The Netbook Gamer: Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic (2003, RPG)

I made a big deal in my Neverwinter Nights Netbook Gamer about how that game had reignited my love for role-playing games after nearly a decade away.

But I also mention that there was a reason I picked up Neverwinter Nights in the first place – I was enjoying the recent Star Wars games and was really looking forward to the promise foretold in Knights of the Old Republic previews, but wanted to get a feel for the state of the RPG again to see if it was even worthwhile for me to give the upcoming Star Wars RPG a try. Folks on the Bioware forums recommended that I try NWN, and the rest is history.

There is always a risk playing a ‘warm-up game’ – the risk that the game you are waiting for isn’t as good as the one you play while waiting! I have experienced that before: playing Starcraft to warm up my RTS chops for Star Wars: Empire at War, and replaying The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind in anticipation of The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. (OK, I’m sure there was plenty of harumphing in the audience at that one … deal with it).

Starting Knights of the Old Republic (herein called KotOR) you are immediately immersed into a thoroughly Star Wars experience – you don’t need familiar characters or settings, the music and style bring you right in. The opening crawl sets the stage followed by a great cutscene – there is serious stuff afoot!

Character creation is fairly standard for a Bioware RPG – you select a class and gender and appearance, assign some stat points, choose some tech-oriented skills and select one or two ‘feats’ depending on your starting class. Or, you can let them auto-assign all of these based on your starting class. Then you’re off and playing through the tutorial.

Tutorials are boring in general, but become particularly once you’ve gone through them several times. The introduction to KotOR is quick enough and gets you up to speed on enough details of gameplay that it still flows nicely after more than six years and who knows how many playthroughs!

After the tutorial you find yourself on the planet Taris, and what happens here pretty much sets the stage for the rest of the game. You need to interact with as many characters as possible to obtain quests in order to gain experience … and really also to meet some of the cool side characters in the game.

Also, from early on in the game you will begin to influence your journey in the ways of the Force. You will see someone in need of help, and be given freedom to help, extort or hinder the unfortunate person and those tormenting him. Your companions will have something to say based on your choices as well, which will impact your ability to fully explore your relationships with them throughout the game.

Actually that sounds more dramatic than it is – KotOR has a fairly rudimentary influence system that will impact others willingness to progress their story with you, but won’t make them leave or turn against you as could happen in Baldur’s Gate II for example. At the same time, there was much more substance to the relationships than the simple quest-driven nature of your henchmen in Neverwinter Nights.

As you play through the game, several things happen: you gain more party members, you will become a Jedi, and you will hit maximum level way too soon.

You can recruit up to nine party members in KotOR (ten if you count the tutorial), and take two with you at any time as you explore the game world. You select which members to come with you every time you leave your ‘home base’, though occasionally that choice is restricted based on requirements of a certain quest. It is pretty much impossible to NOT fill out your roster, though there is at least one case in which you can kill off a potential party member.

There are three potential romance options in KotOR, depending on your gender. As a male you can romance Bastilla, and as a female you can romance Carth and/or Juhani. The potential for a homosexual romance caused considerable angst amongst some – and excessive titillation amongst others – when the game was released. Yet it all made sense and was handled in a mature fashion – and was definitely worth working through when you played.

As for your ‘home base’, on Taris you have a ‘safe house’, and after leaving that planet you will make the ship the Ebon Hawk your home. These places are useful since they provide a place to interact with your party members, to work on occasional quests, to upgrade your party equipment, and to select where you go next.

Speaking of going places, when going from planet to planet you will occasionally encounter one of the three mini-games: playing gunner on the Ebon Hawk. This is meant to make you feel like Luke and Han blasting TIE fighters … but it is much less fun and can too easily lead to a ‘game over’ if your twitch skills aren’t up to snuff. And for a game that has pseudo turn-based combat, that can cause some real frustration – particularly since failing means losing progress and having to re-watch scenes and other stuff before trying again!

The other mini-games include Pazaak, a completely optional card game that is fun and can net you some decent profits. Finally there is swoop racing. You need to win one round of this as part of the main Taris quest, but it is optional after that. I have found myself playing some races in most playthroughs just for fun – but again the need for fast reaction times caused many non-twitch gamers considerable angst. Overall I found the mini-games reasonably fun without being too annoying.

