‘Knights of the Old Republic’
Ten years ago this summer, BioWare and LucasArts released a Star Wars game for Xbox and PC that would eventually be ranked as one of the best RPGs ever created. It was a long time ago, in a galaxy not too far from the Bay Area.
Now ported to the iPad, “Knights of the Old Republic” (iOS, $9.99; rated 12+) still retains its essential greatness. It’s a huge game, with dozens of main characters, hundreds of hours of play and a forward-thinking design that continues to inform modern RPGs, such as the popular “Mass Effect” series.
Like the recently re-released “Baldur’s Gate” for the iPad, it still seems impossible that such a massive game can be played on a tablet smaller and lighter than a magazine. But that’s consumer technology for you.
The original “Knights of the Old Republic” was released a year after the underwhelming film prequel installment “Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones,” so fans had a right to be nervous. But the game’s designers had a few tricks up their Jedi robe sleeves.
First, the game is set 4,000 years before the events of the original trilogy and the rise of the Galactic Empire. It’s the golden age of the Old Republic, in which the Jedi maintained peace and order throughout the galaxy. So there’s no risk of running into teenage Anakin and Padme making googly eyes at each other.
Second, the game is based on the established rules of pencil-and-paper role-playing games, specifically the ubiquitous d20 system, so the game’s core is solid and familiar. Building up a sci-fi character in “Knights” is fundamentally the same as building a fantasy character in “Dungeons & Dragons.” Magic spells are replaced with Force powers, and character classes shift from Ranger or Wizard to Scout or Jedi.
From here, the designers looked squarely to the future. “Knights” incorporates a morality system that is now pretty much standard equipment on any RPG. As your character progresses through the game, your actions determine whether you are aligning with the Light Side or the Dark Side of the Force. If you make self-serving or violent choices, the game’s ending changes accordingly. (If you go dark side, you’ll also start developing pale skin and jaundiced eyes. The perils of hard living – that’s one to grow on, kids.)
The turn-based combat system is designed to reward tactical team-oriented play. Players can add up to two additional companions – Wookiees and droids encouraged – and switch between characters at will. “Knights” also folds in mini-game challenges between the major story chapters. These diversions switch up the texture, providing moments of shoot-’em-up arcade action or tabletop card gaming.
All of these elements will be familiar to video game RPG players now, but at the time of the game’s initial release they were pretty much brand new. It’s interesting to reflect that video games have developed to this point. We can play 10-year-old games on new platforms and appreciate their era-specific charms.
From a technical standpoint, the game ports surprisingly well to the iPad. The graphics are 10 years old, of course, so new players are likely to stumble over that at first. But the control scheme has been successfully transposed to tap-and-swipe touchscreen controls, with new onscreen buttons and menu options. You’ll want to fiddle with the touch sensitivity controls before you begin. Basic non-combat movement is actually the trickiest part of the whole endeavor, as you’re required to swipe and tap repetitively just to cross the room.
The pause-and-play combat works just fine, since most movement there is automated. You select items and attacks with quick taps and it’s arguably a better system than the original.
If you’ve never played “Knights of the Old Republic,” now is a good time to get acquainted. The price at iTunes has been discounted 50 percent for a limited time. If you’re returning to it, you’ll find the experience has been remarkably well preserved.
New This Week: The four-title compilation bundle “The Serious Sam Collection” (X360); the film tie-in “Turbo: Super Stunt Squad” (PS3, WiiU, X360, 3DS); and the tactical action game “Dynasty Warriors 8.”