Episode IV: A new game
There's no doubt about it Star Wars is a phenomenon and there are a HUGE slew of titles on the way, with more expected after George completes his third movie and it's released to rabid fans, game developers just can't help jumping on the Lucas band-wagon and I can't really blame them for that.
Even Lego is getting in on the act with the forthcoming prequel based Lego: Star Wars and of course there's the new Episode III video game to coincide with that movie. Yet Lucas' world is a diverse and fascinating place (especially for an author like me) full of yet untold stories and its here that we begin with a period at least 4,000 years before the creation of the Galactic Empire.
Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic pretty much blasted onto our consoles and PC (eventually) and rapidly took place as one of the best RPGs made yet, combining excellent visual quality with a gripping and enthralling Star Wars story where you could take the virtuous path of the light side or fall forever and embrace the dark side.
The player took on the role of a mysterious amnesiac character that had a grand destiny, true to the Star Wars ethos this background developed and soon the twist was revealed in a moment that almost ranks up there with: You're not my father! From Episode V.
Now we're set for Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords and a new hero/villain, new characters and a story that tells of the battle between the Jedi and the Sith as the Republic's fragile peace crumbles into dust and the stirrings of the dark side rise in the shadow of war.
You're a young Jedi Knight who is struggling to reconnect with the power of the force, on your way to the Outer Rim your Republic ship is boarded and a mysterious woman kidnaps you aboard the ship: The Ebon Hawk (fans of KotoR will recognise this old vessel straight away). She claims you are the last of the Jedi Order and the story kicks off with you aboard the battered and lifeless ship...
I highly recommend playing the tutorial level and learning the way the game works even if you have played KotoR as KotoR II has some changes and new ideas right from the off, not to mention it's also pretty important to learn as much of the story as possible - KotoR II will not appeal to the button-mashing instant action crowd.
So what is this Jedi stuff anyways?
KotoR was brought to us by Bioware who mysteriously handed the torch to Obsidian who are made up from ex-Black Isle employees and some of the best RPG designers around, it was with this in mind that I eagerly threw the disc into the Xbox and prepared to see what new adventures awaited me.
I had been promised so many things by the shiny PR package and the box itself, so shiny and nice that I can't help but share them with you our valued readers, since most of you know by now I tend to have a rather informal review style and it's more like a fireside chat at times, would you like a cup of tea and a scone?
1) KotoR II promises an epic new story built upon the KotoR gameplay engine, a story that's set 5 years after KotoR and remains true to the world created in the first game.
Does it deliver this bold claim, yes it does and the story in my opinion is just as enthralling and entertaining as the first game. It's brought to life with well written dialogue and suitably paced storytelling techniques, never leaving you completely clued in to what's really happening. The CGI is excellent and I always get a kick from seeing the Ebon Hawk blasting around the place. 2) A non-linear story and party-splitting side quests:
I can say that KotoR II's story so far when you finally leave Peragus II really opens up and you will soon find yourself with more to do than you thought possible, it can feel a little overwhelming at times as the story twists and turns faster than a snake in a tumble-dryer. There are times when your party is split and you're forced to continue on with another character or group to solve a particular side-quest. So yes, again it delivers what it promises.
3) Build your party from 10 different characters and some of them can be affected by your influence, turning either to the light or dark.
I haven't found all of the characters yet in the game because I tend to have quite a lot to do and review, but I can say so far it's been an interesting mix of people and they all have varied and interesting personalities, some of them have background stories and side-quests of their own just like in KotoR. The new influence statistic plays an important role in KotoR II as everything you do or say can have an affect on certain characters, if you tread too close to the light or the dark you might find they object or in some cases convert their way of thinking to yours. 4) Choose the path of the light side or the dark side and lead your party down the same road.
Following on from the above it's possible once again in KotoR II to go either way, by being kind and virtuous, avoiding needless confrontation and conflict you can head to the light side. But if you're a nasty evil and vicious kind of player you'll begin down that slippery slope and take your party with you, regardless of their own personal beliefs and motives - if you're a strong enough leader you can convince the most golden hearted soul to do despicable acts of evil, or redeem the darkest heart.
5) Each companion has a unique special ability and/or item or weapon.
Not content with crafting interesting and varied characters with personal motivations and goals, Obsidian has added a unique facet to each one. Some have special powers like Bao Dur's 'shield breaker' which can take down the shields on certain doors and enemies. Once more I'm not going to spoil the surprises by listing anyone else suffice it to say there are some pretty cool things hidden in the game's list of characters.
6) Seven Locations/Planets with 70 distinct levels.
KotoR II is certainly packed with locations and areas to explore; seeming a lot bigger than the previous game it also provides some new and old locations to fans of the original. You will tread certain sites from KotoR and perhaps even encounter old friends/enemies as well as the story weaves from location to location, leaving you with plenty to do in the areas you do visit.
7) New weather effects, new graphics and a more polished game engine.
It's about time that we talked about the bells and whistles compared to the previous outing, the eye candy and the graphical splendour that makes console owners oooh and arrr as effect after effect goes off before their eyes. Let's face it, gameplay might be king but it's always nice to have a cherry on the top with good visuals and effects. KotoR II doesn't stint the gamer in this department as the new lighting, shadow effects and particles plus much more enrich the experience. There are more polygons in the new models and the new Jedi robes complete with hoods and flowing dramatic lines are a much-anticipated and wanted touch. It was one of the biggest gripes and moans I saw about the old game, hey if you're going to be a Jedi you want to look like one.
8) Over 60 new Feats and Force powers with new visuals and special effects.
Star Wars: KotoR II and the previous title are based (loosely) off the Star Wars: D20 game system, that much loved or maligned pen&paper hobby that labels some gamers as geeks or nerds when they probably have a better grasp of maths and design than most people who claim to have Degrees - it's quite scary when you meet a Star Wars pen&paper gamer that you find out works for: NASA.
