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The 21st century has not been kind to STAR WARS.

Thanks to George Lucas’ continued insistence on making consistently mind boggling decisions regarding the prequels (the first two only, at that point in time) and the increasingly stale and dubious merchandising practices, there really was very little cheer to spread around for fans. Millions were crushed by Episodes 1 and 2 and were experiencing a feeling that varies between collective betrayal and cognitive dissonance and one that Lucas would later on further solidify into pure contempt by doubling down on his extremely polarizing decisions. (Don’t get me started, please).

Around 2003, STAR WARS went from being the most ground breaking  film franchise in  history to a played out has-been creative cautionary tale. Lucas, with one continued baffling decision after another had turned his own prodigious child into a drunken high-school dropout that no one quite recognized anymore. And in a real life twist worthy of George Costanza, had inadvertently given all its’ detractors since it’s 70’s/80’s heyday unlimited vindication.

Making fun and insulting STAR WARS wasn’t going against the populist grain anymore. It was the populist grain.

But enough of that.

Speaking from just a fan’s perspective, I felt incredibly crushed and conflicted. As someone who doesn’t completely hate the prequels but has absolutely no desire to watch them ever again (lord knows I’ve suffered), my feelings towards them nowadays are neither here nor there. They’re just things that exist. And I have to somehow (to this day) have to learn to make peace with the fact that probably the greatest villain in pop culture was a petulant, whiny, moronic, unlikable jackass in his younger, formative years. Darth Vader was an angst-ier version of  Tidus from Final Fantasy X in his youth. Some exit wounds can never be healed, I guess.

Also, I’m someone who wasn’t really a fan of most STAR WARS games. Sure, people will go to vouch for the Jedi Knight games and Shadows of the Empire (I think they’re just OK pieces of fan service) and the Tie Fighter games (Haven’t played) or Super Star Wars (has not aged well) but I don’t recall there ever being a game that captured both the overall galactic scope of STAR WARS or it’s undercurrent of the exploration of ‘good vs evil’ themes (that are in themselves, a not so subtle rebuke of Fasicsm and Nazism). These were games that carried the STAR WARS name and looked and sounded like STAR WARS but never did feel like them and nor did they ever seem to get what was so special about Lucas original vision. That signature feeling of both grit and awe that was shepherded by Lucas in various capacities throughout the original trilogy seemed almost impervious to translation in the video game medium. To me, at least.

I also wasn’t following the pre-release buzz on KOTOR very much, I still respected Bioware very much back then but I assumed this would be at best a decent game that would cater to heavy Lucas Arts interference and would be just a disposable product. So many games make promises and yet rarely keep them. I was pretty sure this would just be one of those cases.

So when I discovered Greg Kasavin from Gamespot (during their glory days) gave it a 9.2 in his original review, calling it the “best thing to happen to Star Wars in ages” and the entire gaming press bestowing a hailstorm of praise upon it on launch date, I was simply stunned. Review Scores meant something back then. This was huge.

I immediately picked up a copy for my XBOX, extremely nervous. It was a long time since STAR WARS really amazed and surprised me. Worst case scenario, this would be another action RPG that would be fun for a couple of dozen hours and then I would forget about it. I booted the game, smirked at the Lucasarts logo and the classic opening crawl, took a deep breath and said to myself: here goes.

And then I played the game for 11 hours straight. I’m pretty sure I skipped dinner too.

It’s hard to articulate it without sounding like a gushing fanboy, but I can’t help it. That’s the effect the game had on me. The intro escape sequence where you as a player named Republic soldier who awakens on The Endar Spire and has to hurriedly escape with Republic pilot Carth Onasi, eventually landing up on the planet Taris , accomplishes a multitudes of things at once : nicely sets up the plot propulsion, teaches you the combat, is expertly paced, feels urgent and grips like a vice.

Basically, it’s awesome and all but ensures that Bioware understood back then that most still don’t now:

You can’t afford to lose your audience in the first 15 minutes.

Which is a lesson most modern RPG’s never bother to learn. And Bethesda especially seems to have forgotten after 2006 ( I’m willing to bet you’ve never even thought about Skyrim’s lame opening in years). The fact that Bioware all but ensures that everyone will have no choice but to be compelled to play it to the finish just 15 minutes in is enough cause for George Lucas to take a moment of contemplation and think about where he went wrong with the prequels (and for that matter JJ Abrams in Episode 7) but it’s clear as day that what’s happening in front of your eyes feels like quintessential STAR WARS. A great universe being unfolded before your eyes in subtle and intelligent ways, yet being accessible to almost everybody. It opens so incredibly strong that it’s hard to imagine how Bioware would ever keep up this sort of pace. In fact, I was fully prepared for the usual early game padding to start showing up, where my character would start meeting some inconsequential ‘RPG characters’ that would mean nothing in the overall big picture.

I was wrong.

Taris feels grand, superbly designed, and atmospheric and yes tense (seeing as it teeters on the brink of destruction). It doesn’t so much open up to you as much it ensnares you in it’s doomsday clock that actually is ticking. You need to find Jedi leader Bastila Shan ( The female Jedi who defeated the Evil Lord of the Sith Revan and saved the galaxy and one of the primary figures in the republic resistance) and bolt, lest the Republic has any hope of withstanding Darth Malak’s  insurrection. Malak also happens to be Revan’s bitter, megalomaniacal prodigy and the current, de facto Dark Lord of the SIth. Bear in mind, the world map even hasn’t opened yet, and already you feel like an insignificant ant in a galactic- scale war that all but seems to moving towards total annihilation.

