It's not an easy task for a new developer to helm the sequel to a popular game, especially when the original won Game of the Year honors the year prior. With fan expectations high, there's a lot of pressure for Obsidian Entertainment to deliver a solid follow up to Knights of the Old Republic
. Put your worries aside, Obsidian has done a fine job with the sequel. Offering a deep story, interesting characters, and new Force powers to light up your TV screen, Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords
won't disappoint fans of the original.
A Galaxy in Peril
KOTOR II takes place roughly five years after the events of the original. It won't be a problem following the storyline if you're new to the series, but certain characters and events will have a bit more meaning to those who've played the first Knights. Your created character awakens in the medical bay of a mining station with no recollection of recent events. Don't worry, you're not playing the standard amnesiac who wields unknown power. Instead, your character has vivid recollections of her (or his) past and of the power she once wielded, which has been mysteriously stripped away.
Your 45-hour journey across the galaxy is about much more than just discovering your character's true nature. Believing you to be the last of the Jedi, the Sith pursue you tenaciously. But the Sith are not your only enemy. Something is threatening the galaxy. What it is, how it is to be stopped, and your own role in shaping the future of the Republic won't be answered until the very end of your adventure.
The original KOTOR had a spectacular twist near the end of the game that dropped jaws around the globe. The Sith Lords doesn't have that single big Sixth Sense-type twist, instead choosing to fill the entire game with the unexpected. Your party, which can hold up to ten other characters, is filled with unreliable members. Almost everyone in your crew has an ulterior motive and more than a few have good reason to hate rather than honor you. Even your droids do some suspicious things. Who can you trust? You may be guessing until the very end.
KOTOR II's overall story is not quite as strong as the sweeping epic of the original, but its pieces are more compelling. Kreia, your de facto mentor, raises some interesting philosophical questions throughout your journey. KOTOR II is one of the rare Star Wars games that doesn't seem mystified by the universe, but instead approaches it with a sociologist's eye. What is the real difference between Jedi and Sith? How is that difference perceived by the common man (or Wookie or Twi'lek)? Does the Republic -- on the brink of dissolution -- deserve to be saved? Many raise these questions throughout KOTOR II, but Kreia is the main source of great dialogue and philosophizing.
When the dialogue is silent, KOTOR II's emotional core is punctuated by an excellent score. This is one of the best soundtracks of the years, with more than an hour of original music. John Williams set a standard with the Star Wars movies and the music of KOTOR II resonates his influence. The score is just as much a part of the story, because it helps set the mood of a moment and adds a human element to a video game world.
Many of the smaller story elements -- the music, the questions about the very nature of good and evil -- are stronger than the original KOTOR, but Obsidian didn't do the best job at tying them all together. The story starts strong but stumbles across the finish line. And KOTOR II suffers from some of the same problems of the original. Though the dialogue is often intriguing, the characters remain almost motionless, providing nothing of visual interest. There's a hell of a lot of standing around. Videogames are, after all, a visual medium and the scenes with dialogue are often too static. I like KOTOR II's story, especially since it ties in with the events of the first game, but it doesn't come together in the end as well as it should have. Annie Get Your Lightsaber
Knights of the Old Republic II is structured almost exactly like the original. You awake without knowing where you are, then escape to the Ebon Hawk and proceed to jump from planet to planet (often choosing where to go next), solving each world's unique problems or causing new ones of your own doing. Once you've exhausted the planets on the map, the final phase of The Sith Lords kicks in, propelling you forward towards numerous revelations and a climactic battle to determine the future of the Republic.
Each planet you visit offers numerous NPCs to interact with, some required goals to accomplish, and a hefty number of optional objectives. These range from mercenary missions filled with opportunities for violence to fetch quests, which are packed with the chance to, well, fetch stuff. The missions aren't too surprising and don't feel all that exciting as a whole, but many of them lead to new information about your character, your party members, or the role of the Jedi and Sith in your persecution.
The combat system has not been changed from the original. It's still a brilliant mixture of real-time and turn-based action. While you can pause the game and queue the actions of your three-person exploration team, you can also choose your actions on the fly. Though everything happens in real-time, behind the scenes everything is still determined by rounds. So you will see your Jedi standing still for a second before delivering an action, because their turn hasn't happened. It's a smart system that utilizes the best of real-time and turn-based role-playing games. The interface is easy, the menu systems fantastic -- just like the original.
There are a few new wrinkles added to combat that make things a little more interesting. It's going to take some time before you receive your Lightsaber (it took me 17 hours to acquire mine), but once you have the handy energy sword you begin learning Lightsaber Forms. Think of these almost like martial arts styles. You can switch to any of the forms you've learned at any time, even outside of combat. Each form has its benefits and drawbacks. Shin-Cho works well when you are surrounded, while Juyo is an overly aggressive form good for one-on-one battles (but leaves you more open to Force attacks). It's surprising to see how vulnerable certain forms make you in the wrong situation and how powerful they can be when chosen wisely.
Along with the Lightsaber forms, there are more than 60 new feats and Force powers available. The majority of these new offerings can't be chosen when leveling up. Instead, these new talents are awarded for your specific class. As you progress in the Force, you'll be able to choose a second Jedi class, one that is even more specific than the one chosen at character creation. These new six classes are broken up into three apiece for Jedi and Sith. If you go Dark Side, you only have the three Sith offerings (Sith Assassin being my favorite). Go to the Light and you have three Jedi classes to choose from. Each of these classes has specific powers and feats connected to them, meaning that to see every power in KOTOR II would require an excessive amount of replay.
