Star Wars. RPG. For some, that's all they'll need to hear to make a purchase. It is therefore worth crediting BioWare for putting so much effort into a game that looks like it could be the next big thing in the world of RPGaming.
With the Star Wars franchise having as many fans as it does, story is a key point of interest. The game is set some 4000 years before the original Star Wars: A New Hope film. The Dark Jedi known as the Sith are threatening the Old Republic, and more specifically, the main character's ship. After dispatching the foe, the player's avatar has to seek out the young Jedi known as Bastille. The quest will take the player through a universe that was painstakingly designed to resemble an earlier version of the far-away galaxy we are so familiar with. Though there is a lot of free travel allowed, the plot is still essentially linear. However, what exactly that plot ends up becoming is up to the player. That is because the player has the option of diverging from the path of the Jedi and joining the Dark Side. This choice is not made through some ultimatum in the middle of the game, but rather through the actions undertaken by the player, especially in regards to conversation. For example, insulting an NPC is a Dark Side type choice, especially if the NPC winds up dead in the resulting fight. It is this subtle layering of cause and effect (these seemingly insignificant choices can have an effect on any area of the game, not just the character's affiliation) that makes Knights of the Old Republic such a unique experience.
The player has some direct influence over his or her character, as well. The character is created at the beginning of the game; customized according to the standard choices of class and race. Tragically, Jawas are not among the playable races. The class options are Soldier, Scoundrel, Scout, and Jedi Guardian. There are six attributes that can be tampered with and a generous number of abilities and skills as well. These last deal with specific things, such as Demolition. If all of this choice seems intimidating, then there is the final option of automatically customizing the attributes according to the chosen class and race recommendations.
KOTOR is one of those indecisive games with a hybrid battle system. Combat takes place in real-time, unless the player opens up a menu to enter commands. While the player chooses a sequence of four commands, the action slows to reasonable pace. Once the commands are inputted, the party member will keep following the sequence until something dies or another set of orders is arranged. Since control can be switched to the other party members at any time, they can also have commands issued for them. Abilities and items can be assigned to specific buttons to make things easier. The combat might well be intense and difficult, as hinted at by two features: the ability to save anywhere, and automatic post-battle party revival.
It is good to see a good ol' party-centered RPG. There are nine party members in total, and three actively travelling at a time. Some members might leave if the player becomes too good or too evil for their liking, but that probably only happens in extreme cases. The wide variety of skills each member brings to the group is reportedly invaluable, and though they have been pre-created, they can be customized as much as the main character. Even the 'droids can have new armor installed on them! All that to say, it would be unfortunate to have a member leave the Epon Hawk gang. The Hawk is a Millennium Falcon rip-off that serves as a transport, party gathering point, store, and equipment building shop.
BioWare promises tons of subquests and diversions for the party. There are 10 different planets to visit, which should allow for some nice variety of settings. Although combat does seem to be the focus, there will also be some exploration and puzzle solving. Also, what would an RPG be nowadays without mini games? SHUNNED AND MOCKED, that's what. Knights escapes this by a safe margin of at least four mini games: the ubiquitous Tatooine Pod Race, a card game called Pazzak, a gladiator fight, and manning the guns of the Epon Hawk. All this adds up to a fifty-hour long game.
KOTOR is top of the line technically. The realistic graphical style employed by BioWare produces stunning results. The detail and animation in this game is in a league of its own. The characters lip-sync to the voices and the grass makes way for the walking party and it sways to the wind caused by a passing ship. The background chatter of a full bar can be heard. As for music, there will be some John Williams classics, but most tracks will be originals.
The Xbox needs RPGs - all the ones it has are either ports or altogether sub-par. True, KOTOR is being ported onto the PC, but it will be a port of a game designed for the Xbox. This title is being hailed as the game that will bring the hordes over to Microsoft's system, but even if it doesn't, it will have accomplished a lot. The detail in the graphics and gameplay, if properly realized, would set new standards for RPGs. The battle system does sound a little bit shaky, but the jury is still out. The Force will finally be with the Xbox on the twenty-fifth of March.