An Elegant Video Game, for a More Civilized Age
A couple of weeks ago I decided to dig into a couple of Star Wars games that I've owned on Steam for ages but never tried. Here are a few thoughts on the first one I finished!
STAR WARS: Knights of the Old Republic
It took just over 27 hours for me to beat KOTOR.
I used a bunch of mods to make the experience a little more comfortable on a modern system.1
The game doesn't play very well with multiple monitors. I couldn't find a way to lock the cursor to the game window, which meant it would minimise if I accidentally clicked off-screen. I tried a couple of utilities to prevent this, but ultimately just had to be careful while playing.
The game makes occasional use of video cutscenes, which would cause a fairly lengthy black screen as it swapped resolution to play these. Again, I think this was an issue with having multiple monitors.
I also had some issues with the mouse being really unresponsive during the dogfighting sequences on the Ebon Hawk which, if nothing else, made these really nail-biting.
I really enjoyed the story that's told in KOTOR, and the work that so clearly went into building up this big-feeling game world that really delivers on the promise of being a massive Star Wars RPG you can get lost in with loads of opportunities for self-expression. This is the part of the game that has really aged like wine, and where you can most clearly see the design that would inform so much of what made Mass Effect the masterpiece it is. That's not to diminish KOTOR, which is clearly a classic in its own right.
The strength of KOTOR's story makes the recent news of a PS5 remaster very exciting. I think there are a lot of people who will really enjoy the story of KOTOR but would be put off by almost every other part of the game... but more on that in a moment.
KOTOR is filled with great characters who have that rare quality of influencing how you choose to play the game because you care about what consequences your actions might have for them, or how they'll react to the decisions you're making. There's loads of entertaining dialogue here, making conversing with your rag-tag crew a joy.
If I had to pick favourites, I think they would be the fiesty (if a little naïve) young Twi'lek, Mission, and her trusty Wookie companion Zaalbar (affectionally dubbed BIG Z!), but I also really enjoyed HK-47, a droll droid who can barely conceal his contempt for organic "meatbags". Carth, a pilot and all-round Han Solo sort, and Bastila, a stoic jedi whose stoicism borders on a complete lack of personality, were my least favourite and I made sure to let them know it every chance I got. I have to admit I didn't give Canderous or Jolee much of a chance, though I did take Juhani along with me for a fair few excursions, and she made for a good companion as well.
Each planet you visit offers lots of interesting scenarios where you get to play out your Dark or Light Side fantasy by being either the galaxy's most insufferable goody-two-shoes or a colossal dickhead. Seeing how it all plays out was really fun. Going in, I had no idea about the big twist in this game, and as a result it really landed for me. It's the sort of twist that reframes how you view everything you've experienced and adds a really satisfying layer to the story, no matter how you've chosen to play your character. The actual ending of the game doesn't manage to reach the same height, but it barely matters because you're probably still thinking about the implications of the excellent twist by the time the credits roll.
Journeying around the galaxy, building up your crew of companions, getting into and out of mischief, solving problems for folk (or making matters worse), and unravelling the larger mystery at play -- these are the parts that make KOTOR a really engaging experience. Sadly, not much else has aged well about playing KOTOR. The combat is stiffly animated and clunky to control. The environments feature one-too-many empty, featureless rooms. The music, while filled with those wonderfully familiar Star Wars refrains, lacks in variety and can feel a bit stilted because of how it's tied to battles. And that other half of what makes a great RPG - skills and abilities - feels a little lacking in variety.
Time hasn't been overly kind to what were likely serviceable, if not outright good, systems back in 2003. Despite this, none of these downsides were enough to turn me off of the nearly 30-hour journey. The writing propels you through it, makes it worth playing to see where the story goes.
Good thing, then, that the game is easily filled with as much character interaction and writing as it is combat sequences. You'll never be slogging through combat for too long before some interesting or meaningful story stuff comes along to remind you why you're playing.
Again, it's easy to see how this game is such a prime candidate for a thorough remake that will bring every element up to par with the really enjoyable story. I'm glad I played through KOTOR in its (near) original form, as I think it will help me appreciate the work going into the remake. Exciting (spoiler-free) teaser here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lL-RfE-ioJ8