Combat is tough in the early goings of KOTOR II, but gets much easier once you obtain your Lightsaber. There's no level cap, so you can get pretty powerful before the final battle. By the time you reach the last few areas, you'll be able to rip almost any enemy to shreds. In a way this makes sense, since you are building up your power to be a great Jedi (or Sith). Scrubs shouldn't be able to touch you. One of the last worlds is just a mess of Apprentice Sith being slaughtered by your superior swordsmanship. The only problem is this ease remains in some of the final boss battles. I won both of the final battles without dying or feeling particularly challenged, a far cry from the difficult end-game against Malak in the original KOTOR. I wish the bosses gained a power boost based on your experience level to offer some difficulty in their final defeat. But the boss battles are pretty interesting, if not particularly challenging. It's the revelations they provide that proves more engaging than the combat itself. Give in to Your Hate
Most of your planetary visits focus on your search for the Jedi master hiding on its surface. Whether you are hunting them down or seeking their guidance depends on how you want to play KOTOR II as your actions and words once again decide if you walk the Light or Dark path.
Star Wars' morality play is given a bit of an upgrade for The Sith Lords, as pretty much every mission and really almost every conversation have options for good or evil. Some of your choices have major consequences and an immediate affect on the situation. But there are far more that are subtle cruelties or generosities. The dialogue trees are often extensive, allowing for multiple good or evil responses. You can choose the severity of a response and if you are Dark Side, you'll come across a number of moments where you can do some truly heinous acts.
I Force persuaded a thug to give me all his credits and jump off a ledge. "You know, if I jump, I'll get to the ground a lot faster," he said right before making the leap. On another occasion, I ran into a Twi'lek who lost his wife in a hand of Pazaak (which returns along with Swoop racing). I offered to help him out and went to the new owner of said wife, who had put the poor green girl to work dancing in the Cantina. I won her back in a nerve-racking Pazaak game. Once won, I was given two options: Return her to her husband or put her back to work, so I could collect her earnings. I think you can guess which one I chose. Oh, it's good to be evil.
The decision to go Dark or Light is not based on one incident. Instead, you'll be making these choices from the first dialogue right up until the very last spoken word. Your moral compass can open new dialogue paths, new missions, and even make different characters available to join your party.
While your destination will be the same, the ultimate journey and the reactions of NPCS varies greatly based on your leanings. When you start becoming truly Dark, your character's face shows signs of the strain and NPCs comment on your appearance, some even acting frightened at your visage.
The constant struggle between Dark and Light goes beyond your own character. Based on your actions and your words, other members of your party can have a change of alignment, swinging to either the Light or Dark Side. Your actions truly affect those around you.
The Psychology of Persuasion
Influence is a new addition to KOTOR II and it plays a rather large role in shaping your party. Each member of your party has his or her own motivations and personality. When you speak to them, choosing the right responses can sometimes earn or lose influence over that character. Take Kreia, for example. She does not care which path you choose, only that you choose a path and do it with conviction. Decisive answers and finding ways to put yourself in control of a situation will impress Kreia and earn influence. Atton (the annoying Carth character for KOTOR II), is a wannabe Han Solo and while he has a good heart, he understands the value of self-preservation and profit.
Learning the personalities of your party members is not essential to beating KOTOR II, but if you ignore influence, you'll be missing out on one of the best RPG elements in The Sith Lords. If you decide to be Dark, you must learn ways to manipulate party members so that you satisfy what they want to hear, but still get away with what you want to do. A Light Side person would need to be negotiator, finding ways to reach out to darker characters, but not lose hold of their own morality. It's some tricky stuff, but it pays off in several ways.
If you have high influence over another character, they begin to slide towards your moral view. This means that if you can gain influence over a Light Side character, you can pull them down into the Dark. On the other end of things, a Light Side player can gain the trust of their Dark allies and bring them salvation. A character you influence is more likely to give you information or tell you the secrets of their past. Influence isn't a game gimmick. Yes, you can ignore it, but influence is tied into the overall story. It's not subtle either, as you are told on several occasions about the important of influence in the final conflict to come. Influence is a great addition and I particularly like that it has some significance to the story so that it doesn't feel tacked on just to add something new for the sequel.
A Call to Tech Support
Playing KOTOR II, I had one big fear -- that Obsidian would defile the greatness BioWare gave us last year. Obsidian has more than lived up to the challenge in terms of gameplay and story. However, as much as I love the story, the voice-acting, and the new Force powers, Obsidian has done little to improve on the technology of a year-and-a-half ago. Yes, there's now rain and snow and the environments look great, but there's still some major framerate issues throughout and the load times are just as long as before. Though the worlds may be a bit bigger, the individual sections between loads seems about the same size. Those load times remain a killer, especially since some quests require you to traverse back and forth between sections multiple times.
It's a real shame that Obsidian couldn't do more to improve on the technology. When the first KOTOR hit, a lot of this was forgivable. It was a new engine and a spectacular game. Obsidian worked on an established engine and overall it looks almost identical to last year's offering. There are also a number of bugs in the game. This was the case with the first game as well, but again, I'd hoped for a smoother experience the second time around, but KOTOR II actually seems a little buggier. With better presentation, load times, and a little better storytelling in the end, KOTOR II would actually be better than the original. As it stands, The Sith Lords is still a fantastic game, warts and all.
©2004, IGN Entertainment, Inc. All Rights Reserved