First off, I wouldn't actually call these the "greatest games of all time". That was just a catchy headline to bring you here. Because to be fair, I haven't played every game, or even most of the ones that are widely considered "the greatest". But for me
, these are the ten greatest titles that have had the largest impact on my tastes and interests as a gamer. There's a lot that I left out of course, and my list largely focuses on character driven, single player experiences. Be warned, there will probably be some spoilers if you're unfamiliar with the source material. With that, let's start with number ten:
10) Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic
Developer: BioWare, Publisher: LucasArts
Release: July 15, 2003 (Xbox, Win, Mac, iOS)
Come on, man. Even the damn box art looks like it should be a Star Wars movie poster.
As far as Star Wars games are concerned, the ones that really manage to encapsulate that massive universe and put you in the driver's seat of the hero (or villain), Kotor is easily the best thing LucasArts ever published. While most Star Wars games focused on the Skywalker Saga of the films, Kotor went back. About 4,000 years back, to be specific. The "Old Republic Era" that Kotor exists in was established by the Tales of the Jedi comic series first released in 1993. Choosing this time period afforded Bioware a significant amount of leeway in how they told their story. They didn't have to be concerned with canonical restrictions from the movies. This early design decision is responsible for Kotor's greatest strength: choice.
A lot of people from my generation and earlier probably remember those "choose your own adventure" books from when you were a kid (also known as gamebooks). Rather than being taken through a linear story as told by the author, you got to choose how to proceed in your quest, jumping back and forth between pages when given the option. Kotor wasn't the first game to give you choice in how the plot progressed. Adventure games had been doing that for decades. What Kotor did manage to do was create a 3D world that felt like the Star Wars films, but gave you meaningful choice over not only your story, but the stories of your companions as well.
Getting the white Force aura from being full light side? A reward in and of itself.
While Kotor had multiple endings, most of your decisions in the game had no impact on its conclusion. This might seem like an issue, but it wasn't. BioWare didn't need to create weight to character choice by dangling influence on the plot's conclusion over your head like a carrot. When it came to the light side/dark side choices, they did this through gameplay. The more good or bad decisions you made, the more powerful your light or dark side oriented powers like Force Heal or Force Lightening would become. While it didn't drastically influence your power (and Mass Effect arguably improved on the system), it was enough to make you think about these decisions from a gameplay perspective. It wasn't just about morality and choice, it was about how it impacted the way you played
Even when Force Points weren't involved, player choice still had gameplay implications. Sure, you had experience, money, and loot to think about. But more importantly, you had to consider what path your dialogue choices would take you down. On my dark side playthroughs, finding ways to double cross and manipulate people was probably more fun than it should have been. Each NPC seemingly coming to life when the opportunity presented itself to "outthink" them. This was vital to how you played on Korriban, the home of the Sith Academy. Could I turn these students against each other (and their masters), then loot the goodies from the blood bath? Sure. But if I'm trying to play a good character, pretending to be evil put you on pretty thin ice as a player. The thought puzzle here was equally engaging. How could I complete my mission without making dark side choices? You had to think like a Jedi to be one.
The maze of dialogue choices on Korriban easily outclasses the maze of Sith tombs.
This system of morality and choice leads into Kotor's second greatest strength. Few titles before it (and in all honesty, few after) have managed to make each member of your party feel so significant. Most RPGs try and do this with combat abilities and cutscenes, both of which can be effective from a design perspective. And to be fair, Kotor did this too. When you finally "rescued" Bastila on Taris after hours of searching, adding her to your party felt
empowering. You didn't just
care about Bastila cause you went through the damn trouble of saving her. You care because she drastically shifts the power dynamic in your party, adding an entirely new selection of tools to use in battle. She was important in both plot and gameplay, especially before your player character got his own lightsaber.
