ll visit Tatooine and Kashyyyk, and interact with Wookies, Twi’leks and Hutts, without the characters of the movies butting in (apart from the occasional joke, like the trigger-happy Rodian (Greedo’s a Rodian) who says, “I shoot first!”).
You play as…insert player name here, a male or female member of one of three classes. Soldiers are brute-force, weapons-type people, scouts are quick explorers, and scoundrels are sneaky bastards who know about explosives. I’m playing a female scoundrel. I’m going to focus on the plot in this section; there will be more on mechanics later. The opening informs you that the Republic recently won a war agains the Mandalorians (that’s Boba and Jango Fett’s people, for those keeping track at home) with the help of two Jedi, Revan and Malak. Something during the war made them turn to the Dark Side and become Sith, with Revan as the master and Malak as the apprentice. Lots of Republic officers and soldiers turned with them, and they decided to wage war on the Republic, which they did and are proceeding to do with remarkable success. The only real victory so far for the Republic was when the Jedi Bastila lead a team and got rid of Revan, but that just means that Malak took on the role of master and continued the assault. The ship you wake up on has Bastila and some other Jedi on it, and is about to be destroyed by the Sith fleet. You get to the last escape pod with veteran pilot Carth Onasi, learn that Bastila is off the ship, and take off.
You and Carth land on the planet Taris, which has been occupied by the Sith, and must rescue Bastila, who has been captured by a gang, find a ship, and get off the planet. There are also hints of the player character’s sensitivity to the Force, which I’m pretty sure will end up with you getting trained as a Jedi and doubtless eventually determining the fate of the galaxy. I know a little bit more about the story, but I won’t say anything because of the massive spoilers (I was pretty annoyed when I found out).
Gameplay: A lot of this is going to involve comparisons to Mass Effect, because there are a lot of similarities in the structure, but also a lot of differences. Similarities first: you get companions that you add to your party, you can have three people in your party at a time, you manage your party’s inventory, you and your companions all get experience points and you can level them up automatically or micromanage their skills how you wish. Like Mass Effect, there is a sort of moral choice system that doesn’t affect the game much; rather that Paragon and Renegade points, your choices align you with the Light or Dark side of the Force. The dialogue system is also similar, although without the hints that the more complicated graphical interface in Mass Effect gives you. Basically, you get a list of responses to dialogue to choose from. Most of the time they will be neutral. When there is a moral choice to be made, there is usually a Light choice at the top, followed by one or two neutral choices, then a Dark choice, then some variety of “I’m leaving this conversation now.” Persuasion options are handled in a similar fashion. Upgrades to weapons and armor are also similar, although you have to make such modifications at a workbench and I don’t think they’re reversible. Also like Mass Effect, you can romance several squadmates, although given the less-than-totally-realistic graphics quality, I hope they keep it PG.
The gameplay differences are generally reflections of both KotOR’s origins and the earlier time it was made in. The game mechanics were based on the d20 Star Wars game; in other words, Star Wars Dungeons and Dragons. I don’t want to explain the complicated rules of d20 gaming systems here, but basically your attacks and abilities are part skill, part equipment, and part luck. For example, if I want to shoot someone with a blaster, my attack bonus with the blaster gets compared to the enemy’s armor class. The attack bonus is how good I am with the weapon plus how good the weapon is, and their armor class is how good their armor is plus how much they can dodge around to avoid being hit. Then, I would roll a die if I were playing the pencil-and-paper game; the computer does it for you here. If the die roll plus my attack bonus exceeds their armor class, I hit. The damage would be calculated in a similar way; it’s a die roll plus any bonuses I would get for being extra good with blasters, minus their resistance to blaster fire. Skill checks are conducted in a similar way. If I’m trying to sneak past someone, it’s my Stealth check (die roll plus how good I am at stealth plus any equipment bonuses) versus their Awareness check (die roll plus how good they are at spotting people plus any equipment bonuses). If my Stealth check beats their Awareness check, they can’t see me. If I’m trying to defuse a mine, it’s my Demolitions check (you get the idea) versus the mine’s Difficulty Class (a number I have to beat).
