To celebrate the annual arrival of Star Wars Day, as well as the long awaited casting announcement for Episode VII, High Score Reviews will be spending this week looking back on our favourite gaming experiences from that galaxy far, far away.
Today it’s the turn of BioWare’s RPG epic, Knights of the Old Republic.
The year 2003 was a pretty dark time for Star Wars fans; what should have been a period of unmitigated excitement for the conclusion of Anakin Skywalker’s fall to the dark side was instead enveloped by a genuine fear that George Lucas had truly forgotten what it was that made his own space opera so special. After two poorly received installments in the prequel trilogy, what had been glorious expectation and intense anticipation for the future of all things Jedi and Sith had turned into trepidation, it would seem as though the magic of the original trilogy was lost forever.
At least, that was the case on the silver screen, and so it became the responsibility of the expanded universe of fiction provided by the realms of novels, comic books and video games to recapture the heart and soul of the classics. Carrying this torch with more exuberance and confidence than perhaps any other was BioWare, the acclaimed developer of Baldur’s Gate and Neverwinter Nights, who flexed their story telling muscles in order to deliver fans of the Force with arguably the greatest piece of Star Wars fiction since The Empire Strikes Back. Yes, Knights of the Old Republic really was that good.
Set 4,000 years before the rise of the Galactic Empire as seen in the film saga, KOTOR was a truly remarkable achievement in how it was able to expand the and deepen the history of the Star Wars universe, whilst still managing to weave a gripping narrative to call its own. Opening with a Republic vessel under siege from the Sith, with one particular shot deliberately evoking memories of A New Hope’s unforgettable introduction of Tantive IV, KOTOR was instantly engaging by wasting no time in presenting a galactic war between the Republic and the Sith, and placing you right in the middle of it. It really didn’t take long for it to be established that KOTOR was going to tell an infinitely more enjoyable tale than that of The Phantom Menace’s trade disputes and planetary blockades.
Young Jedi Bastila Shan was the key to the game’s central conflict, her Battle Meditation allowing her to tip the balance of the fight towards the forces of good, thus making her the key target for Darth Malak, who, for me, is the best Sith Lord to be seen on screen since Darth Vader. Malak ticked every box; he was imposing, menacing, ruthless, goddammit the guy just looked like an evil motherfucker. The parallels between him and Vader were constantly obvious, but in the best possible ways, right down to a scene in which he reveals the extent of the damage that causes him to wear a mash obscuring his jaw and allowing him to speak like a Transformer, and it genuinely scared the shit out of me as an 11 year old.
No more apparent was Malak’s ruthless persona than when he ordered the destruction of Taris, the planet on which you crash land after the game’s opening and eventually find Bastila, as well as the spunky Mission Vao and her Wookie companion Zaalbar, badass Mandalorian Canderous Ordo, and Kaiden from Mass Effect (there’s no going back to calling him Carth having played BioWare’s own space opera series). Further additions to your crew included the R2-D2 inspired T3-M4, and the cat-like fallen Jedi known as Juhani, who you could avoid recruiting all together if you decided she wasn’t worthy of redemption. All of these characters fit the mould of a true Star Wars ensemble, backed up by acting performances that put the dull, wooden portrayals of the prequels to shame. My personal favourites were two party members that weren’t picked up until later in the game; the brilliantly blunt and emotionless assassination droid by the name of HK-47, and the cynical, grouchy Jedi recluse hiding out on the Wookie homeworld of Kashyyk, Jolee Bindo.
BioWare have always had a penchant for creating a varied batch of party members that, thanks to great writing and casting, are incredibly easy to become attached to, and every single character that joined you on the Ebon Hawk on your mission to find the Star Forge would have felt right at home in the original trilogy. Speaking of the Ebon Hawk, what a cool ship, can you remember a ship as iconic as that in any of Episodes I through III? I highly doubt it.
Of course, between the face offs with the bounty hunter Calo Nord and Malak’s Sith apprentice Darth Bandon, and the planet hopping through such iconic vistas as Tatooine and the Jedi and Sith home worlds of Dantooine and Korriban that the Ebon Hawk allowed for, KOTOR also held perhaps the single greatest plot twist I’ve ever seen in gaming, arguably right up there with the iconic reveal ‘I am your father’ moment from the finale of Episode V. It completely changed the complexion not just of the narrative, but also how you viewed your own character, and how those around you saw you. Depending on the order in which you tackled the game’s selection of planets, your experience could differ substantially, certainly if you decided to embark upon Korriban under the knowledge that you were once Darth Revan, Lord of the Sith and master to Malak. Oh, spoilers.
The moment Malak reveals all is the peak of the narrative, it’s Episode V moment, and added yet more urgency to the game’s final hours. Malak’s eventual capture of Bastila provided more evidence of the horrors of Force Lightning, and her descent into darkness was handled expertly. This being a Star Wars RPG, you yourself were also well susceptible to the lures of the dark side, and your attitude towards such a decision could well be swinged by the potential desire to reclaim your empire once you are made aware of your past. That was the true genius of that plot twist, it was capable of changing how you played the game, and your rewards for committing to the Jedi or Sith made for two different endings that were well worth seeing.
Being good or evil is a hallmark of BioWare’s work, but it felt all the more relevant and fleshed out in KOTOR. You character’s appearance would change based on your alignment, and you could of course customise your lightsaber appropriately, too. The impact on the narrative was obviously significant, the aforementioned choices surrounding Juhani and whether or not to retake your former alias were two of the most notable deviations, but the way in which conversations would change, as well as how characters would react to you, made the choices you made feel all the more significant. If you wanted to, you could totally lay waste to a Wookie regime on Kashyyk, or even straight up murder some of your party members. When KOTOR went dark, it went really dark.
Having said that, it always felt more natural to pursue the path of the Jedi. It was undoubtedly fun to play through the game as an absolute bastard, but in order for it to properly scratch that Star Wars nostalgia itch, it seemed right to resist the temptation to turn to the dark side, if only for the wonderful homage to the ending of A New Hope once you’d seen off Malak and his forces of evil.
What’s incredible is that there’s so much more to KOTOR than what the main narrative forces upon you, and so much of the extra dressing represents yet more pure Star Wars bliss. BioWare constructed their own way cooler version of pod-racing, Taris was a far more interesting and well realised cityscape than Coruscant, and cantinas were present in abundance across each and every location, allowing you to barter with Hutts and engage in a spot of gambling via a fully fledged card game known as Pazaak. Pretty much the only thing not catered for is space combat, but having seen how it turned out in The Old Republic, is anyone really mourning when the combat system and dialogue options were already so engaging? It helped that KOTOR allowed you to be an active participant in the world, but even a passive observer would find it all more immersive than the prequels could have possibly imagined.
KOTOR took everything that was so fantastic about Lucas’ original creation, and crafted what, in my mind at least, will always be the true Star Wars prequel. An epic war between the Jedi and Sith, gloriously well realised planetary escapes, iconic spacecraft, great characters, a mind bending plot twist and a satisfying conclusion. Heck, even the cover art was awesome. The way the narrative was structured made it feel like one long trilogy contained within one fantastic game, and it was without a doubt the best Star Wars experience I’ve ever had in gaming.
If you’ve never played it, failed, you have.