Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords Reader Review
Forgive the sweeping generalisations, but generally action and adventure sequels fall into two categories. Firstly you've got the updates; titles which recycle practically everything from the previous game[s] - often including levels, characters and plot points - whilst bringing very little new to the table and making little or no effort to change or introduce significant gameplay elements. This I shall refer to as the Resident Evil 3 Approach. On the other hand you've got the bold Brave New World sequels, which change much and leave little, games which are not afraid to be different from those before it and confidently stride out to take the franchise - and in some cases, perhaps even the whole genre - in a new direction. This will be known as the Resident Evil 4 Approach.
The Sith Lords is most definitely a Resi 3 classification. Almost entirely derivative of the first game, KotOR II is unashamedly built from the same bones (literally, given that it's again created from BioWare's Odyssey engine), and if you didn't like the first game for whatever reason, well then both of you needn't bother even considering this. That said, if you are amongst the rest of us who loved the first title, it's likely you'll get a fair deal of enjoyment from the sequel. Likewise, if you haven't tried the series yet but don't actually like the Star Wars franchise there's really no point in playing this, as there's tons of plot exposure, a lot of in-depth mythos about the universe, and more geek-friendly references than you can shake a Bantha at. In fact, if you don't like Star Wars, why are you even reading this?! C'mon; shoo, shoo - we don't like your kind around here.
So anyway, for those unfamiliar with the KotOR premise, it is set A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. Actually, a very long time ago - 4000 years before the clan Skywalker were ever on the scene. Basically, in the first game there was an intergalactic war between the Sith Lord Malak, his erstwhile master Revan and the Republic. The good guys win, the end. The second game picks up some five years after that, with the Republic and the Jedi Order in tatters and the Sith Empire in dominant but loosely cooperating factions. The game begins with you on a space station being overrun by Sith forces. After meeting your first couple of reluctant allies, you escape the Sith clutches and quickly discover you are, infact, a Jedi (unexpected plot twist alert!).
What follows is a 30 - 40 hour quest in which you'll traverse several different worlds, meet a huge cast of characters (many of them returning from last time), and stop a good ol' Galaxy-Wide Threat (TM). While the plot is pretty good on the whole, it's not as strong as in KotOR and is crucially lacking the first game's powerful plot twist. Also, the ending does feel extremely rushed, and there is at least one fairly minor plot element introduced very late in the day that is left completely unanswered as the credits roll.
Regardless of it's shortfalls, in terms of gameplay KotOR II still stands up as one of the most enjoyable RPGs available. You control your character from a third-person perspective and run around the varied locations with two allies in tow chatting to folk, collecting items and fighting enemies. The division between conversations/plot progression, character management and combat is nicely balanced. When your characters level up you can let the game automatically give you standard upgrades across the board, or if you want to be a bit more hands-on and customise them, you can modify everything from charm to lightsabre aptitude to healing abilities. Like the first game, it's good that there's depth to be found with the micro-management, but if you can't be bothered with this you can have it done automatically. The combat is a halfway house between the preferred Japanese method of turn-based and the more Western-centric real-time method (much like the recent Final Fantasy XII) . When an enemy comes into range the game pauses while you make your choice for your first attack, and your avatar closes in to engage the foe. You can then select from a range of attacks, and your character will perform each subsequent action after a few seconds' pause. It lets you queue up to three moves to give you a bit of grace so you can stay ahead of things. On the whole it's a very good system which has enough depth, but it's still very accessible and simple to learn.
Graphically, things are pretty good, again much as they were in the original. It's not so much a massive number of polygons on screen or any up to date special effect trickery, but more a subtle yet keen art style used across the variety of locations you visit and faithful representation of the species and technologies you may know from the films. The variety of worlds you visit is pretty diverse, from the deceptively serene ruined beauty of Dantooine, through the harsh, cavernous deserts of Sith world Korriban, to the obligatory city destination of Smuggler's Moon Nar Shaddaa. The character models are pretty decent on the whole, although sometimes animations are not terribly smooth and don't always flow together as well as they could. Loading is done between fairly large areas, and takes twenty or thirty seconds. Although this is slightly disruptive to the run of things, the game uses the opportunity to auto-save for you (which otherwise you can do at any time) and the areas in-between loading screens tend to be pretty large, generally with lots to do.