As mentioned, the combat system is pseudo turn-based – what that means is it is an evolution of the real-time with pause (hereafter RTwP) system Bioware used in the Baldur’s Gate, Icewind Dale, and Neverwinter Nights games. The default here is to keep things moving as much as possible once combat has started. But the game does pause when an enemy is spotted or a party member falls in combat, among others.

In combat you can queue up to four actions for each player in your party and easily toggle between party members. You can choose a combat action, a skill/Force power, or a grenade, and then toggle between them to create a stack. For example, on Taris you can choose to face a very difficult opponent, and a good strategy is to toss a grenade, make an attack, stack up a med kit, and a couple more attacks.

As I mentioned earlier, you will eventually become a Jedi and will reach maximum level way too soon. While I know this was done to ensure that casual console players would get the full breadth of experience, it can be very limiting to more experienced role-playing gamers. The limit has two effects – it ceases the feeling of forward character progression, and it makes you ‘game the leveling system’.

By ‘game the leveling system’ I mean that most players will try to figure out exactly how many levels to take pre-Jedi in order to maximize the amount of Force powers and feats you obtain. This can be fun – my most played character is a 2/18 Scoundrel/Consular. This means that prior to becoming a Jedi I didn’t take any additional levels after the mandatory level-up on the Endar Spire in the tutorial. In general you could be as high as level 7 or 8 before becoming a Jedi. Staying low-level makes the early game very challenging … but makes me a walking artillery platform of Force Powers by the end of the game – and that is just too much fun to pass up!

That makes it sound like it is critical to plan your level up strategy, but that isn’t true. I know many folks who simply did an auto-level as they progressed and were fine throughout.

Becoming a Jedi carries with it the inherent struggle between Light and Dark. The game awards points based on actions that shift you along the Light/Dark continuum. If you reach 100% either Light or Dark you gain considerable bonuses to actions aligned with that side of the Force. There are certain times when you will choose an action based on your role-playing that goes slightly against your alignment and can drop you back towards neutral, but there are always enough opportunities to gain extra Force alignment points.

My issue with the Light/Dark system is that it is a numbers game. For example, if you are going into an area with 100% Light alignment and there are 2 opportunities to game +3 Light points and one opportunity to gain -6 Dark points, you will need to choose how to order your actions to leave at 100%. If you do both Light actions before the Dark action you leave at 94%, whereas if you do the Dark action first you will remain at 100%. Another example of ‘gaming the system’.

When you reach a new level you can gain new attributes, skills and feats/powers. Attributes come every four levels, so choosing correctly can make a big difference on your effectiveness – and since a good chunk of the game will be spent as a non-Jedi it makes those choices more difficult. Skills include technical aptitudes like healing, demolitions, computer use, and so on, and can have a big impact on your play style since you can choose to be stealthy and pick locks, or just bash your way through everything.

Feats and Force Powers are the ‘bread and butter’ of your offense and defense. You can choose to focus on accuracy over power, power over accuracy, or speed with sacrifices to both power and accuracy. Not only that, you can gain proficiency with a wide array of weapon and armor types to help your character – as well as double-wielding weapons. If that sounds more or less like combat feats in Neverwinter Nights … it is because they are pretty much the same. Each of the feats has three levels, which is also true for Force Powers.

As I mentioned I took my 2/18 Scoundrel / Consular through my trip on the netbook, and by the end I would take down half of any crowd with my Level III Force Wave, and for the rest I would activate Force Speed, and between that, Master Flurry and Master Dual Wielding I would dish out 6 attacks per combat round!

One thing that really struck me in 2003 and still does was the soundtrack. For me this is Jeremy Soule’s greatest achievement: he produced a non-John Williams Star Wars soundtrack that does every bit as good of a job of immersing you into the Star Wars universe. The themes and motives are distinct and memorable – Soule needed to build a new set of themes to go with all new characters and time settings, and succeeded wildly.

