Remember When: BioWare Made The Best Star Wars RPG Ever

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Soon Star Wars Jedi: Survivor will be hitting store shelves, and ahead of it, we thought we should talk about the greatest Star Wars game that ever was—so far. Since its initial release in 1977, Star Wars has dabbled in every medium imaginable. From the big screen to TV, novels, comics, and video games, there is not a single form of entertainment that hasn’t been touched by the most popular franchise in cinema history. What’s most impressive, however, is the way all these stories have been woven into a single cohesive universe whose continuity remained relatively untouched for decades.

While the quality of these stories varied greatly, fans in the early aughts were especially spoiled on the video game front. Easing the pain of a rather uncomfortable prequel trilogy rollout, fans of Star Wars found comfort in the extended universe, and one story that stood above the rest was BioWare’s Star Wars: Knights of The Old Republic (KOTOR). A legendary title by every standard, this 2003 Xbox and PC RPG is a genre-defining experience with a legacy that almost feels impossible to live up to. Yet, everything you’ve ever heard about KOTOR is true — it’s a classic.

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A Long Ago In A Galaxy Far, Far Away…

There was a renewed push to expand the Star Wars universe, which began to take ship following the release of 1991’s Heir to The Empire novel written by Timothy Zahn. Following this, fans were treated to a slew of novels, comics, and even video games. Of course, this culminated in 1999 with the release of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. Around that time, LucasArts began conversations about a Star Wars RPG, but it wasn’t until the next year that work began in earnest with developer BioWare at the helm KOTOR’s producer at LucasArts, Mike Gallo told Gamespot.

A team of around 40 members — most of whom had experience working in the Baldur’s Gate and MDK franchises — worked on the title, and for its time, the game was very ambitious. Featuring sprawling locations, a choice-based system that allowed players to walk on the light or dark side of the force and unlock unique abilities based on those choices, along with a fully voice-acted cast, KOTOR is a technical marvel for its time. Naturally, BioWare decided to take the game to PC, where they were most familiar. Yet, they surprised the world by choosing the original Xbox as the game’s exclusive console home.

“The console itself was much more familiar to us—we could do the things we wanted to do on the Xbox without as much effort as we’d need to do it on the PS2 or GameCube,” says Gallo to Gamespot. “The Xbox was just a logical choice because of BioWare’s PC background, so that was a big reason.”

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By the time KOTOR released in July 2003, the general view of Star Wars changed. Fans of the Skywalker Saga were tired. The hype of the prequels died down significantly after The Phantom Menace (1999) and Attack of the Clones (2002) were both ripped apart by both fans and critics alike. While the quality of the films waned, fans found quality in the extended universe — and KOTOR was one of the shining stars in the galaxy,

Part of what made this experience so great was how it added to Star Wars lore without getting mixed up in the ever-expanding Clone War era. To do this, BioWare chose to set the game 4,000 years before the formation of the Empire, giving fans a whole new era in the galaxy.

The Republic is reeling from a long and destructive war with the Mandalorians and already entangled in another all-out attack led by two former Jedi Knights — Revan and Malak — who returned from a galactic excursion with a Sith armada and new dark side powers. At some point. Revan is assumed killed in action following a battle with Republic forces leaving Malak to take the reins as the one and only Sith Lord.

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KOTOR: Nintendo Switch

OK, with all that backstory out of the way, we get dropped right into the middle of all the action. Players take control of a Republic soldier— who they customize in a very base sense — on board the Endare Spire, a battleship led by Jedi Knight Bastala that’s under attack by Sith forces. Here, we meet the first member of our party and head down to the sprawling city planet of Tarris where we learn a Jedi Bastala has been captured by criminals.

Her rescue sets our character on an adventure that sees them fly to the Jedi homeworld and begin training as a force user in an attempt to stop the Dark Side by traversing the galaxy to gain information about the Sith’s superweapon, the Starforge.

With an adventure sprawling across 11 locations, including familiar planets like the desert planet of Tattooine, the Wookie homeworld of Kashyyyk, and the jungle moon of Yavin 4. Knights of the Old Republic feels like a lived-in Galaxy. The decision to include voice acting gives the game a level of immersion that, while expected in modern titles, was unheard of at the time, especially on consoles.

