When I first beat the original Knights of the Old Republic I sat back and said, “Woe be unto the game that has to follow this.” I knew one would follow, as surely as the sun rises in the east upon every dawn, because making money is the only thing that keeps a series going. Look at the Resident Evil series if you need an example: It has stagnated for the past 11 games (there has been 11 total), yet Capcom keeps pumping them out because they are a solid and dependable source of income. The original Knights of the Old Republic was a huge moneymaker for both Bioware and Lucasarts, and this new game has done so well already thus far on both XBOX and PC pre-order that a sequel is almost a given. You can fully expect Knights of the Old Republic III to be announced within the next few weeks if it hasn't been already.
Today though, I am here to talk to you about the current chapter in the saga, Knights of the Old Republic II – The Sith Lords, and as is typical with RPGs in general and this series in particular, I have to describe how this is a great game without detailing almost any of the reasons why this is so. Just be aware that minor spoilers may follow, related to discussing certain characters in the game and specific situations not critical to the central plot. I will not reveal any vital details of the plot nor give away any character's secrets that the game chooses to uncover later in the game, however if you are someone who does not want to know absolutely anything about these types of games before you play, then this review is not for you.
The graphics and sound engines powering Knights of the Old Republic II are nearly identical to the ones used in the previous game. Bioware claimed then it was an entirely rebuilt engine, not related to Neverwinter Night's engine in any way, but I wasn't convinced before and I'm not now. It has a nearly identical feel, similar menus and layout, familiar graphic options, and the same console. This is not a bad thing, but as with the original game, the engine's playing environments are somewhat sparse and plain due to the inherent limitations of the XBOX console, which the engine was designed and optimized for. Character models are still fantastic of course, just like the first game, and there have been a few minor improvements and additions to battle effects and the particle system. None of this is really noticeable, but the series isn't about graphics and gimmicks anyway, so it doesn't even matter. The voice acting continues the high standard for excellence set by the first game.
As most of you who are familiar with the series already know, these games essentially live or die on the strength of their plot, characters, and availability of choices as the story progresses. In these respects, Knights of the Old Republic II is a more than worthy successor to its storied parent, and is especially strong with its new characters and the choices it allows the player to make in both dealing with the world and in dealing with the members of the party. It throws a battalion of (mostly) new characters at you, each with their own personal agenda and motives for what they are doing and how they are doing it. As the game plays out, you are awarded 'Influence Points' based on how you deal with each character in your party interactions, and you can influence your members toward either the dark or the light side, depending which you yourself choose during the course of the game. Some of the characters, like Atton, whom you will immediately think of as a cross between Han Solo and Carth Onasi if you've played the original game, might appear bland and predictable at first glance, but once you expose more of their character and history they become much more complex individuals than you'd believe. Discovering what Atton did in his past and how it changed him is a shocking and touching experience; classic Star Wars storytelling doesn't get much better than this. Other characters, like Kreia, seem to have constantly conflicting motives. They will do things that seem to clearly denote dark side or Sith leanings, but by doing them they are often doing things that directly aid you in your path through the game, and that is where Knights of the Old Republic II breaks off in a big way from its predecessor.
The original Knights of the Old Republic had two clearly defined paths of morality: The side of 'good' and 'moral' choices, termed 'the light side', and the path of selfish, 'evil', and often downright sadistic choices, better known as 'the dark side'. However, this installment is not so clearly defined. Yes, the types of choices you make in Knights of the Old Republic II will determine your light or dark side alignment in almost the same way as the first game, but there is a much bigger gray area here, especially in the way you interact with people. I often found that despite doing the 'right' thing, like reuniting an enslaved woman with her husband she thought dead, I was scolded repeatedly by Kreia. Her understanding of the universe, and once you get to know her better you'll begin to understand how deep it is, dictates that the smaller things are unimportant in the larger picture, and that by helping people you often hurt them by not allowing them a chance to help themselves. This lesson is displayed more than once in the game, but only once clearly: If you choose to give a poor beggar five credits, a measly sum even for the poorest of Jedi, he thanks you profusely and you gain a small amount of light side points. He runs off to spend it on his needs, but Kreia decides to take that moment to interrupt your adventures and show you, through the force, what happens to him: He is beaten up by another beggar for his credits. Kreia then warns you that actions such as charity are not worthwhile to people who do not deserve it. Now, I didn't graduate from Morality School, but who decides who deserves charity and whether or not said charity is worthwhile? Kreia goes on to say how each choice you make creates a multi-branching stream of effects that involve hundreds if not thousands of people.
Gee, thanks for the lesson professor, but I already learned about that in Star Trek. How about this: If I had not given him the five credits, he might have starved to death, been killed by another beggar for not handing over credits he didn't even have, or perhaps he even would have stayed in his spot on the corner to continue begging and then gotten killed in the crossfire when I ended up wiping out half the mercenaries on the planet. My point is that, in this game as in real life, you are responsible for your choices and how they affect the people you deal with, because you cannot see down the event chain as to what will become, only what is. A Jedi Master is supposed to see that far down the event chain, yes, but the medium of this computer game does not provide us with the adequate tools to properly facilitate this kind of foresight, and so I found myself constantly arguing with a computer game character over the nature of right and wrong. Bravo Obsidian, bravo. To be able to create that level of interactive dialog and to actually make me care is impressive indeed, as to date only a few games have ever managed to do that. I do hope that many more are to follow in the footsteps of games such as this and Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines to create experiences that are both mentally challenging and memorable as set pieces of interactive cinema.