If all of that sounds really complicated, don’t worry! The computer takes care of all the numbers for you. What it basically comes down to is that, even if you have really good armor, you can still get hit sometimes, even by weak enemies, and even if you’re terrible at persuasion, you still have a chance to convince that Sith officer to invite you to her party just by getting lucky. Combat is round-based, which basically means “like an MMORPG” in that you just click on whoever you want to attack and the computer does the rest, apart from using special abilities. It’s not quite as flowing as Mass Effect‘s (or most modern games’) real-time action, but it’s very visually pleasing, with your character attacking the enemy in a variety of different ways (including kicking them in the face if you’re in melee) as opposed to the one-attack-animation combat of an MMORPG.
Atmosphere: The graphics aren’t great, but they aren’t distractingly terrible for the most part, either. The only bad-looking character so far is a Wookiee; the fur is pretty unrealistic-looking. However, the environments are interesting and varied; on the first planet, which is stratified by social class, the Upper City has a very polished look, the Lower City is polluted, dim, and run-down, and the Undercity is dark and primitive.
What really deserves attention is the writing. KotOR was one of the first games in its time that people agreed had a great story “for a video game,” and it actually has a pretty good story independent of medium. The main characters are really fleshed out and flawed in interesting ways. Carth is very moral and loyal to the Republic, but suspicious. Bastila is a talented Force-user, but also arrogant and not a good leader (which is not what I was expecting in a Jedi). The Twi’lek Mission Vao is sassy and knowledgable, but impetuous and childish. The writers are very good at making you care about the characters, both with gameplay and with conversations. Carth, for example, gives you advice over a headset and helps you through the tutorial, which helps make you predisposed to like him and surprised that he doesn’t trust you at all when you arrive on the planet. You spend a lot of time and energy looking for information about and trying to rescue Bastila, only for her to assert that she saved your ass, not the other way around. This made me, at least, pretty pissed off at the character for a while.
Side quests and Misc: One area in which KotOR far outshines Mass Effect is the side quests, also known as the “dicking around” department. Mass Effect‘s side quests are generally variations on this: land on a planet, drive to desired location, maybe talk to someone, kill a bunch of people/zombies/animals, pick something up or talk to a big baddie before killing him/her, maybe kill some more people, return to Normandy, receive thanks from Admiral Hackett. Sometimes they mixed it up by setting the quest on a spaceship, or making you defuse a bomb, or something, but it got pretty old. The mini-game entertainment was likewise limited to Quasar, which involved approximately no skill.
KotOR, on the other hand, has a wide variety of side quests, and while most of them are something you’ve probably done in another game, it’s nice to have diversity. On the first planet, you can take bounty hunting contracts (and sometime help the victim escape from such contracts), help a Twi’lek audition for a job as a dancer, race swoop bikes (it’s like rally driving in a podracer), help the people of the Undercity get to their “Promised Land,” tell off a street crazy, fight in a non-lethal gladiator arena, and find a cure for a disease that turns people into zombies (basically). The gambling game is Pazaak instead of Quasar, a card game that you can actually find cards for to improve your deck (I think it’s like a more complicated version of blackjack). And while it’s true that many of those quests mostly involve finding someone or several people and killing them, kicking bad guys in the face has yet to lose its charm.
Bottom line: Knights of the Old Republic is an epic journey through a beloved sci-fi universe. If you can forgive the sub-par (for today) graphics and unusual (for today) gameplay, its variety and well-crafted story and characters are well worth investigating. Also, it’s about $5 on Steam, max.
For anyone who really wanted that spoiler I mentioned, here it is [HUGE SPOILER ALERT]: the player character is actually Darth Revan, who’s been brainwashed by the Jedi in hopes of a) slowing down the Sith attacks and b) possibly redeeming him/her back to the Light Side. Presumably at the end of the game, the player has a choice between being a Jedi again and kicking Darth Malak’s ass, or going back to the Dark Side and kicking Malak’s ass anyway for being insubordinate, and, you know, for teh evulz.
[Featured image: technobuffalo.com.]