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Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II - The Sith Lords (PC) artwork

Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II - The Sith Lords (PC) review

"I knew a game-master once who - apart from being incredibly good at convincing completely uninterested players to try role playing games - was well known for being good at telling stories. "

I knew a game-master once who - apart from being incredibly good at convincing completely uninterested players to try role playing games - was well known for being good at telling stories.

It wasn't that the stories he told were particularly fantastic and harrowing absolutely all the time, I discovered - but he understood something essential about role-playing gaming: that the goal was to immerse the characters in the story, and include as many different and simultaneous narratives as possible into a scenario. So that each of the players had a reason to exist in the game-world.

I thought about this when I played T.S.L., because the designer of this game is also a very good games-master. The story and the set pieces are deep and intriguing, and yet it takes a complete back seat to the interactions between the characters, and ultimately your own inner narrative as you play the game.

You are "The Exile", a war-hero from the Mandalorian wars. After the dust settled, you were exiled from the Jedi Order and disappeared from the Core System.

Exactly how and why this happened is eventually explained well in dynamic flash-backs depending slightly on what sort of player you prove to be during the first half of the game, and this event will always be a way to orient the player back to the choices you make, for good or (very) bad.

But the game starts at a later time as your ship is adrift in space near the Outer Rim. Only an R2 unit has recently been activated - and it beeps in a slightly distressed manner. It's master is barely alive in the stasis chamber, life-support is damaged, and the rest of the crew is showing no life-signs. Meanwhile the ship is on a collission course with an asteroid field, and the navigation computer is off line. Fortunately the sensors are still functioning, and the R2 unit discovers a mining installation inside the asteroid field. So the R2 unit, under the player's command, will have to rescue it's master by repairing the ship, and dock it with the mining facility.

Some desperate scurrying around later, the R2 unit will succeed, and the remains of the ship will be recovered by the mining operation's crew.

A few days pass - until the player is brought out of stasis, only to discover the mining facility as well has suffered an inconspicuous catastrophe, and that an imperial cruiser is scheduled to dock within a few hours.

It seems disaster follows The Exile around a bit too much for this to be coincidence. In any case - your first mission will be to discover the fate of the mining operation, and escape before the Imperials arrive.

This type of pacing is there throughout the game - the immediate context will have a pressing scenario, but it will not be urgent enough to distract you from delving into the many side-stories on your way. In the same way, this allows the inevitable conclusion to the chapter to happen conveniently without feeling too scripted.

The game will then allow you to create a character in the same way as in the first Kotor game, and choose your starting abilities and appearance. Obviously the years in stasis has dulled your affinity with the Force, and there are no light-sabers lying around. And awakening to the Force again will be a central part of the game's story throughout as you level up and find back to form - as you were during the Mandalorian wars - or perhaps even stronger.

But for what purpose? And why at this time, amidst so much apparent happenstance? As you are frequently reminded, there is no coincidence - there is only the Force.

Of course the question as you play the game is whether you will go along with the Star Wars style Space Opera narrative, and really immerse yourself in the story. And the reason that you will is not that the story is presented to you in cinematic sequences, but instead through gameplay and the subtle undecurrents in the dialogue that you have to extract actively, that then hints to and describes the larger narrative. This is also what drives the player to involve themselves with the other characters you meet, and what places them in the story as more than simply stage-props you navigate past on the way towards the game's conclusion.

Game-mechanically, the game is similar to Kotor 1, as the game engine is the same. You control the protagonist in 3rd person and highlight points of interest or targets to attack, by changing your viewpoint by moving the cursor towards the side of the screen - and then clicking on the valid targets. You walk and run by holding down both mouse-buttons, or by clicking the points of interest. Actions during battle can then be stacked through the convenient context-sensitive menu, either on the fly or when you pause the game. The actions then play back afterwards in turns with more or less success depending on hidden dice-rolls. Characteristic saber-locks and blaster deflections are triggered if the dice-rolls fit. And abilities and skills - earned through wearing items, or through side-stories - increase your chances of survival. The same is the case for your companions, who you can micromanage easily in the same way through the interface, if you do not trust the AI.

At some point you will of course visit the Jedi Enclave at Dantooine to complete your refreshment course in Jediry, and choose a specialisation class that will focus on your particular preferences and chosen role as a Jedi.

The interesting thing about these missions is that you choose when to visit Dantooine on your own. The game guides you, but the choices feel important. And in the when you approach the end of the game - the sense of fulfilling your fate is strengthened by the game allowing you to consciously fight it, or accept what it has in store for you. Just as some of your choices will come back to you full circle, really allowing you to make these choices your own. The writing that facilitates this is quite good, in the way that it ties the gameplay and role-playing elements into the game-world so successfully.

It has to be said, though, that when the game launched it was not polished, to put it mildly. There were broken quests, missing dialogue, and scripting errors by the dozens. Never mind the severely and terribly cut ending. Skill-sets and stats that made little sense, and state-flags out of place. Or, for example, the low-res cutscene recordings of game-engine to fit the console-version.

Of course it was not enough to break the game, as was suggested by reviews at the time (although the xbox version had a tendency to lock up). But parts of the game simply looked as incomplete as they really were, which detracted from the playing experience.

So this game has been reviewed on the TSLRP mod (The Sith Lords Restoration Project) by Team Gizka. Who, before the project was abandoned, managed to compile an impressive amount of individual fixes into a single mod, without also adding user-made content (whether that would not have the same level as the original game or not). Without going into too much detail, the mod gives the game the face-lift that makes The Sith Lords look as good as it really is.

The Sith Lords is one of those games that you remember after playing them. Not because of intellectually harrowing writing, or outstanding action and graphics - but because the game as a whole experience engages you in a way no other medium can hope to accomplish.

Played the game on my trusty Nvidia 6800 setup, which would have been enough to play the game on full detail when it was released. Supposedly the game works well on Vista. The TSLRP mod is no longer available from Team Gizka's homepage, but can be found here. The mod should be installed after applying the official patches, as the mod will replace a bunch of the game's resource files. A playthrough should take about 30 hours.


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Community review by fleinn (June 17, 2010)

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