Star Wars is without a doubt one of the most popular and powerful franchises in Hollywood history, and you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone who hasn't at least heard of it. It's nothing less than a cultural juggernaut, and along with that comes the expectations of the legions of fans that have supported it for decades. With such a huge audience, it's not surprising that there have been a slew of games trying carry the films' success into the videogame world, but what is surprising is how few of them actually turned out to be any good. Besides the X-Wing games on PC and the first Rogue Squadron on the Nintendo 64, most of them have been little more than cheap cash-ins. With such a rich universe portrayed in the films, it seemed a crime that there wasn't more being done with the license. In 2003, BioWare's Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic came along and answered a lot of prayers.
That game was far from perfect, but it did what so many of its predecessors failed to do by dynamically presenting the feeling of adventure found in the blockbuster films while incorporating the idea of what it would be like to actually be a Jedi. Never before had the moral choices of using the Force for either good or evil been captured to such a degree, or even attempted. Although the first Knights was bogged down by numerous technical and design problems, the core experience was extremely positive and overcame those issues to become what is, in my mind, the best role-playing game (RPG) to be had on the Xbox.
With that said, I'm sad to report that I found Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic II- The Sith Lords (hereafter referred to as KOTOR 2) to be a disappointing experience that simply fails to surpass or equal the original.
If you're a reader who wants the nuts and bolts on KOTOR 2's gameplay, read Gene Park's review of Knights (and my second opinion), and then come back here. There is essentially no difference between the two titles despite expanded options for item creation, a few new Force abilities and new "stances" to be used during combat. These things might look good listed beside marketing bullet points, but they're inconsequential.
Now, for those who don't remember, the biggest issues I had with the first Knights were technical ones; a poor framerate, an unacceptable number of glitches and bugs, and a generally low level of production values. I had already known from screenshots and internet reports that the character models and environmental graphics hadn't received much of an upgrade in KOTOR 2, and I was fairly okay with that. But I certainly expected a higher level of polish and a more solid engine running underneath the surface. Unbelievably, this is not what was delivered. Given its sequel status and no significant changes in graphics or gameplay, it was difficult for me to tolerate a second dose of the choppy hiccups and rough edges presented at every turn. It may have a different storyline, but KOTOR 2 has failed to improve on any of the issues that were in need of attention last time around.
Calling a spade a spade, the game runs like garbage. For example, the framerate is absolutely atrocious. It's frequently possible to actually count frames of animation as the onscreen action grinds down to a crawl, and in countless places it actually halts—though I will say that it never actually crashed in the thirty-odd hours it took me to finish the light-side adventure. Small praise, indeed.
Other issues include troublesome navigation of teammates trailing the leader, unwieldy menus clogged with obscene numbers of items, several minor audio drops, small freezes during cutscenes, and sometimes inputs or commands during combat that were mysteriously ignored.
Most frustratingly, the fat, chunky loadtimes that plagued the first game are still present despite the Xbox's vaunted hard drive and streaming techniques present in today's programming environment. I thought for sure that if nothing else, these I-can-go-make-a-sandwich-now dead spaces would have been reduced or even eliminated� but no. They're still here, still larger than life, and entirely too frequent. This annoyance, along with the other issues I just listed, adds up to a ramshackle presentation that is simply not acceptable.
Looking at the game's storyline and characters, they're not the train wreck the technical issues are, but things are wildly uneven with an unhealthy number of head-scratching moments and pieces that don't seem to fit. However, I would like to point out that the biggest thing I thought the developers got right was the newly-added "influence" system.
During play, my actions and choices would either endear me to, or alienate me from my team based on their preferences and beliefs. This concept is a great addition that really made me think about the consequences of my in-game behavior and avoid snap decisions so I could maintain the strongest possible bonds with the characters backing me up. Putting upstarts to the lightsaber might be good for a laugh, but it's not worth the discord caused with light-side allies. Conversely, helping people in need makes dark-siders see you as weak and unworthy. This system starts out as being very involving stuff that I'd like to see more of, but the power of this innovation was weakened due to lackluster characters and reduced interaction with them.
Most of the beings on your team are dull and not very engaging any way you slice it—the notable exceptions being the humorous assassination droid HK-47 and Kreia, the main character's mentor. Kreia's role in particular is actually quite fascinating, but the rest of the time spent conversing with my rogues' gallery fell flat. The first game offered multiple character-specific sidequests and healthy dialogue trees for each of the crew, which are now largely missing. With KOTOR 2, it was much harder to get the same sense of depth. There are too many instances where the characters would either not respond or have nothing new to say unless I had rotated them into my party and increased influence with them. When I finally could get them to talk, I was often met with looping speeches that repeated nonsensically and eroded the sense that these party members were anything more than placeholders. (This same talk-loop syndrome plagues the rest of the game as well.)
I won't reveal the plot that unfolds as you fly through the galaxy, but I will say Sith's late-game "surprise" twist is a genuinely good one. But it would have been even better if the last few hours of play didn't fall apart into a jumble of rushed scenes and muddled events that come out of nowhere. For example, there was a baffling segment in the final area with a character that I had been completely ignoring for the length of the game. I did not expect it at all, it didn't make sense, and I struggled to see the significance of having it thrust into a place that I felt it didn't belong. In fact, I thought many of the story's peripheral elements felt halfhearted and actually got in the way of the plot, only serving to confuse things unnecessarily. Don't expect much from the actual Sith lords mentioned in the game's title, either� they're a pair of letdowns even bigger than that overblown saber fodder from Phantom Menace, Darth Maul.
With all the complaining I've done, what's good about KOTOR 2? Not too much, unless you're a Star Wars nut. The core game concepts created by BioWare and carried on by Obsidian are still solid enough, the influence system is welcome, and I do admit that no other console game succeeds at giving players the choice between good or evil as well as Sith and its predecessor do. However, these merits are overshadowed by a stumbling story and a level of technical proficiency that's outright embarrassing. In my view, the game is partially saved only by George Lucas' mythology of Jedi knights, flashing lightsabers, and alien locales. If not for the license, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II-Lords of the Sith would be an unplayable mess rather than something I tolerated for thirty hours. Would I have completed the game or recommend it to someone who wasn't already a Star Wars fan? Probably not.
I forgave a lot of the issues that rankled me in the first Knights because it was just that—a first game, and one that broke new ground. Carrying on the same kind of rough, unpolished quality into a sequel without any innovation is completely unacceptable to me, Star Wars or otherwise.
Disclaimer: This review is based on the Xbox version of the game.