On the Late to the Party scale, I have to concede that Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic has been a major blind spot for me. After all, I love Star Wars (before Disney got their claws into it, at least), and if you mention Star Wars and videogames in the same sentence then KoTOR inevitably comes up (probably just after I’ve thrown Jedi Knight II into the ring myself).
So here we are!
Knights of the Old Republic
Coming so late to KoTOR, my overwhelming impression has been somewhat of a… missing link. An evolutionary step I’d never seen before, but which fits the fossil record perfectly. On reading the manual while it installed, it quickly became clear that KoTOR uses D&D 3rd edition rules with a few minor modifications and, of course, a Star Wars paint job. Everything is based on the roll of a 20-sided die plus some bonuses, and it doesn’t take five minutes of playing to spot that it uses a version of the engine that powered Neverwinter Nights.
I was prepared for KoTOR to be an RPG, but I suppose I was expecting more changes and refinements to the D&D formula, because KoTOR looks much more like an action-RPG: the camera is locked to a 3rd-person perspective, with direct mouse and keyboard control for movement and interaction outside combat.
There is tension in this. In the original Infinity Engine games, the top-down perspective gives you an overview which makes it easy to think, well, tactically. Pausing to survey the conditions feels natural in that setting, because you’re already an omniscient puppeteer anyway.
Auto-pause from a 3rd-person perspective just feels weird. You’ll be happily trundling down a corridor under your own steam, and suddenly there will be a red enemy highlight and the the game will stop accepting your input. I think that’s the core of it — the interruption of one control scheme in favour of another, without a deliberate action on the part of the player (yes, I know you can disable auto-pause, but this is the default). Once combat begins, you can take your hand off the arrow keys and your hero will happily run between targets on their own steam, just like in the old days.
Not that selecting targets is very easy when you’re locked behind somebody’s shoulder but aren’t aiming freely. While it’s possible to cancel mistaken actions in combat by emptying the queue at the bottom of the screen, it isn’t possible in peacetime — so if you accidentally click a container on the other side of the room rather than a companion, your hero will blithely walk all the way over and no amount of hammering arrow keys can get them to change course.
(It’s even worse if you accidentally click on a container whose marker clipped through a wall and you’re walking really slowly underwater. AHEM.)
Combat itself I find interesting, because I’m not convinced that the D&D rules translate very well to such a small party. The meat of dice-rolling combat is missing attacks, either through ineptitude or an opponent dodging or parrying — this is, after all, more like real life, where a single hit from any weapon is likely enough to floor a person. In a video game, though, it means that combat feels quite frustrating, as you can only sit back and watch your heroes be completely unable to make any progress.
In a Baldur’s Gate, this would be balanced out by spending time managing all six of your party members — indeed, with that party size, and the number of abilities and items each character might have, the slower pace of combat where nobody can quite land a blow is necessary to give you space to manage everything (and you still need pausing on top of that).
KoTOR fancies itself a small-party action game, however, so your combat options and the selection of consumable boosts are relatively limited, therefore more suited to uninterrupted real-time control — but since we still have that stuttering miss-heavy combat, we are simply left with a lot of dead space.
Consider also the approach in KoTOR‘s obvious lovechild Mass Effect, where you hit more often than not (your frail human mouse-pointing capabilities aside) but enemies have big sacks of hit points. The end result is the same — you’ll take down an enemy in the same number of attacks — but Mass Effect feels better because with every hit you make some kind of obvious progress.
(Consider further the cinematic camera of RTS Star Wars: Empire At War, where in space you hit attack-move and sit back to watch your very own space dogfight film. KoTOR requires enough management that you can’t just sit back, and it does of course not have a cinematic camera mode. On the other hand, the melee attack animations in a duel are synchronised enough that with the addition of a bit more footwork and better item/ability auto-usage a cinematic mode could definitely have been a nice feature…)
Okay, fine, it’s a BioWare game, we’re probably here for the story more than the gameplay.
And it is a pretty good story. If you’ve played Mass Effect then it will feel strangely familiar — after a (reasonably lengthy) first chapter, you find yourself with a pile of companions, in command of a personal ship, and needing to fly between a number of destinations in the galaxy to piece together a puzzle on which the fate of the galaxy rests. Huzzah!
I have to give then credit for the major mid/late game twist, because I didn’t really see it coming until they started rolling out the reminders. As twists go, it’s a brilliant one because it made a few “eh?” moments from earlier in the game suddenly make perfect sense. Even the traditional sore point in this kind of narrative, why you are the Chosen One, is settled nicely. I can’t discuss it further without spoilers, so I’ll not bother, but it was a Good Surprise.
As for the characters, well, it’s a mixed bag. I never really gelled with any of them, which on the plus side meant that I actually used more than just two favourite people for the entire game. It’s pretty much mandatory that you have a second Jedi on your team to mow through enemies on the front line with you, but for ranged support it was pot luck who I felt like taking out and I never found any character particularly better or worse than the others.
I guess Jolee Bindo was quite fun, and not just because he is voiced by the incredible Baldur’s Gate narrator Kevin M. Richardson (who has, according to his IMDB profile, been in literally everything ever voiced and I’m frankly shocked that I haven’t clocked his dulcet tones elsewhere before now). Everyone raves about the droid HK-47 but he did little for me.
Although being able to hot-swap characters in cities without returning to your ship is a much needed convenience, having to then level them up five times and sort out their equipment is a regular pain. The inventory is the most peculiar I’ve ever seen, with baffling decisions like disposable energy shields having to be equipped for use rather than consumed at will like health packs and “combat stim” potions.
Also, presumably due to hilarious quirks of its era, all the character menus are confined to a postage-stamp in the middle of the screen, surrounded by a giant border. And I was playing in 1024×768, that wasn’t an unheard-of resolution in 2003! This means that the inventory screens (yes, the inventory is split in two) are very cramped so it’s tough to compare items to determine what’s good and what’s junk, let alone read the bits of lore sometimes attached.
Would I play Knights of the Old Republic again? I’m not sure. I still love a big chunk of classic Star Wars but the gameplay is just enough on the annoying side of the fence that some parts were a bit of a slog. I am definitely glad to have played it, from a historical and narrative perspective. It was indeed a hole in my experience, and one that was disturbingly familiar despite this being my first interaction with it.
Shame Disney have blatted it out of the Star Wars canon then, eh?