Before Mass Effect, before The Old Republic and before everything else, BioWare’s rise to mainstream popularity began with the original Knights of the Old Republic. Well, some might argue that it began with Neverwinter Nights, Baldur’s Gate or even MDK2, but stay with me here. Knights of the Old Republic, or KotOR, was essentially a pinnacle, the first Star Wars game since the excellent X-Wing and Tie Fighter games to reach greatness. But KotOR was unique even amongst its brethren in the Star Wars community, and today, that uniqueness still makes it playable, even after the likes of Jade Empire and Mass Effect have refined the actual formula.
KotOR II is similar in that sense as well, but never really managed to live up to the original’s status. The story of KotOR II was just as excellent as the first game, but it had the unfortunate issue of being incomplete. Regardless, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic still stands as a model of excellence not only in the realm of Star Wars, but in the realm of the Western RPG.
[If you still didn’t play Knights of the Old Republic and plan to do so, you may want to refrain reading further, as there are several spoilers on the game’s story in the article]
With the Old Republic releasing to the masses this week, assuming you haven’t been playing the early access, I thought back to a simpler time, before the new game was an MMORPG, when the Old Republic still referred to some of the best single player games on the market (again, even though KotOR II was unfinished, it was still tons of fun). I replayed the game recently, and while the combat was very MMO in style as opposed to the active combat of BioWare’s Mass Effect series, it still manages to be one of the most engrossing games available on Steam.
As I stated before, Knights of the Old Republic is unique, even among the other Star Wars games. Released in 2003, it took a huge leap back in time. Instead of dealing with the clone wars, the New Republic, Darth Vader or really anything remotely recognizable, it decided to explore the already deep history of the Star Wars galaxy. BioWare took a risk by going so far outside of the realm of much of Star Wars, going back 4,000 years before the rise of the Empire. It turned out to be the perfect choice. While some names have cameos as related to items, for the most part, the game does not even allude to what is coming in the far future. Rather, BioWare focused on telling one of the most engrossing stories this generation.
You wake up on a ship that is under attack, escape with the aid of a Republic hero, and begin your journey on the surface of a planet-wide city to look for a lost Jedi. As each party member seems to gravitate to you, you begin to get a sense of your importance to the Old Republic’s universe. The shocking twist at the end, the revelation that you were once the most feared Sith in the universe, is no less shocking because the story plays off your behavior the entire time. The entire game allows you to play either Dark or Light Side of the Force, but either way the story is no less well crafted. In fact, it is very different from Mass Effect in this aspect, as in Mass Effect even when you’re renegade you’re still the good guy, whereas in KotOR, if you go Dark Side things can turn out drastically different.
The endgame of KotOR is still among the most exciting, but I still remember visiting places like the Wookie homeland of Kashyyyk for the first time or exploring the sand dunes of Tatooine. What made KotOR unique among Star Wars games at the time was your freedom to explore at your own pace, but also the fact that you were clearly central to the ongoing war with the Sith. The Sith were a mysterious and deadly enemy, and actually threatened to overwhelm the Republic. The Republic in the new trilogy was weak, and essentially voted itself out of existence. The Sith threatened to simply overwhelm and wipe it out. The Sith vs. Republic mentality of the game is why I do look forward to The Old Republic.
Yet in spite of all the things I like about the upcoming MMO, there are still a number of things that make me wish it was simply single player. Mass Effect takes a lot of cues from KotOR, but from a storytelling perspective, the thing that it did the best was that it made you important. You were at the center of the universe in KotOR. The places you went, the things you did all had a sense of urgency that I’m not sure can translate to an MMO. You had to be the one to stop Darth Malak. None of the others seemed to be able to, as you had to take a journey to find an artifact that only you knew how to find. It seems a bit more complicated when I put it that way, but I assure you the game was very good about leading you on about your importance to the universe. Commander Shepard shares this trait in Mass Effect, except as such, he is a bit more famous and you actually know who he is.
Still, for its time Knights of the Old Republic told a story that was only really rivaled by some of the best games around, like Deus Ex. The gameplay of the series should fit perfectly into an MMO style, but the reason why I enjoyed KotOR was not for the gameplay but for the story you progressed through, and more so through the characters you met along the way. KotOR had some of the best side characters around, whether it was the conflicted Carth Onasi, the stuck up Jedi Bastila Shan or the greatest character to ever come out of the Star Wars universe; HK-47. Each of these characters were reflections of the characters we grew up loving in the original trilogy, but they were all their own characters. Especially HK-47.
While I’m sure that the companions in The Old Republic have their own depth, I feel that a multiplayer aspect to the game causes them to lose some of that. I hope to be proven wrong, but each character in both the KotOR games that join you were each a book of their own, overflowing with personality and interesting motivations. Some were more simple than others, like Mission Vao who wanted to find her brother, while others like Carth were constantly conflicted by a betrayal in their past. Everyone had their issues, and everyone had their secrets. It made each character interesting and led to some amazing moments that I am worried that The Old Republic will lack.
So essentially, my concern is not that The Old Republic will not be good; rather, I think the game will still be very good. As I have previously stated, the gameplay should translate easily into an MMO, and people seem to be happy with the fact that there even is a dialogue system and a story in this game. I’m just a bit nervous that the story will suffer, or especially that the immersiveness and characterization will suffer. How are you going to be the one to save the universe from the Sith/Republic threat this time around if someone has already done it?