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Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic 2 Review

By Jeff Buckland, 12/20/2004

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Many who have gone through Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic say that it's the best thing to happen to Star Wars since the original movie trilogy. Now, that's a bold statement for someone who's only seen the movies to actually believe, but after going through the first game, I'm one of the people who agrees with this sentiment. You can probably deduce that I expected a lot from the sequel to KOTOR, and I wasn't about to give Obsidian Entertainment any slack on this - KOTOR was an absolutely brilliant game, and I don't care who makes the sequel. It needs to live up to the name and deliver at least as good an RPG experience for me to be satisfied.

This sequel comes about a year and a half after KOTOR hit stores, and it's pretty obvious even ten minutes into the game that Obsidian has kept many KOTOR conventions constant here. The problem is that the first game's overall story was so powerful that not only would Obsidian have trouble making anything that KOTOR fans would actually like, but also that they must deal with the open-ended plot elements of the first game. Many things had to be written and designed this time around so that those who did the game as a good guy or bad guy (and as a man or a woman) have a place in the sequel. This means that a ton of overlapping spoken dialogue was created, as well as other tidbits just to cover the major events of the first game.

On top of this, Obsidian clearly honors the major revelation in the first game by actually not spoiling it in the sequel. While this was the noble thing to do from a game design perspective, it seems that it wreaked havoc on the sequel's introduction. You'll wake up with amnesia - yes, this handy old Bioware-favorite plot element comes back - and must piece together what's happened not only in the days leading up to your predicament near the planet of Peragus, but in the five or so years since the events of the first game.

When I first started playing KOTOR2, I wasn't impressed by its low-key, slow start. The setting, a mostly-dead mining station out in the boondocks of the galaxy, didn't help the situation. This lethargy continues for a few hours before the game really picks up, and I fear that those without the attention span (or the fan dedication that the first game created) will give up on KOTOR2 before it really starts to shine. But when it does, you can expect to see a great story, beautiful new places to fight in, engaging, dynamic characters, and tons of cool new equipment to play with.

One thing you'll begin to notice early on is that the original convention of choosing between two extremes on the moral spectrum has been loosened up. Now, you'll have more conversation options, and far fewer of them are the monosyllabic "huh?" type of replies seen in the first game. Your character will show his or her intelligence, insight, and good-evil alignment with the answers you can choose from, and many of these make much more sense. There's also the fact that if you choose to travel with Jedi most of the time, they won't both complain at you every time you do something evil. In fact, Kreia - the old woman who becomes a new teacher for you - is liable to berate you for just about any overly good or evil act. It's tough love from her.

The influence system compounds all this. Sure, you could turn a couple of your party members to the dark side in KOTOR, but this was merely a single plot event, a single turning point in the story. Now, the change is gradual, and you can affect many of your party members. Not only will you be able to learn more backstory from them by increasing your influence with them, but they'll also then be more likely to swing towards your alignment. You can even train some of these characters to be Force sensitive and get a few Jedi powers of their own! All of this does come at a cost of not interacting with the other members of your party, though, so repeated play-throughs are necessary to see all of the new stuff you can do with the rest of your group.

I've just written a page full of stuff and haven't even gotten to how the game plays. If you've played the first one - and I'm betting that you probably have - then you're likely going to be happy to find out that little (at least, in this respect) has changed. You'll have a mix of Force-using and conventional-weapons characters, and can take yourself and two other characters at a time into battle. This time, though, you'll get more opportunities to use the special abilities of the characters at your disposal, and you'll have to act alone as one of these characters quite a few times. You'll also be required to make more use of your secondary abilities, utility items, and other bits and pieces. It's tougher to just wade through everything swinging a lightsaber at anything that stands in your way.

KOTOR2 uses the same adaptation of the 3rd edition Dungeons & Dragons rules that the first game uses. Those who have never played either game have got to be wondering if this system actually works, and in a fully 3D game at that, and I can say that I find it works perfectly. There are a score of tactical and equipment options for you to choose from, and the Force powers and lightsabers manage to integrate right into the D&D rule system easily. Those of you number-crunching types will certainly find an edge can be had in this game, but those who don't care about that stuff can still beat the game without too much difficulty.

