Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic has a new lease on life, giving us another chance to experience the evolution of a genre.
Backlog is an irregular VG247 feature in which we take advantage of quieter times to check out games that went under our radars. Indies, sale bargains, classics or just missed opportunities – nothing is safe from our ravenous team. In this episode, Brenna tackles Knight of the Old Republic 2.
KOTOR and KOTOR 2 date back to a period when video games faded into the background thanks to life demands, and since I wasn’t on board the first Xbox, they passed me by completely. I probably wouldn’t ever have gotten around to it if it weren’t for the recent major update to Obsidian’s notoriously unfinished RPG sequel, and a recommendation from a friend.
It’s a strange hole in my education, since I’ve always been an RPG fan and will devour almost anything BioWare cares to spit out. Obsidian did KOTOR 2, of course, but it did it building on BioWare’s formula, and in any case that’s another studio I greatly admire; I’m one of those who prefers New Vegas to Fallout 3, and while Pillars of Eternity isn’t to my taste, my dip into its world left me impressed. (“Wow, this is exactly like an old school PC RPG,” I said, respect swelling in my heart. “I sure am glad we don’t have to play those any more.” I uninstalled it and fired up Mass Effect 3. I’m sorry.)
It’s probably my distaste for Star Wars fandom that has prevented me taking the plunge. Don’t get me wrong, I like Star Wars – but I don’t love Star Wars, and when you don’t love Star Wars the behaviour of some people who do love Star Wars is enough to make you want to get in a time machine and hand out condoms to a generation of parents.
At this stage in my life I have an almost Pavlovian reaction of irritation to Star Wars, and so it was that I almost gave up on KOTOR 2 as soon as the famous scrolling text screen rolled in. I tamped down my annoyance; I like lightsabers and Jedi and Sith, I reminded myself; I like this universe and this lore. There are no fanboys screaming WHOOOOOOOO just because this music is playing. It’s gonna be okay.
KOTOR 2 seems to have aged pretty well, although the prologue doesn’t sell it very well; the little droid you play in this section is a pain to control with WASD through tight corridors. It gets easier quickly, but it’s a rude introduction.
Other artefacts of the project’s age are equally offputting until you get used to them; the graphics, of course, are hard to take, and the menus and user interface just go to show how spoiled we are by modern games.
In other ways, it’s very easy to swallow. The voice acting is very good – especially for that era! – and in-engine dialogue scenes look pretty decent. Animations are not too awful, and once you get an hour or two in the nested quests and exploration become pretty interesting.
I still might have given up, though, if I hadn’t been enjoying semi-live tweeting my adventure to friends of mine who love the game. As ever, gaming is better with friends – and in this case, the pleasure of sharing with Jess and Felicia kept me going through the rough patches: the endless identical corridors, the gormless combat (it gets better), the janky movement, the inventory glut.
What got me, when KOTOR 2 eventually did get me, was a few things. First, the unpleasant robot assassin. Second, the nasty Sith Lord antagonist. Third, the way my character’s past was revealed through optional dialogue, and tied into the events of the first KOTOR, which I had read up on earlier. Fourth, the way my badass Jedi mentor Kreia faced off against a very scary baddie.
Fifth, a scene aboard the Ebon Hawk in which my two-dimensional scoundrel companion Atton was revealed to be more interesting than I had initially believed, and during which I decided that Kreiahad my heart forever. Sixth, waking up to receive messages from my friends exhorting me to keep tweeting. Seventh, waking up to wonder if I should reroll and go Sith this time – and realising I could just go Sith now, having barely started the game – because this is one of the few games where being “evil” didn’t just seem stupid.
All these things really boil down to Obsidian’s excellent writing, and that’s something that doesn’t age. Obsidian and BioWare are among a very small number of studios that do RPG ensemble casts really well – you may not like everyone or think they’re all terrifically written, but there’s someone for everyone, and compelling plots at both the personal and epic levels.
It’s also got something missing from more modern RPGs which I greatly miss – the capacity to fuck it all up. I understand, intellectually, that it doesn’t make sense for games as a business to let players construct pathetically poor builds, or miss loads of content through poor choices or lack of gameplay-based capacities. But my streamlining games, we’ve lost the charm of really unique playthroughs.
There’s a bit in the first major hub of KOTOR 2 where you can offer to try and retrieve a guy’s girlfriend, whose being held hostage until he pays his debts. I went to do this, only to discover she didn’t particularly want to go back to the dude who pretty much sold her into slavery. Fair enough, I thought, and not having any other options, I elected to, uh, keep her? And now she gives me the money she earns dancing in a club.
I got dark side points, something I had been trying to avoid, and while I definitely felt I deserved them – treating this woman like a thing, profiting off the exploitation of her body and skills – I didn’t think sending her back to apparent servitude of some dude with even less respect for her was right, so I was a bit annoyed. I felt forced into it.
I mentioned this to my friends on Twitter, and they came back at me with a bunch of comments – it turns out there are multiple other solutions to that situation, but I just wasn’t specced for them. I know that will annoy some people, who like to be able to see and do everything and complete “perfect” playthroughs on their first run, but for me it feels like my playthrough is something only I will experience.
There are lots of things I don’t miss from old school games – struggling with crowded UIs, reading pages and pages of text, eye-bleeding graphics – but KOTOR 2 straddles the divide between old-school and modern so nicely it reminds me of those things I do miss. It’s a snapshot of a very important time in the evolution of a genre. I’m very glad I finally found the time to go back and look.
Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic is available for Linux, Mac and PC on Steam.