Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords First Look
We visit Obsidian Entertainment's Southern California-based offices to find out what to expect from the next entry in LucasArt's Star Wars RPG series.
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The original Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic was easily one of the highlights in the Xbox's 2003 lineup and was an equally bright light on the PC. Looking back, the game's impact is probably close to the gaming equivalent of the first time one of our prehistoric ancestors discovered the benefits of fire. While this may sound like hyperbole, KOTOR can be seen as an impressive achievement on two levels. First and foremost, the game managed to offer an original Star Wars experience that didn't require you to be a card-carrying member of the Junior Jedi Brigade to appreciate. Secondly, the game more than capably filled the need for another RPG in the Xbox software library and provided a powerful testament to the fact that PC development was hardly dying. That the game managed to accomplish one of these feats was impressive, but the fact that it accomplished both is nothing short of jaw-dropping.
Given the title's popularity, it's hardly surprising that a sequel would be in the works. What is surprising is that LucasArts has opted to go with a fledgling developer for the sequel, which has been dubbed "Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords." Rather than go to BioWare for the sequel, LucasArts has tapped Southern California-based Obsidian Entertainment to craft a follow-up to one of the most critically acclaimed and successful games of 2003. While fans of the original may fear this sounds like madness--on the same scale as the "New Coke" debacle--fear not. We recently took a trip to the developer's modest studios to see the Xbox and PC game, as well as to interrogate some of the team members who are working on The Sith Lords to see if they know their wookiees from their garden-variety yuzzems.
Before we even get to the mysteries of The Sith Lords, we'll answer what's likely to be an even more-pressing question for those looking forward to the game: "Who the heck is Obsidian Entertainment, and how are they going to fill BioWare's size 24 shoes?" While the notion of handing the keys to the KOTOR van to an unknown developer may seem to be a pretty daring thing for LucasArts to do, fortunately, Obsidian isn't just another small startup. Though the company may be new, its members bring an impressive amount of experience to the table. Despite the fact that the names Feargus Urquhart, Chris Parker, Darren Monahan, Chris Avellone, and Chris Jones may not be immediately recognizable to some gamers, some of their works probably are easily recognized. The quintet's collective resume includes work on an impressive array of well-known games, such as Fallout, Icewind Dale, Baldur's Gate, Dark Alliance, and Planescape: Torment. All totaled, the circle of men brings to the table a little more than 40 years of experience making games.
While original developer BioWare's involvement with The Sith Lords has been strictly limited, the company will support the technology used in the game because the original KOTOR technology (which belongs to BioWare) has been licensed for The Sith Lords. At this point in the game's development, however, BioWare's presence has been fairly low-key. Given how familiar Obsidian has become with the original KOTOR technology since the start of development, there doesn't appear to be much cause for alarm that something is going to go horribly wrong. Fortunately, the gang's grip of experience offers a pretty compelling reason for why the KOTOR franchise is in safe hands.
Given the impressive pedigree of Obsidian's staff, it's hardly surprising that The Sith Lords will feature a rich story with a slightly darker spin. While the exact details of the tale are being kept under wraps, we recently got a brief overview from Chris Avellone, lead writer on the project, who offered some tantalizing bits of info on The Sith Lords' story. The game is set five years after the end of the original game but in a much darker universe. The events from the end of KOTOR, which included a rather dramatic change in the Jedi population, have led to a shift in the balance between good and evil. The Old Republic is beginning to collapse because the scars inflicted upon it during the war with Darth Malak have run deep. The worlds of the Outer Rim are left to fend for themselves, while Republic forces pull back to try to maintain what order they can. Though this move is great news if you're a resident of the core systems, it kind of blows if you live in the Outer Rim.
The remnants of the Sith, who are never in a good mood to begin with, are especially punchy following their battle with the Jedi. As a result, they are preying on the unprotected worlds and are slowly gaining a sizable and dangerous presence. Your role in this darker world is rather vague at the moment. You're something of an enigma at the start of the game--even to yourself--due to a mysterious past. You'll play a Jedi who's something of a lost soul, having gone astray and lost their connection to the Force. By that we mean they're out of touch, not strapping on heavy armor and wearing lost of black. However, despite your lack of focus in the Force, you still have a pivotal role to play in the battle against the Sith and in the fate of the galaxy. Discovering exactly what this role is will be something you'll have to find out as you go through the game. Your journey of self-discovery will also shed some light on why the Sith appear to have it in for you.
The rich story is being complemented by a very robust gameplay system that will build on the solid foundation from the original KOTOR's systems. Rather than try to reinvent the wheel (while possibly breaking the mechanics from the original), the Obsidian team has taken a hard look at both the original game and user feedback to determine what needs tweaking. The goal is to refine the promising systems introduced in KOTOR to offer players a better overall experience. To this end, a number of tweaks have been made to menus in the game to help keep the game's pace from bogging down. Exploration and character interaction are being kept close to what the original game offered--you'll still race about the various environments with your party in tow while talking to non-player characters and unraveling the story.
As for exactly who your party will be made up of, that's being kept fairly quiet at the moment. You'll see a selection of familiar faces, along with a bevy of new characters, who will be both friends and foes. The game's scope will be as epic as the first release, and it will send you traveling to seven different worlds in the trusty Ebon Hawk, which will once again serve as your home. Minigames will also be back to offer a change of pace--when you feel so inclined.
Combat is also being kept true to what was offered in the original game, although there have been some visual tweaks made to the animation system that's tied to your character's development. This ensures that as you level up, you can see your character's progression. For example, the battle animation in your early fights will offer a modest selection of moves, while the battles you engage in after going up a few levels will feature a more-impressive animation suite that offers a sense that you've grown more powerful in combat ability. The array of Jedi powers available to you will be broader--you'll now have more than 30 which will include force confusion and force sight.
The graphics in the game are being pumped from a tweaked version of the original engine and boast a number of refinements. The licensing deal with BioWare has allowed Obsidian the opportunity to use the technology behind the original KOTOR graphics engine. As with its approach to gameplay, the Obsidian team is taking a very focused approach to the game's presentation. The Sith Lords will use a mix of real-time cinemas and computer-generated (CG) movies to tell its story as you play. Rather than simply using the technology as is, the team is actually going through and performing quite a bit of work to beef it up. The work-in-progress version of the game is already looking sharp and boasts a more-stable frame rate, despite a number of new graphical effects and some ambitious level design. Character models sport improved detail, as do the game's environments. The animation system is undergoing some work to help provide a better sense of character growth. As you'd expect, the PC and Xbox games will share the same visual differences as the two versions of the original game. (And, of course, the PC will offer some beautifully high-resolution textures.)
The visuals in the game will be complemented by a robust audio package that will include a hefty amount of voice work and a new score of music. While the audio in the version of the game we saw was obviously still coming together, we expect that it should be on par with the high standard set by the first game.
While we've thrown quite a bit of info on Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords at you, we've got even more on the game. In addition to an exclusive developer interview, we'll be offering a deeper look at the game this Saturday, so be sure to check us out then. Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords is currently slated to ship next year. Look for more on the game this weekend and from the E3 show floor next week.