But more than that, you care about Bastila (and the rest of your crew) for a very simple reason: you talk to them. As much as I loved the fighting, looting, and exploration of Kotor, more so than anything I was just excited to get back on the Ebon Hawk and talk to everyone in my crew. Every time you leveled up, you weren't just rewarded with higher stats and newer abilities. You unlocked new dialogue with your party. The conversation wasn't just awarding for being well voice acted, or for having great writing that managed to engage you in something so passive; the conversation itself was
Kotor: the thing the made listening to old men rant an enjoyable gameplay experience.
How is my relationship developing with Bastila? What secret is Carth hiding? Will Canderous have more stories about the Mandalorian Wars? Can I manage to turn Juhani away from the dark side? Hell, the entire mission to rebuild HK-47 is probably one of my favorite quests in an RPG. I didn't plan my trip to each planet around min-maxing, sticking with the same characters over and over again. Based on my conversations with the crew, I would make my best guess about who would be most interesting to bring along and who would have the best chance of starting an impromptu mission. The plot affected the gameplay, and in turn the gameplay affected the plot. That, at its core, is sound game design.
Everything I've mentioned thus far, player choice and your companions, is all before I even get to what set Kotor apart from the many Star Wars games before it: how good it felt to play as a Jedi. The first time you have Bastila in your party, it's like you put in a damn cheat code. Her lightsaber cuts through enemies with ease, she dodges or blocks most attacks against her, and you finally have ability to heal your allies with a Force power after hours of rationing your medical supplies instead. Much as Zero is a tease of what to come in Mega Man X, Bastila is a foreshadowing of what Jedi powers will soon be at your disposal.
Bow to the power of an almighty SITH LORD! Sorry... got a little carried away there.
By the time the game ends and you hit level 20, your character is nearly untouchable. Force Wave and Force Lightening can hit a dozen enemies at a time, Force Heal and Death Field keep your party at full health and continuing to deal out damage. And by the time you face Darth Malek, after forty hours of him destroying planets, almost killing you multiple times, and potentially turning one of your crew members against you, Force Choking him during your final one on one encounter makes you wanna start throwing Vader one liners at the guy. I can't harp on this enough: BioWare nailed feeling
like a Force wielder.
But as you know from the films, being a Jedi is more than just killing the big bad guy. It took three films for Vader or the Emperor to go down for the count, after all. As I mentioned at the beginning, the journey here is much more than just a buildup to your fight with Malek. Your visit to Tatooine is the best example of this. In one trip, which adds up to less than a fifth of the entire game, you bump into Bastila's mother, you buy HK-47, you make peace (or war) with the Sand People, you fight Czerka Corporation, and you kill a krayt dragon. None of which have anything to do directly with Malek or the main quest. But everything still manages to be exciting and the choices are still engaging. Sure you're fighting, leveling up with new powers, finding new lightsaber parts, and adding up your credits. But the adventure feels like it belongs in Star Wars. It manages to capture the magic and be a part of that film universe better than any Star Wars game before or after it. And it did this with a prequel that goes 4,000 years in the past.
BioWare gave me this feeling in the form of a video game. What else can I ask for?
Knights of the Old Republic is not only a crowning achievement for Western role playing games, but for player choice within the art medium as a whole. Every time I pick this game up, I'm immediately lost in it. Suddenly 30 or 40 hours have gone by in an unhealthily short period of time. No RPG has managed to grab me like Kotor has. The Mass Effect series has been a good spiritual successor of sorts, and it brought a lot of innovation in gameplay and UI design. Ultimately though, I don't think those games stand up to BioWare's work on Kotor. And I really hope that the Swtor MMO isn't the last we'll see of Star Wars RPGs.
Have any fond memories of Kotor? Wanna join me in complaining about the lack of a Kotor III? Or maybe you'd like to tell me I'm crazy and that Kotor is actually a buggy, broken, overrated mess? Whatever the case, I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments, as always, and if you like what you've read feel free to give it a heart/upvote. Hoping to make this a ten part series (as you could probably guess), so be sure to check back for number nine in the next couple of days.