As part of a recent project to preserve pre/early internet gaming tapes and CDs, the videogame YouTube channel Noclip digitized an E3 2001 behind closed doors presentation of Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. And it doesn't look like the KotOR I remember rushing home from middle school to play back in the early aughts.
My trained RPG nerd's ear instantly recognized project lead (and later Mass Effect helmsman) Casey Hudson as the one giving the talk, and he starts off slow, cycling through some pieces of KotOR concept art that have made the rounds online and in official companion books before. There is something fun to how he shows off art of what will eventually be Jolee Bindo or the Ebon Hawk in the final game without naming names.
We start getting to the real meat of weird, surreal, early KotOR with a model viewer demo of a rough-looking early Bastila as she cycles through various animations—it seems pretty quaint in hindsight, but KotOR's model detail, character animations, and even procedural lip synching were a huge leap for RPG production values at the time. Even still, this not-Bastila looks like she belongs in a 6/10 PS2 launch title or an episode of Xavier Renegade Angel.
That uncanniness only ramps up when Hudson loads into an early version of the Anchorhead settlement on Tatooine. The camera in this early build of KotOR is higher and farther away from your character, while the proportions of everything seem off. Characters are a little more squat and almost stylized, while the environments look scaled up and cavernous compared to the final game. It's a similar layout to the final Anchorhead though, and I'll bet BioWare iterated on this map for the final version. Curiously, Tatooine seems to be under active Sith occupation in this version of the game, as opposed to the Czerka colony in the release build. Hudson also demonstrates some active landspeeder traffic that didn't make it to the final game.
Hudson next loads into starter world Taris, and it looks like the final game's Endar Spire boarding sequence was once planned to be a Sith ground invasion of the surface of the planet. The familiar tunnels of the lower city are here blown out and scaled up to be almost unrecognizable, while an early version of KotOR's cinematic fencing combat is a lot more ornate and acrobatic than in the final game—but it also probably would have been more cumbersome to play. Our unnamed, Carth Onasi-looking protagonist eventually makes his way outdoors to be greeted by the Taris skyline, as well as a threatening, in-progress version of Darth Malak.
I just finished another replay of KotOR, and I absolutely love the surreal, dreamlike feeling of seeing it in its incomplete form here—it's so familiar in certain ways while also being utterly alien. It feels like a half-remembered game from my childhood, something I would have seen getting reviewed on Toonami but that my parents wouldn't let me have.
The timing of this demo is also very interesting to me: May 2001 would place it more than a full year before the release of Neverwinter Nights, and a split focus from BioWare may help explain that game's more undercooked original campaign. Speaking of Neverwinter Nights, Noclip has stated that they have a similar presentation for that game to upload soon, and as PC Gamer's resident Neverwinter Nights freak, I am ready and raring to pore over every second of it.