Thursday 27 August 2009

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

It is a time of great turmoil in the Galaxy. A decade ago, two powerful Jedi warriors, Revan and Malak, rejected the decision of the Jedi High Council that the Order would remain neutral in the war between the Mandalorians and the Republic. Siding with the Republic, Revan, Malak and their followers eventually defeated the Mandalorians in a bloody battle at Malachor V, leaving that world shattered and millions dead. After that battle Revan and Malak turned to the Dark Side of the Force, forging a new Sith Empire. Revan was usurped by Malak, who in turn was defeated by the forces of the Republic in an epic battle above a remote planet called Rakata Prime.

The death of Malak did not end the chaos in the Galaxy. New Sith lords have arisen and Sith assassins have continued to strike, targeting the few Jedi who had survived the Mandalorian conflict and the Jedi Civil War that came after. The Jedi Order disbanded, its few surviving members disappearing, leaving the war-ravaged Republic vulnerable.

Unexpectedly, one of the Jedi warriors who followed Revan into battle at Malachor has resurfaced, stripped of her connection to the Force. Rescued from certain death by a ship called the Ebon Hawk and taken to a hospital facility on Peragus, this warrior now has to find out what has happened, who tried to kill her and why she can no longer use the Force. To this end she accumulates a band of allies, learns the fate of the other Jedi and is brought to a new understanding of the Force by a very enigmatic mentor...

Knights of the Old Republic II is to its predecessor what The Empire Strikes Back is to A New Hope: the grittier, more brooding and more philosophical sequel with a dark, ambiguous conclusion. However, it doesn't match Empire's primary achievement - of being a sequel superior to the original - for various reasons.

Knights of the Old Republic II's biggest problem is the incredible vagueness of the story at the start of the game. KotOR I put you in a big city with lots of options and quests to do right off the bat and plenty of characters and politics to interact with. KotOR II instead has you exploring a space station pressing buttons for what feels like ages (it's actually about an hour and a half of fairly tedious running around) and you're not really given a reason for doing so. Your character is also curiously unwilling to ask questions of the strange old woman, Kreia, who has appeared out of nowhere to mentor you. It's about halfway through the game before you can even ask if she's a Jedi, which is the question I wanted to ask about two minutes after meeting her.

Once the oddball opening sequence is dispensed with, you find yourself on Citadel Station orbiting Telos, and the more familiar playing style of the first game kicks in. From here you have lots of quests and sub-quests to pursue, different factions to ally with or play off against one another and several characters you can recruit to your party. The relationship between your character and Kreia also develops impressively, as Kreia has adopted a philosophical relationship with the Force which is fairly unusual and complex, going beyond the simplistic Light Side = Good, Dark Side = Bad notions of George Lucas and some of the less thoughtful other Star Wars writers. This gives rise to some fascinating conversations and some excellent dialogue. The game's main designer, Chris Avellone, was also the creator of possibly the greatest computer roleplaying game ever made, Planescape: Torment, and KotOR II covers some of the same ground as that earlier game. Avellone has a good claim to being the best writer of dialogue for computer RPGs around at the moment, and examples of that can be found throughout KotOR II.

It's an interesting approach and KotOR II does have a unique atmosphere and feel to it. Lightsabres and the Force aside, its dark story about challenging moral simplicity and questioning identity feels like it's come from some other universe altogether. This is also possibly the game's key weakness: Empire Strikes Back may have been an altogether more sophisticated take on Star Wars than the first movie but it still retained the core humour and warmth of the character relationships and still 'felt' like Star Wars. Matt Stover's novel Traitor, often heralded as another successful 'dark' take on Star Wars, also succeeds in retaining that core identity despite going to places George Lucas would be very uncomfortable with. KotOR II often fails to uphold that identity, and its coldness and lack of humour sometimes makes it hard going, especially compared to the manner in which KotOR I nailed those elements so successfully.

A major success of KotOR II is how it handles your party. In the first game it was possible to simply keep picking the first two NPCs you meet at the start of the game and take them through the whole game, missing out on the storylines of the other members of party. Whilst it is broadly possible to do this in the sequel, there are several quests which take place simultaneously, so you have to pick a second party from your character pool and have them doing stuff at the same time as your 'star party' is on a mission, which is an interesting and refreshing approach that gets as much of the plot as possible on screen and really gets into the characters across in a more interesting manner.

Unfortunately, this is slightly problematic as the NPCs in the second game are not quite as interesting as those in the first. They are fairly low-key in personality and the fact that they are a depressed and brooding bunch who have often committed horrible crimes makes empathising with them hard. The writing is excellent and eventually these characters' motivations are made clear, but they lack the vital personalities of characters such as Zaalbar, Mission and Bastila from the first game (although there is a brilliant inversion of the 'cute' Zaalbar/Mission, tough Wookie/smartass sidekick dynamic from the first game).

