It’s no secret that the Star Wars franchise has suffered from many wounds, many of them self inflicted. After the special editions came out and ruined the entire franchise for millions of fans, many of them found their solace in videogames.
A little back history for you first.
Star Wars has been popularized in gaming mode since The Empire Strikes Back was published in 1982 by the Parker Brothers (who are more famous for their board games – Monopoly, Risk, Sorry!, and Trivial Pursuit) for the Atari 2600. Though taking dozens of different forms, Star Wars remained an arcade and console classic for the 80s decade. For the majority of the 90s, the X-Wing series (along with Wing Commander, Descent, Freespace, and Tachyon: The Fringe) highlighted the space combat simulator genre (games I played as a kid), which, at the end of that decade, died a tragic death through its own ironic undoing. The better-known spiritual successor to X-Wing is Rogue Squadron.
Other Star Wars notables included shooters like Dark Forces (which is the Doom of Star Wars), and Shadows of the Empire, and then in 1999, racing games like Pod Racer, which is the highest selling sci-fi racing game in history (yes, even more widespread than Wipeout and F-Zero). The franchise was hot because it streamlined the most popular genres of videogames into Star Wars form, and it did so in a way that was fresh and innovative.
But all good things come to an end, and after the decline of the space adventure genre, followed by the disappointment that was The Phantom Menace, it was beginning to look like Star Wars had reached its peak, with the only exceptions being the Rogue Squadron franchise, continued with the excellent Rogue Leader for the GameCube and the Starfighter franchise for Xbox.
Then, out of nowhere, in 2003 came Knights of the Old Republic – the first Star Wars Western RPG ever to come out since the West End The Roleplaying Game for the DH6. KOTOR was created by BioWare, a company that was known only for its legendary Baldur’s Gate RPG series. They were known to have superior talent for indelible storywriting, and KOTOR, for a time, became their biggest proof of that.
I’m not going to waste your time praising KOTOR, but needless to say, it was the best thing to ever happen to Star Wars since the original trilogy and it is my favorite videogame of all time, and if you haven’t gotten a chance to play it…fix that immediately.
BioWare had intended the game to be a standalone project and thus abandoned it after releasing a few free non-mission DLC extras and went to work on Jade Empire, and then Mass Effect, which is the spiritual successor to KOTOR. That’s right; without KOTOR, there would be no Mass Effect franchise. The same applies to the Dragon Age franchise.
But LucasArts was about to let a popular and lucrative name brand like Knights of the Old Republic off the hook so easily. So, at BioWare’s suggestion, they deferred it over to Obsidian Entertainment, which was a startup assembly of former designers and writers from Black Isle Studios, which had, in the past, created Fallout 2, and had published the Baldur’s Gate franchise. BioWare trusted them – namely, their prize developer, Chris Avellone to do the game justice.
Well, yes and no, in my opinion. The game is lightyears away from being perfect, even with all the patches and unofficial mods attached to it, but compared to the overlooked ingenuity it brought to the franchise, I think the game gets chastised far more than it deserves.
KOTOR 2 was hastily created. The first game has about 12 to 15 hours of gameplay and the second one has 15 to 25 hours of gameplay, even though it came out only a year and a half after the first game. Avellone himself regretted that he didn’t have enough time to get everything into the game that he wanted to get into it. The omitted content included critical plot details like the HK droid factory on Telos, among many others. The result was a profoundly interesting story that got extremely difficult to follow in the third act. This was particularly problematic given how much they had blown up the scope that made it hard to wrap your head around everything that was going on.
The game is also buggy in dozens of places. Obsidian has had that problem forever, but given that KOTOR 2 was their first official release, the rage it was met with was far more rancid than it deserved.
So don’t get me wrong; there are definitely reasons to not like KOTOR 2. Perhaps the biggest criticism people had for the game is, very simply, it wasn’t KOTOR 1. The first game is better because it doesn’t reek of design flaws and story holes the way the second does, but if KOTOR 2 was given more time to perfect, it probably would have eclipsed 1. Every problem KOTOR 2 had was met with a bold innovation that at least partially made up for it.
The gameplay mechanics remained the same, but while KOTOR 1 brought you the general setting of the Old Republic, taking place almost 4,000 years before the Battle of Yavin and building a story from raw roots upwards to a glorious climax, KOTOR 2 took that setting and made it even bigger.
Whereas the first game concentrated on a small fellowship of core characters, each one of them being essential not only to the story but to the overall experience (I love Mission Vao), the second game kept only three of them (two of them being droids) and gave you an even bigger and more colorful cast of companions, one of which in particular (Kreia) has gone down in the books as one of the most memorable videogame characters of all time.
The first game gave you a single major villain, Darth Malak. The second game gave you a triumvirate.
In KOTOR 1, one character described the destruction of his home planet, Telos. In KOTOR 2, they took you there and then gave you a part to play in its restoration. In KOTOR 1, they told you about the Mandalorian War. In KOTOR 2, they let you explore some of the battle sites. They also introduced the Mass Shadow Generator (seriously how cool is that?). In KOTOR 1, they started the game by giving you a profile, waking you up, and throwing you into a fight. In KOTOR 2, they did the same (sort of) but they shrouded the entire opening act with a big mystery that only made it more fun.
Knights of the Old Republic 2: The Sith Lords is a phenomenal and demiurgic game. I actually rank it alongside Assassin’s Creed II in overall quality. As far as innovation, characterization, atmosphere and story writing is concerned, this game enriched all of Star Wars with its invigorating themes and made me a smarter Star Wars fan for it.
So if you’re a fan of KOTOR 1 and you haven’t played KOTOR 2, give it a shot.