*note D20 is the catch-all name given to RPGs that use the WotC D20 system originally developed for D&D's newest edition 3.0 and 3.5
So with this in mind the system for KotoR II is a mix between gameplay and pen&paper mechanics, the Feats are simplified versions of those found in the core rules and for the purposes of the game they work perfectly giving you a huge selection to shape your character from as the game progresses. You earn experience (XP) from battling foes and solving problems, which then equates at a certain point to a level up and you may then choose new options, distribute points and gain Force powers/Feats if you are at the right level to do so.
The new powers are drawn from such titles as: Force Crush, Force Scream, Drain Force and Beast Control. Just by the names you can tell some of these are from the dark side and they have suitably dramatic visuals to go with them as the power of the force is unleashed upon your unsuspecting weak and feeble enemies (Hey! Your dark side is showing, better zip that up! Ed.)
There are a slew of new Feats as well such as Stealth run, precise shot and dual strike. Some of these are always active and some are triggered by using KotoR II's simple and effective combat system, covered in the next point.
9) A significantly enhanced combat system from the previous game with more combat options, more strategies and new combat animations.
What a great time to cover animations in general, since I was suitably impressed with the originals animations for everything from simple movement to combat (which kind of reminded me of a dance) could KotoR II improve on this? The answer is yes it does and the combat looks even more fluid now, with new movements and animations becoming available to the characters as they progress in skill and level. The melee combat system has evolved and takes into account a wider array of offensive and defensive options as the characters battle it out with their foes; it really is like watching a dance at times. The combat system itself at the core however remains the same as in the first game with the simple command system, working once more with a few tweaks to the overall control method making it easier to use. I personally tend to have the game pause at the first sign of an enemy so I can react accordingly and plan my moves, allowing the other AI characters to do their thing.
10) New weapons, new items and new lightsabre crystals to alter the attributes and colours.
The game is packed with lots of new weapons and the coolest thing about the new item system is that some of them can be broken down into their component parts, remade into new items and the customisation options of the original title are still there, so you can have that blaster just how you want it (providing you've got the right bits that is). Not to give much of the story away but don't be disappointed because you do not start with your lightsabre right from the get go, you'll have to work for it - but it's worth it especially with the new system.
11) Start the game as a Jedi; interact with hundreds of new characters and NPCs. Choose from six new prestige classes.
There's that word again, prestige class, this is another D20 system ideal that has been translated into KotoR II and allows you even more abilities as you're essentially plugging-in a new class alongside the old one. You can also start KotoR II as a Jedi this time around and it's all part of the story, you'll gain new insight into how and why as you play the game and the rewards are certainly worth the time and effort.
KotoR II is also full of characters to meet and interact with, the game doesn't stint in this aspect either as the story continues and unfolds you'll be rubbing shoulders with egotistical know-it-all Jedi and ruthless bounty-hunters, even an old infamous friend returns from the first game to provide you with another reason to play, to hear those dulcet and arrogant sarcastic-droid tones warmed my heart and should be a lesson to all 'Meatbags' everywhere.
Those are just some of the points that the game promised from the shiny PR materials, I thought it might be fun to break from my usual review style and present the facts to you all in a different manner. Interface and streamlining
The KotoR II interface remains essentially the same but has certainly been modified, it's now possible to set up pre-set weapon combinations for both single and double-handed styles and switch weapons in game with the push of a button and a quick selection. This really does improve on the old style and provides a much more intuitive interface and quicker access to items/weapons in combat.
The party AI and enemy AI in general has been improved with your characters able to react to combat situations based on the setting, if you have them set for support they'll do their best to keep you alive - if you have them set to using their force powers more often than their brute strength, they'll do just that before they wade in and start chopping into their enemies.
Mark Griskey (one of LucasArts composers) has written a new fully orchestrated score for KotoR II and he's captured the feel of the Star Wars universe effectively, the music isn't invasive or intrusive and it supplements the action and atmosphere perfectly.
LucasArts and Obsidian have a wide array of stock effects to draw from thanks to the Star Wars legacy, so their sound department has stocked the game chock-full of gorgeous blaster noises and whizzy-lightsabre effects. The ambient and spot sounds in the game are tuned to near-perfection with the alien atmosphere of planets brought to life with creepy chitters and the various strange gurgles drawn from the sound effect library - and I dare say the wizards at Obsidian added their own sounds and twists.
In many roleplaying games voice work is usually quite dire, or they cut corners and concentrate on pure text. Every character, major or minor had a voice in the original and it's nice to see that tradition (first heard by me in FFX) has been continued into the sequel with the talents we've come to expect from the good voice actors of our time.
Jennifer Hale (Bastila) is back and Phil Lamarr (Samurai Jack, Green Lantern) is right alongside her. Added to the cast list are the original voice actors for Malak and HK-47 (You know we love him right!). The voice work in KotoR II is some of the best in the business and it should be when you poke around IMDB and check out the cast list, but then again that's the kind of crazy lengths we at Games Xtreme go to so that we ensure you know as much about the game as is inhumanly possible. Bugs
With a game as good as KotoR II there are some bugs, sometimes the frame-rate can drop when a huge fight breaks out and the battles rage with pyrotechnics galore. It doesn't happen very often but it can break the suspension of disbelief and bring you crashing down out of the story. I haven't really encountered a bug as nasty as the Carth Onassi one from KotoR so it seems that the game is relatively bug free (as I have played it so far).
So there you have it, if you're an RPG fan and you loved the original you should hit Hyperspace and go get KotoR II since it is a worthy sequel to the first game and reunites you with the Star Wars universe in a clever and intelligent way.