Knights Of The Old Republic 2 is a game I'd love to see the pitch for. Did Obsidian actually say that the plan was to systematically tear down, subvert and scornfully rip great chunks of flesh out of the Star Wars universe and George Lucas' shallow sense of morality and storytelling? or was it more on the lines of "So, we're thinking three bladed lightsabres this time," with Chris Avellone accidentally left locked in the car?
Either way, it happened. It's not the best Star Wars game by a long stretch, but it is one of my favourites - a bit like Planescape: Torment, in part because it was so completely different to what I expected. It's back in the news now because along with a port to Mac and Linux, developers Aspyr have added Steam Workshop support to it. Why? Why not. It's not likely to spark a whole modding scene, but it does add one big advantage - easy, one-click access to the Sith Lords: Restored Content Mod. This is pretty much essential if you want to play.
Without it, and to some extent either way, KOTOR 2 is a mess. There's no getting around that. Few games have made it to the shelves in recent years so patently unfinished, and we're not just talking a few missing textures. It was made on a tight schedule and then had its deadlines cut near the end, so it's not too surprising. Still, it's a game whose opening hours are torturously boring, with a finale that just collapses on a world full of dropped plot elements and endless corridors masquerading as fun, and with a boss battle involving flying lightsabres that desperately needs someone to patch in the Benny Hill music. Modders, get to it.
It's a testament to its writing and ideas that it's hard to look back in anger at this, so much as disappointment that it deserved better. That's part of why the Restored Content Mod is so important - it doesn't fix everything, and the scar tissue still bleeds if you poke it, but it does a lot. Vast amounts of dialogue and chunks of game, like a plant manufacturing HK assassin droids, were still in the game to be either restored or polished up. Other small bits have been tweaked, from the wrong line being played, to using in-engine cut-scenes instead of cutting away to crappy quality pre-rendered movies. There's really no point playing without it, and hopefully if Aspyr manages to do a mobile port, it'll get the okay to integrate the changes somehow.
Just about everything you encounter while exploring is a wonderfully deliberate subversion of both Star Wars as a whole and the specifics of the previous game, not entirely unlike how Bioshock 2 handled the challenge of following up the original. It's Star Wars as filtered through a more cynical lens, and crucially, interested in exploring concepts in a more rounded way. The Wookie concept of 'life-debts' for instance, treated as a cuddly matter in the previous game with plucky blue girl Mission Vao and her giant teddy-bear protector Zaalbaar, now becomes dark as a good cup of coffee in a solar eclipse. Instead, KOTOR 2's version is Hanharr, a psychopathic slaver and bounty-hunter desperately looking for a loophole that will let him kill his new mistress, Mira - hunting her and throttling her half to death and boasting of how one day he would free himself of his debt, no matter how often she tried to tell him all she wants is for him to piss off.
The most famous example of this is of course Kreia, who's less Obi-Wan Kenobi than a meddling mother-in-law, who spends most of the game ripping great chunks out of the series' standard duality between light and dark, good or evil - a Jedi turned Sith turned bitter old woman with a philosophy of neutrality and self-actualisation. The moment you know you're playing a very special Star Wars game is on arriving in Nar Shadaar, the vertical city that seems to turn up a lot in these things, and the classic Light/Dark side choice of whether or not to help a beggar. Neither works out well. Giving him money just sees him being mugged, ignoring him, well, that's an official RPG Dick Move, despite the fact that if it applied to the real world it'd only take a walk through most town centres to get down to 'Manson' level karma. Instead, she believes that success must be earned, and visibly chafes at living in a universe wired to think differently. Whether you agree or think she's crazy, she's a fresh breath of air for the series, and easily one of the best RPG characters ever.
The whole game is full of such subversions though, from the classic Boring First Male BioWare NPC (the game was Obsidian of course, but it followed the trend) turning out to have a secret history as a Jedi hunter and torturer, to the face-off with seeming Big Bad Darth Nihilus ending up an intentional curb-stomp battle in your favour. KOTOR 2 delighted in playing with expectations, and asking questions that the Star Wars universe as a whole would really rather not be asked - the flagship products at least, if perhaps not the Expanded Universe as a whole. It even takes time to do the same for RPGs, including providing a reason why your character somehow draws together bounty-hunters and criminal lords and assassin droids and all manner of other rather darker members than Revan typically hung with in the first game, instead of just assuming they all had nothing better to do than go grind for a few levels over on Dantooine.The console shooter that changed everything A Digital Foundry Halo retrospective.
What you've probably noticed though is that for all this talk of the writing and story, there's not been much on actually playing the game. Unfortunately, there's a reason for that - KOTOR 2 has not aged well. At all. Post Mass Effect, dealing with its mix of over-the-shoulder action and D&D inspired mechanics is like wading through glue, with its world usually lacking in detail and spectacle. When it scores a hit, it's a home run, but there's a lot of padding and less than memorable stuff between those parts. The original KOTOR suffered from this too, especially early on (not for nothing is one of its more popular mods "Skip Taris"), but it's got nothing on KOTOR 2's first area - the almost deserted Peragus space station that desperately wants to be System Shock but has slightly less atmosphere than the vacuum of space outside the windows.
Returning to familiar territory later on is rarely in the game's favour either, with Sith planet Korriban especially having gone from an interesting place that forces a Light Side Jedi to hold tight to their principles and try to emerge unscathed to my absolute least favourite type of location in Star Wars games - boring, empty tombs. They were boring in Jedi Knight, they're boring in The Old Republic, and they're boring here. Overall, the original KOTOR may play things a lot safer in every respect, but it is better at rewarding your efforts with more than a kick in the teeth, as well as being a generally better designed and more fleshed out game. As you'd expect from one that wasn't developed in the crunch equivalent of a 100m sprint.
That's not to be too down on KOTOR 2, which is still a solid RPG. It's just that it's less a sequel as it is, well, a counterpoint. In KOTOR, we got the ground-level Star Wars experience we'd always wanted, from getting to craft a lightsaber to having our own ship to explore the universe. KOTOR 2 is what bubbles out of the cracks afterwards, the "Wait a minute" and "But what about..." moments pulled together. The Light Side and the Dark Side of Star Wars RPG, you might say, revealing that the differences aren't necessarily as fundamental as they seem, yet still come from sources there's no denying draw them apart. Somehow, I think Kreia would approve. Before pointedly uninstalling the both of them and settling down for an evening of Hearthstone instead.