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An Epic Review of Knights of the Old Republic II - The Sith Lords
Posted by Diggler - 12/12/2004 0:56

Click to enlarge
Fall to the dark side and watch your appearance degenerate
I should warn you up front that there'll be minor spoilers in this article, but most regarding the design and game mechanics than the characters and story. The Sith Lords is a game that's really all about the plot, and with that in mind I'll let you experience all the important parts for yourself, rest assured.

Here it is anyway, the sequel to 2003's game of the year; one that was not only a captivating RPG, but perhaps also the best Star Wars tale ever told.

As a pleasing bonus, this is one sequel that we didn't have to wait years upon years for. Knights of the Old Republic II - The Sith Lords is not so much a clear-cut continuation of the first game though, more of a brand new tale which is interwoven into the complex history of the original. You play a completely different character for one thing.

Before we get into all that though, let's set the scene and get you back up to speed...

The Past

Set a whopping great 4000 years before the movies, the first game told the tale of fallen Jedi Revan and Malak's plot to "do an Emperor" and take over the galaxy. Rather than decades of sneaking around with political manipulation though, they really just cut to the chase and started blowing up planets. With Revan being "incapacitated", your ultimate goal was to track down the remaining Sith Lord Malak, stop him, and of course find out some rather disturbing secrets about yourself along the way.

Despite the multiple endings, Knights of the Old Republic (or KOTOR as I'll call it) ultimately ended with Malak's plans being thwarted either way. In part two here, the smaller events and your individual choices from the last game are personalised through your dialogue choices as things unfold, but not to the extent I'd hoped. The events of the last game are ultimately left kind of vague and enigmatic for the most part, with most characters seemingly unsure about what happened exactly. Some for instance, refer to Revan as a woman, while others a man.

Either way, if you didn't play though the first one, you can plead ignorant to all this and try to fill in the gaps for yourself thanks to the extensive dialogue on offer, but I wouldn't recommend it - KOTORII is a game that really comes to life with the original under your belt. It's great to enjoy a game with such a rich and complex back story that, well, you actually experienced yourself first hand.

The Present

For this game we now find ourselves five years on, and to be honest, things aren't how you left them. The Jedi have been wiped out, the Republic is in turmoil (isn't it always?), and Revan is no where to be seen. Just how did all this happen? That, my friend, is just one of a million questions you find yourself asking as The Sith Lords kicks off. And kick off pleasingly well it does, with an opening tutorial mission that blew me away.

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Force powers have been both increased and upgraded. Make like you're Vader and snap
At first you control T3-M4, Revan's R2-inspired droid from the first game, and once again you're on the Ebon Hawk. Things aren't looking good though; the ship's severely damaged, lights are flickering on and off, fires rage, and in classic Star Wars plot-demanding fashion, the hyperdrive's broken. Enter: the droid.

As you refamiliarise yourself with the controls, it's up to T3 to sort out this little mess and get the ship back up and running, and it's a much better and more captivating intro than the last game had. Immediately you're thrust right into this amazing mystery, unravelling just enough at a time as to keep you hooked and anxious for more.

And it certainly is a mystery. Right from the first moment the questions keep piling on. If this is Revan's ship, why isn't he here? Who's that guy on the med table? Why's there a dead woman in the corner? What's the banging noise coming from that locked door? As these questions are slowly answered over the following hours, much more important and pressing questions take their place. This is a pattern that continues from beginning to end, with the game really playing with you as much as you do it, dropping tiny hints along the way. This slow reveal is expertly paced, as just when you start to feel like you want some damn answers already, you'll get that all important next clue...the small piece of the puzzle that spurs you on to find out more.

That said, it takes a very long time before the bulk of the main quest is truly revealed. In the last game you were sent off planet hopping to track down the Star Maps rather quickly in comparison, but here it feels like a lot longer before you really have any kind of real aim. Even then, it can still be rather ambiguous what it is you're actually trying to do at times. This isn't a gripe, it's all part of the mystery, with you being merely "guided by The Force", but impatient people who want all the answers up front will certainly find that aggravating. You're often left wondering where on Earth this journey will take you next, and the game is rather gutsy in that respect.

