This sequel to one of the most widely acclaimed console releases of 2003 returns players to a galaxy far, far away, and an especially longtime ago. Set 4,000 years before the events of the Star Wars: Episode I film, this second role-playing adventure takes place five years after the events of the original Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. Players take the role of an exiled Jedi, who is believed to be the last of the noble order and is being actively hunted by the Sith. Beginning the game as a Jedi, players can choose which Jedi class their character will be, but as they start off as a beleaguered fugitive, they'll have no light saber, and they'll need to work to develop their special skills and powers.
This sequel refines the interface for easier navigation, and offers many new force powers for characters to learn, but the gameplay's third-person exploration and turn-based combat should feel familiar to fans of the original. Once again, through their decisions and actions, players will develop their characters toward the Light or Dark side of the Force, and the way that they progress down the path of Good or Evil will have great influence over the story and will determine which characters are willing to join their party. The game follows its own original storyline, but a number of characters and events from the first game are referenced.
Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II -- The Sith Lords is the first game developed by Obsidian Entertainment, a studio founded by former Black Isle and Blizzard designers. The sub-series' original creator, BioWare, has ties to Obsidian and its team of veteran developers, and was also involved in the design of this sequel.
Of the three original Star Wars films, the general consensus is that The Empire Strikes Back is the best of the lot. As the middle part of the trilogy, George Lucas was free to play around with his characters, muddy up the waters, so to speak, and give more nuance and shades of gray. This, after all, was the movie where we found out that Ben Kenobi wasn't the saintly old wizard he had appeared to be in the first movie. He and Yoda were manipulating Luke and Leia and everybody else in their war against the Empire. In many ways, that's the vibe I got from Knights of the Old Republic II. All credit to Obsidian Entertainment, a developer made up of Black Isle refugees, for creating a storyline that may be one of the best I've seen since the legendary Planescape: Torment.
The game begins some five years after the end of the first game. You play a former Jedi who has been cut off from the Force, drifting unconscious in the battered wreck of the Ebon Hawk. After landing on a nearby mining colony, though, you find that discovering how you got there is the least part of the Galaxy-spanning storyline. It seems things haven't been going terribly well for the Republic since Darth Malak's saga ended in the first game. The Sith are everywhere, the Republic is about to fall, and the Jedi are almost extinct. You, naturally, are at the center of this battle, and whether you go Light Side or Dark Side, it'll be your decisions that determine the fate of the universe.
It's that storyline that immediately stands out as the single strongest feature of KotOR II -- and when I say strongest, I'm not just comparing it to its immediate predecessor or the other aspects of the game. The story in this game is one of the best I've ever seen in a video game, instantly joining the pantheon of classics like System Shock 2, the Baldur's Gate series, or Planescape: Torment. Where the choice in the first game was about choosing between the Dark Side and the Light Side, KotOR II probes that choice, revealing subtleties in what would seem to be stark moral choices.
In just one example, the ethos of the Jedi is explored through Atris, one of the Jedi Council currently in hiding. She is unquestionably a Light Side Jedi, yet her devotion to peace at any cost blinded her to the perils of pacifism when she urged caution and negotiation while the Mandalorians were torching whole planets. When you first meet her, she remains trapped in her moral arrogance, refusing to believe that sometimes resistance to aggression is the better choice and that the Jedi Council's caution caused millions to die and might have been indirectly responsible for Malak and Revan falling to the Dark Side.
The nuances of the Dark Side are also explored. Different gradations of "evil" are examined -- how the noble ambitions of Revan and Malak in the first game became twisted into a parody of their former selves and how that compares to the game's new villain who has no interest in conquest or control -- only destruction. Much of that comes through dialogue with one of your companions, Kreia, a woman who who has "fallen" from the Dark Side and now maintains an aggressively hostile neutrality to both sides of the Force. Kreia is, without a doubt, the most compelling character in the game. Her constant challenges on why I made the choices I did was the reason I kept her with me through the entire game.
Just how well Kreia is written comes home after the first two planets are completed. While you get access to your Force powers pretty quickly, it'll be some time before you get your lightsaber. At first I thought this a negative. What's the point in playing a Jedi if you don't have a lightsaber? Just at the moment I started really getting annoyed, I had a talk with Kreia during which I told her that I wanted my lightsaber, and she proceeded to grill me on exactly why I wanted one. Through the conversation, I began to understand just what powerful symbolism the Jedi weapons carry and how a Jedi's attitude affects the type, color and style of lightsaber they use. For a brief moment, the lightsaber stopped being merely a cool weapon and instead became an awesome responsibility. I had fallen into my role and was truly thinking like a Jedi -- and there's no better compliment I can give a "role"-playing game. When I finally received my lightsaber, it became much more meaningful because of the game's storytelling.
