Sunday, January 07, 2024

20th Anniversary Review - Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic [2003]

Following their considerable success with the Dungeons & Dragons license in the form of the Baldur's Gate and Neverwinter Nights games, Bioware approached LucasArts in 2000 with a view to creating a Star Wars RPG in the same vein. LucasArts offered Bioware a license for game set around Episode II, The Clone Wars era or a time 4000 years in Star Wars' lore past popularised by the Tales of the Jedi comic book series. The latter was chosen as it Bioware felt it would allow more creative freedom in comparison to the rigidity required of the movie era.

It proved to be the correct decision and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (KOTOR) was released in the summer of 2003 to overwhelming critical acclaim from not only Star Wars fans but general RPG gamers; both veterans and those new to the genre. The game blended the D&D core principal of the d20 System and fused it to the actions of the characters be they Jedi with lightsabers or Sith troopers with blaster rifles and replaced D&D spells with Force powers that could be resisted depending on the many stats, skills and feats your characters were proficient with. All of the calculations were accessible if desired but were hidden by default to make the game more accessible to more casual gamers.

You create your own character from a set of basic archetypes, Soldier, Scout, Smuggler and later train to become a Jedi - or not! This is one of many major choices that you have over the expansive game which takes your character from the urban sprawl of Taris to more familiar Star Wars locales such as Kashyyyk or Tatooine in a search for maps to the mysterious Star Forge, a weapon that the Sith intend to use to dominate the galaxy. Choices also influence morality and party interactions which is more pronounced to previous Bioware D&D RPGs as Star Wars lore defines good and evil by the light and dark side of the force and your actions move the needle in certain directions towards being a paragon of the light or falling to the dark side - the latter which makes your skin turn ashen and your eyes yellow. 

While subjective, the game is cited often as the greatest Star Wars game ever, although others have more regard for it's sequel. It is also listed as one of the best all round RPGs of all time for story and character development. It was unsurprising that in 2021 it was revealed that a remake of Knights of the Old Republic was in development at Aspyr for Sony Interactive for a PS5 release. Sadly the project appears to be troubled at time of writing following development being transferred to Saber Interactive. This delay as well as the event of the 20th anniversary of the original release on November 11th prompted me to install and play the game again.

Not having played KOTOR in a while I was quickly amazed by how well it looks at high resolution (and a few community mod tweaks over the years which were simple to install). The game used the Odyssey Engine, a successor to the Aurora engine from Neverwinter Nights but a precursor to the Eclipse Engine used in Dragon Age: Origins. KOTOR boasted graphical features such as waving grass and blowing dust which were significant graphical features at that time.

The game-play is a version of real-time with pause and while it has dated significantly from more modern action-oriented experiences, it's not too jarring provided you remember how it's played from before. Being a 20 year old title from a time when developers often experimented with their own engines tuned to specific generations of hardware means that KOTOR won't run 100% out of the box on modern windows for everyone. While for me the Steam version did run for me, a fix to force the 21:9 Ultra-wide resolution would not display dialogue choices and a resolution shift to play the BINK cutscene videos meant I would lose visuals on those for 5 seconds each time. I reverted to 16:9 on a Windows 10 machine to achieve a more fluid experience.

Other game mechanics include some light crafting where you can customise your Lightsaber with different crystals that alter the colour and power of your blade as well as reinforce armour and enhance blasters if you so choose. One clever aspect is that one can avail of  persuasiveness using the skill or a high CHA stat or also employ "force persuade" during dialog options which is useful for convincing guards you actually do have permission to be here and they don't need to see your identification. Using it to reduce prices from vendors or NPCs providing services sets you on the dark path however. 

The interface is naturally very dated, modern resolutions change the experience and sadly mods can only do so much in that regard, but text is still readable and everything works as it's supposed to even though it may not look as it should. While Bioware coded the game and it's visuals, the audio aspect was directly handled by LucasArts themselves. Jeremy Soule's magnificent score was recorded on an state-of-the-art 8-bit midi system, not as rich musically but a far better solution then using CD audio tracks of rehashed John Williams movie scores as of oft done in the day. The voice cast was led by Ethan Phillips, Raphael Sbarge, Phil LaMarr, Ed Asner and Jennifer Hale who along with some 100 other voice actors recorded 15,000 lines of dialogue.

Final Verdict: Despite it's age, KOTOR is still a worthwhile Star Wars experience in gaming. The development of your character as they blast, cut, and talk their way though the some 60-hour story and the eventual reveal of one of gaming's most legendary plot twists has the same impact of Vader's "I am your father!" from The Empire Strikes Back. I would still recommend it today for anyone who loves either Star Wars, RPGs and especially those playing the MMORPG Star Wars: The Old Republic to witness the lore origins for the Infinite Empire, places like Taris and Manaan, and enemies like the Rakghouls and Rakata.

Technicals: Played via Steam for 55 hours on Win 10 @ 2560x1440 resolution using Nvidia GTX980Ti

Mods & Addons: May be required depending on system. UNIWIZ required for desired resolution. Installed: Community Bugfix v1.9.2, Selphadur's Kotor Texture Redux v1.1 Standalone-1302-v1-1-1577535482, Kotor High Resolution Menus (HRM)

Bugs: Three unexplained CTD over the course of 55 hours. Character freezes after combat bug, mitigated by locking framerate to 60FPS (common with older games when encountering higher refresh rates of the 2020's)

Purchase Options: Available on Steam or GOG for €9.75. Is often found for sub €3 alone or bundled with it's sequel. Review copy purchased from Steam for 2.25 in Dec 2010.

Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic series:

  • Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (2003)
  • Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords (2004) 
  • Star Wars: The Old Republic (2011)
    • - Rise of the Hutt Cartel (2013)
    • - Shadow of Revan (2014)
    • - Knights of the Fallen Empire (2015)
    • - Knights of the Eternal Throne (2016)
    • - Onslaught (2019)
    • - Legacy of the Sith (2022)
  • Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic — Remake (???)

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