By: Steven 'Westlake' Carter
Thomas Wilde’s KOTOR II review (Xbox):
Written By: Steven 'Westlake' Carter
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Suppose you’re a game developer, and you create an immensely popular game. What do you do for a sequel? Well, if you’re BioWare, and the game is Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (KOTOR), you hand the responsibility off to Obsidian Software, and you concentrate on the Xbox role-playing game Jade Empire instead. That seems like an odd choice, but Obsidian Software consists mainly of former Black Isle Studios employees, and BioWare and Black Isle worked well together in the past (with Black Isle using BioWare’s Infinity Engine to create games like Icewind Dale and Planescape: Torment).
So with the ball in their court, Obsidian Software pretty much decided to make Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords (KOTOR II) into a more complicated version of KOTOR. That’s not a huge surprise. KOTOR was a pretty casual game -- which probably didn’t hurt its popularity any, since it meant anybody could play it -- and so KOTOR II could hardly have been less complicated, and Obsidian surely wasn’t going to make a carbon copy. Fortunately, the added complexity doesn’t mean the game is more difficult to play -- you can still just whack people with your lightsaber if you want -- but it means there are more layers to deal with, and there are more ramifications to what you do.
When you start up KOTOR II, you can see the change in emphasis right away. BioWare created a straightforward story for KOTOR, and they put up big, blinking road map signs so you could see what you needed to do and where you needed to go. In KOTOR II, however, your situation is much murkier. After a Jedi civil war has wiped out most of the Jedi, you play an exile from the Jedi Order, and, as you wake up on board a strange mining facility, you discover that the Sith are after you. But you don’t really know much of who you are, you have no idea why the Sith are interested in you, and you’re not sure what you should be doing next. Worse, you find some companions early in the game -- like an old lady who seems to have Force powers, and a rogue with a past -- but they’re all hiding things from you, and you can’t be sure what their motivations are. Even the trusty T3 unit seems to have secrets.
I like it when role-playing games have a mystery to them. That gives me an extra reason to keep playing, beyond collecting equipment and levels. But KOTOR II takes the sense of mystery to new heights, and not only did I not know much of anything about anything until late in the game, once it was over I still wasn’t sure if I understood what happened. I played the Jedi equivalent of a chaotic evil character in my game, somebody not especially good at subtly prying information out of people, but I faced two Sith Lords without knowing anything about them or why they were really important (I just knew one wore a mask and the other was ugly and disfigured, so they had to be evil). And when I got to the final battle, I didn’t understand why it resolved anything.
That being said, I’d rather be puzzled than bored when I play a game, and the confusing storyline just gives me another reason to play the game a second time. Hopefully when I play as a Light Side character, things will make more sense. But regardless, the conversations you have with your companions are well written and well acted, and the conflicts you resolve on the planets you visit are interesting. For example, when you visit Telos, whose surface was destroyed by the Sith during the civil war, you can either help the Ithorians or the Czerka Corporation gain the contract to restore the planet to health. The Ithorians are nice, but they don’t seem very organized, and perhaps the healing of a planet is beyond them. Czerka, meanwhile, is only in it for the money, and they might just junk the planet as long as they make a profit. So who do you choose? You can play the game dealing with issues like this, and learning more about your companions, and still have a good time even if the main storyline doesn’t make sense.
If you played KOTOR, then KOTOR II works roughly the same way, but with more of everything. If you didn’t play KOTOR, then suffice it to say that KOTOR II is a role-playing game set in the Star Wars universe. It uses familiar Dungeons and Dragons trappings, but it translates them into a science fiction setting. For example, instead of having battle hammers and crossbows and magic spells, it has lightsabers and blaster pistols and Force powers. And instead of having healing potions and a lockpicking skill, it has medpacks and a security skill. The translation works surprisingly well, and KOTOR II should be easy to get into for anybody who has played other role-playing games.