Speaking of the time setting, I haven’t mentioned that the game occurs roughly 4000 years before the original Star Wars, back in the old days of the Republic, when both Jedi and Sith were plentiful and the struggles were galaxy-wide. There were books and graphic novels from the era just preceding the game, and the game plays fan-service to both in the mention of many characters from both the Jedi and Sith.

Some things that were hailed when the game came out remain stellar: the story itself is classic Star Wars melded with great role-playing, some of the characters (HK-47 and Jolee in particular) are amongst the best in all of gaming, and the plot twist is just stunning.

The game received nearly universal acclaim when released, but after nearly seven years some of the flaws are more easy to see. The entire story remains excellent, but some of the characters are Bioware archetypes and feel very transparent and generic. And the dialogue system lacks subtlety – you can easily tell what will get you Light points versus Dark points. There is absolutely no reward for remaining ‘true neutral’, so you will need to choose a side and pursue it.

Perhaps the biggest issue is repetition and constraints. The planets are fun to explore, but the exploration areas a relatively small and involve loads of backtracking. You would think that the small areas would make up for backtracking, but it remains annoying. It doesn’t matter whether the areas are empty or have respawning enemies – you still tire of constantly going back and forth to complete quests.

I have noticed that I now tend to cluster-quest in KotOR: there is a quest where you need an explosive, but when you first encounter the trader with that explosive there is no reason to buy it – it is too expensive and you really don’t have the extra cash yet. But now I buy it anyway and know I can make it without an issue so long as I order my quests properly. That I have adapted my gameplay style to alleviate tedium demonstrates that this is a core weakness of the game.

So I played through the entirety of a game that STILL takes me more than 40 hours despite more than a dozen prior completions on a netbook … how was the experience? Painful. From the very start I knew this was going to be a marginal experience and I was correct. Stuttering, lag, and more. It worked, it looked great, but it was obviously just right on the edge of what the netbook could handle. I struggled getting screenshots and eventually shut down everything else aside from the game to conserve memory, and then it ran pretty well – so my screens are from the first several hours of the game.

RetroGamer Perspective: Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic has virtually no RetroGamer appeal that I can discern. It is still seen as relatively recent, and predominantly as a console game. It is too demanding for most older PC’s to run and is barely tolerable on the netbook.

Netbook Gamer Perspective:

– Digital Download / CD version? – In fall of 2009 LucasArts released all of their modern games – including Knights of the Old Republic – to Steam and other Digital Download services. You can still buy the game by itself on 3 CDs or as part of the ‘LucasArts Best of PC’ pack on DVD.

– Installation Notes: The game came on multiple CD’s that naturally took some time and disk-shuffling to install. The Steam and other digital versions are single-point installs.

– Disk Space Requirements: full-install takes ~2.5GB.

– CD Required to Play? Yes for CD versions.

– Control Considerations? KotOR uses a largely standard set of controls that meld between standard FPS controls and a somewhat unique set of RPG controls. The game is really meant for a console controller, but was adapted pretty well for keyboard and mouse – but still favors heavy use of the mouse.

– Will it run on a VIA C7? I wouldn’t try – it barely managed on the Atom!

– Will it run with 1GB RAM? Again, not recommended!

– Special Considerations for running in Windows XP / Vista / Win 7? KotOR works great on any of these operating systems.

– Compatible versions for other OS such as Linux or Mac OS? There was a Mac version that is somewhat flaky on Intel hardware but at least runs. There are hopes it will be re-released on Steam but there is no word yet. No Linux version nor any support (Bioware was great with Linux support for NWN)

– Notes on the Digital Version: KotOR was originally released with lower-resolution cutscenes and without support for wide-screen PC resolutions. There were multiple fan patches to fix both of these – none of which work with the Steam version (but apparently do work with *some* other digital versions.

Conclusion: Knights of the Old Republic is generally heralded as one of the best RPGs of the last decade. Because I’m a Star Wars fan I have a particular soft spot for the game, and it remains a favorite of mine. That said, the weaknesses and minor issues and niggles have become more and more obvious through the years and have diminished the impact in a way that hasn’t hit stuff like Baldur’s Gate II. That said, it remains a great game that is a blast to play and that anyone with access to reasonable hardware should check out – you won’t be disappointed!

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