Last week Aspyr surprised everyone by launching Star Wars®: Knights of the Old Republic™ on the iPad – though honestly it wasn’t as much of a surprise after the leak in their newsletter! So how did Aspyr do bringing one of the classic games of the RPG genre and Star Wars franchise to the iPad? Let’s take a look and see!
Type of app: Role Playing Game (RPG)
Developer: Bioware / LucasArts / Aspyr
Here are some of the features:
• An epic Star Wars™ role-playing experience with unique characters, creatures, vehicles and planets.
• Learn to use the Force with over 40 different powers, plus build your own lightsaber.
• Adventure through iconic Star Wars locations, including Tatooine and the Wookiee homeworld Kashyyyk.
• Choose your party from nine customizable characters, including Twi’leks, droids and Wookiees.
• Travel to eight enormous worlds in your own starship, the Ebon Hawk.
• A streamlined user interface custom-made for the iPad’s touch screen helps immerse you in the action.
Star Wars®: Knights of the Old Republic (hereafter called KotOR) was released for the XBOX and PC in 2003 to near universal acclaim. The game falls very much on an evolutionary path from Baldur’s Gate through Neverwinter Nights. By that I am referring to not simply being story-driven RPGs, but also due to their RTwP (real-time with pause) combat systems, and dialog systems and methods of interacting with party members. There are many differences as well – Baldur’s Gate had a true party system, whereas NWN and KotOR are ‘hero centric’. And while NWN offers ‘henchmen’ (basically helpers), in KotOR you get fully realized and interesting characters.
I am not going to delve too deeply into the game itself, as I covered it in exhausting detail here. But a few things merit repeating in terms of how the game plays out:
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.
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.
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’.
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.
Ease of use/Overall performance:
The last time I wrote about KotOR it was in the context of playing it on a netbook. That wasn’t a particularly satisfying experience due to lousy performance. Fortunately the iPad port features much better performance – and much better resolution graphics.
What everyone is talking about with the iPad port of KotOR is the controls … and while it is true that any ported game represents a compromise at delivering the best experience possible while remaining true to the original platform, with KotOR there were some added constraints. KotOR’s user interface occupies all four corners of the screen, so the movement controls use the center of the screen in a sort of virtual driving mode. You will either deal with it or hate it – but chances are you will never really like it. It is just a bit weird and prone to error. But, since the game is largely turn-based, you are never doing combat while moving and the controls are just a minor annoyance.
The rest of the user interface is actually better – by moving the dialog choices to large buttons, it makes it easier to select without error.
Would use again/recommend?: Definitely! 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. However, 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 older stuff like Baldur’s Gate II. That said, it remains a great game that is a blast to play and that anyone with an iPad and $10 should check out – you won’t be disappointed!
Suggested changes/wish list for updates: Allow a choice of current and ‘virtual analog stick’ style controls.
Source: Personal copy
Price: Grab the game for $9.99 on the iTunes App Store!
Here is my hands-on review: