About a month ago now I reached the finale of my revisitation of the Knights of the Old Republic saga, a revisitation that started when I gazed across the room at my brother’s iMac, on which he was playing through the opening sections of KOTOR for the first time.
I couldn’t help but feel pangs of nostalgia when the menacing Darth Malak turned, in that frightening Vader-esque way, to face one of his officers. Fond memories quickly resurfaced of an epic storyline on a galactic scale, worlds populated with masses of characters, a huge body of side-quests, tonnes of force powers, lightsaber combat and the conflict between the light and dark side tying it all together. In short, a classic Bioware production.
I had decided before the game was even installed that I was going to play a dark side character (my default path), perhaps for no greater reason than to avoid the cringe-worthy light side ending cinematic. My class choices came later – Scout for the first chapter and Jedi Consular for the rest of the game – but ended up suiting my twisted ego all too well. As a Consular inclined toward the dark side, I was free to revel in the full destructive power of force lightning, and the life sapping potential of force grip and drain – my favourites.
The introduction was enthralling enough, with various tutorials (essential for a newbie) skillfully punctuated by the slowly building drama of the ship you’re on being ripped apart and boarded by ‘Sith’. Sadly that drama vanished rather too quickly once I’d crash landed on the planet below.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that a wrecked escape pod might’ve attracted the attention of the local authorities, especially when those authorities were Sith, the very same chaps who were desperately trying to assassinate me only moments beforehand. If KOTOR was a great RPG, the crash would’ve been swiftly followed by a chase scene, or a narrow escape from capture – something to make me feel like actual people lived on Taris (the planet in question) rather than a bunch of mindless drones who didn’t seem to give a shit about anything outside of their pointless daily routines.
Alas, whether because of mediocre designers hired sometime after the release of the Baldur’s Gate series, or through sheer laziness, Bioware filled the majority of KOTOR with uninspired side quests and boringly tranquil city hubs in which very little of import ever occurs. Does anyone really give a toss about procuring a serum to cure a load of hapless beggars of the dreaded ‘rackghoul’ disease? Was I supposed to care when I came across an OAP alien with a head shaped like a bent crucifix being bullied by a couple of children? Maybe so, but I didn’t.
The quest-giving characters in KOTOR are (without a single exception that I can think of) a lot like the desperate couple in the diner in Pulp Fiction: they may have great lines (not that I think that the quality of writing in KOTOR even comes close to Pulp Fiction’s) but they’re never given the screen time of the main characters. As a result I’m never as involved with them emotionally as I am with Bruce Willis’ ‘Butch’ or John Travolta’s ‘Vincent’, or in KOTOR, Bastila or Malak.
And that’s KOTOR’s greatest flaw, shared by KOTOR II, as well as other Bioware productions like Neverwinter Nights and the more recent Jade Empire. The lion’s share of the content of all these games is a mire of embarrassing crap that’s frankly unpleasant to play. It’s crap because it smells, and it’s embarrassing not to me or you or anyone else, but to the finer elements of the games themselves.
In the case of the KOTOR series, those finer elements are the few truly intriquing playable characters who travel with you on your journey, the menacing villains who overshadow your every step (the Darths), and those rare moments when you’re steeped in Star Wars lore, visiting places where only legendary Jedi and Sith Lords have dared to tread.
Combat is generally a tiresome chore in both games. Even the most extravagant force powers tend to become very underwhelming very quickly, given that you’re more or less forced (no pun intended) to use them every five seconds. Lightsaber duels, though somewhat captivating at first, are the same from beginning to end, no matter who’s dueling, and so also become mundane early on. Gun fights are even worse: with no cover system to speak of, all you can do is stand twenty paces away from your enemy and exchange fire until one of you drops to the floor.
The player character is a great deal weaker in KOTOR than the one in KOTOR II. In KOTOR battles are more or less always challenging, often irritatingly so; in KOTOR II they progress from being fairly easy to totally one-sided about three quarters of the way through.
Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of fights that a Jedi should never have trouble with, and it’s good to have those in the game so that I can feel warm with smug superiority, but I think you’ve got to make the duels with other Jedi (light and dark) more trying. The balance is perfect in Jedi Academy, where the duels are perilous right the way to the end, but stormtroopers and the like are a pushover.
Where KOTOR really bitch-slaps its younger brother is in the polish department. I remember when I’d first played through KOTOR II (around the time of its release) it was in its youthful unpatched state, and therefore crippled (though not quite as crippled as the infamous Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines, which I adore by the way) by bugs as well as missing or unfinished content. Coming back to it recently I found that several patches, some containing the bulk of the that missing content, were available for download.
My opinion of the game is somewhat changed for the better as a result. Though I noticed that some things were still missing, like a few side-quests and NPC conversations on Nar Shaddaa, it is a much more complete affair, and (crucially) free of fatal errors. But it still never feels as well rounded as KOTOR. There’s something intangibly disjointed and spaced-out about the way that KOTOR II plays; with KOTOR everything just felt right – mostly not up to scratch as I’ve already described, but still a fully intact work.
Stuff like your alignment (light side/dark side) changing depending on your choices in and out of dialogue makes much more sense in the first game than in the second, in which the rules of morality were hard to grasp to say the least. I actually had to cheat to turn myself to the dark side near the end of KOTOR II. I knew I was evil, that my actions had been deliciously unsavoury throughout, but apparently the game had calculated me to be a model of virtue. I wanted force crush, not some namby-pamby aura!
Ultimately KOTOR has the edge over KOTOR II for this and other reasons, some difficult for me to articulate. There are bits of KOTOR II that are quite charming, but it never comes together properly. What matters more than the differences between these two games though are the differences between them and other (far greater) RPG titles.
I’m about to embark on a play through the Baldur’s Gate saga with my brother (who stopped playing KOTOR about an eighth of the way through funnily enough) and a friend, and if my memory serves me well the BG storyline is far more involving and the side quests nowhere near as pathetic as those I’ve just ranted about. We’ll see, but for the time being I think I’ll warn you not to bother with these two pretentious miscreants. They’re revered in the RPG gaming community, but for me they’re anything but special.
KOTOR II: 66%