The Top Ten, featuring Battlefront, KOTOR, and more…
10) The Old Republic, 2011. BioWare.
I imagine this might be a tad controversial, but I liked ToR a lot. It’s a pale sequel to other Old Republic games, and as an MMO, is inherently saddled with an expiration date, but I got a lot of mileage out of it. It’s fully voiced in ways most games that make such a claim just aren’t, and even the lesser character plots (of which there are 6) seemed interesting enough to try. The playspaces are huge, the character specific starships fitting and fun, and the locations eclectic and interesting.
Taken on its own merits, it’s a damned good game, and given that it’s now entirely free to play, hard not to recommend for a least a few hours.
9) Republic Commando, 2005.
Oh, Republic Commando. How fun you were, until you weren’t. How long you forestalled your ending, padding out your runtime. How interesting your plot, until Karen Traviss lionized your characters and your fanbase decided that you were the holy grail of video games, and your not having a sequel was tantamount to a war crime.
I mean, this is a good game. Very good, even. It had some problems, but the general tone it struck was different enough from most of the rest of Star Wars that I understand the appeal. But there was never going to be a sequel. That much should have been obvious by when it was released.
Anyways, the creative director is now working on Halo 5.
8) X-Wing vs TIE Fighter, 1997.
In the end, I had to choose between this and Rogue Leader. Given that this is also a stand in for the other X-Wing and TIE fighter games, and that it’s maybe the most important flight sim franchise of all time, the answer was obvious.
Also it’s really fun, from what I remember, and very cheap on Steam as we speak.
7) Jedi Knight: Jedi Academy, 2003.
Academy, the fourth (and apparently final) game in the Dark Forces series, is the only game not to directly follow ex-mercenary Jedi Kyle Katarn, and for that its main plot suffers. While Outcast, its direct predecessor, is hardly a revolution in interactive storytelling, JA is almost painfully cliche at times.
Thankfully, that’s not the main focus. The fully-customized character interface, the greatly enhanced (and still best ever created) lightsaber combat, and the vignette-style mission structure make it something of a bite-sized Star Wars experience. Beat a few missions at a time and put it down. It makes the entire experience less taxing, and the individual missions stand out more.
If you’ve played it, you’re probably already singling out some of your favorites: the mission on Corellia where you stop a bomb on a speeding train. The rancor mission. The tomb mission on Chandrilla. The mission where you lose your lightsaber and are hunted by an arms dealer. On and on. Even the longer, chapter-ending missions are shorter than their counterparts in other games in the series, and it lends the entire affair a friendlier tone, more befitting of the adventure serials Star Wars was originally modeled after.
6) Jedi Knight: Dark Forces II, 1997.
Looking back Jedi Knight is a fairly groundbreaking game. Where it falls into a lot of the same routines as other shooters of its pre Half-Life era (platforming, endless arsenals, health packs, etc), it also finds new avenues to explore, sometimes literally. It’s a huge game, is what I mean to say, and while the levels begin to fold in on themselves near the end, it’s very strongly distinct, featuring some of the first live action Star Wars footage since Return of the Jedi wrapped.
More than that, Dark Forces II does well to distinguish itself from the (very good) DOOM clone the first game ended up seeming, mainly through use of a third-person camera for lightsaber fights — a feature that still manages to be somewhat exciting today, and must have been mind-blowing in 1997. JK’s level design, lightsaber combat, overall sound quality and propulsive plot make it inarguably one of the most distinctive EU products, and the wellspring from which two other great games sprung.
5) Star Wars Battlefront, 2004. Pandemic.
Now we’re getting into the good stuff. I have played Battlefront an incredible amount, and as far as I’m concerned, it’s basically flawless. Not a perfect game, to be sure, but it’s exactly what its premise suggests, and it guaranteed to be interesting and entertaining every time you played it. The giant, sprawling levels, the startling variation in class utility and playstyle, and just the Star Wars-iness of it. Nothing about Battlefront feels wrong or poorly implemented.
Perhaps the best thing about Battlefront was how, no matter how good you were, your player was still just a cog in the war machine. If there was any value to be drawn from this premise in the prequels, these games wrung it like water from a rock. The fact that I can look at the above screenshot and feel nothing but happy memories of a great game and not the horrid trainwreck that is Episode II is testament to that.
4) Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast, 2002.
I talked a lot about what makes Outcast different from Academy, which released a year later and uses essentially the same assets. Having played both fairly recently, it’s not the level design (which is generally sterling on both counts) that makes it the superior title. It’s not the plot, which is contrived at best. It’s not the gunplay, which, while definitely more of a factor, isn’t any less useful in Academy.
It’s the sense of culmination — of completism. This is the pinnacle of Kyle Katarn’s journey. While he exists, essentially, as the answer to a “what if Han Solo had a beard and a lightsaber” question, his journey and development over three games is nothing to be scoffed at. In Dark Forces, Kyle discovers how to be a Rebel. In Jedi Knight, he discovers his force sensitivity. In Outcast, he discovers how to be a Jedi. It’s every bit as good a character arc as Luke Skywalker’s, but with the added benefit of player agency and a wise-cracking badass with a beard.
3) Star Wars Battlefront II, 2005.
For a while, I considered the original Battlefront the superior product, for reasons stated above. It works better within its own premise. The sequel is bigger, badder, louder, and everything everyone assumes a sequel should be, without necessarily being better. Yet, I have BF2 ranked higher. Why?
