Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic 2 Review
Obsidian’s Knights of the Old Republic 2: The Sith Lords, more commonly referred to as simply KOTOR 2, is a game I fell in love with something like a decade ago, and yet it’s also one that I’ve put off playing for just about as long. Part of the reason I’ve left it alone for so long is the fact that I still have the jewel case with four install discs rather than having re-bought it on a digital site in a more convenient form, so I had to dig out my USB CD-DVD reader and keep the “play” disc in it whenever I started the game. Little things like that seem so archaic and annoying now despite being little more than a minor obstacle when the game first released. Still, the Star Wars hype machine has been in full force lately, so I figured it was finally time to revisit what’s considered one of the best Star Wars games ever made.
Does it hold up? Well… yes and no
Plot structure, the way the plot is communicated, character complexity, pacing, and the area design of the locations where things happen are all things that have to be separated out because the game succeeds and fails in numerous different ways that can’t all be lumped under the wide umbrella of “plot”; in most games, saying that the plot is good or bad speaks to the quality of all of the things that go into it, and yet much of KOTOR 2’s plot (especially toward the beginning) is underwhelming and full of filler and absurd deus ex machina despite turning around and then using that to shed the light-side-versus-dark-side moral dualism that’s defined the Star Wars franchise. The end result is that parts of the game are truly groan-worthy, but build up to something quietly brilliant that’s far greater than the sum of its merely adequate parts.
Brilliance isn’t a ward against criticism, though, and KOTOR 2 is a much harder game to get into than the first. Pacing and area design have a lot to do with this, both being elements that the game struggles with throughout. This is especially true toward the beginning of the game; whereas the first KOTOR made you go through some early tutorial areas (including the minutes-long Endar Spire and open city area of Taris) before handing you a lightsaber and giving you the freedom to visit planets in any order you want, KOTOR 2 goes overboard by forcing you to slog through tedious—and occasionally trap-filled—areas that are really little more than same-looking tunnels funneling you toward waves of enemies. The Peragus mining facility you start the game in is especially onerous, being the most dull and lifeless starting area I’ve ever experienced in a game. After that, you spend some time on Citadel Station at Telos (which is fairly barren and a bit too prone to having you run around, but decent apart from that) before being stranded on Telos’ surface, which is basically the planet version of Peragus. It’s just enemy encounter after enemy encounter with no meaningful story content breaking up the monotony, and when you finally make it into the military base on the planet, it’s the same thing with the added fun of annoying poison traps and the necessity of looking for ignition codes. It’s busywork.
Shortly after all of this, you’re finally given the freedom to visit the game’s planets like in the first game. One strands you for a short time if you try to visit it, though, and you’re never handed a lightsaber like in the first game. Instead, you’re forced to find several lightsaber pieces that are scattered throughout the galaxy. Even once a lightsaber-using party member joins you, theirs is conveniently broken right after joining. All of this leads to a less than wonderful early impression, because while the first game gives you a bunch of tools and then allows you to have fun with them, the second game gives you crumbs and tells you to earn your fun. It all ends up being worth it in the end, but a comical amount of the early content could be cut or streamlined to make for a better overall game. As it stands, this content drags down the pacing of the game significantly, and the fact that a great deal of it is made possible solely due to two consecutive aircraft crashes (because “oooh, the force works in mysterious ways”) makes it all seem incredibly contrived and meaningless.
The characters are a strong point for the most part
It’s common knowledge by now that KOTOR 2 was released in an unfinished state, and even the restored content mod (which I ended up installing in the hopes that it’d stop the game’s constant crashing—it didn’t, but I kept it installed anyway) doesn’t plug all of the holes. Characters like Bao-Dur and the HK-50 series droids—silver-plated HK-47s with slightly different behavior who plague you throughout the game, basically—seem like an afterthought for various reasons. In Bao-Dur’s case, he simply disappears from the game toward the end, with no attempt to explain his absence, and his contributions to the game are minimal even before that point. He’s supposedly an old war buddy of the playable character, and yet there’s virtually no connection there apart from his monotone declarations of loyalty and some confusing things other characters have to say about him. As for the droids, they seem to have been added solely to capitalize on the popularity of HK-47 in the first game, and despite the restored content mod including cut content that gives you more insight into their fate, I couldn’t help but feel that their constant presence was pander-y. HK-47 was entertaining in the first game because he was so unique, but by pitting you against groups of HK-50s who talk like him everywhere you go, they no longer seem special.
But on the other hand, you have characters like Kreia, a character that draws a great deal from the ever-complex Ravel from Planescape: Torment. If you’re unfamiliar with what that means, suffice it to say that the game’s tendency to embrace a grayer, less binary type of morality is only possible because of her presence. For example, do a good deed at one point and she’ll chime in to question the wisdom of your actions, explaining that you end up disempowering the very people you’re trying to help in the process. Act evilly in the same situation instead, and she points out that your cruelty can ripple out and cause others to act cruelly in turn, which is no better than the alternative. This example serves to highlight both the best and worst of the game’s morality, because clear-cut good and evil are the only two options given to you in this situation. The nuance of KOTOR 2’s morality, then, is largely made possible by the frequent impossibility of actually approaching situations in a neutral manner. The best you can do in most situations is to alternate between good and evil, but the game is set up to allow you to gain a second class (jedi or sith) later in the game based on your alignment, and there’s even an area that only becomes accessible to you when you devote yourself entirely to one side.
Contrasting Kreia is Visas (my favorite character), a character initially a slave of one of the eponymous sith lords who joins your party once you’ve gone far enough toward the light side or dark side. I played as a goody-goody, and watching her fret with worry that my good deeds would weaken me for the inevitable confrontation against her master was a nice bit of subtle character development. Since your alignment also affects those of your companions—a mechanic fully explained by the story, which is a nice touch—watching her slowly come around felt strangely rewarding and helped drive me toward a light side alignment rather than trying to balance things out. Naturally, if you instead play as an evil character, her character arc will be different to reflect that. Very few other characters are as integral to the story as these two, however, so many other characters are only relevant in the areas you find them in. Mira is a good example, being a bounty hunter you come across. Once she joins, you can probe into her back story a bit, but the closest thing you get to character development is when/if you turn her into a jedi.
Jedi companions = good, mandatory party member solo sections = bad
Most of your companions are just regular people when you meet them, but if you build up influence with them by doing things they like, you can eventually convince them to become jedi. In theory, this is a great system that gives you a lot of freedom of customization when it comes to your party members. If you want to, you can have just about everyone wearing jedi robes and using lightsabers, which become disgustingly frequent later in the game despite the hassle of putting one together early on. This is beneficial for a number of reasons, with the most obvious of which being the fact that lightsabers are absurdly powerful. Combined with some force powers (most notably the buffs), you can become a one-person army, capable of cutting through just about any enemy in the entire game.
Unfortunately, this clashes with the game’s tendency to send your party members alone against enemies. From your first few minutes in Peragus to the very end of the game, KOTOR 2 loves giving you sections where you play as your party members. These suck. I mean, they suck hard. They’re so bad that I remembered them enough to base several characters’ builds on mandatory fights I knew they’d get into, even after a decade or so of not having played the game. These happen all the time, and often out of nowhere. Area transition late in the game? Let’s switch to a mandatory Mira fight! Story just moved forward a bit? Well, then it’s time for one of several mandatory T3-M4 sections. The restored content mod actually makes this worse by including the HK factory (which was cut content), an area that ties up some loose ends left by the vanilla game’s ending at the cost of a truly painful HK-47 solo section. We’re not done yet, though—Atton, a less-honorable Carth who joins you at Peragus and actually manages to become interesting partway through the game, has to face off against two assassins. There are also a couple sections where you create a party of 2 or 3 from your party members, but these are at least bearable because of your ability to use your strongest, most capable companions.
These mandatory party member sections often put you into combat immediately, so you can find yourself unable to change the weak armor you had equipped on Atton (because you can’t change armor during combat) several planets ago before you ditched him in favor of someone else. Then there’s obviously the level issue; while characters all gain experience together, making it possible to level up during these sections to something more appropriate for the challenge, it’s not always a wise decision because of many characters’ jedi capabilities. Characters gain force points—basically the KOTOR equivalent of an MP/mana pool—and jedi abilities with each level up once they’ve become a jedi, so leveling a character up before that point means missing out on those force points and abilities. This can cause one character to be an utterly useless force-user, blowing their entire pool of force points (which regenerate, but slowly) on a single attack, whereas someone you kept at a low level before turning them into a jedi can become an absolute beast capable of shooting lightning 20 times in a row without having to worry about the pool. Since you never know who’ll end up in a mandatory solo section, though, this can lead to some truly awkward moments where you’re trying to defeat a much stronger opponent by kiting and abusing healing items. The worst part is that later mandatory sections are only bearable if you turn certain characters into proficient jedi, so whether it’s early on and you’re trying to fight while underleveled or later on when early leveling has crippled their ability to fight well, you’re bound to encounter an annoying solo section.