Much of the game's mechanics will feel familiar to players of the first game, and even some of the enemies are back and are just a bit too similar to last time. Revisiting planets from the first game will surely mean coming back into contact with the original wildlife again. Sith soldiers are also back, and many of them haven't been changed one iota - their animations, attacks, and weaknesses are all back. But not every revival is unwelcome. The return of your ship, the Ebon Hawk, is done just right, and some of the playable characters from the first game will pop up during cutscenes for just a minute or two. And the corporation that everyone loves to hate, the Czerka, are back in full force as well.

Some conveniences from the first game have returned, like the ability to switch planets if you're bored and come back later. At the same time, some of the other nice things from the first game have been removed. You can no longer press a button to return to your ship, the Ebon Hawk, instantly. But Obsidian did replace it with something that's arguably better: you can now gain access to instant transport between the various areas on a single planet. Sometimes you can do this right from the start, and other times you'll have to finish a simple quest to be able to get transport. Either way, it really helps to curb all the running around you'd otherwise have to do to finish up your quests.

I think Obsidian likes droids a lot. Not only have they expanded the role of droids in this game, but they've also made them more powerful so that you'll actually consider using them in your party for reasons other than pure comedy. It turns out they were somewhat successful in this endeavor, although it's still difficult to deny the power of a double-bladed saber fully loaded with upgrades. The droid situation is helped out immensely by the return of HK-47, the hilarious assassin droid. He's still not a major powerhouse, but he's certainly a capable fighter with (yet again) some of the best voice acting in the game. I won't spoil some of the other new droids that are playable, but let's just say that Obsidian is staying true to Star Wars in some ways that the first KOTOR didn't touch.

KOTOR2 includes a ton of new options for working on your gear. While only a few items from the first game could be upgraded with various parts, it's the other way around now - most gear can be upgraded, and that which can't is either meant to be sold as little more than junk to the vendor, or it's intended to be powerful but static. Either way, I really enjoyed being able to make my own parts and install them into the many weapons and pieces of armor throughout the game.

And that leads me to the other excellent addition, which is a system that lets you break down the more mundane items you don't need anymore and build all kinds of new ones. This is based off of the various skills that the character you're controlling has; not only does almost every skill, like Security, Awareness, Demolitions, or Treat Injury allow you to make new gear, but the character you're doing it with has access to his or her own library of items to make. Overall, this lets you do something useful with that junk loot you get, and funnel it into something productive (rather than just selling the stuff and buying gear that's worse than what you've already got).

You can even go unarmed in KOTOR2 and actually make it all the way through the game. Characters like Bao-Dur and the Handmaiden are particularly strong in hand-to-hand combat, and the fighting animations mix in nicely with the action. These fights look best, though, when both characters are unarmed - it actually looks like a fairly decent martial arts battle. The first time I saw this I thought it was a bit lame, but I think that was just my fear of new things coming through. After over 60 hours spent playing this game, I can say with certainty that I now find unarmed combat to be a welcome addition to the series.

Lightsabers have been heavily expanded as well. They can now take up to two crystals, three miscellaneous parts, and a color crystal - a total of six pieces. This makes lightsabers even more deadly than before. The upgrades also do many different things now, like add or subtract from your defense, give stat bonuses, and even increase in power automatically as you level up or change alignments.

Yet another new addition comes by way of lightsaber styles. These don't really change your animations or do anything outwardly cool, but they can subtly shift your stats in favor of specific battles. Going up against five guys with blasters? There's a saber style for that. Just one guy using force powers? Check. Lightsaber? Check. Then there are the new Force styles, which the Consular types will love. These allow you to cast your primary offensive force powers more effectively. Again, this is one of those new additions that isn't even required to be touched if you want to beat the game, but you'll definitely need to use this edge on the high difficulty mode.

While you'll be revisiting a couple of planets seen in the first game, most of the areas in KOTOR2 are all-new. There's Telos and its orbiting Citadel Station; seedy Nar Shaddaa attracts all kinds of scum and villainy; Onderon is a mostly civilized place that is facing a major civil war. The playable areas on these planets are laid out nicely, and the graphics are mostly on par with what we've seen in the first game. Frame rates are less than stellar in certain situations, but the game usually pulls out of any choppiness funk within seconds.

To go along with the game's mostly-new atmosphere, the game includes a mostly-new soundtrack. Some of the better themes in the original KOTOR are back, and there are a bunch more new ones thrown in as well. As with the game itself, the soundtrack is very low-key at first, but the stuff you'll hear at the end is much better and more in line with the Star Wars you remember. While a few of the classic John Williams tracks have been thrown in, the game does not rely on these venerable compositions as much as other Star Wars games.

