Knights of the Old Republic

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While the Microsoft Xbox is one of the most-maligned video game consoles on the planet, and has (let's face it) had relatively few A-rank titles, there are a few games which almost justify the purchase of equipment from the world's foremost illegal monopolist. I happen to have an Xbox around so that I can use Xbox Media Center, so I went ahead and bought a used copy of Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. There are fairly few RPG titles on the Xbox at all, and this is certainly one of them.

Being around the age of thirty I grew up with Star Wars movies, toys, and games. I've played some of the games here and there and skipped over others; I'm a fan of simulation games, so naturally my favorite is the classic Tie Fighter. I've also played through a number of the Rogue Squadron titles, mostly on the Nintendo 64 and Gamecube, but I've given pretty much everything else a miss. I also enjoy first person shooters, but most of the Star Wars FPS have received neither critical acclaim (these days a nine out of ten rating means that the game is mediocre) nor have my friends enjoyed them, which is usually not a good sign - they tend to like a lot of games I think are crap.

On the other hand, everyone seemed to love Knights of the Old Republic. I like a good RPG, and from all accounts, it was one. I've just about finished playing through it for the second time, and I have a few thoughts to share on the experience; some good, some not so. Here's a few of them.

First of all, let me just say that this game is not technically interesting in any way. From my standpoint (the last RPG I played being Neverwinter Nights, another Bioware title) this game looks pretty much like Neverwinter Nights (hence, "NWN") from your character's POV. This is not especially amazing; while I could be way off base, I would be surprised if it didn't share a substantial amount of code with that title. Generally speaking, a given game developer only has one or maybe two big pieces of code that do any given thing, unless they are maintaining multiple substantially different game engines. For example, auto racing and an RPG are pretty different and will take different approaches to precaching, backface removal, et cetera. Otherwise, you are simply duplicating effort, or in other words, wasting it.

Even if it's not true it's a pretty good way to look at the game's interface; it's a lot like playing NWN from a third/first person perspective, with the controls operated in a classic Grand Theft Auto-esque means, the left stick running around and the right controlling the view. Unfortunately, you can't actually look up and down unless you switch to the stationary, first-person view, but perhaps full joystick look was considered to be too confusing for the average Star Wars fan. This isn't a huge problem as the game world is steadfastly two-dimensional, as is Neverwinter Nights. In general, the game plays pretty much like Dungeons and Dragons, given that the game's most powerful weapons are Lightsabers, which are just glowing swords whose blades disappear when you're not using them. Various technological items are available and take the place of magic items; they function in pretty much the same way, and provide stat bonuses or special abilities.

The graphics of this game are, quite simply, boring. The only times I have found them effective at all are in the last and next to last stages of the game; in the former there is a moment where you walk out over a cliff with the sun reflecting off the ground and everything looks pretty good, while in the latter some portions of the level successfully convey a feeling of massive size. In pretty much every other case, the level design is uninspired at best and is usually quite annoying to see around from ground level in an attempt to make them seem larger and more complicated - which they are not. Few maps have any significant size, and none are very complex.

So where, you might be asking, is the goodness in this title? Amazingly, it's in the storyline. I don't want to spoil the whole game for you or anything, but the game involves the prehistory of the Republic and a war between them and the Sith, and the issue of love among the Jedi, among various other subjects. It takes you to a handful of worlds and has a veritable pile of characters, each of which has their own special purpose, more or less; there is substantial overlap, of course.

Before I start really trashing this game, let me mention that this is one of the few titles to make use of Dolby Digital. I'm sure if I had all my speakers hooked up, I'd hear some neat 5.1 effects. Unfortunately, I played this game wearing Sennheisers and I could tell that the audio is actually pretty lame. The various engine and blaster effects really have none of the depth that I've come to expect even from other games in the canon.

What prompted me to come and write this review before even finishing the game (I'm currently in the middle of the super-annoying boss battle at the end) was crashing the thing by dropping an adhesive grenade and then setting a mine. This game is just technically pathetic. Not only is it ugly even for an Xbox title (yikes, background textures with pixels the size of my head!) but it's glitchy, too. Various minor display trashing issues which really ought not to be a problem by this point but which are horribly annoying to look at are everywhere. The interface is cumbersome and ugly. If you bump the stick just a nudge (even at the lowest walking speed) while your character is executing a combat action, it will be cancelled. The NPC path finding is crap, and your party members regularly get stuck on walls, mobiles (wandering NPCs) and anything else in their way. Often it is very difficult to target enemies, and NPCs will typically stand around behind you like a gawping yokel if you don't explicitly switch to them, manually target something, and attack it.

Also, let me just take a moment here to say that any cut scene that cannot be skipped is a fundamentally wrong thing which reduces replay value. I will definitely put this title up for sale as soon as I finish finishing it a second time if for no reason other than this. The models have a poly count out of Quake 2 and yet I am expected to suspend disbelief enough to believe that these wooden models which aren't even attached properly to the floor when they walk (inverse kinematics, anyone?) are emoting? And then be forced to watch them dance woodenly around every time I play the game again? I think not. Perhaps I'm just being too hard on this game, but forcing me to watch things is stupid. It was worth it to watch them once, to get the story. It's not worth it to watch them twice.

Due to this game's nature as a technical tour-de-farce I can only rank it someplace in the middle, but I want to stress again that the game really does have an excellent (and detailed!) story. Because this game was developed for the Xbox and thus uses DirectX, a version of the game exists for Windows as welll; it can probably safely be assumed to be slightly more attractive (if for no reason other than eliminating some of the jaggies) and far less stable. There is also a sequel to this game for the Xbox; the story is that it sucks. I haven't tried it yet, so I don't know if that story is true.

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