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Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic

Preview - around here, it's the most highly anticipated Xbox game there is

Bioware. Star Wars. Xbox. Combine these three things and you have the makings of a truly stupendous videogame. The masters of the Western RPG get to play with an uncharted area of the Star Wars timeline using some of the most impressive console hardware ever conceived, and with the game due to hit the world market by the end of 2002 you can forget about Xbox failing. It can't.

A long, long, long time ago

Knights of the Old Republic, or KOTOR as it is affectionately known, is set some 4,000 years before the events of Episode I, and it almost certainly does not involve the Gungans. The Republic is in the grip of war, with thousands of Jedi and Sith fighting to claim control of the galaxy, and in the strongest of videogaming traditions, BioWare plonks you right in the middle of it.

You build your character from one of thirty templates, with five specific races and three basic occupations to pick from; soldier, scoundrel or scout. Although the story remains elsewhere… elusive, we do know that the game begins as you discover your propensity for the force, and with the help of some sympathetic Jedi you learn to harness your surprising powers, carving out a path for yourself as a Jedi Knight or Sith Lord across the course of the game, using your ship the Ebon Hawk as a base of operations from which to research, heal and store.

Through a system of attribute points you can build up an array of special skills to complement your Force powers, from computer literacy to droid manipulation and many more besides. BioWare and US publisher LucasArts are anxious not to reveal too much of the game at this point, preferring instead to drip-feed information as and when it fancies a bit of promotion, but it's clear that the range of activities on offer will present the player with countless hours of exploration and plenty of replay value as players tinker with the nuances of light and dark side Jedi.

Aggressive Negotiations

Obviously the mainstay of the game will be the combat system. It's nice to be able to choke people from afar, fling objects around the room and summon lightning to your fingertips, but as Christopher Lee discovered, not all arguments can be solved by a Jedi's knowledge of the Force. Combat, and in particular lightsabre combat, will be the keystone upon which the entire fantasy rests.

Your Jedi's skill with the lightsabre rests entirely in your hands. You gain experience with each fight of course, and with this your swordplay will become smoother and more athletic, but footage of the game suggests that combat will eschew the Hong Kong action movie approach of the first two Episodes in favour of the more relaxed and dramatic strokes of the later films, giving you greater control of your actions. Because of the sheer number of Jedi and Sith in the game, you can expect to come up against increasingly powerful and inventive opposition. With the closely guarded mechanics of the combat system still being tweaked by the developer, we can't expect to learn too much before the game's release, but does anybody doubt the veterans of Baldur's Gate?

Further to this, as is now expected of the series, this Star Wars adventure will feature all manner of distractions from a turret's eye view of space combat to card games in cantinas, and plenty more. Expect the freedom of character development to stretch towards these tertiary pursuits.

War and Peace

Perhaps the longest standing certainty about the game is the quality of its visuals. Unlike flaky platform games and questionable beat 'em ups, KOTOR would be almost impossible to realise on rival platforms. The GeForce 3 derived graphics processor at the heart of Xbox gives life to George Lucas' delicate universe, and affords BioWare the opportunity to go to town with detail. Expect rolling meadows of individually modelled blades of grass, treetop villages, subtly detailed and meticulously animated characters, and all manner of new ships, wildlife, buildings and weapons.

Although the impact of KOTOR's visuals on this year's E3 attendees was less pronounced than last time out, the game still stands to meet its release date virtually unsurpassed in terms of visual quality. Factor in the wealth of content planned by the developer and the obvious inclusion of John Williams' rousing score, and it's difficult to see where this game can go wrong. The only questions that need answering concern the overall composition and the control and camera systems, but for the second time today, this is BioWare, not some developmental virgin with a lucky contract. It's going to be good.

With Rogue Leader selling the GameCube virtually single-handedly, perhaps we can expect to see a similar situation when Knights of the Old Republic joins the fray.