It all feels incredible and most importantly, propulsive. And it’s brought to life not only by the excellent world and map design but also the superb writing by Bioware as well as the soaring score by Jeremy Soule ( far superior to his Skyrim work).

By the end of the 8-10 hour mark, you’ve engaged with a STAR WARS fiction in a superior method. You’ve seen Galactic civilizations in conflict and hostility with each other, you’ve seen an Alien plague spread across the city, you’ve seen Taris kids discriminate against other galactic races, you’ve witnessed a brutal shootout in the cantina  involving a strange, seemingly invulnerable Bounty Hunter Calo Nord (seriously, don’t try and attack him):

You’ve also have had all sorts of interesting STAR WARS-esque conversations with staple Galactic races that well, incredibly fleshes out this current landscape of ‘The Old Republic’ ( i.e 4,000 years before the rise of the Galactic Empire) in a way that Lucas’ slipshod writing failed to capture during the prequels, despite seemingly infinite resources and all the time in the world. It’s all fantastic and culminates in a great raid of the Vulkar Base and finally freeing Bastila Shan (And boy has she got a chip on her shoulder) and finally escaping Taris on your ship The Ebon Hawk by the breath of your hair as Taris is decimated on Malak’s command. Filling you with a sense of regret and disturbance. All that you just witnessed over the last 10 hours is no more. Every NPC you just met,talked to and helped is now just Galactic Dust thanks to the omnipotent might of the Sith. Revan may be dead, but his protege seems hell bent on carrying on his revenge against the Galaxy. Mass Genocide be damned. It’s a scenario that the game establishes early on, that resistance is futile. That the Sith are omnipotent , superior conquerors that the universe has no answer to and not people like this:

(clears throat)

Anyways, you then of course land at the Jedi Academy at Dantooine where your seemingly unnatural affinity for the force is logically translated into Jedi Training (hmm…). Excellent conversations do more to sell the world and the conflict than any resolution bump, graphical horsepower or facial animations ever could. You get to converse with the teammates you’ve acquired so far (and will continue to do so throughout the game), do excellent side quests that involve mysterious murders and familial conflicts. And oh yeah, you get to recite the Jedi Oath and get to wield a fucking lightsaber.

Making it an incredible catharsis for all the tense fighting so far. Now you get to give your enemies hell. It’s a testament to Bioware’s commitment to ‘narrative pacing’ and big picture game design in which a developer is willing to purposefully withhold gratification for extended periods just to ensure that the moment it finally hits, feels incredibly larger than life. Like the GRAVITY GUN from Half Life 2 (which is foreshadowed throughout the game via physical ‘moving box’ puzzles), wielding a lightsaber feels fucking incredible and it’s here when the game’s quasi-turn based/real time/dice roll combat system truly shines. It’s hard to compare KOTOR’s epic Jedi Battles fights with any other RPG combat system because it feels so unlike them but rest assured, it’s great fun and never gets old throughout the campaign.

And Bioware is just getting started at this point.

Now I won’t spoil any more of the plot stuff for those who haven’t played it yet. But suffice to say, you’re now on a Galaxy wide quest to find ‘Star Maps’ located at various STAR WARS locales ( Tattoine, Kashyk, Mannan,Korriban etc.)  which will reveal Malak’s final location ,called ‘The Star Forge’ (basically this game’s version of a Death Star) and also to perhaps solve the strange quandary of certain extremely specific nightmares you suddenly began to have (sorry, no spoilers) and also perhaps to discover more about the new Sith order and what exactly is the full story behind Malak , Revan and their Sith expeditions in the past. It’s a lot for a 40 hour long Action RPG to juggle but KOTOR does it masterfully and without any missteps.

Everything from its story to its structure to its quest design and UI seems so incredibly well-thought out and designed to complement each other, that game feels absolutely SEAMLESS. Which is something that perhaps even other later Bioware classics like Dragon Age: Origins sort of stumble at. KOTOR isn’t an especially difficult game or an overtly deep and complex one (relatively) but it HAS challenge and complexity. Which is a lesson Bioware has at this point all but forgotten. It’s extremely accessible but is not dumbed down in terms of mechanics. It doesn’t stop gameplay in between and go on 30 minute long, tangential at best, cut scenes on how ‘Love blooms on the battlefield’ or have a passive disconnect between narrative and gameplay (Nathan Drake says hi). That’s the one thing that game absolutely nails, its balance. Be it between narrative and gameplay. Between fan service and innovation. Between challenge and plot progression etc. It’s a game that knows exactly what its doing and then proceeds to do it perfectly.

More on that in part 2 , where I will try and discuss some of that (without overt spoilage) along with the game’s many excellent story beats, writing , attention to detail and Bioware’s obvious devotion to the source material AND Gaming’s very own ‘Keyser Soze’ moment that made everyone shit their pants.

In the meantime, share with us your favourite KOTOR memories (try your best not to spoil, please. We know you all love it) and let us know about how excited you are for ROGUE ONE and seeing Vader again.

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