Tuesday, February 15, 2005

KOTOR II: The Sith Lords

Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic was my favorite game of 2003. It deserved every accolade it received--Xbox Game of the Year (most publications), RPG of the Year (most PC publications), and even PC Game of the Year (in my book, anyway).

Finally, the sequel has been released for the PC. Most of the reviews I've seen for Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords have given scores in the mid 80's, and every single review I've seen has boiled down to "More of the same, but just not quite as good."

I only have one question: what game are these people playing? Not the same one I am, certainly, because after several hours I am totally dismayed by how poorly the sequel has been handled. And I'm going to tell you why.

The original KOTOR featured a very rich sense of being in the Star Wars universe. Yes, the game started slowly, but even then there was an overwhelming sense that the player was of a world. There was an almost immediate immersion into a fantastic variety of races and cultures, all stunningly modeled and voiced. It was all so beautiful, so outrageous, that I laughed out loud several times.

Inside a nonsensical world, things must be sensical.

Okay, I made that word up, but here's what I mean. We all, to some degree, engage in the willing suspension of disbelief when we enter a gaming world. Once inside that world, though, it must be internally consistent. It must be coherent. And if it's not, it will never convince us, and it will certainly never move us.

The original KOTOR was sensical. It was coherent. And it was, to a very large degree, a memorable experience.

The first three hours of KOTOR II, in contrast are a mess. A miserable mess, at that. There is almost no sense of the Star Wars universe. It could well be a Star Trek game, or Unreal II, or anything else. It has absolutely no identity of its own.

MINOR SPOILERS AHEAD: I want to discuss a few specifics of the first hours of the game. These are all minor plot details, and I'm going to fog them up a bit, so I don't think it's going to ruin the experience for anyone, but still, please be forewarned.

As a delightful opening, you will find yourself in a totally generic environment. A poor start, and to make it worse, you'll get to work your way through the tutorials--as a droid. And a mighty small droid, at that.

What? Can someone please explain to me the narrative benefit of THAT? Why am I going throught the tutorials as a close relative of a Roomba?

A dreadful, misguided decision, and it will get worse. Finally, after you are allowed to play as the Jedi, it's quickly apparent that there are very few Jedis remaining. Well, after another hour, I'm pretty sure I know what happened: they all died of boredom. They drifted away from their calling to become insurance adjusters and accountants. More exciting professions, in other words.

How, you might ask, could being a Jedi possibly be so boring? I can understand making me be Don Knotts in a track suit for, oh, the first five minutes, but no way should I be running around that way for half an hour. I spent most of my time looking for a finish line tape to lean into.

But I'm still a Jedi, and I'm a bad ass (which is a remarkably un-Jedi-like thing to say, I know). Except I can't hit the broadside of a freaking barn. Look, guys, if I'm already a Jedi, I shouldn't be missing targets from five feet. Actually, scratch that--NO ONE should be missing a target from within five feet, not just Jedis. Blasters and lasers are shooting energy--they shouldn't be less accurate than a nineteenth century rifle. I can understand a degree of inaccuracy in order to lengthen combat encounters, but not to this ridiculous degree.

Then there are the cut scenes. KOTOR had an unbelievably well-written, intricate plot, and the cut scenes accompanied by the fabulous voice-acting advanced the believability of both the game and the game world. The voice-acting is still excellent, but the characters in the cut scenes punctuate their dialogue all too often with idiotic, repetitive gestures like fist-pumping. It's contextually totally out of place. That kind of crude representation is an insult to a world that was so carefully and spectacularly crafted in the first game.

So the first few hours are, in summary, a miserable, unbearable slog.

So I struggle, and I mean struggle, to continue. There is absolutely no way in hell that I would have kept going if it hadn't been for the memories of the first game. And finally, FINALLY, there was a brilliant, spectacular series of dialogues by a female character (who is magnificently voice-acted, by the way) that gives me some hope for the rest of the game.

In the first three hours, though, and I'm not exaggerating, the best thing about this game was the menacing dude on the menu screen. He looked absolutely fantastic.

I'm still playing, and I'm going to revisit the game here after I play for about five more hours. I very much hope that what I write then is far different than what I've written this time.

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