Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords

KOTOR 2 was ostensibly a great game once, but it came out in 2004, and as of 2014, I can’t say it’s aged well. I hoped I’d like it more, but in a post-Mass Effect world–and more specifically, post-Mass Effect 2–it is obsolete. In any case it’s not hard to enjoy a “travel from place to place, shoving your nose into other peoples’ business” game, but a good story is usually the only reason to even attempt to play a really old title in the genre, and in this case I think it’s weighed down too much by a lot of Star Wars expanded universe junk I couldn’t even begin to keep track of. That includes KOTOR 1’s junk, since it was a decade ago when I played that.

A couple characters were memorable or likeable enough, although I wasn’t exactly bonding with any of them: HK-47 returned from the original, still funny and still getting his affectations stolen by robots in Starbound and who knows what else. The old woman Kreia is probably the most stand-out new face, but her cryptic scenes and speeches were sometimes difficult to slog through. I liked Bao-Dur’s weird Christopher Walken cadence, and he had a good vibe in general, but not much to talk about. And I liked dragging Visas around, because even with the “malleable personality” cliche, I found her more interesting than Mira, or the Disciple, or Mandalore, or G0-T0, or Atton–maybe it’s just fun to try and change somebody, and if there’s a wish-fulfillment angle, people aren’t going to be too put-off by a cliche. The only party member I haven’t listed is T3-M4, but he’s more like a dog than a person. Still, who doesn’t like having a dog around?

I played a female protagonist and while some of the less interesting party members crushed on me, I didn’t stumble into a romance with any of them, which was a bit of a relief, because romance is the worst in this genre. Reading up on it, I see that romance is possible in KOTOR 2, but minimal. So I guess that’s alright, for male characters, or for someone who liked Atton or the Disciple more. Spoiled by Mass Effect, I would’ve preferred if there was a planet I could land on to survey the damage of Atton’s past life directly, and as for the Disciple, well… he’s not even referred to by a name. The closest thing to a good moment with him was when he bowed during his introduction, and I had a chance to say “Thanks for the polite bow. You must be a gentleman,” but it wasn’t really what I’d hoped for, because he didn’t pick up on my mockery of Nice Guy dorks who say “m’lady”.

Part of the game’s weakness is its age, as expectations have risen, but this was also a game known for shipping in something of an unfinished state, with quests ending unsatisfactorily and doors remaining locked forever, due to all the cut content. A few fans are still putting in an unduly amount of time fixing the game up, and I played with TSLRCM 1.8.3 installed, which came out only two months ago. Even with it, KOTOR 2 is still buggy: mostly things that likely can’t be addressed by a mod. Nine times out of ten a modders has a weaker sense of design than the original creators, and so mods rarely address fundamental design problems even if they had the ability. The patch also adds in amateur voice acting for a restored character who didn’t make the cut, which is about the worst thing I could imagine. The voice acting was already done on budget–half the characters are aliens whose dialogue consists of repeated, snippets of “FEEDON GHELFA VON INU VON GHELFA,” which really hindered my ability to read the subtitles–but unprofessional VAs are a higher order of crime. (I also lost interest in the Skywind fan-project the day I found out that they were doing away with one of Morrowind’s best features–the minimally-voiced NPCs.)

The restoration mods got me thinking about how the better parts of this game could survive unscathed in 2014, though, if presented in a completely new way. Something like Mass Effect 3 meets Dark Souls, with a good feel for lightsaber combat, would be the pie-in-the-sky fantasy for a remake. An isometric Fallout-style remake would be interesting, too. Nothing could really be salvaged from the engine or the geometrically-simple, sparse environments and textures. So why keep anything but the script, and the systems as they exist on paper? Food for thought.

The karma system–light and dark sides of the force–falls into the most crude category of old-fashioned video game morality bars, like SMT4 or Fallout 3. This “karma number” system is slightly less useful than the Mass Effect approach to morality, which ranks below the New Vegas style, which, in its own turn, ranks below The Witcher’s style (where karma isn’t tracked at all, but flags are, so factions only react directly to specific deeds). But despite its use of this weak system, KOTOR 2 force karma doesn’t really lock you out of anything, which I find ludically harmonious with its occasional exploration of the somewhat Christian “it’s never too late to seek redemption” theme. Not to mention the themes of Star Wars, I guess, where a jedi probably never becomes too good to fall.

