To the majority of people who played it, BioWare's Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic remains one of the finest - if not the finest - titles ever to grace Microsoft's big black box. And it's little wonder. Whereas George Lucas clearly had difficulties returning to his sci-fi franchise on the big screen, the veteran PC RPG developer delivered an epic journey more than worthy of taking place a long, long, long time ago in that infamous galaxy far, far away. It was a gripping adventure unique to every player, and Halo's irrepressible popularity notwithstanding, rose to the top of a lot of gamers' Top 10 Xbox lists shortly after its release.
Interest in the sequel, then, is understandably intense. Up to now, every nugget of information - no matter how slight - has been swallowed, digested, regurgitated and then dissected in increasingly minute detail, leading to all manner of unlikely predictions and gossip. With E3 just around the corner though, we're finally getting an idea of what we can really expect from Obsidian Entertainment, one of BioWare's trusted allies in the battle to deliver intelligent and embryonic Western RPGs, drafted in by LucasArts to pick up where the original Knights so expertly left off.
The first thing to note, however, is that Knights of the Old Republic: The Sith Lords doesn't pick up where KOTOR left off, although the events of the original game will have a significant impact in a number of ways. Set five years after the conclusion of the first game, The Sith Lords starts with the Jedi Order disbanded and the Republic in shambles following the Jedi civil war - and instead of simply importing your character from the original game and continuing, Obsidian's sequel puts you in the role of the last remaining Jedi, a veteran of the Mandalorian war, returning from exile and trying to piece together a new existence.
As such, you'll actually start out as a Jedi, although you obviously won't have all your powers to begin with. Due to your long-term exile, you also start without a lightsabre. Before long though things will start to liven up - you'll address the key plot points from your own version of the original game, and the narrative will integrate the decisions you made by having characters ask you how you believe things unfolded. Even at an early stage, the game clearly revolves around a similar degree of freedom in developing the story, and Obsidian has confirmed that it aims to deliver a similar experience overall, concentrating on the many possible threads of the story, characters and Star Wars universe, even if it probably will slip in a few KOTOR-flavoured cameos, with T3-M4 billed for another sizeable role.
Structurally similar, KOTOR 2 will see you visiting seven worlds, including a very different-looking Dantooine, and Telos, home planet of Carth from the first game. Indeed, you'll find the combat and interface very similar to KOTOR 1 and you'll still control three characters, although youll be able to rely on quick-key slots for two different weapon configurations this time, allowing you to juggle particular combat make-ups when facing different opponents. Sticking to similarities, you'll also find that card game Pazaak, swoop racing and turret-manning mini-games make a return, although this time they will be completely optional. You'll even find yourself piloting the same ship, the Ebon Hawk.
There will be plenty of differences though. For example, upgrading equipment will receive a bigger billing this time, as you find yourself dismantling existing items and reusing components to upgrade other weapons. As with everything else, your own personal playing style will influence this previously neglected aspect of the game, giving you upgrade options depending on the balance of your skills. There will be more side-quests too, including some where you will have to pick one particular party member to accompany you - a choice that could be crucial, as each of them will have a unique special ability this time around.
You can also expect to see new Prestige classes and Force powers, although you were almost certainly expecting this anyway. Jedi classes will be largely the same, but this time around you can expect to vie for position as Sith Lord, Sith Marauder and Sith Assassin on the dark side, or Jedi Master, Jedi Watchman and even Jedi Weapon Master on the light side. New force powers include Dark Sider Rage, Battle Meditation, Force Sight (the ability to see through walls, and even discern the alignment of characters on the other side), and Force Clairvoyance (allowing you to see other parts of a level before you've reached them).
Alignment will of course remain one of the key components in directing the story, and there will be different endings based on your light and dark side choices. However in addition to that you may also find that some of your adoring companions start to slip in the same sort of direction as you, falling victim to your ideals and darkening or lightening themselves in the process. You'll certainly have to give it some thought - and the idea of subverting your disciples is bound to prompt a bit of maniacal cackling amongst the ranks of KOTOR fans that chose the dark path last time out...
On a technical level, The Sith Lords is based on the exact same engine, but as with a lot of quick-sharp sequels, Obsidian is attempting to do new things with the technology, developing the lighting and weather effects to a greater extent, and promising that the basic attack animations will grow in complexity as you go on - good news for anybody who stuck to a particular brand of violence for any length of time in the original.
What's more, Obsidian is hoping to take more advantage of Xbox Live than the original KOTOR, for which the "Downloadable Content" claim became something of a joke - with American gamers waiting an absurd length of time before they got their hands on what turned out to be the PC version's extra content. The developer is anxious to avoid a repeat, and mentions the possibility of new armour, weapons and other trinkets turning up on Live within a couple of weeks of the game's planned February 2005 release. Although much of this is still to be set in stone - as with much of what you've read today, in fact - it's obvious that Obsidian has the best intentions for this fabled franchise, and we'd be very surprised if The Sith Lords doesn't more than justify its heavyweight billing by the time we all get our hands on it.