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On board the Ebon Hawk, the Millennium Falcon's brown-eyed forefather
Those same naysayers will also find the huge amounts of dialogue hard to deal with in places, but not me. KOTORII is a game you sit back and watch just as much as you play, with hundreds of hours of perfectly paced speech and social interactions. Then again, all conversations have the "Enough of this, prepare to die" choice if you'd rather just bash your way through with less of the thumb-twiddling.

I must say though, while the plot is a lot deeper and darker than the first one, it can also be a little confusing and hard to follow, especially if you aren't a Star Wars nut. When even a geek like me finds myself a little lost at times, one dreads to think how the average punter will follow what's going on. I don't necessarily mean this in a bad way, I was truly captivated from beginning to end, but having now completed it I must admit I'd be hard pressed to recount exactly what happened in places. It's certainly not all spelled out for you.

This all stands in stark contrast to the first KOTOR, which was very much a simple, carefree tale of stopping a bad guy by carrying out clearly identifiable missions. Here things are a lot more murky, with many more shades of grey.

Getting in Touch With Yourself

You play a former Jedi who was exiled in shame following a controversial decision during the Mandalorian war some years back. Stripped of your Force powers and lightsaber, it seems you disappeared off to live under a rock and haven't been heard of since. Now that shit's heating up though, The Sith see you as a threat; the one remaining Jedi, and someone who can foil their plans. And for that reason, they're coming for you. How you ended up on the Ebon Hawk though, and where the story goes from here, I'll let you find out for yourself.

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At last you can wear proper movie-style flowing Jedi robes
With that in mind, KOTORII's plot is less about you taking it to the bad guys like last time, and instead running like a pussy. In fact you spend a large part of the game in hiding; avoiding bounty hunters, lying about your Jedi heritage, and laying low as best you can. This certainly gives the game a sense of urgency and foreboding, as if evil is right behind you at all times.

KOTORII lacks a lot of the upbeat innocence of the last game. Gone are the mesmerising day time views of Taris and the gorgeous sun bathed expanses of Tatooine. Part two has much more of an ominous, gritty feel, visually reminiscent of games like Dark Forces and Shadows of the Empire. Don't take this as thinking it's done a "Prince of Persia" though, as it never loses touch with everything that made the original so great. The best example would be comparing A New Hope to The Empire Strikes Back - that really sums up KOTORII on the whole.

Graphics

Other than the addition of weather effects and some new animations, the visuals haven't seen one iota of an upgrade since the last game. If you can look past this, KOTORII is just fine in the looks department. Much like the first one, there are times when it's stunning, but also times where the cracks start to show. The environments are nicely built, even if they purposely lack all-out beauty, but in light of Half-Life 2 and Bloodlines, character models are unfortunately starting to show their age. On the plus side there's less repetition in the faces this time round, and really despite the occasional frame-rate issue, the graphics more than do their job here.

You need to bare in mind that here's a fully-fledged sequel that we've got in a little over a year since it's first incarnation. In a time when every damn game seems to use some kind of brand new cutting edge engine that necessitates upwards of four years in development hell followed by the obligatory delays, it's so refreshing to get a massive high-profile game so damn quickly for a change.

With that in mind, would I rather get KOTORII in one year, than wait four more for one that looks a little better? You bet your sweet arse I would. The Sith Lords may not be technologically cutting edge, but it's more than good enough to satisfy a plot-heavy RPG such as this.

Sound

For such a long game, KOTOR's use of full voice acting from start to finish was an amazing accomplishment. Not only that, but the acting itself was surprisingly good. You can say exactly the same for part two. The only thing I wasn't so keen on was the addition of cockney accents here and there, which somehow feel a wee bit out of place in a Star Wars setting. There's a reason Darth Maul's voice was dubbed you know.