This isn’t the best game to turn to for great tests and debates about moral codes–for that, try Human Revolution, The Walking Dead, or The Witcher 2–but the system does apparently do a few other interesting things: “Influence”, which the player holds over their followers (earned through your typical verbally manipulative nonsense) tends to drag them over to the player’s side of the force-karma-bar–or shift them away from it, if they dislike you, possibly causing them to turn to the dark side if you’re too unlikable in your good-guy run. There’s no way I could go through another whole playthrough to test this out for myself, but since it’s disadvantageous, both in terms of lore access and combat stats, to lower the influence held over a follower, this means they’ll all gravitate toward the same side of the force. This makes sense narratively, but the characters already all tend to play similarly, and this compounds that by encouraging them to all use the same force powers. One way to fix this would be by giving each follower a unique tree of skills based on whatever their class ostensibly is, as Dragon Age 2 (another real-time-pause game) did.

The difficulty was a bit unstable, but generally, it was hardest at the beginning: you had to pick a class and assign attribute scores, knowing nothing about the system you were heading into, and then you’d get punished for the first dozen levels if you went magic-heavy, since you didn’t have spells yet. The game’s slow start was a bigger issue, but as a power-based character, I did have to thoroughly save-scum my way through a couple optional fights: every time you get into a duel, it’s with some jerk who says, “Oh, you think you’re tough, huh? Let’s see how tough you are without your powers, because an assessment of which of us is stronger can only be considered fair if you’re not allowed to do anything I’m incapable of doing.” Bastards.

The game is too technical in its descriptions of abilities, weapons, etc., operating heavily in the realm of D&D despite being run by a computer and able to crunch numbers without a player there to roll any dice. If I hadn’t already understood difficulty class and what “2d6” meant and all of that stuff already, I would’ve found it incredibly daunting. A few premade builds and then having a few skill paths within them would’ve been far more accessible and fun. I don’t like to make a permanent decision about my dexterity score ten seconds into a game I don’t fully understand, and while you can auto-assign skill points and perks, there’s no long-term strategy in the choices it makes, so anyone using it would really have their work cut out for them.

I didn’t stress out over a few poorly-allocated skill points, because there’s very little to go on and the game was generally pretty easy later on anyway (with the exception of the tedious restored-content HK Factory level, but such are the perils of accepting some random modder’s judgement calls). It also didn’t help that the UI presented information in a dense and poorly sortable way. I can’t sort weapons and armor out of my equipment screen, I can’t quickly determine at a glance who is equipping what, I can’t make the game remember a loadout when I need to unequip things, nor can I unequip characters remotely. All the plain white text makes it hard to parse what effects are on an item, or to see which effects come from upgrades, and which ones are inherent properties of the item.

They gave the main character options for their past that the player couldn’t possibly know about, which is a tricky thing to conceptualize in a video game. New Vegas did this too, but sparingly; asking whether the player character had ever been to some place, or met some guy. It’s common enough in D&D for the player to invent their own backstory like that and work it in, but if anything, in a video game, it reminds me who really holds the keys: not the player. You’re not really in charge of your own backstory, so it feels not so much like I’m actually generating my history at that moment as I am choosing whether to lie or not, but not knowing which option is the lie. And at any point the game may mix it up and start telling you what your history was, once again, so hopefully you didn’t get too accustomed to making things up.

As usual with these games, the most fun parts are when you’re idiotically jogging around quest hubs, intimidating thugs and not worrying about whether you might pass an invisible line in the ground, get locked into a cutscene, and get transported to another planet before you get a chance to loot a corpse. I do vaguely feel like the original KOTOR was more exciting, that it had some more grand moments. I can’t adequately compare this to something I played so long ago, but I do still vividly recall this guy, and I don’t think KOTOR 2 held anything so memorable. (Skimming over that article, I see that he appears again in the The Old Republic, which almost makes me want to look into an MMO. Almost.) But while in thinking about a game I played ten years ago, and how what lingers in my mind is usually going to be a character or an event, in the game I played a day ago I’m much more likely to fixate on how my stupid squadmates were difficult to control, how they kept running into minefields, or the times when they’d stubbornly auto-queue a melee attack before using the spells I told them to use, so they would run in close on their own and try to cast ranged spells within stabbing distance.

I suspect that KOTOR 1 had these problems too, and its characters were probably even less memorable–I don’t remember Canderous, or Carth Onasi, even though I’m supposed to. I remember HK-47, and Bastila, vaguely. There was a wookie with a life debt to a twi’lek or something? The point is, if somebody with a fresher memory told me that KOTOR 1 was–in terms of its interface, environments, character balance, morality, general design sense, narrative themes, or whatever–a worse game than KOTOR 2, I’d probably believe them.

The reviewer finds this game hard to get excited about, but still has a positive opinion of it. It may be somewhat fun, having good features or ideas counterbalanced by a few boring parts, bad design or other fundamentally irritating qualities that can’t easily be overlooked. Alternatively, it could be pleasant, but with nothing new to offer. Worth a little money if you’ve got the time for it.

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