The sound effects, however, have been borrowed heavily from both the Star Wars movies and it seems even from other LucasArts-licensed games. While nothing feels out of place, and there are at least a few brand-new sound effects here, it mostly winds up being a recycled library of sound effects. Luckily, the voice work, which is - from an audio perspective - by far the strongest aspect of KOTOR2. It's 100% new, and the hours and hours of this stuff is jus all great. The only character that I can say really stands out for pure genius in voice acting is the old woman, Kreia. HK-47 is great as always, but he just doesn't have near a major part of the story as some of the others.

Obsidian seems to have taken just about everything that gamers found fun in KOTOR and just run wild with it. The end result is that the game's a little on the easy side, as you can just get silly with the upgrades, new force powers, and other powerups. It's still fun, though, and the game is still driven by an engaging plot. Oh, let's talk about the plot.

As the game's main title implies, there are multiple major Sith enemies for you to battle with this time. The game doesn't even reveal these characters' full capabilities - or even their names - until somewhere around halfway through the campaign, so I'll have to skip on exploring their motivations. They're definitely worthy foes from the perspective of how the evilest guys in the galaxy should act, though, and the game keeps you guessing just what's going to happen next.

KOTOR2 will keep you guessing about many things, but there are a few things that are a little more predictable this time around. You'll be betrayed, and you'll have to get a bit of revenge, and you'll have the choice of saving the galaxy or crushing it in your grasp. The subtle humor and other amusing tidbits do make their triumphant return, and while games like Half-Life 2 are sometimes called a thinking-man's shooter, this game will probably promote an order of magnitude more in the way of philosophical thought if you give it a chance.

Many gamers have complained about the ending in KOTOR2, saying that it simply wasn't powerful or flashy enough. I feel that this game acts much like The Empire Strikes Back did - little was truly resolved from the main characters' perspective, and it's leading up to an even larger final battle in what I'm sure will be the third game in the series. When thinking about it this way, I've realized that the lack of a massive whiz-bang battle of an ending is actually a refreshing difference between this and most RPG titles. You can of course still influence the ending to be good or bad, but this isn't the end of the KOTOR series by a long shot.

Moral ambiguity abounds in KOTOR2, and if there's one thing this game shows that the first game didn't, it's that the Jedi Order is flawed in its teachings. Their idea of good is almost as damaging to the galaxy as the Sith army's attempts to dominate. That statement sounds a little stupid, but I've oversimplified it; the game really does spur those amateur fanboy Jedis out there into thinking about whether an overwhelming "good" is actually the right idea or not. It's rare that a game makes you question your own morals and ideals, but this game actually does it. I have to give some major credit to Obsidian for actually accomplishing this in a morally open-ended game. They don't even shove it down your throat, because your character has the chance, most of the time, to verbally oppose any ideals you don't like - and it might even have an effect on the game's plot.

Some elements of the game still feel unfinished or even contradictory, though. Some story offshoots spend a while building up and then dive right into dead ends. Some characters seem downright incomplete in their storytelling, conversation, and involvement with the main character. And even though your teacher, Kreia, tries to promote a balance between good and evil actions on the part of the player, the game's mechanics don't really reward this behavior. The new "prestige" Jedi/Sith classes require you to pick a side, and you'll have to be pretty far on either end of the scale in order to get access to these classes.

Many downsides of the RPG genre's best titles have made it into KOTOR 2. You'll rarely see characters sitting down, and they all stand there completely still, waiting for you to come up and talk to them. They don't interact with their world, and even you can't really interact that much with the world either. Fortunately, a game with an over-arcing story like this isn't hurt so much by these drawbacks, but I wish developers would start to realize that gamers notice when all the NPCs stand still doing nothing.

Obsidian has done an incredible job with Knights of the Old Republic 2. Even though the introduction and ending are a bit iffy, the game's more than worth the effort of going through. The many new characters, items, and locations are excellent, and the hours upon hours of voiced dialogue are masterfully done. Yet again, a KOTOR game has trumped George Lucas' own prequel movies when it comes to the power of the characters and story. Ever Star Wars fan should get their hands on both the first game and this one - they're well worth it.

Overall: 91%



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