Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II - The Sith Lords PC Review

Eschalon: Book II

Publisher:LucasArts
Developer:Obsidian Entertainment
Release Date:2004-12-06
Genre:
  • Action,Role-Playing
Platforms: Theme: Perspective:
  • First-Person,Third-Person
Buy this Game: Amazon ebay
Put a good RPG development team on a game, then force the product out on the market too early. The result? Knights of the Old Republic II (KotOR2). In some ways, this title surpasses the original. In others, it falls short, not merely of KotOR, but of a variety of computerized RPGs that have become standard references in this field, such as Baldur's Gate 2, Planescape: Torment, and even Ultima VII: The Black Gate. What sets these games apart from the rest? Depth of roleplaying universe. Each one of these three RPGs provided, in its separate measure and fashion, a layering of involvement and simulated activity that brought the gaming environment alive. By contrast, KotOR2 sometimes feels like a pretty empty place. Emptier even than KotOR, which is saying something.

The Good

First, there's the matter of what we might call, to wax technical, Lots of Little Improvements. Each may seem small on its own, especially to marketing teams that want blazing headlines, but taken together, they stack fairly tall on the horizon. Consider: in KotOR, ranged weaponry was pretty much a dead loss. Those rifles looked good, but the best could only dent a helmet if you really tried hard and fired at it for a very long time, preferably at point-blank range. Melee was King, whether with a lightsaber or something equally slicey and dicey. KotOR2 remedies this, with better balance among weaponry types, and numerous improvements you can make that turn a rifle into a work of murderous art. Want to stun your victim, do electrical, sonic, cold, flaming, or even unstoppable damage all with a long-range item? This game delivers.

That brings up another LI: the sheer variety of items you'll find. KotOR seemed limited in this respect. There were a lot of weapons to find lying about, seemingly waiting for your hot little hands, but they tended to be all too alike. Obsidian has invented a whole raft of well-balanced goodies of every sort. Not the least attraction of all this is to read the background on a given headband, shield device, suit of armor, etc. There's some nice pieces of lore to be found, and many ways to configure the equipment of your party.

Improvements you can make is a phrase I used above for weapons in KotOR2, and yes, that's another LI. In fact, there are two kinds of workbenches you can access. One lets you make upgradeable devices for lightsabers, ranged and melee weapons and armor; then you can add or remove from items in your inventory that support the changes. (Not everything will, but there's a gratifying number that do.) One drawback: you can't create upgrade devices and apply them on the same screen. Instead, you have to back out of the creation screen, then enter a separate one for upgrading. Yes, I know; I feel your pain. But surely a jedi can withstand a little of that.

That brings us to a corollary LI: another workbench dedicated to what we might call (other stuff.) This includes all those power-ups for feats, skills, attributes and such that you wear, as well as health improving items (medpaks, etc) and health decreasing items (mines, grenades, etc). So even if you can't find that next merchant with just the stock you want, provided you're near a workbench, you can build it, yourself.

To do so requires parts that you breakdown other items in your inventory. What you choose to breakdown is up to you. Nicely complicating matters is the fact that most items require a specific level in a given skill to make; so if you don't have a Security skill level of 20, you won't be able to craft that Vibration Cell Mk3 you've always wanted for your very own.

And that's another LI: unlike KotOR, skills actually count for something in KotOR2. Sure, certain party members can substitute for you in making items associated with a given skill, but everybody in your party uses your Repair skill when it comes to breaking down items so if you don't have a very high score in that, you'll get far fewer parts to construct new items. What's more, you get experience for disarming/recovering mines, so you'll want a high Awareness skill; experience for accomplishing goals on the computer through the Computer Use skill; better rewards with a high Persuade skill; better healing for all your party through your own personal Treat Injury skill; and some nice experience bonuses for opening doors and containers using your Security skill.

For me, however, the best things in KotOR2 relate to personality depth and variety. The characters in KotOR were woefully two-dimensional and unimaginative traits they share with so much else in George Lucas' Star Wars universe, that derives from the Flash Gordon movie serials of the 1930s. KotOR2 gives us complex motivations: each of the major Evil Types acts and thinks differently, and has their own reasons for their choices. Similarly, the party members on your side are each there for their own specific reasons. With a careful selection of multiple choice dialog options, you can actually acquire greater influence over the latter gaining back stories, and options that improve some attributes, skills, feats, etc.

