Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords

Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords

Greg Orlando

Love blooms among the automatons, even the homicidal ones. “Love is making a shot to the knees of a target 120 kilometers away using an Aratech sniper rifle with a tri-light scope,” the meatbag-loathing robot HK-47 says during LucasArts’ Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords.

The combination of philosophical and antisocial (or perhaps psychotic) has not often been seen in a robot, real or imagined. Yet the sequel to the original Xbox role-playing game Knights of the Old Republic can take it for granted there are well-developed—and interesting—characters to mine as source material. It’s a given the smarmy, self-aggrandizing robot returns for a second round of mayhem and homicide, and even more so the game’s developer, Obsidian, has created new heroes and villains, ones almost as well-developed as HK-47 to serve as its costars.

For all Lords’ faults—and it has many of them—at its core lies a series of thoughtfully crafted human beings. They might not all be physically presented as such, but their personalities mark them so. The Iridonian Bao-Dur treats his little remote droid not as a tool or pet, but as a friend; when it comes time for Bao-Dur and the droid to part, the bond between the two is tangible enough to give the moment suitable weight. Seemingly happy-go-lucky scoundrel Atton Rand accompanies the hero on his quest not because of some misguided loyalty or gratefulness at having been rescued from imprisonment but because he’s haunted by his past and embraces an opportunity to redeem himself. In bits and pieces, these men, women, and robots reveal themselves as intricate wholes. And getting to know them is a genuine treat.

Lords serves as a fine sequel, building in small ways off of the original. Although the basic three-member adventuring party setup remains unchanged, the central character can now progress from Jedi or Sith to a series of six prestige classes, such as Jedi Master or Sith Assassin. New combat settings, both for the nonplayer character and the protagonist, allow for greater control over the turn-based combat situations. This time, it’s possible, say, to order the sassy bounty hunter Mira into a ranged attack pattern, where she’ll fire her laser guns until threatened with melee weapons, at which point the game automatically switches her weapon to a preassigned sword, staff, or ax. Jedi can adopt Force-powered stances, increasing their defenses against blaster fire or perhaps augmenting their attacks against the multiple opponents.

There are new worktables to be found, and items can be broken down into components or chemicals and reconstructed to create new weapons, shields, armors, or medical items. A brand-new influence system provides an overt indication of the relationships between the hero and his party members. As influence waxes and wanes, so too do the opportunities presented in terms of character development, subplots, and quests. Figure out what makes the hardened warrior Mandalore tick, and he may well reveal his secret (yet sadly not-quite-shocking) identity.

It seems perhaps belaboring the obvious to note none of these additions impacts negatively on the game, and all, to various extents, improve upon what was originally built by BioWare. The extra strategic elements provide for greater fine-tuning during combat but are not strictly essential; novices won’t have to worry overmuch whether they’re using the correct stance to defend, say, against blaster attacks. The best of the new features, the expanded Jedi classes, further extends the range of character customization that made the original Republic a joy to play.

Yet these changes come with a price; Obsidian seems to have made them while simultaneously failing to address the original’s faults. The long, almost excessive load times remain unchanged. Targeting simple objects such as one of Lords’ goodie-holding metal boxes in an attempt to open it oftentimes causes the hero to spasm wildly until he’s physically relocated to a more agreeable spot. Graphical slowdown potholes many of the fights, taking what should be a smooth 30fps to a disagreeable 15fps, or perhaps even lower. These flaws were easy to forgive in Republic, considering the game’s novelty and the dearth of quality role-playing games on Xbox. This time, however, all the small blemishes seem more noticeable, less likely to be brushed aside in favor of overwhelming praise.

Like its predecessor, Lords mixes brilliance with all-too-human frailty. It embraces the best part of Republic, the notion that the central character should grow and develop not only through fighting and collecting items and experience points, but also by making moral choices impacting on who he is. Decide, the game says. Take a stand. Who should get the starport visa and, thus, a chance to flee the troubled planet of Onderon—the woman with the cash and bad intentions or the mother with the small children whose husband attempted to assassinate a government official? Is it okay to lie if it means a crime lord will loosen his grip on a group of penned-in refugees? By asking questions and demanding decisions, Lords finds its heart.

Past the character development, the quality thins considerably. The game trips over its unwieldy story line, revealing its Achilles’ heel. Lords presents a central hero marked as the last Jedi and then promptly proves it can’t stick to the premise or even properly define what “the last Jedi” means. Certainly the character is not the literal last Jedi, as nearly everybody in the game is a Jedi, a fallen-away Jedi, or in the employ of a Jedi. Nor is he the figurative last Jedi—a sort of “wound in the Force”—since he quickly regains all of his once cast-off abilities shortly after the opening text crawl. Even the notion of the Sith lords, noted in the game’s subtitle, remains ethereal, a genuine Xbox phantom menace.

To the point: Everything presented here is nebulous and ill defined, cloaked with an overwhelming, sometimes debilitating, verbosity. Because Lords relies heavily on its plot, the denseness of the story mars the overall whole.

The race to see what happens next, as ever, remains fairly urgent; Lords does not want for individual plot moments solid enough to capture and hold interest. On Onderon, a brewing civil war presents the opportunity to pick a side, and then fight to the death for it. A rehashed Korriban offers a chance to trod down memory lane by leading troops in battle from the oft-mentioned Mandalorian Wars. Dantooine (the second of the recycled environments) pits settlers against a series of cutthroat guns-for-hire in a fierce skirmish.

What’s missing, however, is the big payoff—things are concluded with a head-scratcher of an ending in which nothing resolves itself except for the final obstacle to the end credits dropping dead, and the only small satisfaction comes from seeing the freighter Ebon Hawk set off into infinity. Worse, the game sinks fairly low, not bothering to show what happens to all the individual characters it spent 40-plus hours’ worth of gameplay developing, but rather having its antagonist recite their fates one after another.

Comparisons between the two Republic games are inevitable. Despite its additions to the canon, Lords comes up short. It’s not farce by any means. It’s just less forceful than expected, love’s equivalent of perhaps a shot to the shins… //

08 Out of Ten

PUBLISHER: LucasArts // DEVELOPER: Obsidian // PLAYERS: 1 // LIVE: No // MSRP: $49.99 // ESRB: T

Darth Nihilus

Or: Much ado about the dark side

Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords’ cover boy Darth Nihilus may look impressive, but in the game he turns out to be a virtual nonentity, speaking only in a series of incomprehensible hums and drones. Nihilus’ plans, if indeed he has any, never come to the fore. He’s easily dispatched in combat and quickly forgotten as two more villains step in as the game’s ultimate threat.

Special Education

The benefits of being an NPC

Each nonplayer character in Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords adds something unique to the party. The bounty hunter Mira won’t ever trip land mines, nor will anyone in the three-member adventuring party, providing she’s leading it. Bao-Dur can access a shield-crushing superpunch of sorts, and ne’er-do-well Atton Rand escapes death as long as another party member still lives. Using these special abilities to great effect is one of the game’s simple joys.

Copyright © 2005 Ziff Davis Media Inc. All Rights Reserved. Originally appearing in Xbox Nation.