As for the music, it once again uses a brand new score, not relying on the Star Wars music of the movies. Although not as immediately catchy as it was in the last game, I think the composer did a much more admirable job of imitating John Williams here - this stuff really sounds like it could pop up in the flicks.

Star Wars games seldom sound bad, and once again that nail has been hit on the head in The Sith Lords.

Gameplay

BioWare haven't handled this sequel themselves, instead development duty has been passed on to Obsidian Entertainment. Created by many who made a name for themselves with RPG classics like Planescape: Torment, we're in safe hands however.

Click to enlarge
With the new interface, it's now a doddle to switch from lightsaber to guns mid-fight
While the first game shone in the playability department, the more you progressed you realised certain elements could have used some major balancing. Stealth for instance, was never needed, melee combat dominated all forms of ranged combat, and you constantly found yourself taking three Jedi out on all your missions as the remaining characters felt somewhat useless in comparison.

Obsidian have done a much better job at making everything in the game feel useful now. Mines for instance, which I doubt anyone ever touched originally, become pivotal to beating some of the bigger bad guys. No longer does melee combat rule the day either, as the new interface allows instant switching to long ranged weaponry. In fact, it'll be a good 20 hours before you even pick up your first lightsaber.

Best of all though, all your various skills, whether they be computing, repairing or medical knowledge, now yield new dialogue and terminal options. A computer hacker for instance, while chatting to a technician will have extra dialogue choices that similarly a medic would have while talking to a doctor. I absolutely loved this, and it's just one way that the game makes all your different character choices have their own different effect on the gameplay experience.

Party Time

There's a much bigger emphasis on the other characters in your party this time too. Remember that subplot in KOTOR where your crew were taken prisoner and you had to nominate one person to rescue them? There's tons of that sort of thing now...including characters you might not expect. Everyone gets their one moment to shine, and I really dig that.

The character side quests are given more importance as well. No longer optional sub-plots, most are somewhat tied in to the core storyline, and subsequently makes them feel a lot more crucial to the on-going events.

Joining this greater emphasis on your party is a new "influence" system. Over time this allows you to gain the trust and loyalty of your team mates through your in-game actions. Say you have a dark side character tagging along for instance, and you save a helpless victim from getting mugged, the dark sider will complain that you're just wasting time, and subsequently lose faith in you. Alternatively, if through dialogue you placate his ego and tell him exactly what he wants to hear, you may gain it back.

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Robocop was such a KOTOR fan that his agent got him a part in the sequel
Over time, through gaining larger influence you can then alter characters on a much more fundamental level, turning dark siders to the light side, dictating the course of their life, and a whole lot more. All of this stuff is explored with immeasurable depth via the various conversation choices throughout the game, and I can honestly say there's no single character who I didn't care to follow every possible avenue with. I also love the fact that some characters will just shut you out completely unless you're nice to them...or manipulate them.

The dark vs. light side element is still present and correct, but it now feels like a lot more is at stake thanks to the influence system - it's not just yourself you have to worry about now, but the fate of your team. This ties in brilliantly with the more ambiguous style of the game, as your dark/light decisions aren't all as clear cut as before. I often found myself slipping to the dark side unintentionally, and that's just flat out cool, despite what it probably says about me as a person.

All in all your party is a great cast of mismatched faces. At the same time, the people from the first game aren't forgotten either, with numerous cameos peppered throughout. If you're a fan of HK-47, you'll be especially pleased with what's in store...

The only downer is that depending on which order you tackle the various planets, some characters may not join your party until the last few hours, robbing you of a fair bit of this side content. For this very reason in fact, three prominent party members didn't get the detailed "seeing to" I would have hoped for (although I admit, this gives me a damn good excuse to play it through again).

As well as all these obvious upgrades, the more minor additions to the game are pleasing as well. After looting dead bodies and crates for instance, they now show up as "Empty" when you select them, as to avoid endlessly searching through the same stuff over and over again. Not to mention whenever you pick up datapads, they're now automatically displayed full screen, negating the need to dig through millions of endless sub menus like we used to. The item system in general has been given a major overhaul in fact, as you can now craft and recycle stuff, giving the workbench a huge amount of new use.