One party member starts off sounding like an all-too-typical smart-aleck space jockey/rogue, but it's a deliberate front, a satire on the tired cliché. Another one of your party members is a classic in my opinion, a remarkable figure who mixes bitterness, apparent concern for you, contempt for others and great wisdom in one powerful, dangerous package. Her character actually reminded me very much of a certain book in Planescape: Torment, whose advice (once you read it) would gradually convert your alignment to evil. This character, plus the fact that some party NPCs are drawn to you through your supposed personal charisma, led me to check the game's credits. I wasn't surprised to discover that Chris Avellone, PS:T's Lead Designer, also fulfilled that role in KotOR2. The writing in this game at times approaches PS:T in its quality, even if the average quest and the ridiculously easy puzzles are still aimed (per LucasArts' requirements) at a pre-adolescent audience.

The Bad

LucasArts is a company with a mission; and in the glorious words of Mel Brooks, from Spaceballs, it's (Moichandising!) So what if KotOR2 wasn't finished at the projected time of release? The sales were needed: it was bottom line time. Out goes an incomplete KotOR2, to be scooped up by hypnotized gamers, everywhere.

Alright, I'll be fair: maybe not all the gamers who bought KotOR2 were hypnotized. Certainly a few were reviewers, and they got their copies, free. I'll go even further: there were likely quite a few people who bought KotOR2 figuring that it would be a complete game, because LucasArts just wouldn't do anything like publishing an unfinished title, would they? Oh, you poor, idealistic soul, you. There are simply too many instances in KotOR2 where things feel rushed; where remarks in conversation don't lead to future incidents as they should; even a case where a particular city exists with hardly an accessible interior. Why are there inconsistencies in so many back details in the game? I don't want to give anything away, but the worst may be left for last: the conclusion of the game is as anti-climatic as anything that has come out of an RPG in years.

This is undoubtedly the worst of it, and it's bad enough. But I want to register a few complaints about the series in general. First, the environments of both games have felt empty. Long, blank corridors seem to exist merely to take up time: no wonder your party stayed fit, having to walk for miles. There's also very little to interact with. Unlike Morrowind, you can't gather various samples of plants as you move through a rain forest. Nor can you grab wire cutters and sabotage electrical systems; or throw chairs in the way of advancing enemies; or blow holes in walls with explosives, or jump down a level onto people walking below. Despite all the claims of the Wonder and Mystery That Is 3D, you still can't use the third dimension anymore than you could in Betrayal at Krondor, the first 3D RPG from 1993.

And if dialog and personal interactions are more complex in KotOR2 than its predecessor, both games still suffer from simple-minded quests and puzzles, as noted above. Perhaps worse still, the puzzles are ridiculously out-of-character. Who ever heard of silly number puzzles being used to guard extremely expensive computer systems that control entire bases? Or so-called mysteries for you to solve that have some computer-controlled drudge spoon-feeding you every step of the way? In this respect, Betrayal at Krondor was actually superior to both KotOR titles. It offered word-locked chests based on elaborate riddles, action-based puzzles in the realworld, and a mystery-based chapter that could be solved in several ways, but took a certain amount of thought.

Linearity is another issue. Of course, all RPGs are linear to an extent: as long as they have goals, there is a progress towards that goal. But many disguise that linearity by allowing you all the time in the world to explore a fascinating world. Regrettably, there's nothing fascinating about the pretty but largely non-interactive and repetitive worlds of the KotOR games, and there's no real room to explore. Rain forest planets invariably have paths you can't stray from no matter how you try, and very few paths, at that. Temperate planets with large urban areas have surprisingly little of it open to your examination, and very few people in those areas you can get at.

Even those few individuals who show up often repeat the same mind-numbing group of two or three rumors over and over in a travesty of conversation.

Finally, there's the matter of the AI. On an average level of difficulty, your human-controlled team is simply better than twice the number of their computer-driven opponents. Why is it that they can't do something as simple and basic as concentrating fire on one of your characters, instead of spreading it out? I hate to summon forth the spectre of Betrayal at Krondor again, but.in battle, enemies employed diverse strategies, and many were pretty smart. You can practically breeze through either KotOR game's combat scenes on autopilot, save for a few that force you to confront various leaders.

In short, the games lacked sufficient content for their length, and were too easy by half.

That said, I enjoyed many other aspects of both titles, at least on the PC. (I also played KotOR on the Xbox, but found the controls unwieldy.) There were a nice sense of urgency and build to KotOR, and its followup from Obsidian has truly engrossing NPCs among friends and enemies, as mentioned above. I like the artwork and voiceovers of both games, and the writing in KotOR2. And if LucasArts had only allowed sufficient time for finishing the title.

But this is where you came in. Suffice to say, if you enjoyed KotOR, you'll almost certainly enjoy its successor, with caveats.