Format reviewed: Xbox
Why Bioware’s Star Wars debut is one of the best of all time.
Knights Of The Old Republic was the first ever Star Wars RPG. Though the idea of playing as a Jedi had been captured with some sophistication in the PC title Jedi Knight and its expansion, Mysteries Of The Sith, LucasArts wanted to create an experience that would capture the complex ramifications of fulfilling the role of a Jedi. The publisher approached RPG specialist BioWare due to its work on Baldur’s Gate, its sequel and Neverwinter Nights, where the developer had pioneered use of good and bad moral choices to affect the course of the narrative – the type that fit perfectly with the light/dark struggle at the centre of Star Wars.
The two platforms chosen for development were the PC and Xbox, the former of which the developer was familiar with, while the latter presented an opportunity to debut a big RPG franchise without much competition. BioWare chose to take the storyline 4,000 years back from the rise of the Galactic Empire, which gave it the perfect canvas to create all-new characters and storylines without treading on the toes of the movie canon. The resulting storyline elevated all of the most exciting features of the Star Wars universe, while cutting out most of the crap that many believed damaged the prequel trilogy. Players, meanwhile, were blown away by the depth of the narrative possibilities and attention to detail with the licence.
KOTOR accomplishes something that LucasArts had always been meaning to do but never quite managed on this scale: to completely envelop the player in an interactive Star Wars narrative, one that would represent every tiny aspect that made this fictional universe special to moviegoers.
It allowed us to create a character, choose a class then develop them into a Jedi over the course of the game, recruiting a team of specialists to bring down Darth Malak and the Sith Empire. This reasonably interesting bunch of characters included the Wookiee Zaalbar and the daring Carth Onasi, but all were overshadowed by the droid HK-47, a hilariously disturbed assassin with a bizarre, sociopathic hatred for living things.
Yet it’s the way we can interact with the story on multiple levels that is still the most impressive feature of the game. One brilliant conundrum has players sent to deal with the Sand People by a corporation on Tatooine. There are two ways of handling the situation: dressing up as one of them and negotiating peacefully using a protocol droid, or marching in and mercilessly killing them all. Of course, you’re not just making a choice based on morality here – you’re making one based on your attachment to the Star Wars universe.
You might decide to murder the Sand People because they freaked you out as a kid when you watched A New Hope, which would have absolutely nothing to do with the morality of the situation at hand. That was the fundamental appeal of Knights Of The Old Republic in action, then: letting your memories of Star Wars inform the way you played, never more poignantly than when BioWare dealt with the dark/light sides of the Force later in the game.
Then, a twist occurs – one devastatingly clever story idea that no player could possibly have seen coming. In that plot twist – we won’t spoil it here, even though one prominent publication notably did so at the time – we witnessed the greatest Star Wars moment in a popular entertainment medium since the destruction of the second Death Star in Return Of The Jedi.
KOTOR’s reputation as an essential RPG was already secured, but this made players reflect on every single action they’d made up until that point, such was its impact.
Independently of that, though, the Canadian developer built an RPG that was extremely strong across the board, from the animation of the battles to the use of the Star Wars audio/visual trademarks. KOTOR boasted Dungeons & Dragons-infused combat mechanics, yet the classy, cinematic look of the game disguised all of the number-crunching going on behind the scenes.
Why It’s A Future Classic
We’ll be playing Knights Of The Old Republic long into the future because there’s never been a Star Wars adaptation quite like this, both tapping into our nostalgia for the movies and displaying relentless creativity in expanding the fiction. Fans had long wanted to experiment with the polarised morality of the Star Wars universe, and KOTOR allowed this freedom, in a way that kept it relevant to the narrative.
BioWare took one of the most popular properties in the world and reminded us of why we all cared in the first place. A strong but inferior sequel from another developer followed, reaffirming how much the original achieved in capturing the essence of Star Wars, whether in the space battles, Lightsaber duels, immense scope of the galactic civilisation or simple conversations with Twi’lek passers-by. The RPG pays tribute to the source material, yet reappropriates it in a fashion that increases the oft-questioned credibility of the franchise.
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