The hero units don’t work as well as they should in game, BUT there’s a hero-only mode that is almost its own game waiting in the wings. The space battles are stuffy and sometimes more boring than they should be, BUT also there are space battles. A lot of the newer maps fail to spread the action out as well as the older ones, BUT the newer maps are a much larger selection of iconic Star Wars locations.
Really, it’s just fun being Darth Vader and throwing dudes into walls.
2) Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords, 2004. Obsidian.
It’s so difficult to discuss Obsidian’s regretfully rushed sequel on its own merits. Always, it has to be compared to its predecessor, to be found wanting in ways that it never really had a chance to equal. What does The Sith Lords bring on its own that merits this spot? What does it do outside of its pedigree that makes it more than just a reskin?
For starters, the thing this game does — that perhaps no other piece of Star Wars media has done as well, before or since — is truly question tenets of, well, everything. A major character in this game spends most of her screentime directly challenging the concepts of the Force, the concepts that have informed everything Star Wars since Obi-Wan gave Luke his first lightsaber in 1977, on philosophical grounds. This game takes that singularly unique idea and runs with it to the very end.
Something else this game does very well is fully commit to BioWare’s concept of modular storytelling, where each story location holds its own, self-contained mini stories inside the greater narrative. Some of the best self-sustained modules in BioWare’s history are here in this game, even if this game wasn’t actually made by BioWare. Nar Shaddaa stands out, both in the BioWare context and as the best representation of what Nar Shaddaa is in the fiction: the seediest and nastiest place in the galaxy, positively covered in grime and dirt. In fact, that’s another thing TSL does that the first doesn’t really even try; it deals less in absolutes and more in shades of gray and grime and misery. It’s a miserable, shady game, dark in tone, setting and plot in a way that seems aesthetically deliberate and not just “grim for grimness’s sake,” and in a way that deepens and shadows both KOTOR games in retrospect. Even if there isn’t a true ending, the 95% of the game that is there is quite good, and more than worth your time.
1) Knights of the Old Republic, 2003. BioWare.
OK, so before I begin (and I could probably write several thousand words on what KOTOR means to me), I’d like to single out the weird co-determinance this game shares with not only its sequel, but pretty much every Star Wars game released in the latter half of the Sixth Generation of gaming (PS2, XBOX, GameCube, etc). There was a lot of asset sharing in these games, from Jedi Outcast to Battlefront, from Republic Commando to The Clone Wars. All these games being under LucasArts’ purview lends them a strikingly coherent universal aesthetic. It’s the unspoken link that makes this game, set several millenia before the events of the original trilogy, feel so much like Star Wars. Sort of how every Final Fantasy game from the late 90s looks sort of the same despite radically different art styles. It’s almost directorial in how it links these games together visually.
That being said: Knights of the Old Republic used these assets in ways none of these games could even dream to. It used them in service of a macro plot so intricately well-written that essentially nothing else in the Star Wars canon (well, de-canon, now) can really touch it. It’s the best Star Wars product released since The Empire Strikes Back, and personally my favorite or second favorite game (depending on how recently I’ve played Half-Life 2).
I talked for a bit about how well KOTOR II’s writing shines in the margins, in taking the familiar Star Wars cliches and warping them into grotesqueries. I failed to mention that those cliches, each and every one, were lifted wholesale from something this game did first. It’s certainly understandable, similar to how Zelda: Majora’s Mask built everything it did off the skeleton of Ocarina of Time. The Sith Lords had a remarkably short production time, so it makes sense to take some of the best things about its predecessor (HK-47, Canderous, the basic setting) and refine them.
Where KOTOR II has some of the best modular storytelling in BioWare’s canon, KOTOR I has ONLY the best modular storytelling. Every planet is great and interesting in it’s own way, each one a unique sociological setting with unique conflicts that are, for the most, unsolvable. Your characters leaves an indelible mark on each place they visit, but they don’t fix everything. It’s impossible to overstate how important that is from a storytelling standpoint. It’s a pitfall of most RPG games — the savior complex — that has sunk and will continue to sink many worthy narratives.
In fact, it’s in your player character that the game truly finds power in its narrative. The game’s twist is by now old news, but its the impact that twist has that gives it meaning. Revan is not a savior. Revan is not a chosen one. Revan is not the one who will make everything better. But Revan is immensely powerful, and capable in ways that most video game protagonists could not dream of. Revan is a master strategist, mechanic, polyglot, duelist and pilot. Revan is a singularity in this universe, and everyone and everything that follows in Revan’s wake in inexorably pulled into Revan’s fate. The second game is practically dripping in Revan’s influence: what they did, what they stood for, the allies they left behind.
Plus, the game sounds great, still at least looks interesting (art design > graphical fidelity) and, if you’re into number crunching and character optimization, offers several dozen hours of finely-tuned gameplay. People who call KOTOR easy obviously have never tried to beat it on a higher difficulty.
Anyways, that’s enough. I have plenty more to say on KOTOR’s sidequests (universally interesting), KOTOR’s party members (ranging from incredibly fun and good to incredibly frustrating, but never without purpose — yes, even Carth), even KOTOR’s voice cast (sterling), but that’s enough. Just know that this is the best, greatest, and most important Star Wars game to ever exist.
Here’s hoping 2015’s Battlefront challenges it. Or at least lets you throw more dudes into TIE fighters.