Many of the game’s underlying mechanics are the same as the first KOTOR
Combat is still round-based like the first KOTOR and the many Infinity Engine games that inspired it, with combat playing out in real time and being pausable, but basically being turn-based behind the scenes. Just like in the first game, using force powers and special attacks to maximize the number of hits you can inflict in a single round is still the best way to completely dominate the game. Unlike the first game, though, doing so proved to be surprisingly necessary; while most regular fights are on the easier side on the normal difficulty, I found a few of the boss fights and late-game mobs quite a bit more challenging than those in the first game. There were occasions where one round would see my health drop by more than half, causing frantic running around as I desperately tried to get away and heal. Still, the buffs that raised my strength and number of attacks per round were enough to overwhelm the game at one point, causing a sith lord who’s supposed to be unkillable and have several bits of dialogue between parts of the fight to instead drop dead two rounds in from all the damage. The end result of this? The game freaked out and spawned a new version of him, causing the dialogue to start from the very beginning as the first version of him remained dead on the ground. No, really.
There are many reasons to love or hate KOTOR 2, but the real magic of the game lies in the dialogue options. The first KOTOR had fairly simplistic dialogue trees, giving you a bit of freedom in how you respond to things, but nothing elaborate. KOTOR 2, on the other hand, constantly ties your skills like demolitions, sneak, awareness, treat injury, and others to dialogue, giving you extra options in many cases if they’re at a high enough level. This means that your keen awareness not only helps you spot mines, but can also aid you in detecting insincerity when talking to various NPCs. Your talent for treating injuries can similarly be used to heal injured troops before a large-scale fight. The first game also did this to a certain extent, but it’s much more frequent in the second, and this frequency allows your skills to feel more widely useful than they ever did in the original KOTOR.
There are also a few small alterations that make the gameplay quite a bit more friendly than the first KOTOR. The large, bulky suit most notably used while underwater on Manaan in the first game? It now moves in fast-motion, which looks funny, but is a much appreciated change. Crafting has also been introduced, allowing you to create lightsaber pieces (not the ones you need to create a lightsaber, sadly, but the ones that make one you already have more powerful) with the better items you can create requiring a high level in certain skills.
Bugs and crashing
I should probably mention that this is one of the buggiest games I’ve ever played. Not the most buggy (that honor still belongs to Shadowrun: Dragonfall), but definitely buggy enough to get under my skin on a fairly consistent basis. It’s strange, really—I remembered hearing about its bugginess when it first released, but had zero problems with it. Sure, it was obviously unfinished and the game suddenly ended without much closure—something the restored content mod helps to remedy—but I couldn’t see where people’s complaints about the bugginess were coming from. Then I reinstalled it for this review and had non-stop problems. Hair and trees flickered like crazy. The game constantly slowed down despite its age, running at around the same frame rate as The Witcher 3. Loading a save caused the game to crash 75% of the time. The skippable tutorial even gave my character the creepiest expression I’ve ever seen in my entire life because of a graphical bug. I eventually fixed the flickering by turning off “frame buffer effects,” and this also helped with the slowdown a bit, but the crashing remained. As I mentioned earlier, I only installed the restored content mod because I had hoped that it would help with the crashing. It didn’t. In the end, I had to play around with compatibility options in addition to quitting out of the game, going into the options, and turning movies off to be able to continue whenever it crashed. Since I try to make screenshots of everything, I’d then have to save, turn the movies back on, and repeat the whole thing the next time I had a problem, but that’s more of a “me” problem than anything a sane person would encounter.
The music and graphics are okay, but could be better
The KOTOR games have undoubtedly aged, and yet I can’t help but think that the first game looks better than the second. A large part of this comes down to the areas, with the first game featuring areas like the Tatooine desert, the city of Manaan, and the forests of Kashyyyk. The first has a lot of orange, the second has lots of blue, the third has lots of green, and so on like that with the rest of the game’s areas. KOTOR 2’s locations aren’t anywhere near that distinct and don’t act as a contrast to each other, so areas come and go, most of which coming across more as hollow backdrops for story happenings than living, breathing areas. Even the locations that return from the first game, Korriban and Dantooine, feel like pale imitations of what they were in the first game. That said, Citadel Station was clearly an interesting enough idea for Bioware to incorporate a bigger version of it into Mass Effect as a central location, and Nar Shaddaa is large and populated enough to be uniquely believable/enjoyable as a location.
The music is decent enough, as well, though the soundtrack as a whole suffers a bit from being too full of action-is-happening types of tracks that lean on loud brass sections when more subtle background music would have suited much of the game better. That’s not to criticize the soundtrack too much or anything—it certainly has a few standout tracks that do a lot to aid certain critical moments. I just think that the more ponderous nature of the story and dialogue would have worked better with something like the piano track that plays in the first game on Dantooine. There simply isn’t anything like that to be found here.