On the whole, while BioWare introduced us to the core concepts and ideas, it feels like Obsidian have well and truly perfected them here. It just feels like such a more organic and deeper gameplay experience, one where every action has a consequence and a reaction.

The inventiveness and brilliance of the quests really keep things interesting the entire time, and it's a jolly good thing too, 'cos this is one long old game. I rushed through it as best I could in order to get this review up as soon as possible, skipping about half the side missions and all the swoop racing (which returns along with Pazaak), and yet still racked up over 50 hours of gameplay. I see an epic game here that could be stretched to a good 70 hours, easily.

As For the Star Wars-ness?

Once again the game strikes a nice balance of sticking to the established universe, while still straying far enough to reinforce that 4000 year time difference. There's many references to Star Wars events of the past, and some nice little *wink wink* nods to the movies too. There's also some brilliant new Force powers which I won't spoil for you, a few new alien races and even a couple of upgraded saber colours to sink your teeth into.

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Dual-wielding and double ended dildo sabers are thankfully back
The real core of the story this time is a much more detailed look at The Force though, and its implementation in the game is one that outshines any Star Wars game before it. Through The Force you can do so much more; there are points where you'll feel a disturbance and thus gain a brief glimpse into the future for example, and other times where you'll similarly see visions of the past. In one particularly brilliant moment, you'll even read the minds of your party members.

Think back to that eerie cave scene in Empire Strikes Back when Luke slices down "Vader" only to see it's actually himself underneath the mask. That kinda bizarre dark-tinged surrealism is very much prominent in The Sith Lords as a result of all this.

I should also remind people that the KOTOR engine allows for a switch to first person view when not in combat. Why do I bring this up? Without giving much away, just to point out that perhaps all Force users in your party don't quite see the same as regular humans...and this ability to "read" people can be a brilliant indication of which characters to trust along your journey.

Downers

Somewhat disappointingly, from what I can tell KOTORII is the first Star Wars game that doesn't feature a single planet from the movies. While this doesn't really have any negative impact on the gameplay, it loses a certain feeling of Star Wars nostalgia that we've always taken for granted in these games.

Still, the fact that it's more than confident enough to stick to its own planets, settings and characters speaks volumes for the quality of this series. One might argue in fact, that it's a sign the games have outgrown their movie counterparts.

Click to enlarge
Battles range from intimate 1 vs. 1 affairs, to massive free-for-all chaos
The combat also feels terribly easy at times, regardless of the difficulty level you pick. Once you hit full power Force Lightning, you can in fact obliterate entire rooms in mere seconds. It's wonderful to watch and never gets old, but you don't feel particularly challenged either. That said, there are moments where you'll come across much more worthy opponents who require some forward thinking and detailed tactics, especially near the end. I just think that if like me you're the kinda person who raids every room in the game and collects every single piece of equipment you find, you'll never find the going getting particularly tough for the most part.

KOTORII however, much like its predecessor, is more of an experience than a game. You merely follow the progression of the story and the arcs of the characters, than get bogged down in reflex testing annoyances. The fact that there's no major challenge matters not when the plot and characters are so damn engrossing, and it's all the more fun for that reason. Plus, heck, if you get restless there's always them mini-games to fall back on.

Parting Thoughts

It feels like every game I've talked about recently is somewhat blowing me away. To me these last couple of months definitely feel like a golden era for gaming, and in that respect The Sith Lords is an amazing end to a great fucking year for the industry.

Sadly, not all games turn out as well as we'd like though, as you'll see with some of the upcoming reviews. In the meantime though, grab yourself a copy of The Sith Lords as soon as humanly possible. The PC version may benefit from improved graphics and a more solid frame-rate, but I'd advise you to pick it up on Xbox anyway as it's one too good to wait two more months for.

Believe it or not, the best just got better.

(Pictures courtesy of LucasArts)

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