The sequel to a popular game comes out a mere year and a half later, with a different developer and with three months shaved off its dev time. These are what we in the business refer to as "warning signs."
With that in mind, it's nothing short of a minor miracle that Knights of the Old Republic II turned out as well as it did. It plays a lot like the original did, blending the same addictive "well just one more planet oh my god it's five AM" gameplay with quite a few more options, several added features, and, just to ensure maximum continuity, a brand-new assortment of score-crippling bugs.
KOTORII is set five years after the events of the original game, which are now known to history as the Jedi Civil War. The former Darth Revan, whether he saved or conquered the universe (and you'll be able to pick which it was at the start of the game, in a conversation sequence), has left known space.
In his absence, the Old Republic has all but collapsed, the galaxy is still struggling to rebuild after the devastation of the Mandalorian Wars, and the Jedi Order has been nearly wiped out.
Your character used to be a Jedi Knight. After you defied the Jedi Council and followed Revan to the Mandalorian Wars, you were stripped of your rank, robbed of your connection to the Force, and exiled. Now, you're half-naked, broke, alone, unarmed, and trapped on an abandoned mining base with several dozen rogue droids and a maddeningly enigmatic old woman. One of the former tells you that someone's put an astronomically high price on your head, while the latter tells you that you, a crippled exile, are the last Jedi.
As with the last game, KOTOR2 offers you the chance to play on either the Light or Dark Side of the Force. If you fall to the Dark Side, your goal is probably to systematically hunt down and murder each of the Jedi responsible for your exile; if you're on the Light Side, you'll want to find the last remnants of the Jedi Order and organize them to deal with the revitalized Sith.
If you've played KOTOR, KOTOR2 will be comfortably familiar right from the start. Like its predecessor, this runs on a vastly modified version of the rules for the Star Wars d20 role-playing game. If you're familiar with that, you'll be familiar with a great deal of this. It really is KOTOR plus one, adding more feats, classes, items, and options to an already winning formula. You can influence your teammates' alignments, teach them the ways of the Jedi, take on Jedi and Sith prestige classes, and collect an enormous arsenal of weapons, tools, armor, and items.
If anything, it may be a little too much like the original KOTOR. Obsidian's taken a lot from the first game and dropped it into the second; you fly the same starship, visit two of the same planets, and three of the cast make returns of varying degrees of triumph. The graphics haven't improved in any notable way, the voice acting retains its competent edge, and the music is still pure bombastically-orchestral Star Wars.
A cynic would say that they've recycled a lot of the game, while an optimist would retort that there was no need to fix what wasn't broken. I mention it here simply for the sake of accuracy: KOTOR2 is less a true sequel and more like an expansion pack.
If you skipped the first game, then KOTOR2 takes a bit of getting used to. It looks a bit like it should be an action-RPG like Fable, but instead, it can shift at virtually any time from a third-person exploration system to a surprisingly fast-paced and versatile combat system.
Most of the fighting's done automatically, but if you want, you're free to micromanage each turn by pausing and setting up each character's next four actions in a handy queue. Each attack's accompanied by great incidental animations, ranging from acrobatic swordfights to the crackle and flare of Force Lightning tearing into the enemy. A lot of RPGs go to amazing and ridiculous lengths to keep their combat from being visually boring, but KOTOR2 just goes ahead and does it.
The character advancement system, which is taken in large part from d20, also takes some getting used to. In KOTOR2, you can customize each character by selecting from a list of "feats," level-dependent abilities which give the character new capabilities or combat maneuvers. By picking the right feats or using appropriate equipment, you can customize your party in a variety of ways, both cosmetically and effectively. There's no "wrong" way to do it; you can exploit the system to tear through the game, or deliberately handicap yourself with a bizarre build. (My favorite alternate build so far is the kung-fu Jedi, where you try to win every fight in the game with no other weapon but your bare hands.)
It may sound cumbersome, but after a brief learning period you'll be tearing through the game. KOTOR2 is a little short on an initial playthrough, providing about twenty-four hours worth of gameplay for a completionist, but the Light Side game is distinctly and obviously different from the Dark Side game. You can also change the game based upon your main character's skills, class, or gender. It's easy to play through KOTOR2 at least four times before you'll get bored.
In so doing, however, you'll spot any number of problems or bizarre omissions. KOTOR2 was originally supposed to come out in February of 2005, but it was moved up. While it's great that we didn't have to wait any longer for another great Xbox RPG, it's also blatantly obvious that the game was rushed.
I'm not talking about glitches or bugs just yet, although they're here in abundance. Instead, I'm talking about plot threads that don't go anywhere, because the payoff was cut so Obsidian could make the deadline. HK-47 has a subplot without a resolution, several areas have unaccountably inaccessible areas, there's at least one subquest that's almost impossible to complete, a couple of characters are built up as important and then abandoned, and the last two hours of the game are a running fight scene without any storyline to speak of. After sixteen to twenty hours' worth of intricately plotted role-playing goodness, KOTOR2 chucks it out the window and makes the game's final level a shooting gallery.
Then, of course, there are the glitches. The game was out for about two days before people started finding infinite money, experience, or Light Side points bugs. More importantly, there are quite a few quirks and gimmicks that're just plain strange. A character that's exhausted its plot value will fade away before your eyes, several items' names are too big for the menu (equip a Mandalorian Disintegrator and you'll see what I mean), CPU characters will often get lost three rooms back, the Light/Dark Mastery stat bonus simply does not apply to anyone other than your main character, and the game often violates the space-time continuum in order to involve the protagonist in a conversation.
I don't want to make it sound like the game's unplayable, because it isn't. It's insanely playable, and I've lost about forty-eight hours to it already. For every glitch or minor gripe I've got with the game, there's a good plot twist, a funny line of dialogue, or a necessary improvement to the engine. Obsidian ditched the level cap, added randomized items, and made Knights of the Old Republic II a better game in almost every respect than its predecessor. I just wish they'd had the time to iron all the bugs out of the final version.