There is so much to do and explore wherever you go with planet-specific side missions like a fight club, bounty office, or placed interactions with multiple choices and outcomes for players, or a galactic-wide card game Pazaaac — think blackjack with the ability to subtract from your card total.

Yet, how players experience the galaxy depends on how they interact with their party. With nine companions to choose from, each character has their own skills and usefulness, backstories, story interactions, and light/dark alignments, which impact their relationship with the protagonist. Depending on how the player chooses to conduct themself, the characters they choose to take with them on their adventures will react differently.

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KOTOR: Nintendo Switch

The hardest sell for many players revolves around the battle system, which is most comparable to the Xenoblade franchise in that it blends real-time and turn-based combat while players choose their attacks from a bar placed in the bottom portion of the screen. Action can be paused mid-battle to line up attacks for all party members and watch them play out in live-action while still being able to move their character freely or change their attack pattern mid-battle.

In typical western RPG fashion, damage and accuracy are determined on several factors, including the character’s class, armour, weapon type, attack, stats, stamina packs, and a good old-fashioned D&D style dice roll which all plays out in an incredibly frantic and satisfying way. Armaments range from a variety of blasters and rifles to single-handed and dual-wielded blades to the customizable lightsaber. That’s right, you build your own lightsaber with crystals you mine on your own.

It all comes together to make an RPG that set the standard for a generation while simultaneously giving the Xbox an identity to hold onto — the bridge between consoles and PCs. It was successful enough to warrant a sequel developed by Obsidian and, eventually, a spin-off MMO.

The story of Darth Revan was eventually adapted to a book, and to this day, he remains one a fan-favourite Sith lord. While the original Xbox was firmly slotted in third place against the PlayStation 2 and Nintendo GameCube, Knights of The Old Republic is still considered one of the most satisfying gaming experiences of all time. So much so that Lucasfilm Games revealed a full-blown remake available on PC and PlayStation 5. Oh, how times have changed.

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KOTOR: Nintendo Switch

A Personal Perspective

I remember seeing KOTOR for the first time in a magazine while killing time in a Shoppers Drug Mart while my parents did boring adult things. I can’t recall the publication I was reading, but the immediate feeling of excitement seeing the visual of a Sith Trooper on Taris was unforgettable. Yet, beauty can only go so far. Of course, the choice system was the most interesting aspect of the game. I never experienced a game that allowed me to be a villain, let alone a full-blown Sith lord. It was all I could talk about to my parents, friends, and anyone who would listen.

I finally got my hands on KOTOR that Christmas. I spent the rest of my break exploring every corner of the opening planet, and somehow it lived up to every expectation I had from reading that article half a year prior. From the voice acting to the story, everything about this game clicked. I was too young to appreciate the absolute scale of the worlds, and my ear wasn’t trained to pick up on the subtle intricacies of the sound design — though I knew they nailed the lightsaber effect — there was something different about this game that I never felt before.

I was on the ground floor of something new to gaming — choice. KOTOR, along with Fable, set the stage for a generation of games that used morality as a major gameplay mechanic. Sure, titles like Mass Effect and Infamous certainly refined these concepts to something a little less black and white a few years later, but I wonder where we’d be if gamers weren’t given the choice between Jedi or Sith.

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KOTOR: Nintendo Switch

I still find myself experiencing the game in completely new ways. A decade after my first playthrough, I returned to KOTOR as a 20-year-old and instead of starting my adventure and beginning my training as a Jedi, I became a degenerate gambler. I found myself stuck in a gameplay loop of winning money in the Tarris fight club only to lose it all at the local bar in a series of unfair Pazaaac games. Now, as a 30-year-old playing this same game 20 years after my first playthrough, I can’t help but feel all the little things that make it feel fresh after all this time.

While I have a strong nostalgic attachment to Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, it is objectively great. The amount of lore and backstory available is almost overwhelming, the effort that went into making this as cinematic as possible should be applauded as well. Sure, It’s not without its flaws — the game was released at the beginning of the aughts, after all.

Its visuals don’t hold up by modern standards, and the choice system is a little basic compared to what’s come out since, but the sheer quality of this title shines through whatever minuscule nitpicks you may find. For gamers, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic is one of the finest RPGs of its generation, and for Star Wars fans, it’s one of the most immersive experiences on offer. A true masterpiece.

Will Star Wars Jedi: Survivor live up to all that KOTOR had to offer?

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