The rest of your companions are no slouches, either (there's an evil Wookiee!). They're all far more compelling than the characters in the first game, with complicated back stories and mysterious motivations that will play themselves out throughout the course of the stories. In fact, since your Dark or Light Side choices will also affect your companions, playing as a Dark Side Jedi this time around is a more enjoyable experience than the first game. In fact, the only knock against the game's storyline is that, just like The Empire Strikes Back, a lot of what's going on doesn't make much sense if you haven't played the first game. There's a laudable attempt to fill the player in on what happened before, but the previous story is referenced a lot and people who haven't played the first game may feel left out.
Unfortunately, as good as the storyline and basic gameplay are, there are more than a few issues that keep this game from reaching the bar set by the first KotOR. The first: bugs. There a lot of them; most are just annoying, but a few are deadly. While I didn't experience any total crashes, it happened to our managing editor twice and neither of us have underpowered systems. A more annoying bug was one that caused the game to fold down onto my Windows taskbar whenever it switched out of the game engine in order to show an FMV cutscene. There was a weird bug that caused in-engine cutscenes to be blurry if your character was running with Force Speed just before the game shifted to the scene.
Then there were all the little things. Cutscenes where the camera was inside a character's head, leaving nothing but eyes and a mouth talking on the screen, or cutscenes where two characters were having a conversation and one of them was completely missing. Any one of these might be forgivable (except the crashes, of course), but all of them together just mark a title that desperately needed another few weeks (or months) of polish.
Worse than the bugs, however, and far more inexplicable, is the truly god-awful A.I. possessed by the characters. I can't count the number of times my companions got in my way while I was trying to maneuver through a tight spot. During combat, I'd be getting pummeled because one of my characters decided not to bother getting involved in the fight and was two rooms away staring at the wall. One mission in particular had me tearing my hair out, where I had to escort a Czerka employee out of a military base. It would have been easy (considering I had killed all of the monsters already), except that the employee just refused to follow me. He would take a few steps and then stop. I was reduced to continually asking him to follow me again and again, moving him a few steps each time toward the exit. Thanks, that's 20 minutes of my life I'm never getting back.
The bottom line on the game's bugs is that they're not only hard to forgive, but hard to explain. I never had the problems with movement and combat A.I. in the first KotOR that I had with this one. It's the same engine, and it reuses a lot of the same material. How could this have gotten screwed up?
The same kind of "half-baked" feel applies to the graphics. One of the few issues I had with the original game was the lack of graphic variety in both the environment and the character models. If anything, this problem is even worse in KotOR II. First, now that a year has slipped by, the graphics, which were really only "good" back in 2003, are showing their age. That being said, there's a lot that a talented team of artists can do with design that can overcome behind-the-times technology (see World of Warcraft for a great example of this). None of that is evident in KotOR II. Every interior location seems to be the same collection of sterile, boring, corridors and rooms without any apparent indication that these are places people actually live. There's a distinct lack of signage, artwork, or any of the ancillary details that could bring the world to life.
This problem is particularly bad on Nar Shaddaa, where the "Refugee Sector" (which, by the way, is the cleanest, most clutter-free refugee camp I've ever seen) is a rat's maze of identical passages that serve no apparent gameplay purpose other than to be annoying. There are also far too many examples of raw, seemingly unfinished artwork in the game. A particular egregious one is a Hutt crime lord you'll need to deal with during the game that's missing a ton of detail.
The sound is also somewhat of a mixed bag. The music, much of it re-used from the first game, is excellent. Most of the voice-over work is very good also, although there are a few more examples of bad voice-acting than I remember from the first game. The major problem is that, to my mind, even in the good voice work, there just isn't the same sense of conviction in the actor's voices I remember from the first game. There were too many times I could hear voice-actors wrestling with the (admittedly complicated) dialogue. It's as if the entire voice track consisted of first and second takes.
Here's the thing, though. Despite all the annoyances I've just listed, this is still a great game. I sat and played the game for eight straight hours. The story and RPG elements of the game are just that good. The game compels you, keeps pulling you onward to the next revelation, the next philosophical discussion, the next plot twist, and for all the times I cursed at my monitor when the hinky A.I. screwed something up, there was never a question in my mind that I wasn't going to finish this game. I simply had to find out how the story ended, and while there were some stumbling blocks along the way, I'm extremely glad I took the trip.
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