Are you, like many Star Wars fans, reluctant to let a once-hot franchise slip into the icy depths of George Lucas’s bumbling insanity? Then get ready for Knights of the Old Republic, probably the best Star Wars game to date. But there’s a catch – it’s also secretly a Dungeons & Dragons game. That’s right, you’re leading a band of ragtag adventurers (ha!) through a strange and perilous realm (gotcha) fraught with villains and monsters (uh-oh) on a quest to save the kingdom, er, galaxy. Select your character’s class – soldier (that’s fighter to you), scout (ranger) or scoundrel (thief). Distribute points between strength, dexterity, wisdom, etc. And get this: You start with a blaster and a short sword. Not a lightsaber, flameknife or even a low-tech stun gun, but a spunky little slab of sharp steel. Welcome to the geek-franchise doubleheader of the century – the kind of game you either tell your buddies all about, all the time, or else the kind you lock away in a closet far away from friends, family or, God help you, your girlfriend.
But if you’ve got the requisite nerd credentials, Knights of the Old Republic is an excellent game, an RPG of astonishing scope and imagination. Set thousands of years before the movies, the burgeoning republic is losing a war against the brutal Sith, led by a dark lord whose name, thankfully, isn’t Dooku, Papi or Jim-Jim. You play a force-sensitive republican destined for epic things, accompanied by a wookie, a droid, a jedi and other characters that are considerably more engaging than Natalie Portman’s nubile bosom. Like any RPG, the emphasis is on advancing the plot and improving your party’s abilities and equipment. The gameplay resembles 3-D shooters like Tomb Raider and Vice City, until the action starts, when you’re advised to pause, issue commands to each character, and then let the combat play out.
The graphics are impressive, definitely comparable to current action games, and the cut scenes are classic Star Wars – and, at times, downright gorgeous. In addition to experience points and equipment, characters gain Light or Dark Side points, depending on the decisions they make during the game, which affects the cost of different Force powers. Giving a beggar some credits is a Light-worthy deed – blowing a smoking hole in his chest isn’t. Even in casual conversation, you’re always given a bastardly option, a recurring temptation that puts the average gamer in a pickle – do I act out my substantial worldly aggressions on this digital schmoe, or do I follow the game’s not-so-subtle nudge and play the valiant, unerring hero? Measuring your own morality in points, and access to game abilities, is a bold move, one the Christian media should keep in mind if Morman: White Man of Utah ever hits the shelves.
Aside from your central goal of defeating the seemingly unstoppable Sith fleet, side quests abound, increasing total playing time by a huge margin. Finishing Knights in a rental means tin-foiling the windows and cultivating couch sores for an unsleeping week. Even then, you’ll be anxious to go back and find out whether joining the Dark Side is all it’s cracked up to be. And with the PC version or Xbox Live, you can download even more quests. This is not, by any means, a cool game. But it is a great game, and a lump-in-your-throat reminder of a childhood long ago, in a movie theater far away, when Star Wars was the most awesome thing, ever.