We're going on a little historical diversion in a second, so if you're just here for an opinion take this one and run. "Knights of the Old Republic is the best Star Wars game since X-Wing and/or Tie Fighter, if not ever. Unless something entirely unbelievable descends from the heavens, it's the RPG of the year. If the remaining major players fumble even slightly, it's game of the year. Along with Halo, it's the reason to invite Bill Gates into your house". Got that? Great.
Now shoo! We've got things to talk about.
Star Wars is enough to drive any fair-minded observer of popular culture insane. I sit in horror, watching otherwise sane-minded individuals wander out of the latest cinematic monstrosity cursing George Lucas' name only to - a handful of months later - go out and buy the DVD anyway "for the extras". You scratch your head at the AintItFatFacedAmericansInTheirBasements somehow claiming the original trilogy were the high points of cinematic history, when only Empire stands up as anything more than campy high adventure and Jedi is covered in a frankly embarrassing Ewokitis. And you grit your teeth as reviewer after reviewer adds twenty percent to a game's score because it’s got Stormtroopers and the real Lightsabre sound effects.
In short: I hate Star Wars.
The irony is before LucasArts lost anyone with a designer's brain in the company, they made some frankly astonishing videogames (It's probably difficult to recall post-Force-Commander et al, but in that early nineties period literally no other developer/publisher put out as many genuine classic games). Because I love videogames, I love the great Star Wars games that came from this period, because they’re great videogames - not because they're from that Galaxy a Long, Long way away.
Loving Star Wars games is nothing new. However, Knights of the Old Republic goes further into entirely unprecedented terrain.
It's made me love Star Wars. I care about the Sith and the Jedi. I care about the fate of Tatooine. I care about the plight of the Sand People. I care about Wookiees who've submitted to their rage. I care about the Mandaloreans, the Twi'lek and the Mon Calamari, and can even tell the difference between their funny shaped bodies (And thanks to KOTOR, I even know what real Star Wars fans are going to nit-pick about in the previous sentence). I care about all those guys.
In short, Knights of the Old Republic takes something that's been merchandised, franchised and branded to death over the last twenty-five years and makes it magical again.
It feels more like Star Wars than anything else has in living memory, and does so by moving the focus back four thousand years. And - would you believe it - things are very much as they are in the "contemporary" Star Wars universe. This gives the game the strength of familiarity of theme, a mythic arc as you realise you're rooting around in the prehistory of the world and due to distance from the actual films, freedom to create a plot as galaxy-spanning as anything that was committed to celluloid. Joy-bandits wishing to run off with your happiness to the hills to spend on moonshine may comment that the fact so little has changed in the period to be unbelievable. At which point, simply reply "Well - it's Star Wars, idiot. It’s a Science Fantasy, not science fact and reliant on a world where technologies have been existent for long enough to gain a legendary quality. So yay-sucks-boo, big-nose."
That'll send them packing. Man, I hate those joy-bandits.
In terms of experience, essentially Knights of the Old Republic is the first successful Western-style console Role-Playing Game of the modern age. There have been attempts at it (Morrowind sticks out as a recent example) but they've been very much afterthoughts, little more than a PC game with the controls mapped onto a joypad. KOTOR isn't like that at all. KOTOR takes the design beliefs of the Western RPG form and then works out how to present them best for playing whilst sprawled on a sofa in your living room.
Most important thing here: they don't assume console players are dumb and want less than their PC-equipped friends. They give everything that you'd expect in the original Baldur's Gate (not Dark Alliance) games on a big beige box, just do it in a more appropriate form. This means that rather than indirectly controlling your party with a mouse, you directly manipulate your avatar with the rest of your team-mates trotting behind you.
The westernised RPG model differs from the eastern, as seen in such things as Final Fantasy, in several definitive ways. Mainly, rather than following a relatively linear path, you're given a degree of freedom. Your character may have a destiny, but the details are very much your own to create. For example, depending on how you choose to progress - either being nice or nasty, essentially - you can lean towards the light or dark sides of the force. It actually does pose moral dilemmas. Some evil actions are deeply attractive. Some are just utilitarian. Some acts of good are intrinsically very stupid indeed. All this adds to a game where you feel your actions have a direct effect on your experience and the experience of the world.
While offering more options than the average eastern RPG (i.e. there are some), character generation is kept stripped down, with a choice of sex and three possible classes. However, in terms of specialisation and personalisation, much more takes place in the game proper, though with plentiful options for those who can't be bothered with fiddling with statistics to sidestep the whole process and let the Xbox make the decisions. By its close, your character will be very much a reflection of what you want to be. Oh - and a Jedi.
However, your character is just one in a highly defined cast. Nine team-mates join you as you progress, any two of which can actually be with you "in the field" at any time. These vary wildly, from various strains of Jedi, to alien races to droids, thus offering a wide selection of abilities. However, that's just game mechanics - a hit aimed at the brains. Far more interesting is how these characters are turned into actual characters - an all the more powerful blow aimed at the heart. Beautifully written, carefully defined and memorable, this is a cast who engender sympathy and empathy. While actually talking to the characters to delve their nature is, wisely, optional, only the hardest-souled individual would avoid it. Everyone in the world will fall in love with Assassin/Translator droid HK-47 (In short: Imagine if CP-30 was a misanthrope who wanted to kill everyone), but you'll all find personal favourites. Ordo the towering Mandalore warrior's rambling tales of towering machismo makes him mine, and takes the unique prize of being the only videogame character to make me wish I was gay.
Away from the main cast, the rest of the universe is populated expertly with even the smallest characters being personalised enough to make exploring it a pleasure. Often minor characters are embroiled in plentiful subplots, which provide mini-adventures away from the main thrust of the plot. Equally, the geezer who is from the same species as Yoda proves something we've always suspected about the Jedi Master of the films. Since this other guy can talk properly, the esteemed ancient trainer in fact actually does suffer a severe speech problem, thus proving the Jedi admirably unprejudiced in their recruitment policies.
Combat is similar to the Baldur's Gate games, in that you give orders to your individual characters who will then carry them out in a pseudo-real time manner. That is, there's all manner of calculations behind the scene, but you don't have to be party to them. Equally, you have the option of pausing time at any point to alter your tactics and try something else. Thermic Detonators are always a good one.
KOTOR is, however, far from perfect. Luckily, its failings are all too forgivable in the context of its epic sweep. There's a handful of genuine bugs. The frame-rate occasionally drops, which is a minor problem since the game isn't dependent on being an action game. Towards the end, when you’re leading a team of Jedi, combat can become somewhat easy on all but the hardest difficulty levels. There's more dialogue than you're probably used to, but it's linked to your decisions rather than thrown at you in endless cut-scenes, is performed by quality voice-actors and is as much as part of its strength as its weakness.
Failings, sure. But you really won't care.
So where does that leave us? Oh yes.
Knights of the Old Republic is the best Star Wars game since X-Wing and/or Tie Fighter, if not ever. Unless something entirely unbelievable descends from the heavens, it’s the RPG of the year. If the remaining major players fumble even slightly, it’s game of the year. Along with Halo, it’s the reason to invite Bill Gates into your house.
Got that? Great. Now get this.