Back in 1999, excitement for the new Star Wars movies was palpable. Fans were waiting excitedly to see the epic Clone Wars, the clash of entire armies of Jedi against the forces of evil, and the gripping tragedy of Anakin Skywalker's fall to the dark side. Instead, they got an extended toy commercial where genuine human conflict and drama was substituted for insane amounts of confusing and badly-choreographed CGI. By the time 2003 arrived, the ludicrous revelation that the Clone Wars was actually fought by an entire army of Boba Fetts against some very camp robots had destroyed whatever vestigal interest a lot of Star Wars fans had in the franchise.
It was thus surprising that it was a Star Wars game which became one of the most talked-about titles of the year. RPG stalwarts BioWare, creators of the legendary Baldur's Gate series, teamed up with Lucasfilm to produce the first-ever Star Wars computer roleplaying game. Declining the suggestion of setting the story during the Clone Wars (perhaps aware that the next movie would likely de-canonise anything major they chose to do), they went back four millennia into the distant past, to the time of the Sith and the Jedi, to the time covered in the popular Tales of the Jedi comic mini-series, and created a new story there.
Darth Malak, bringer of universal armageddon and giant space station headquarters/mechanical voicebox trend-setter.
Knights of the Old Republic's roaring success comes from it identifying with pinpoint accuracy all the things that make Star Wars great: memorable, strong characters, cool spaceships, a gripping plot, satisfying action and some great humour. They also did things that would likely give George Lucas a heart attack if he tried them: they added genuine moral ambiguity to the characters, they gave the player the choice of taking his or her character (and several others) down the dark side, and included intriguing moral debates over the Force itself (pointing out the very true fact that all we know of the 'dark side' in the movies comes from the hardly-unbiased 'light'-sworn Jedi). They also included the second-biggest twist in the entirety of Star Wars canon to date (outstripped only by the "I am your father," moment). They also borrowed some great ideas from the then-current New Jedi Order series of novels, such as ideas about a more dispassionate 'neutral' side of the Force and even a cameo mention of the Yuuzhan Vong. The result is what is easily the finest slice of Star Wars in any medium since The Empire Strikes Back (Matt Stover's Traitor possibly excepted).
Knights of the Old Republic sees you taking up the role of a Republic soldier marooned on the city-planet of Taris when your flagship is blown up. How you proceed is up to you, with you taking on jobs for profit as you attempt to track down the Jedi Bastila so you can get off-world. You can follow the light side by acting altruistically and honourably, or the dark side by threatening, murdering and blackmailing your way through the game. As the game continues you amass a number of sidekicks, some good, some bad, some somewhere inbetween, and build up complex relationships with them (including, interestingly, the potential for romance). It's this core cast of characters that, for starters, makes Knights so cool. Your sidekicks include the unfeasibly muderous assassin droid HK-47, the smart-alec street girl Mission, the disgraced wookie Zaalbar, the brutal Mandalorian warrior Canderous and several more, all superbly characterised and voice-acted. You also get your own ship, the Ebon Hawk, a badass smuggler's craft that gives the Millennium Falcon a serious run for its money as coolest ship in the Star Wars universe.
As the game continues the plot opens up. After the initial sequence on Taris, you spend most of the game travelling between several different worlds, including Tatooine (here presented at the very start of human settlement, with only a single small starport and the genesis of the some of the cultures that become dominant by the time of the films), the wookie homeworld of Kashyyyk, the water world of Manaan and the Sith tombworld of Korriban, not to mention the Jedi training enclave on Dantooine. As you roar back and forth between these worlds, carrying out missions, engaging in a bit of trade, fighting off Sith and criminals and pursuing the locations of the mysterious 'Star Maps' that may hold the key to the resolution of the war, your characters gain experience and their own backstories and mysteries come to the fore. The game is also highly replayable, as some missions only take place if you have a certain character or combination of characters in your party at any one time, and there are notably different endings depending on if you follow the dark or light side of the Force.
The game has aged well. The graphics, particularly on PC where they can now be rammed to the maximum on any decent modern-ish machine, are very good and the controls, although a little clunky due to the behind-the-shoulder 3D camera and limited field of view, generally work well. A lot of fun is had customising your character's armour and weapons for the best possible result. As the game is based on the pen-and-paper Star Wars RPG, which in turn is based on the D&D d20 system, the rules tend towards a curious favouring of melee combat which may be appropriate for lightsabre-wielding Jedi but would feel out of place elsewhere. Cleverly, BioWare use the fact that the game is set in a different era to set up a different culture of combat, with lightsabre-resistent cortosis blades and personal shields (reminiscent of those in Dune, although lacking their tendency to detonate in nuclear blasts) commonplace and thus duelling is still popular with warriors right across the galaxy. Voicework is also extremely impressive, particularly computer game veteren and BioWare regular Jennifer Hale as Bastila, who comes over as Princess Leia with a lightsabre, which is amusing.
Perhaps inevitably, your character does show Force potential and later gains access to Force powers and the use of lightsabres in combat. If you decide to go down a combat-oriented gameplay path I strongly recommend creating a dual-wielding character right from the off, as they tend to be the most effective, and later equip your character with two lightsabres or one of those Darth Maul-style doubled-ended jobs for maximum impact.
Aside from the possible technical difficulties that come with any game more than a few years old (see below), there aren't many weaknesses. Sometimes you have to backtrack across quite large areas, which can get slightly tedious. The absence of a fast-travel system to cover already-explored territory is sometimes keenly felt. Other issues are really not Knights of the Old Republic's fault: at the time of its release its structure was quite fresh, but BioWare has reused many ideas from the game in later releases such as Jade Empire. Mass Effect in particular is something of a rehash of Knights in their own setting, but only about half the size, and suffers in comparison (although still a fine game compared to most titles out there). A more glaring problem is that one event in the game can leave a whole stack of quests uncompletable and you have no warning of it, meaning that if you don't have a handy save when it happens a good hour or so of game content can be rendered unreachable (although you can still complete the game without a problem). Also, and I'm really reaching here, the light side/dark side metre is open to ridiculous abuse, as you can behave like a total paragon for 90% of the game and then kill a couple of innocent people to open some interesting side-quests and you don't really get penalised for it. The only other thing that comes to mind is that although the game sticks a level cap on you (you can only get to Level 20 in the game), the last few locations in the game seem to assume you'll be four or five levels lower when you get there, making them quite easy to get through at Level 20.
None of these issues are really problematic, however, and are more down to technical constraints and the fact the game had to be scaled for both PCs and the X-Box at the same time, as well as the fact it was aimed at a more casual console-buying public as well as the hardcore PC RPG-player.
Knights of the Old Republic (*****) is a superbly-written, surprisingly morally complex and well-characterised RPG. It is one of the best slices of Star Wars of any stripe in existence, and would also rank as one of the best computer RPGs ever made. Star Wars fan or not, if you enjoy a good computer roleplaying game, you have to check this out. It is available now on PC (UK, USA), Mac (UK, USA) and X-Box (UK, USA).
Technical note: unfortunately, BioWare chose to use OpenGL as the game's graphics driver, which may not have been wise (D3D had won that battle several years earlier, making it a curious choice on their part) as modern graphics cards have a problem with that outmoded driver system. NVidia graphics card-owners can get around this quite easily, but those with ATI Radeon cards may find the game crashes frequently. Also, whilst the game works fine with Windows XP (which was current when it first came out), Vista owners may also experience headaches getting it to work, although it is doable and well worth the effort.