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Last year, the classic console RPG formula that couldn't lose--that is, the Final Fantasy-esque gameplay found in most of today's popular console RPG's--was re-invented when uber-successful PC RPG developer BioWare released an epic sci-fi gem. Sure, BioWare was already one of the elite names with the PC RPG crowd, but surely it is a giant gameplay leap from PC to console... right? After last year, I'm afraid that line has been blurred, but back to the subject at hand. The Canadian developer's runaway hit, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic came to pass in glory and praise and will now be duly receiving the sequel treatment--yet not from BioWare. Like a perfectly executed olympic sprint relay, Obsidian Entertainment of Southern California has taken the baton from BioWare for what is now officially called: Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic: The Sith Lords.
Obsidian is made up of key members who've worked on some of the best RPG's ever designed including Baldur's Gate, Fallout and Planescape: Torment. By any gamer's yard stick, those illustrious credentials should warrant them worthy of pretty much any RPG undertaking.
The Sith Lords is set 5 years after the original. As the Empire Strikes Back was to A New Hope, the stage is darker this time around and things are not quite so "cheery." The galaxy is in disarray after the climactic battle between Darth Malak and Revan in the last story, and appropriate enough for the title, there are several Sith Lords hunting the last of the Jedi. Apparently they're very efficient, as your character is now the last known Jedi... well, ex-Jedi now, and is an exile after having fought in the legendary Mandalorian Wars. These wars were a large part of the dark-sider Canderous Ordo's history in the first game and will now of course be explained even further. Of course, your ex-Jedi status makes you a target, and that's where the story begins.
In order to preserve the integrity of the storyline you chose in the first game, Obsidian is cleverly allowing your new character to tell the game what happened early on through dialogue with another NPC. This in turn will alter the course of events in The Sith Lords, especially which NPCs remain alive or are now deceased.
Unlike in the original game, which featured a large section where your character trained from force-sensitive wannabe to the first rank of Jedi in a Rocky-esque sequence, there will be no similar events in The Sith Lords. In the sequel, you begin as one of the 3 Jedi classes (Consular, Sentinel or Guardian), will gradually re-gain your lost force sensitivity, re-acquire new force powers and optionally hunt for your lightsaber.
Speaking of Force Powers, you'll have a healthy repertoire of new ones to learn and use in this game. These include Force Sight, which allows your character to see through walls and also witness the light-side/dark-side disposition of other characters via their "aura" color (red for dark, blue for light). Battle Meditation is the power that Bastila used in the last game, and which unfortunately, you never were able to take advantage of until now; it's conceivable that it will enhance other's abilities around you. Other new powers include Force Confusion, Force Rage and Force Clairvoyance, though there will be many more.
As the original KotOR featured the three ordinary classes to begin with and three Jedi Classes to choose from later, The Sith Lords now includes six "prestige classes" that allow your character to further develop after he or she reaches a high enough level (level 20 in the Star Wars D20 system that this game is based on). For Light Side players, the prestige classes include:
Jedi Master: (Consular-type) Regenerates force power more quickly, and can inspire companions and followers.
Jedi Watchman: (Sentinel-type) Generally super abilities with the force and control over the lightsaber.
Jedi Weapon Master: (Guardian-type) Lightsaber deflection and pain threshold increased, and does more saber damage.
Dark Side Prestige Classes include:
Sith Assassin: Mastery of stealth and camouflage.
Sith Lord: Mastery of corrupting the wills of others.
Sith Marauder: Mastery of weapons and increased pain threshold.
It is unknown what type of trial the Jedi will have to go through in order to achieve this ranking, but likely (-wishful thinking on my part) an involving quest.
The Sith Lords features 7 new fully explorable planets, one of which you've already visited in the last game but will likely not recognize in its current state: Dantooine. Another new planet is Telos, the one Carth in the original game hailed from. Expect to see cameos and back-story filler from Carth, T3-M4, HK-47 (of course) and a slew of others who survived the last story. So does that mean Revan will make an appearance? This has been confirmed, but his/her story kept secret. One thing I wonder is whether they will make two different Revans, one of each sex for continuity sake.
Since many of the old characters will be returning in some form or another (but not playable), what do we know about the new companions? At this time, only a few of their names. Krea is an older female Jedi (counterpoint to Jolee?) who offers aid in the beginning, and is apparently staying hidden from the Sith. T3-M4, the R2-D2-like robot from the first game will lead you through the tutorial sequence. Finally, Atton Rand is a roguish character, said to be similar to Han Solo from the movies. In all, you'll have 10 potential party members to pool from.
In the original, it was common for players everywhere to use the characters they became most efficient with, which meant that the Jedi Jolee, Juhani and Bastila were used more often than any other set of party members. Since they were Jedi, there was really no reason for keeping say, Mission or T3-M4 in your party when you could wield the power of these dominant companions unless you wanted the flavor or additional quests. In The Sith Lords, different companions may be off doing their own mission, thereby "allowing" you to utilize some of the other party members more often. It is said that each companion will have a uniquely helpful ability or trait and that missions will be designed to take advantage of these, encouraging diversification.
Obsidian's goal is to add realism and party dynamics that weren't entirely fleshed out in the previous game. Instead of sticking with you through your every choice and battle even if they disapprove, party members will now react to your choices either positively or negatively based on their own light-side/dark-side disposition. You may find that some will disapprove and refuse to journey with you until you change your ways.
Part of what makes these companions unique is their gear, and you'll find hundreds of new items in The Sith Lords. The workbench weapon/armor upgrade system of KotOR is being modified to include dozens of new combinations and options for items, and best of all will be partially dependent on what skills you choose and their current level. For example, if your character has a high stealth skill, you should have more stealth-tailored upgrade options at the workbench, and as your skill improves, so will your number of choices. Don't worry, lightsaber upgrades are being re-designed as well to include a mountain of new choices including colors and types of crystals.
Another upgrade is with the mini-games. They're all back: Swoop Racing, Ebon Hawk gunning, and Pazaak playing, but they're all being re-worked to add more depth and fun. Pazaak will be getting new cards, Swoop Racing more options, and Ebon Hawk gunning less singularity. Perhaps most importantly, they're all optional, including the gunning.
The improvements to the game come not only from items, upgrades, mini-games and character dynamics. The graphics and interface will receive slight tweaks as well, though since the first game worked so well, the changes in these areas are going to be more cosmetic and functional. With the graphics, slight improvements are being made to the lighting system as well as number of polygons, and they are also introducing weather effects. The animations for the characters are going to be at least doubled, as they've implemented a new system in which as your character improves in ability, the animation tied to that ability will also evolve. No longer will each tier of the Force Push series look identical; with each new level of power, there will be a new "push" animation.
The interface has stayed essentially the same, but you'll notice a number of key improvements. There is a new auto fade out of the main interface when exploring the world and not in combat or another action, resulting in a virtually full-screen view of your surroundings. An additional quick change button has been added to the action bar which allows you to change up to two weapon configurations on the fly. Being a veteran of several KotOR play-throughs myself, it was in my opinion one of the most needed things to be changed. Hopefully they'll take fan input and add the ability to quickly scroll through your inventory and select more than one item at a time as well.
As you've undoubtedly gathered by now, KotOR II is shaping up to be a worthy sequel to one of the best RPG's of all time. Time will tell if Obsidian Entertainment can juxtapose all the improvements into something just as engaging as Knights of the Old Republic, but if all we have to go on is the credentials of its employees, I'd bet on their success.