It doesn’t matter whether you play Light Side or Dark Side in Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. I hate to say it, but I have to get that out of the way from the start. The game just does not change much. Think of it this way: when you think Light Path, you probably think of saving the galaxy, associating with legendary heroes, receiving unsolicited praise from grateful citizens, and bringing villains down or over to your side. On the other hand, you would expect a Dark Side character to mastermind cunning schemes, conquer the galaxy, corrupt others, and be harried at every turn by those trying to kick him from his throne. You don’t see your character hanging out with the same group of NPCs, recruiting the same party members, or even visiting half of the same locations. Sadly, the paths really are not that different. Any divergences are short and usually meaningless. Early on, there is a part where the party is given a mission by one group to retrieve an item from another group. The party can betray group one, which means fighting group one. Presumably, this should make the following event, where the party could get something from group two, much simpler, but nothing significant changes. The party might as well have done nothing at all. The main character can act purely evil, or completely good, and people will comment on it, but for the most part, it doesn’t change their overall reaction to the character. In fact, only at the end does the game diverge… and, really, the final dungeon is almost exactly the same, and the endings are different, but under five minutes long, so… yes, the differences are pointless.
Beside that, playing Dark Side often requires the MC to act like a jerk. Not a scheming mastermind, or a terrifying psychopath, but a selfish jerk. Half the time when a Dark Side option came up, my first thought was, “Well, I could be a douche and pick that option…” Seriously, those Dark Side options are a really naive take on what it means to be evil. To be fair, the Sith are stereotypical: “LOOK HOW EEEEVIL WE ARE!” They all but say that. With their red lightsabers, dark hooded cloaks, shaved heads, evil goatees, and sadistic love for killing people just because [em]it’s eeeeeeeeeeevil[/em]. Yes, you will hate the Sith, but you won’t want to be one. It’s like a club for insecure bullies. And, hey… you could be their club president…
The story (and again, there really is just one story) is a bit better. Darth Malak is one of the Sith, evil Jedi (like Medieval knights with magic… in the future with laser swords!). He is trying to conquer the galaxy. That part isn’t very original. But he has a mysterious means of producing his infinite war fleet, and it is investigating that where more of the plot comes from. That, and learning about your character’s destiny. Come to think of it, the plot twist might be the most memorable thing about the game: outside of that, the plot is mostly a standard “find and defeat the villains whom want to conquer the galaxy” deal. I cannot even say the villains are that interesting. All of them are painted the same shade of evil. It’s just a few of them get an extra coat.
Beside the Sith, the plot also revolves around the machinations of an ancient race of people whom existed before the Republic. This part of the plot does eventually get resolved, but it is unsatisfactorily dealt with. The game leaves a lot of mysteries behind, bringing up important matters, then brushing them under the carpet at the end.
At least the pacing is good. I will give it that. The game is relatively short, all things considered, and that works out in its favor. It gives the player a journey, which feels like a short tour of the Star Wars galaxy, and then gives them their final battle. The dungeons are really short, too.
The overall schemes of RPGs aren’t that impressive, usually. It is the mini-stories that have to pick up the slack. Most of the party members have side-quests that let the player get to know the characters better, feel for them, and to be honest, most of the party members are three-dimensional. Except T3-H4, an R2-D2 stand-in who just takes up space and hacks computers. It’s not as cool as you think. He doesn’t even speak. Unlike most characters whom speak in other languages, T3-H4’s dialogue is never translated.
Speaking of which, all of the dialogue in this game is voice-acted: a definite plus. Even cooler, there are a bunch of alien races that speak in their own tongues, which lends the game an air of authenticity.
The game is an excellent representation of the Star Wars universe, at least from what I know of it. I am not very familiar with the Expanded Universe, but there is a lot of opportunity to learn about the culture of various alien species, their worlds, and the different organizations running around. There are hints of more things, too; stories told by NPCs, or items that once belonged to legendary figures, so the game feels like a real universe.
