What is a better way to kick off a new year then to start playing a new game...that is 12 years old? Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic is a game I had my eye on for a very long time. It is one of those games you hear a lot about, even after their prime. Somehow this game stood the test time and is still mentioned form time to time in the video game community. It took the buzz around The Force Awakens and a recommendation form a friend, who played it back in the day, for me to finely crack and try out this classic.
It took some effort to make KotOR run on this Windows 10 laptop. Even though Microsoft are pretty awesome when it comes to backwards compatibility, this time some extra effort had to be done. I needed to reinstall the game in Windows XP SP2 compatibility mode, set both the game exe and the setting exe to said mode and edit an ini file just to make the game run. Then, once the intro movies would play out, the game would crash. After some researching on the internets, I found out that disabling movies would fix my problems. So, if a cutscene was not in real time, I would not see it. That made a bit hard to follow the story at times, but nothing too big to be a major problem. Also, 7 hours into the game, my save file got corrupted and I had to download someone else's save form the internet. I would then edit that save in an editor to try to recreate my character the best I could. So you know, fun times. But compatibility problems are to expected in an old game and even modern games can ruin a save file.
Before we get into my experience proper, let me give you a bit of context. My favorite game series is Mass Effect, the next space epic that came from BioWare after KotOR. Playing the first Mass Effect back in 2008 when I was 17 was one hell of an experience. That game took me with its universe, characters and story. Also, that film grain. I still have specific memories of that game that bring a warm feeling for me and remind me why I loved that game so much. It is not all about the first game, however. The other 2 games are great in their own right. So with that in mind and what I heard about KotOR, I came into this Star Wars game as a sort-of predecessor to Mass Effect.
Once I could get into the main menu of the game, I could begin my playthrough. But, upon hitting the new game button, I found three available classes to choose from with horrible descriptions. So back to the internet for some research, this time to find out what is a scoundrel. This is where I also found out that alt-tab'ing crashes the game. After restarting the game, I chose scout (later it turned into a Jedi Sentinel) and was exposed to the game's RPG system. Knights of the Old Republic uses a DnD inspired system and is pretty honest about it. Ability and item description of then use terms like 1d6 to show the dice roll'y nature of the game. And like DnD, it supports a good range of play styles. Ranged and melee, single handed and two handed, sneaky and upfront...it is all there. That would be all good if this was not a Star Wars game, however. But it is. Melee is much better than ranged in this game, and once you get your lightsaber all you really have to think about is one thing: single handed for the iconic look or double-bladed/double saber for more power. Even a good amount of skills are not worth your time once you figure out two or three the most useful and powerful. The biggest benefit I found to the RPG system was a world building one. It showed me that the world of KotOR can support a lot of different types of characters, no only Jedi, even though Jedi are the most powerful.
You won't be a Jedi form the begging though. There is a good part of the game you have to play through before you become a Jedi. With the level cap of 20, I became a Jedi at level 8. Once you become Jedi and are done with training, the game opens up (before this KotOR is somewhat linear) and you can start to see some elements of Mass Effect in it. You have a nice amount of party members to talk to, you have ship that you can travel to different locations to and you can go at your own pace. This is also where I feel the similarities, for the most part, stop, since both the characters and locations rarely are the same quality as found in Mass Effect.
The reason I fell both of these fall a bit flat, especially the characters is the setting itself. Star Wars is primarily a set of movies. Sure, it is a lot of other things, but movies are the main thing. What happens in those movies informs everything else about the Star Wars universe, not the other way around. Maybe some race or a world from the extended universe will find its way on to the big screen, but only if it has little importance and does not require some prior knowledge from the viewer. For Star Wars to work as a movie, it has to be light on technical detail. You won't hear long and big explanations about how stuff works in Star Wars like you would in Star Trek or Mass Effect, because there is no time for it. Look at the main thing of this universe: the Force. It is at its best when it is vague and mystical, giving it magic properties and doesn't get into some pseudo science like midi-chlorians. That is why I look at Star Wars as wizards in space with light swords.
If such an universe is your setting for a long, 30 hour RPG, you might run into some problems. And BioWare did. Take Bastila for example. She is someone you hear about from the very start on the game and is central to its plot. Her battle meditation ability is mentioned several times in the game and is key to why the Republic is still able to battle the Sith. But this ability isn't really explained. The best I could come up with is that it helped to predict enemy movement and tactics. Now, again, in a two hour movie that would be fine, but in a game dozen times longer than that, I started to get tired of hearing the same things about Bastila's battle meditation for the sixth time without getting more info about it.
Her character arc is also flawed and is emblematic of missed potential most of the game's stories have. Once she joins your team and you can talk to her, you will learn that she struggles a bit with keeping her emotions at bay and is someone who is young for having her abilities. Now, I would have loved a deeper exploration of these things. But the only time her emotions come up in any meaningful way is in a side quest about her mother, which is on path of the main story line, so you spend about 20 minutes on it. Her age and the pressure she has to deal with is also not talked about in length. The only times it comes up is when compared to the main character. If you are playing as a light side Jedi, she would say something like: "I am amazed you can be so calm and keep it together." And I get that the reason for this vagueness is the Force, since explaining this stuff would need a better explanation of the Force, and we don't want that, do we?
These kind of problems can be found in almost every party member in the game, except for two: HK 47 and Jolee. HK 47 is a great character in terms of his attitude and the adventures he has to tell. There is no big arc for him, but hearing his disgust for "meatbags" through his stories is a lot of fun. He definitely stands out the most out of the rest of the roster. Jolee, on the other hand, is the closest you will get to a Mass Effect character in KotOR. Party members in ME were so great, because you got to learn about alien things, like how all the different races and cultures worked. Through the things those character had to tell, the player would explore the universe of Mass Effect and have a better understanding of the setting they are in.
In Star Wars, the Force is a very binary thing. Either you are fighting for justice and peace, or you just want to destroy everyone and everything. But what if there was a neutral Jedi? Someone who left the Jedi order and did things he thought was a better way than the order's. Well Jolee is that Jedi. He is the one character in this game through whom the player explores new territory. While the game itself forces the player into being really good or really bad, at least Jolee let's them imagine what it would be to walk your own path as a Jedi. In some way, this just showed me once more how the setting of Star Wars can be limiting.
In terms of locations, most of them are fine and are interesting to visit. The only let down in my book is Tatooine. In Knights of the Old Republic, Tatooine is a planet with little on it. The biggest thing going for it is the mining operation conducted by the Czerka corporation, but even that is ending by the time the player get's there, since the metal is bad quality there. The player also will learn from the sand people that all this mining is tearing up the land on the planet and is hurting their connection with nature. That is an interesting premise, yet the areas you visit themselves don't show this premise that much. The only meaningful physical reference to the mining is a big movable rig in the middle of one of the zones, yet it does nothing. Now, I get that this lack of stuff has to do something with the technical limitations of the time. I would, however, trade the big rig for some environmental damage that the sand people talked about.
I know I criticize this game a lot, but I did enjoy my time with it and I like Star Wars. But it is a game of its time and I do feel that having their own universe with Mass Effect helped BioWare to craft a better game in all major aspects. Yet in a world before ME, I can see how KotOR got the praise it received. Especially when you remember that this was the time of the prequels.
P.S. Ebon Hawk has nothing, NOTHING on the Normandy.