Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II

Post-Launch Review
Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II - The Sith Lords
Developer: Obsidian Entertainment
Released: December 2004
Played: story complete in 27 hours with TSLRCM installed (see Post Launch section below)


Five years after the events of Knights of the Old Republic, the Jedi are nearly extinct, wiped out by the Sith. You are the last known Jedi - an exile no longer connected to the Force, banished from the Jedi Order for their role in the atrocities of the Mandalorian Wars. The exile must reconnect to the Force to battle a new Sith threat with the power to destroy whole worlds and feed on the Force.

At Launch

KOTOR II was well received, earning average review scores of 85%. Reviewers were very impressed with the quality of the writing (both story and characters), and most enjoyed the combat system despite being unchanged from the first game. Some critics noted many minor to major technical problems (some game breaking) and many also commented that the ending of the game felt rushed and incomplete due to the game's development being rushed to release during the Christmas season.

Post Launch

A handful of official patches were released to fix some of the game's technical problems. They're included in the Steam version; if you got the game from another source you might need to manually seek out the patches.
Fans of the game released a mod, titled The Sith Lords Restored Content Mod, that fixes most bugs in the game, but more notably, restores a lot of content that was cut from the final game, including a lot of character development (cutscenes and dialogue) as well as several missions relating to the assassin droid HK-47.
Before I say anything about KOTOR II, I'll repeat one more time that I played with the Restored Content Mod (hereafter referred to as RCM), which fixes a lot of bugs and restores cut content. If I'm going on about something and you're like "WTF is he talking about" it's probably from the mod.

To start, one of the first things I noticed, and one that was painfully obvious through the whole game, is that even with all the fixes in the RCM, KOTOR II is still somewhat buggy. I lost audio during some cutscenes, the game decided to skip over some of the dialogue, I fell out of the level geometry once, and the grass in the Dxun jungle somehow manages to both be invisible and still somehow block the view of character models (grass fix here). Fortunately, despite their obvious visibility, none of these bugs are really crippling or serious.
The game will inevitably feel a little dated if you play it now. The visuals aren't bad by any means, but indoor environments tend to be very bland and samey - floors, walls, and ceilings are often made of the same material, so there's very little variation indoors. The player character is not voiced at all, which will feel very archaic if you've played, say, Mass Effect.

Like in the first KOTOR, gameplay is virtually identical to Bioware's old D&D RPGs like Neverwinter Nights, but Star Wars themed. I didn't like Dragon Age because the system felt clunky and old-fashioned, but for some reason I had a lot of fun with KOTOR II despite it using an even older version of the same system. It's probably because KOTOR is based on Dungeons & Dragons version 3.5, so I know the system (and how to break it). By the end of the game I felt ludicrously overpowered (see screenshot below for my endgame stats) but as somewhat of a powergamer it felt rewarding to me instead of boring. That said, some of the Force powers seem way too over-the-top - for example, maxed out Force Lightning can clear an entire room with one shot, and Enlightenment (a late-game light side power you earn at a certain point in the story) is stupidly powerful if you've trained in its linked abilities (it activates your Armor, Speed, and Valor powers all at the same time at a reduced cost, and each of those powers is very strong on its own).
If you're at all familiar with D&D, you know that this Strength score is ABSURD
Pathfinding is pretty bad. When trying to move into position for a melee attack I often watch my character approach, turn around, back away, jiggle a bit, and then move into range. Party members sometimes get stuck around corners and don't contribute to fights. Manual movement control works better but you can't do it for all characters at once.

