Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords easily ranks among the most anticipated Xbox releases of the year. The original game was a role-playing-game highlight on the console when it was released for Microsoft's platform last year. Its winning mix of solid RPG mechanics and a near-stunning, and rarely seen, nonblasphemous use of the Star Wars license made for one of the most compelling Xbox games of 2003. The downside to the original's success was the large pair of boots it left to be filled by the next game in the series, which is now being crafted by Obsidian Entertainment...and not BioWare. Our previous looks at demos have shown a number of promising elements that have left us hoping for some proper hands-on time with The Sith Lords. Fortunately, we recently had the opportunity to enjoy some playtime with a work-in-progress version of the game, which let us get a feel for the start of the adventure. While the game doesn't appear to offer any massive improvements over the original, it looks like there's still going to be quite a bit to enjoy.
You'll start play in much the way you began the original KOTOR, so you'll create your character in the same multistep process as before, with the standard automatic set-up options for players who are eager to dive in and play. However, you'll have two options when you start playing. You can choose to play through a "prologue" that puts you in control of T3-M4, who wakes up (or, we suppose, comes online) on the Ebon Hawk after what appears to be either a wicked rave or a near-fatal battle that's left the ship trashed. Your task as T3 is to restore power to the ship and send it to Peragus Station, a nearby mining colony, before the occupants meet an untimely demise. This sequence brings you up to speed on the various systems for exploration, combat, and interaction in the game. If you choose to bypass the prologue, you'll wake up in a kolto tank (while wearing your Skivvies) on Peragus Station in a somewhat disoriented state. Once you're free of your watery home, you'll notice other kolto tanks with less-lively occupants. In fact, these occupants are dead, so you'll be, obviously, curious as to what the heck happened.
While we can't reveal much of the story's specifics, we can tell you that The Sith Lords has a heavier air of mystery to it than the original game. Not only is your character in the dark about a lot of what's going on around him, but also, you, the player, aren't completely in the know about your virtual self, either. You'll discover your character's history by interacting with other characters in the game, and you'll even shape it to a degree by the choices you make in the various conversation trees. Suffice it to say, your dude or dudette has quite a history. We can tell you that the main character is a lapsed Jedi and that much drama is in store for him or her because of this career choice. We can also note, as we have before, that your character will attempt to reconnect with the Force over the course of the adventure thanks to the aid of one of the members of your party, a Jedi named Kreia.
As before, this will all play out in light-and-dark-side flavors depending on how you choose to go through the game. Obviously, the light-side path will offer a warmer and fuzzier trail through the game that's heavier on feelings and sharing, while the dark-side path will yield plenty of attitude, ass kicking, and assorted acts of malicious violence. Your journey will take you to many new and interesting places, some of which you've seen before and some of which you haven't. You'll also be introduced to a colorful cast of characters, some of whom will join your party. For fans of the original game, characters such as the acid-tongued HK-47 will show up again to dispense words to live by. In HK's case, this usually means spouting various encouragements of murder. (We do applaud his consistency.)
So far, there seems to be more switching between characters in this early part of the game. If you play through the prologue, you'll control T3, and once you arrive at Peragus, you'll take control of your main character. Then, once you start to explore the station, you'll have to play some sequences as T3 while your main character waits on the little droid to succeed at his tasks. One especially nice touch to the story is that in lieu of using your save from the original game, you'll answer some questions early on in your exploration of Peragus when you meet Atton Rand, one of the first members of your party. These questions are specifically focused on determining what you did in the original game. Your answers will then shape the rest of your experience in The Sith Lords.
Jump to Lightspeed?
If you're wondering how all this plays... As we've mentioned before, the gameplay in KOTOR2 will offer refinements on the original game's systems rather than offering complete overhauls of them. Based on how our version of the game handled, we can't say that's a bad thing. The original game offers a solid base of systems to build off of, and Obsidian appears to have been generally savvy about what it has expanded. From our experience with the upcoming offering, the bulk of the work seems to have focused (fairly successfully from what we can tell right now) on usability.
The core menu system has been streamlined and tweaked to include more-useful information, in addition to making it easier to handle party maintenance. You'll be able to toggle between different weapon sets, thus allowing you to be better prepared for dealing with different foes as you encounter them. One of the more subtle touches that we're especially pleased by is the simple addition of "empty" in the name icon if you target a container you've already looted. Although it's a subtle thing, it adds a sense of polish to the overall experience that the original game didn't have. The only rough spot we've encountered so far is in the game's heads-up display, which becomes cluttered with messages during a fight. We're not complaining about the information offered, though, and besides, you'll be able to disable a lot of these messages if you want.
The graphics are in step with the overall refinement of what appeared in the original game. The level of detail is still respectably high, and the characters feature distinctive polygon models that convey some personality. You'll notice a broader range of faces--human, alien, and droid--as a whole. Your personal selection of faces at the start of the game has been buffed up quite a bit over the originally, as have the faces on the other characters you'll encounter. So anyone sick of seeing the same bloody Twi'lek over the course of the hefty chunk of hours needed to go through the original KOTOR can rest easily. The game's animation has also received a number of additions to give the characters smoother movement, which is especially noticeable during combat. The environments sport more variety than those of the previous game, with little touches, such as weather effects and animated textures, thrown in to give them some character. All told, the game is looking like a more polished version of its predecessor, which, while we'd like to see a stronger graphical upgrade, still works. The frame rate in our version still struggled some when we played, with inconsistencies popping up from time to time, but this was roughly on par with the original game. We'll be curious to see how the final game ends up moving, as far as frame rates are concerned. Hopefully, the Obsidian gang can tighten things up a bit more by the time KOTOR2 ships.
The audio, while still coming together in our version, covered all the necessary bases already. You'll have a rich assortment of ambient noise to give the areas you'll explore their own unique lives. A mix of full-blown orchestral tunes, some of which should be familiar to fans of Star Wars and the original KOTOR, sound good and help sell the action onscreen. Speaking of action...You'll hear a good mix of old and new effects for weapons and Force powers that give the game a comfortable feel. The voice acting appears to be on par with the original game, at the very least, which is good to hear. While there are still a few stinkers in the voice-acting bunch, they're negligible.
One final thing of note with regard to our hands-on time with the build is the removal of Xbox Live support from the game. The original KOTOR used the feature for a one-time download of additional content for the game several months after its release. While Obsidian had initially intended to follow suit with The Sith Lords, its lofty goals for the feature, which they hoped would include more than a single download, didn't gel to the team's liking and have since been cut.
Based on what we played, Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords is shaping up to offer a solid refinement to the original game's systems, though it will present its own equally engaging story. The game looks a little better than its predecessor and features more-polished gameplay. While it's not quite the sequel some may be expecting, the familiar feel and strong story still give it quite a bit of appeal. Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords is currently slated to ship next month for the Xbox, while a PC version is targeted for release early next year.