27 August, 2015

Dustin' Off - Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords

Last time, we wiped the dust from the people’s champion Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, lying dormant in our digital locker. It’s only natural then we uncork its sequel, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords. Has it aged like fine wine, or turned to vinegar?

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

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

KotOR II: The Sith Lords launched a little over a year after the original, on December 6th 2004 and was developed by Obsidian Entertainment rather than Bioware. What really sets The Sith Lords apart from the original KotOR, and cements its place as the better game in my opinion, is the nature of main narrative arc, and the depths to which it descends. But equally I can see those exact factors turning players away from the game, I’ve played The Sith Lords countless times but it took me my most recent play through to really understand what it was saying. As always I’ll endeavour to remain spoiler-free.

Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords Kreia
You are the Exile, an exiled Jedi general, who followed Revan into battle against the marauding Mandalorians and did the Star Wars equivalent of dropping a nuke on their fleet. Killing thousands upon thousands Mandalorians and your own forces alike, at a place called Malachor V. That all took place prior to the original KotOR, when the game begins it’s been years since Darth Malak’s reign. Revan has disappeared again and you, the Exile are unconscious aboard the Ebon Hawk, Revan’s old ship that the familiar cylindrical droid T3-M4 is attempting to repair. When you wake up, you find yourself amongst the dead, armed with nothing but your underwear, you soon meet Kreia, in the morgue of the mining facility you’re trapped in. It is immediately apparent Kreia is not just some old lady wearing brown robes, she evidently possesses more wisdom than any of the KotOR Jedi Masters could ever boast. Kreia is the voice of the game, not quite your guardian angel, she teaches many poignant lessons concerning truth of the world around you, like how even the smallest act of kindness to another being, can have murderous repercussions down the line. It’s a far cry from every other Star Wars Jedi story has every written, Kreia’s views are often completely opposed to the Jedi’s, but she doesn’t appear to be driven by turbulent emotions, like a Sith would be. She also makes for some of the best quotes, such as; “It is such a quiet thing, to fall. But far more terrible to admit it.”, or, “Those are titles, words you cling to as the darkness falls around you.” – she’s a real joy if you couldn’t tell!

It took me years and some significant changes in my life to fully absorb what KotOR II was trying to convey, the game’s plot is such it is very much possible to dismiss that entire aspect of the game and just enjoy the Jedi on Sith action. There’s plenty of that to go around after all. KotOR felt like a traditional quest; if you replaced the lightsabers with metal swords and the force with magic it could easily have been a (very stereotypical) D&D adventure. KotOR II isn’t framed the same way, it is its own beast that often goes against the Star Wars grain.

Peragus, the first area of the game is a perfect example of just how divergent Obsidian’s approach was, when compared to Bioware’s. Peragus is eerie, as a child it was at times scary – I am sure the insect-like droids had a great deal to do with that. Peragus is a mining facility built into an asteroid, through audio logs and the few sentient beings you encounter, you learn that since your arrival aboard the wounded Ebon Hawk, things have been going awry. Accidents and incidents plague the mining crew, their sizeable droid contingent stopped mining rock and started mining humans. The Republic ghost ship, Harbinger, that docks at the asteroid shortly after you awake, pushes the creepiness factor further still.  When you finally escape, then escape your subsequent predicament on the planet Telos, you are faced with a galaxy map, a list of destinations; Dantooine and Korriban, the respective Jedi and Sith strongholds from the original KoTOR are back, though in both cases the hammer of war has struck. As well as Nar Shaddaa, the smuggler’s moon, bursting with war refugees, and Onderon, a storied planet in the grips of its own civil strife. The two planets from the original game use a lot of the same assets, though modified to reflect their new war-torn status, while both Nar Shaddaa and Onderon are structurally very different. To avoid spoilers – yes, I realise this is an eleven year old game – I’ll say nothing save this; both planets, but Onderon in particular, have far more to them than first meets the eye.

Just like in the original game, you assemble a crew of soldiers, bounty hunters, Force-users, and droids to aid you in your travels. These characters play a much more integral role in the story; some hate one another, some despite cultural rivalries have a mutual respect for one another, some happen to be assassin droids. Yes, HK-47 returns. Unlike the original, in KotOR II, you recruit different companions depending upon the Exile’s gender and alignment. Kreia, is clearly the standout new character in KotOR II, but I could make an impassioned argument for Atton Rand too. Atton is the loveable rogue of the group, initially at least, he feels like a Han Solo stand-in – which is fine because at least he isn’t Carth Onasi – but he possesses a far darker past than is first apparent. Like Kreia, Atton has some excellent lines, admittedly far more witty and sarcastic than Kreia’s foreboding proclamations. In terms of having hidden motives and greater depth, that’s true of all of the companion characters, I found them to be more interesting to engage with than KotOR’s comparatively mundane backstories. Furthermore, you have to rely on and play as your companions far more than you do in KotOR, because a greater volume of complex events occur; ambushes, sieges, abductions, and so forth!

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

Obsidian brought some meaningful changes to the combat and levelling systems. With regards to levelling, upon reaching the upper echelons of either light or dark side mastery, you’ll be offered a choice of paths, to become a; Jedi Master, Jedi Weapon Master, a Jedi Watchman, or conversely; a Sith Lord, Sith Marauder, or Sith Assassin. Whichever path you choose to pursue, will grant you new abilities. Additionally, the game introduced lightsaber techniques, buffs you could switch between in combat depending upon, the types of and numbers of enemies, they sadly (but not surprisingly) don’t effect the animations. Obsidian also overhauled the crafting system, which was present but comparatively limited in the original KotOR. You can breakdown items for components and use them to create modifications, then apply them to most equipment, rather than just changing the crystals in your lightsaber, you can swap out the lens, emitter, and power cell for example. Similarly, medpacks and stimulants can be crafted using chemicals at a medical table.

KotOR II benefits from a recent title update (through Steam) by Aspyr Media, a company responsible for a considerable amount of higher profile Mac ports. The update contained a number of pleasant additions, like controller support (for Xbox 360/One and PlayStation 3 /4). But its most important contents, at least in my opinion is; the native widescreen support, Steam Workshop support, and last but not least, a toggle for Force Speed Effects – so you can enjoy faster running without the urge to vomit! Even without the resolution support, KotOR II always did look noticeable better than its predecessor, generally boasting smoother models, cleaner textures, and grass that functioned (for me anyway). The Steam Workshop support is particularly useful though, because Obsidian were forced to cut a lot of content from their original release, content that the modding community have kindly sewn back together. The Sith Lords Restored Content Modification, available in several languages, polishes off some of KotOR II’s rougher spots and hugely inflates the number of assassin droids you encounter. The mod has been around years, but never has it been easier to acquire and install than through Steam, I encourage anyone playing the game to give the mod a go, beyond fixing bugs it adds a considerable amount of dialog and connective tissue. That said, I fell in love with KotOR II before I was even aware that modding games was a thing, so it isn’t essential by any means.

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

It’s clear that Obsidian’s ambitions burned bright during KotOR II’s development, perhaps a little too bright, they extended themselves further than their time frame apparently allowed. KotOR II has issues, issues that have been largely rectified by the modding community. The Sith Lords experiments with tone and subverts the player’s expectations time and time again, achieving experiences beyond that of the original KotOR. History may remember the original as the king of the series, with The Sith Lords doomed to a perpetually worsening reputation, but I’ll throw my lot in with it any day. KotOR II is perhaps my favourite game of all time, perhaps, certainly the one that consciously shaped my interests the most, with regards to games, particularly concerning the role and agency of the player, and fiction, beyond even my love of Star Wars. KotOR II remains great.

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