The combat system in Knights of the Old Republic II is very similar to what was used in the original game, with only a few new variations. It is still based on the D20 AD&D system (though purists of AD&D scorn the idea), and battles are still found in quasi-realtime 'rounds'. The things that make it a bit different are the new Jedi combat techniques called 'Lightsaber Forms', new feats that give new types of combat bonuses such as when multiple party members attack a single target, and the new prestige classes that add a bit of spice to the statistical aspect of the game. In reality, I found most of this quite pointless, because even as the weakest combat Jedi class, a Consular, I was able to plow through the entire game with only minor difficulties on the default difficulty level of Normal, and I never even bothered to use different Lightsaber Forms or specialized feats. When forced to use a party without my primary character, however, the game became almost impossibly difficult. Fortunately, this did not happen often, and combat was generally a fun diversion from the real meat of the game: Dialogs, interactions, and decisions.
All that said, I do have reservations about this title and the way it has been brought to market prematurely. The most egregious example is the astounding amount of bugs missed by the Quality Assurance team at Obsidian. Especially flagrant are the numerous crashes discovered on ATI cards and by people running with certain DVD and CD creation programs that use custom ASPI drivers, to name just a few. It took me over 3 hours to get the game running at a level that I felt was playable on my Radeon 9700 Pro, and the eventual solution (placing the 4.11 catalyst OpenGL dll in the game directory, forcing it to use the older driver) is not something most gamers are going to easily discover. Even after I did manage to get the game running fairly smoothly, I still experienced random lockups every few hours. Before I came across the 4.11 OpenGL fix, no amount of minimizing the graphical settings or changing video drivers would fix my problems, which ranged from constant desktop crashes to framerates in the single digits upon loading a saved game or transitioning a zone. Strangely enough, toggling anti-aliasing on and off fixed the latter problem, but only until I loaded a game or transition a zone again, then it was back! As an example of how deep the game's technical problems run, allow me to quote an excerpt from the readme that shipped with the game:
The game may freeze or crash to a blank screen if you play
in one level for extended periods of time. This was typically
seen when playing the game between thirty and forty minutes
without transitioning to a new level or movie. We recommend
that you save the game often to avoid losing progress if you
encounter this issue.
How did a flaw this serious ever escape QA and ship with a finished product? Oh, it all makes sense now: Simply don't play in any one area for very long! That's great! Too bad some of the areas of the game are so complex and dialog rich you might spend double the 'developer recommended time' in a zone, thus earning you a nice crash. I don't doubt many of my crashes were due to this, as I've spent longer than 40 minutes in a zone many times simply because I lose track of time with all there is to do and see.
The other serious issue listed next to the previous one in the readme is yet another flaw which completely cripples one aspect of the game, rendering it unplayable, and, again, should never have escaped QA. I again quote:
The Gear Shift function in the swoop race mini-game is set
to the Left mouse button and cannot be re-mapped. There is
no setting for this function in the Key Mapping options menu.
Wonderful. I never really liked swoop racing anyway, and that's a good thing too, because without being able to remap the gear shift for the swoop bike there is no possible way I could ever win a single race with the highly inaccurate mouse as my only control method of a twitch based racing game. Thanks Obsidian, you did an excellent job of screwing over people that enjoy tiresome and pointless mini-games! Fortunately the other mini-games that were mandatory in the previous game (like turret battles against Sith fighters) are used little or none at all here, and when they do show up they are usually optional.
Another minor complain I have with Obsidian's design of this game is the clear cut laziness of their content creation team. Perhaps at some early point in the process a decision was made to re-use levels from the previous game to speed production time and thus ensure a faster product to market, but I got really sick of seeing sections and especially large areas re-used from the first game, with only minor or cosmetic alterations to mask the fact that these levels have been seen before, often multiple times. Also, dialog lines used for NPCs not essential to the story of any quest are extremely limited, and when I say limited, I mean even more limited than the original game. Limited as in, nearly every single male NPC in the entire Telos Station area says the same exact line of dialog in exactly the same voice, and the females are the same but with a new line and a female voice. This story is repeated with faces, many of which were used in the original game dozens of times, that appear again in this game, identical to their counterparts from the first installment all those many years ago. I know the Clone Wars are a big part of the Star Wars universe, but at this point in history they haven't happened yet! Talk about taking the quick and easy way out! Obsidian, you may yet turn to the dark side of game development if you do not change your ways.
There are also scripting bugs with quests that cropped up from time to time; a quest I had completed did not remove itself from my active quest list, and I even took a screen shot of two Mira's standing side by side when the stationary version of her in Nar Shadaa forgot to despawn after I recruited her into my group. Oops.
However, despite the aforementioned complaints, I still must conclude that Knights of the Old Republic II – The Sith Lords is a masterpiece. It is more than a worthy successor to the original game, and it continues the strong tradition that Bioware started with an epic space opera of morality and thought provoking decisions that affect the lives of both individuals and entire cultures. The Knights of the Old Republic series may someday become a rehashed cash-in that attempts to continue riding the coat tails of its successful forefathers to market success, but today is not that day. Knights of the Old Republic II – The Sith Lords is one of the best games of 2005.