How hard would it have been to have more songs? There are not many tracks in KotOR, or at least it did not feel like there were. The songs are good, and some are riffs on classic Star Wars tunes. But when the music playing after the final battle is one of the same tracks that has been playing constantly for the past 50 hours, it is underwhelming.
But how about the graphics? Pretty. Usually. At times, the views are breathtaking. And the alien races are so finely detailed that sometimes it is hard to believe graphics could get any better. To be fair, this is the most modern PC game I have ever played. Once I get into Mass Effect or Dragon Age, my opinion might change. But for now, I have to admire every little dent and scratch on HK-47.
Ironically, many of the areas are not very detailed. Pretty characters, bland environments. But at least they make good backdrops for the cinematography. Almost all of the scenes are done with in-game rendering, which helps maintain the realism. Plus, characters will be wearing the equipment they were wearing already if they were in your party. Combine that with some fantastic voice-acting, and the game really draws you in.
And now we come to the gameplay. As it often is with video games, this is the real feature that makes the game. There isn’t much strategy in battle: get into the rhythm of mashing the attack button and healing when need be. The weird thing is how fun this is: there are a lot of animations in combat. Swordsmen don’t just stab-stab-stab. They clash steel-on-steel, sparks flying, push each other back, kick their faces, flip in mid-air and bring the sword crashing down. A hit from Force Push literally throws an enemy back and off their feet. Droids explode violently, especially when struck with the Destroy Droid force power. When the party is strong, they can tear through hordes of enemies in seconds, leaving piles of corpses in their wake. The Force powers really are the best part: Force Jumping taking you across the screen in a single powerful jump, to land on the enemy and crush him with a powerful blow; force lightning ripping through enemies; I didn’t even get to see some of the powers.
Not that I don’t have my quibbles with the gameplay. It’s simple, and that’s not necessarily a good thing. Yes, battles go fast, but… there is not much to praise about the strategy of matters. The bigger the gun, the quicker the battle goes. There is… one, yes, one battle in the entire game with any sort of strategy; the last battle. Where are the unexpected intrusions? The complicated objectives that require careful time management? It is fair to expect something more of a game where the player has complete control of their character’s movements, AND the ability to pause whenever they want, while also selecting from a dozen options in battle. Why isn’t more done with it?
Also, some of the other features are just weird. There is an option to return to a headquarters, so the party can be switched out and party members can heal. The party can then transit back to their previous location. Why not just make this part of the field? Just say the party can rest on the field and switch out party members there. A touch less realistic? Yes, sure, but having to transit back and forth between headquarters is frustrating.
Also, when entering the Ebon Hawk, the headquarters/ship that the party uses, the player always needs to run to the other side of the ship in order to travel to a new world. This wouldn’t be so bad, except that is the only reason the player will need to use the ship most of the time. Why not just have the character appear at the galaxy map when entering the ship?
Battles end quickly, but enemies don’t always immediately drop their items. Sometimes, I have to run away from the corpses and turn around to get the items to appear, or to be able to click on the remains. It’s frustrating.
Here is why the game is great: it is very engaging, especially for when it came out. Star Wars is a big, deeply developed galaxy, and this game reflects that. The script is not fantastic, but the performance and directing is amazing. It is easy to get sucked into the game, its little snapshots of a much bigger galaxy. It gives itself the weight of its own voluminous background without becoming pretentious. The game makes you feel like a Jedi, instead of just a guy running around with a light sword and using magic. You are visiting Tatooine, not the desert planet. That crystal was found on a Krayt Dragon, and that is why it makes the lightsaber so awesome. There isn’t anything generic about KotOR. Except the villains. One of the game’s weaknesses: although it is a classic struggle against evil, the evil just isn’t that deep. The villains are predictably one-dimensional. Beside that, there is the repetitive music, the somewhat bland environmental backgrounds, and the lack of strategy in an otherwise enjoyable combat system, plus a few other little nagging issues. Overall, a really good game for someone who likes to feel like they are a part of the game’s world, and the combat is enjoyable if rote, but don’t expect moral quandaries or a deep plot.