"If you seek to aid everyone that suffers in the galaxy, you will only weaken yourself… and weaken them. It is the internal struggles, when fought and won on their own, that yield the strongest rewards. You stole that struggle from them, cheapened it. If you care for others, then dispense with pity and sacrifice and recognize the value in letting them fight their own battles. And when they triumph, they will be even stronger for the victory."
- The Dark Lords of the Sith, apprently followers of Ayn Rand

Nevertheless, the game's story unfolds in a consistently intriguing manner, with enough mystery and plot development to drag you through its bumps. The game skirts against true masterpiece status a few times towards the end of the game through an impressively-executed plot twist (although not on the level of the central twist in the first game), but then things start falling apart again towards the end of the game. This time the problems have a far more straightforward explanation: LucasArts wanted the game released for Christmas 2004 no matter what, and denied Obsidian Entertainment the extra time needed to finish the game off properly. The result is that the game is incomplete. The designers managed to do enough to tie off the primary storyline at least, so that tracks coherently, but several quests are simply not solvable and most of your NPC allies' individual character arcs are left hanging in mid-air, with a cheesy dialogue exchange at the end of the game explaining the fates of the other characters. Two characters are left in a life-or-death situation that is simply never resolved, and another character's solo quest is not implemented in the game at all. This means the end of the game is extremely abrupt with many loose ends left dangling. Obsidian made a heroic effort to solve some of these problems through post-release patches, but LucasArts denied them the funding to actually finish the game through a content expansion.

As a result, what could have been (despite its slow opening) a five-star game and another classic is left wounded and broken. It's actually a tribute to the team at Obsidian that the game remains playable and compelling despite this significant problem. A mod team have been working for some time on restoring and completing the abandoned content (made possible thanks to Obsidian cheekily putting all the half-finished stuff on the game CD-ROMs for this specific purpose) which could immensely improve the game, but no release date has been set for this so far, and since it is now five years after release it is arguable if there is much point to it any more.

Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords (****) is a fascinating, compelling and altogether different take on Star Wars. It is intelligent, philosophical and refreshingly well-written for a computer game, although it doesn't skimp on the action and combat sequences either. However, a dull opening sequence and the incomplete content does leave the game feeling distinctly unfulfilling, especially compared to its near-flawlessly-executed forebear. The game is available now on the PC** (UK, USA) and X-Box (UK, USA) and a sequel, The Old Republic, is currently in development by BioWare.

* Although you can determine your character's gender, race and abilities, Lucasfilm has decreed that for canon purposes the main character in Knights of the Old Republic was male and your character in Knights of the Old Republic II was female.

** I would very, very strongly advise that those planning to purchase the game on PC download the two post-release patches, which are necessary to stabilise the game and eliminate its numerous bugs (once this is done the game is actually much smoother and easier to play on modern PCs than KotOR I) and also download the movie and music patches, which replace the horrible low-res movies and music from the original release. There's also an additional patch to run the game under Windows Vista as well.


Anonymous said...

Hmm...big fan of the game, for starters, so I'm fighting off the urge to nit-pick. But a couple points (though not necessarily the most important, but still):

You said: "...for what feels like ages (it's actually about an hour and a half of fairly tedious running around) and you're not really given a reason for doing so."

I felt this was explained sufficiently. I agree it was an incredibly boring opening (and one that has put me off re-plays), but your reasons for being there are explained - you're stranded on the nearest colony, on your way to Telos. Kreia manipulates the events that lead up, like having you assigned to the ship, with her looking you to return to the core. Your reasons for running around the damn place are self-explanatory.

Another pickle: why does someone need to feel empathy for every single character? You stated not feeling this for some in this game, but for me, it doesn't always need to be the case. *shrugs*

Adam Whitehead said...

Well, you need to be invested and interested in the characters (good, bad or whatever) to enjoy the story (or any story). That's not to say the characters have to be good or positive, merely that you at least have to have some kind of emotional or intellectual stake in their story, otherwise there is no real reason for you to read or play on.

Anonymous said...

But as far as the secondary characters, that's not really needed. As long as there's good things going on with the main character, you're not really going to leave it. And not feeling empathy for everyone seems like a more realistic thing than the alternative. After all, how many cases are there in life where you just don't understand someone, or feel some connection to them in any way?

Yin Harn said...

I hear ya about the lack of empathy for NPCs. I positively loved the KotOR I NPCs - didn't feel much for any of the KotOR II NPCs. Plus the KotOR II NPCs seemed to run out of meaningful things to say halfway through the game.

The relentlessly depressing atmosphere also got me down. Maybe Avellone was trying too hard for PST-style moral ambiguity and grittiness, forgetting that PST had its fair share of humour and whimsical little moments too.

The ending, of course, was a signature wtf? moment. And they should have given me more background on the protagonist right from the beginning - I spent most of my time on Peragus wondering whether my PC was supposed to have amnesia.

Anonymous said...

I prefer the style of empathic distance, you might say, in this game and others by Obsidian or Black Isle, specifically written and desinged by Chris Avellone (of Planescape Torment fame), to Bioware's often overexposed intimacy that sometimes resembles the pushing of standardised emotional buttons, rather than creating a somewhat believable relationship with a character.