20.7.04

Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic

Bioware's latest RPG always interested me because of the stellar reviews and decent word of mouth, but it had an uphill battle to fight in my mind. Star Wars is dead to me after the ruthless debunking of my childhood myth during Episode I and II. I've never liked Bioware's games and I played it on the PC. Not that there's anything wrong with the PC, aside from the 30+ minute installs, the patches, the crashes, and (what I assume is) a poor interface conversion from the XBox. While installing yet another driver to prevent KotOR from crashing when trying to load a save game I kept thinking I would be playing happily right now if I tried the game on XBox. Oh well.

The first hour of KotOR fits the quality level established by Episode I & II. The player starts in a starship under attack by Sith forces, fast paced John Williams-style music soaring and battles erupting in corridors. What is the player doing? Wading through clumsy, long-winded tutorials on how to manipulate their inventory. The sensation was jarring and irritable, like watching CSPAN while blasting a Ramones album on the stereo. I'm sure the game taught me all I needed to know to succeed, but it failed to explain why the heck I should care.

The coup-de-grace? I died during the tutorial; or should I say - they killed me, then had the nerve to throw me back to the opening menu and force me to play through the whole tutorial again. Maybe I'm old, maybe I suck at games, but if you want me to play and enjoy your games, give me some time to decipher your game rules before you force me to replay a portion of your game.

I was ready to turn off the game then and be done with it. The first 15 minutes of any game are the most critical time and should show players why they should spend the time playing. KotOR failed in this way more than any modern AAA game I've seen. Still, it is considered a AAA game for a reason - it received a number of game of the year awards and is one of the highest rated games in the last few years. I must be missing something.

For three hours in I fought some Sith and alien scum, got some more party members (including a wookie!), and completed some quests. My initial rage yielded to apathy. The empty steel hallways did little to engage my imagination.
 
The combat is visually dry, full of the silly, meaningless animations that come from synthesizing board game rules into real time graphics. Engagements did nothing for the brain either. Each character would use their assigned weapon (either a ranged or melee weapon, melee being heavily favored in the game) to attack the enemy and the primary decision during combat is if and when to throw grenades.
 
Conversations with NPC characters felt like a survey out of a teenage girl's magazine. (Press 1 to give money to the beggar to feed his family. Press 2 to kill the beggar and sell the remaining organs to pay for that gnarly double-sided lightsaber upgrade.)  The only apparent effect these ABC after-school special morality choices provided was how far up or down I went on my personal light-to-dark side meter. None of the characters seemed to recognize and respond to who my character was.
 
The promise of KotOR is that my behavior will affect the world around me and that I will see repercussions of what I've done. I believe that the central issue with multi-path narratives is that, like in real life, people rarely see how their actions could have created drastically different results. If, within my 5 hours of play time, I could have ended up on a completely separate plot thread, there was no indication from my side of the game that those possibilities were available.
 
I didn't play to the point where I got force powers nor a lightsaber, nor did I care to. All my friends that have played the game say it does get better once force powers are obtained, but I've yet to find anything in the game thus far to engage me, no nascent promise that I want to see fulfilled. Unless someone convinces me that there is a radical change in the combat system and the NPC interactions, I'm not likely to load the game up again.

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