The Backlog: Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II

No one can stop The Backlog! Well, not that anyone's tried, but still, the Backlog returns for another entry of talking about games we should have played a long time ago. If you missed last week's look at modding Skyrim, check it out here. _____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

I first played Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic 2 back in 2004 when it launched on the original Xbox, but it was a technical mess all around. The frame rate often dropped into single digits, crashes were frequent, and it was obvious that it was a rushed product. With KOTOR 2 finally hitting Steam back in August 2012, and the impressive restored content mod reinserting much of the cut content back into the game, it was finally time for me to return to Obsidian's first title.

Despite the familiar combat and assets, KOTOR 2 is not the same game as its predecessor, and much of that is due to the writing and tone taken on the Star Wars universe. While the original game was a classic, epic, and large scale Star Wars adventure filled with hopeful characters and black and white morality, KOTOR 2 subverts many of those themes in favor of a more personal, dark, and morally gray overall tone.

You play as the Jedi Exile, cast out of the order and cut off from the Force after the devastation of the Mandalorian Wars, now searching for answers as to why your connection was severed. The game doesn't rely on an amnesiac backstory, or allusions to a partially developed past. Instead, you're thrust right into the thick of things, having to deal with your character's past actions in the war despite not having control of them. The brilliance here is the way your backstory is slowly revealed over time. You don't get to rewrite history by retelling what actions you may or may not have taken. Instead you're given options to defend yourself, and you can either justify or condemn your past actions when confronted. It's an incredibly smart way of simultaneously allowing you to build your own personal beliefs and revealing much about the nature of the game's factions and your relationship with past characters.

Your journey takes you from planet to planet, similar to the first game, and each one does an excellent job of conveying the sense of destruction and disarray the galaxy has suffered due to the war. There's an undeniable sense of dread and despair accompanying each location in comparison to the first game. While the intro on Peragus-II is far too long for its own good, things pick up quickly from there. From the battle ravaged Telos, to the abandoned Sith training grounds on Korriban, each location is full of interesting characters and quest lines to discover. Combat is nearly identical to the previous game, and it's easily the weakest part here. It's quite easy to be completely overpowered towards the end of the game, though there's still enough challenge in some fights that it doesn't become boring.

KOTOR 2 is a dialogue heavy game, even more so than its predecessor. Chris Avellone's excellent writing is on full display here, and the game does a great job of moving it to the forefront. Instead of boss fights, large dialogue confrontations are often how you'll tie up larger quest lines. These sequences are full of options, many of which are far more in-depth that what you'd get from something like Mass Effect. Additionally, Obsidian has added skill checking during dialogue to allow you to spec your character to be more proficient in arguments. It's a subtle addition, but it makes the well written dialogue feel important, something that seems to be fading away with many RPG's taking the action route.

KOTOR 2's greatest strength is its well written companion characters. On the surface it would be easy to assume that they're no more than classic Star Wars cliches. You've got your rouge smuggler, a handyman, and a mentor character, however, these characters manage to subvert those expectations and surprise through subtle character building. Each has an interesting backstory to tell, and they bring unique perspectives to the events unfolding. The revelations here aren't sudden, instead they happen slowly over time, through excellently written and well paced dialogue. Where the original was centered around its big reveal, KOTOR 2 does the exact opposite, subtly building characters throughout the journey to the point where each one feels fleshed out, well justified, and consistent.

The most obvious standout here is Kreia, your first companion who becomes your mentor for the long journey ahead. She presents herself as neither Jedi nor Sith, and neither good nor evil. Her philosophies and teachings challenge your preconceptions about morality and the force. Kreia doesn't praise you for tossing out a few credits to a poor person, but instead chastises you for not allowing said person become stronger through suffering. She challenges you to think about every action you make and do it with purpose, regardless of the apparent morality it may present. Her motivations are mysterious at first, but through conversation you learn more and more about her history, view of the force, and and desires. Subsequently, her reveal is neither one of great shock or betrayal, but more of an affirmation of things you've slowly come to realize are true. It's definitely one of the most memorable scenes I've witnessed, made better by a few subtle additions with the restored content mod. Kreia in my mind is undoubtedly one of the best characters in a game, and leads an all around fantastic cast of companion characters.

Kreia is just one of the ways that Obsidian was chosen to subvert expectations within the Star Wars universe. KOTOR 2 isn't a very cheesy or pulpy sci-fi adventure, instead it aims to look at established Star Wars conventions and turn them on the side. Is the force necessarily a good thing? Is the Jedi Council really the good side when it comes to immediate threats? Or are they too burdened by their code to function effectively? KOTOR 2's brilliantly written dialogue sequences bring these questions to light and ask you to define your own path, rather than choosing what's simply right or wrong.

Yet for all these things, KOTOR 2 will likely always live in the shadow of it's predecessor, due in no small part to the way the game initially shipped thanks to a rushed development cycle. KOTOR 2 shipped in a miserable state on launch, but thanks to modders, the overall experience is much more stable and cohesive. While there are a few combat sequences that likely should have stayed cut, the added cutscenes and sequences contribute to a much more refined and well rounded experience. The ending still feels rushed, but a few additions help alleviate how sudden and quick it was in its initial state.

KOTOR 2 aims to accomplish a much different goal than the original game, focusing on deep characters, morality, and questioning certain aspects of the Star Wars universe, rather than simply working in the established confines of the franchise. That might not be what some are looking for in a sequel to one of Bioware's best games, which is understandable. Personally, I was constantly surprised and astounded by the quality of the writing and the questions I was being asked.  While I was honestly bored with the way the Star Wars franchise has turned out, Obsidian showed it can be both interesting and fresh again when its very foundations are questioned. It's a shame we'll likely never see another Obsidian developed KOTOR again, because their deconstruction of the Star Wars universe is one of the most thought provoking experiences I've had in a while. I guess we'll just have to settle for The Old Republic, which I quite frankly forgot still exists.

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That's it for this week's entry. Be sure to check back in a week for our next edition of The Backlog. Until then, tell us what you thought of Sith Lord. And if you're hungry for more KotoR II, checkout Kyle look at the game from last year's season of The Backlog here.