The interface is largely effective as well. You can do everything using a combination of the mouse and keyboard. The WASD keys “drive” your character, and the camera follows along behind. Then if you want to attack an enemy or open a door, you just click on it. If you want to do something other than the default action, then you can use the small, context-sensitive menu that appears over the object you clicked on. For example, when you click on an enemy, the menu gives you the option to use special attacks (like flurry and critical strike), Force powers (like lightning storm and stun droid), or throw a grenade. If you click on a door, and if the door is locked, then the menu would show options for bashing the door, picking the lock of the door, or setting a mine to blow open the door. The interface is pretty intuitive and easy to learn, and Obsidian did a nice job of introducing small changes to make it more effective than it was before (such as reworking the inventory system). The only downside, in KOTOR II as well as KOTOR, is that since the game was designed for consoles as well as the PC, the interface doesn’t use as many hotkeys as it could, and so some actions (like choosing a Force power) require many more clicks than they should.
What else is different? Basically, if you look at any area of KOTOR and compare it to the same area in KOTOR II, then the KOTOR II version has more. A lot more. I like complex role-playing games (the SPECIAL role-playing games like Fallout and Arcanum are among my favorites), and so these changes mostly made me happy. Consider the skill system. In KOTOR, skills weren’t very important. The persuade skill gave extra dialogue options and helped in quests, and it was useful for all players, but none of the other skills made much of a difference. If you had the security skill, then great, you could pick open doors. But if you didn’t have it then you could just bash the doors open instead. And if you didn’t have computer or repair skills, then it would just cost you more computer spikes and repair parts to deal with computers and droids. Not exactly heady stuff.
In KOTOR II, skills play a much larger role. First off, they now add a lot of dialogue options. If you have the repair skill, and if you talk to a droid, you might notice that it’s broken and be able to fix it. If you have the awareness skill, then you might notice if someone is lying. Moreover, Obsidian added a system where you can break down items into parts and then construct new items. That means if you have the repair skill, you get more parts when you break something down, and if you have the demolitions skill, you can use those parts to create grenades. Combined, having skills now gives you many more options in the game, and that’s always a good thing.
Or consider how companions work now. Before, you could add them to your active party, talk to them briefly to get their side quest, and then drop them without ever really doing anything with them. In KOTOR II there is a system of influence. If you say something that a character appreciates (like saying that you trust them, or that you’ll take their advice) then you gain influence, and if you insult the character, or say something they don’t believe in (such as when my character said droids were like furniture, and T3-M4 got miffed) then you lose influence. You can also gain or lose influence through the actions you take in the game. If you give money to a beggar, then your Light Side companion might be happy, but your Dark Side companion would surely think you’re wasting your time. That makes it more important to keep characters in your party who think like you do, and it means you have to be careful with the dialogue choices that you make. Then if you gain enough influence with a character, you open more dialogue options with them, and you might uncover ways to make your character or the companion character more powerful. For example, my character had a discussion with a Mandalorian about how she handled herself in an earlier battle, and she gained wisdom from the insight.
There is also an assortment of minor changes, both good and bad. All of the mini-games are back (good), but swoop racing is much more challenging than it used to be (bad), and pazaak gained a couple of new cards (good). There are new “lightsaber forms,” which you can use to add bonuses and penalties during combat (good), but they are explained almost not at all in the manual (bad), and they aren’t intuitive at all (worse). You move much faster when wearing a spacesuit now (good), but you look incredibly silly while doing it (bad). And the game still has problems with Catalyst drivers (bad), and so those of you using Radeon cards might have all sorts of problems on Dantooine again (awful, since KOTOR had the exact same problem, but at least there’s a workaround).
Overall, I liked KOTOR II a lot, just not quite as much as KOTOR. Some of the magic wasn’t there this time, whether because KOTOR II is a sequel using a similar engine, thus removing the novelty of the game, or perhaps because Obsidian tried to do too much in the game, and the things that don’t quite work or that were cut out due to time constraints have a negative influence. Or maybe it’s because I got a little lost in the story. Whatever the cause, it isn’t a huge drop-off from KOTOR to KOTOR II. KOTOR II is still a polished game with a lot of replayability, and it’s well worth buying, for fans of role-playing games and for fans of Star Wars movies both.
My KOTOR review (PC):
Thomas Wilde’s KOTOR II review (Xbox):