Come July, Star Wars fans will be able to experience an entirely new part of the Star Wars universe: the pre-Republic era. Yes, before the Jedi were the unquestioned masters of intergalactic order, they fought a brutal war against an evil race of Force-wielders called the Sith. In Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, you play a pivotal role in this war. The side you choose - Jedi or Sith - is up to you.
Developed by Bioware (of Neverwinter Nights and Baldur's Gate fame), KOTOR looks poised to shake up the console world. Itís got a great setting, a deep character-generation system, tons of interactive NPCs, and lots of action. Though much of the game's plot is still a mystery, the game itself looks pretty good. Character stats are based on the Star Wars d20 system, which should be instantly familiar to RPG geeks. But even complete Star Wars RPG newbies, or people with no patience for statistical minutiae should have no problems getting into the game.
You can choose one of three preset character types or you can elect to create a character from the ground up, assigning points and skills as you wish. As for what sort of skills are available: well, you've got your traditional skills like fighting, stealth, and persuasion. Then youíve got "Feats," special talents (often Force-based) in which your character can specialize: Force jumping, "Jedi Defense" (i.e. deflecting laser bolts with your blaster), extra melee attacks in a single turn, and more. As your character gains experience you can purchase both new skills and new Feats, eventually turning your character in a Force-fueled whirlwind of death.
Your quest takes place over seven different worlds, from the familiar sands of Tatooine to the Wookie homeworld of Kashyk to entirely new worlds like Korriban and Manaan. Some of these worlds are absolutely stunning; the Bioware rep showed us an island planet with enormous capital ship wreckages visible far in the background. Bioware is really trying to take the Star Wars mythology in different visual directions while at the same time staying true to the original trilogy. So far the developers have done an admirable job of combining the two. On the Xbox, the game runs exceptionally well at a frame rate approaching 60fps (although there is some choppiness in especially populous areas like the markets on Tatooine). Bioware hasn't skimped in the aural department, either. The game features a fully orchestrated soundtrack and over 14,000 lines of high-quality spoken dialogue.
The combat looks much smoother and more polished than it did in the Xbox demo that circulated a few months ago. The combat system itself is quite flexible and fast-paced. Although it is turn-based, you'd barely know it while watching. You can even cue attacks in advance to make your combat encounters fast and exciting.
There are also a host of mini games to mess around with, including a card game, a pod racing game, and even some turret-shooting action in your ship, the Ebon Hawk. None of them are all that compelling on their own, but they look like decent diversions.
Bioware has made special efforts to make KOTOR a truly interactive, user-defined experience. The decisions you make in the game will determine not only your Force alignment (Dark or Light), but the NPCs you can recruit during the game: some of them will work only with Light-inclined characters and vice versa. Additionally, your character's appearance changes as you fall to the Dark Side: his (or her) skin darkens, her pupils begin to disappear, and he (or she) begins to radiate an evil glow. Naturally the NPCs you recruit reflect their Force alignment similarly.
KOTOR is looking much stronger at this stage in development, and should be a worthwhile RPG for both Star Wars fans and RPG players in general.