It's a shame that technically, in many ways it feels like a step back from the prequel. Although built from the same engine, KotOR II suffers from an extremely unstable frame rate and numerous fairly minor - but nonetheless intrusive - bugs, such as jerky animations and odd looping conversations. As is the nature of an action-RPG such as this, you will often be wading into [real-time] battles against several enemy characters at once, but unfortunately the frame rate seizes up during more than a few of these moments. It takes the sheen off what is otherwise a classy production, and it's a shame developer Obsidian weren't granted a few months extra to iron out such flaws.
Typically for a Star Wars production, it sounds consistently wonderful. The voiceovers are again excellent pretty much across the board, and the script is of fairly high quality. The sound effects from the infamous lightsabres, laser blasts and starships all sound absolutely authentic, and so this is - as ever - one department where LucasArts never come up short. For me, the only slightly jarring aspect is that (like the first game) your character never speaks. It's a little strange how stilted conversations can seem due to the long pauses while you select you text response - although I can see that perhaps this decision was made in one of those instances where we are supposed to 'immerse ourselves in the character' or whatever, but given the huge amount of speech already in the game I'd like the option to have been there for your protagonist to speak aswell. Although it is a relatively minor comment in an otherwise aurally excellent title.
The Light/Dark Force meter returns from the first game. It's still a pretty good addition - your actions and choices in conversation arcs will determine your affinity to the Force, and each side has differing abilities and attributes; for example, Dark proficient Jedi have the ability to strike fear in the minds of their foes or mortally wound their opponents with little more than a gesture, but Light Jedi will excel in fields such as healing and meditation. It's perhaps not as subtly implemented as it could be (there's a few too many responses along the lines of "Die you pig ugly wretch!"), but the lure of playing with or without morals is certainly an interesting prospect, and in addition to that you are presented with a slightly different finale depending on your choices. It might be a small addition in the scheme of things, but it does extend the replay value a little and is an interesting look at the morality of the Jedi and their Dark counterparts.
I feel at times KotOR II could have done with more balancing. It is for about 90% of the time an overly easy game, and there are a couple of difficulty spikes which you will probably be totally unprepared for and will be painstakingly difficult to overcome. Generally, you have the option to put three force-users in your party which unbalances things vastly in your favour (not least of all because they can pretty much heal at will), yet not taking this option when it is so readily available to you seems foolish. There's a couple of occasions where you have to go without your main character for whatever reason, and will need to rely on support characters instead. The problem here is, if you play anything like how I did then you won't be putting much effort into levelling anyone up other than your principal two or three, and when you are forced to rely on other characters you will probably find they are chronically underdeveloped to deal with anything other than the weakest of foes. A couple of in-game hints or advice recommending you customise all party members as often as possible could have eradicated this problem altogether - an ideal time to do this would've been during the frequent loading screens when you are subjected to a barrage of oft-repeated text information and general advice on the game.
As you'd expect from an RPG, there are literally dozens of side quests to partake in, and these are handily logged in your very helpful journal, which charts all active and complete missions. You'll do everything from hunting down certain unsavoury characters, to partaking in battle arenas to prove your worth, to fetching lost goods for praise and rewards. There's also a couple of mini-games in the shape of deceptively deep card game Pazaak and the Pod Racer-esque Swoop Races. All told, there's probably enough content here to double your standard playing time, and no-one could accuse KotOR II of being lightweight.
In terms of your quest and the puppeteers behind it all, many things are left undisclosed until the final chapter of the game (when, even this late in that day questions will be raised). It's a bit of a shame that some of the principal enemies are not really developed until their closing moments - particularly the Vader-esque Darth Nihilus, who flies in a huge ruined starship powered by the Dark Side and has a very powerful demeanour, yet meets his demise very quickly, easily and with little fuss. Also, rather than the black-and-white good vs. evil premise played out in the movies, books or even in KotOR, the plot here is a lot more shades of grey with interesting takes on moral stances and the differences between the Jedi and their mortal enemy, the Sith.
To say KotOR II is entirely imitative of the first game will probably determine straight away whether you'll like it or not. It is still a great game, with a well-developed and interesting plot, a great balance of action, exploration and character development and a great representation of the Star Wars universe, but I feel it's incessant similarities to the first game don't do it any favours and technically it could be a lot tighter. It's still a damn sight better than anything George Lucas has come up with in over twenty years, so if you're craving for something Star Wars and haven't given KotOR II a spin yet, it's well worth a try.