Pathfinding aside, the only times the combat system felt really clunky and awkward to me were when the game sent me on solo missions with only one party member. I did enjoy splitting into 2 parties; my problem is specifically with solo missions. The turn-based tactical system loses all its depth when you only have one character to command. As an example, when I played the restored HK droid factory, my HK-47 was so strong that he could take on 8 or 10 HK-50 assassins with little danger... but HK-50s have a lot of hit points, so that meant just sitting there clicking Sniper Shot over and over until all the enemies died.
Actually, on the subject of the HK factory... it was fun, but if you haven't played it you didn't really miss that much. There's some clever stuff where you get HK-47 to figure out how to bypass his self-preservation programming that doesn't allow him to harm other HK units (or allow them to harm him), but the first level is visually boring and the hilarious HK dialogue turns grating when it's all you hear. I did score some very cool upgrades for HK-47, though unfortunately I didn't even get to use him for the rest of the game - the HK factory is so late that the rest of the game afterwards is either solo or pre-selected party.
I was quite impressed with the story of KOTOR II. Everything ties together in the end - things that seemed to be mere backstory elements are important to character and plot development; the planets you visit have relevance to the conclusion of the game and aren't just recruit missions. I'm impressed that the game actually has an explanation for why your party will follow orders to do things against their alignment or belief. And while the main character isn't the same person as in the first game, the events of KOTOR are nevertheless extremely important for the setting, and Revan (the player character in KOTOR) plays a major role despite not actually being present. Even more amazing, despite heavy reliance on the first game, KOTOR II doesn't require any knowledge of its predecessor beyond what it tells you.
KOTOR II does an excellent job pushing moral ambiguity in the normally black-and-white (or Light and Dark) Star Wars universe, with a major backstory and characterization element being whether your character was right or wrong to participate in the Mandalorian wars five years ago. Companion character Kreia, in particular, is a focal point of moral ambiguity. When she's in the party, the game will sometimes give you a binary choice (do you or don't you, is X right or wrong) and Kreia will chastise you no matter which option you choose. If you choose good actions Kreia tells you that even good acts can have negative consequences, and that by taking away another's struggle you remove opportunities for growth. If you choose evil actions she tells you that inflicting unnecessary suffering helps no one (not even yourself), and that the pursuit of power alone is meaningless and dangerous.
The ending and the big reveal are even crazier. Highlight for spoilers - all this white space until the next image is spoiler text, not a mistake.
So it turns out Kreia has been the real enemy all along. I really love the idea of having a party member turn out to be a bad guy, I love Kreia's character, and I love her goal of destroying the Force. The game doesn't make it super clear why has that goal, but my interpretation is that she hates that the Force guides living things and influences destiny, and she believes that free will cannot exist as long as the Force does. The exile is the one creature in all the universe that has ever lived completely and totally separate from the Force, and this makes him/her the only being to ever truly have free will and agency. The Jedi and the Sith believe that life comes from the Force, but Kreia sees the exile as proof that that's not necessarily true. By destroying the Force her goal is not to end all life in the universe, but to release the universe from its influence and grant true free will to all (of course, it helps that she'll be sticking it to all the Jedi and Sith who have ever wronged her). And in a neat twist that the game completely fails to properly point out, by falling into the old light side / dark side binary at all, you're opposing Kreia no matter which side you're on.
And now that I've finished KOTOR II, I understand why so many people were upset that BioWare made The Old Republic (the MMO) and not KOTOR III. The ending of this game is both a satisfying conclusion to the story and at the same time a very ominous opening to an even bigger story/threat which really begs for a sequel.

Recommendation: play it with TSLRCM.

Knights of the Old Republic 2 is a great game made even better by the Restored Content Mod, which returns a lot of characterization, a bit more coherence, and bug fixes. Even with the RCM there are still some problems, but according to what I've read the game is much better with the mod installed. The story is great and does some very unusual things for a Star Wars game, including a different moral focus than Light vs Dark, persistently hammering at whether the Jedi Order is really in the right, and constant questioning of how far you can go in the name of doing what's right before it becomes wrong.

1 comment:

  1. A note: Don't install the Restored Content Mod's sister mod, the Droid Planet M4-78. It's all fan-created, and it's excruciatingly dull. Nothing but poor voice acting and buggy running-back-and-forth quests.