So rarely has a game alternated between being really good and really bad with such frequency.
Cons: Slow start; Lackluster ending; Absurdly inconsistent difficulty; Tactical options are awkward to execute
Note: I played KOTOR2 with The Sith Lords Restored Content Mod 1.8. If you don't know what it is, look it up and definitely use it. It adds some very nice (if frequently small) content, and integrates seamlessly with the core game.
My relationship with KOTOR2 is an inconsistent one. I started the game, created my character, a female Jedi by the name Reyn Ksajf (some gibberish sci-fi nonsense that I made up). She wakes up hospitalized on a mining station and must escape. She runs through corridor after corridor, hacking through enemies with relative ease. She meets an old woman and a young rogue-ish man along the way, who supply occasional banter. After two or so hours of doing this, she finally escapes. I have become bored long before this point.
This isn't the game I wanted to play, I thought. There's no choice going on, the story is pretty much non-existent, the combat is lame and the environments are uninteresting. Still, if I'd learned nothing from the brutal games I had conquered in the past, it was how to be stubborn. So I pushed on, and as if the game could read my thoughts it got better. Significantly better.
On the second planet, the scale of the situation becomes more relevant: the Sith are out hunting the Jedi, who have all mysteriously disappeared. The Sith, believing you to be a Jedi, pursue you endlessly-you are always on the run from a relentless threat. This constant struggle for survival sets a darker tone that is one of KOTOR2's strongest assets. The fact that you are not merely a passerby in the Star Wars universe, but prey being hunted for some unknown reason, is instantly compelling once the game lets it be.
Even better, the game really tries to break away from the black-and-white morality found in just about every other video game. If you do something evil, people will question you and your ways. That's normal. But if you do something good, you STILL get questioned about it. I had people question if being nice was taking away from my focus and strength, or if I was actually making the recipient of my help weaker by fighting their battles for them. Awesome! Unfortunately, KOTOR2 is still shackled to the light-side/dark-side point system of the last game, turning moral quandaries into a simple meta-game that I play to earn upgrade abilities.
Still, the tone the game sets is different and very appealing. Throw in a complex cast of characters with intertwining back stories abundant, and the plot is frequently engaging as you travel from planet to planet in search of the Jedi. The gameplay is a little less stellar. At is best, it's a light cRPG in the tradition of old BioWare games where you level up your character and use your abilities to fight enemies, loot, and level up further. It's a little easy and mindless, but it functions as a nice little stopgap in the story.
But alas, as I said, as I said my relationship to KOTOR2 is an inconsistent one. Multiple times I would be ripping through enemies without much thought. I'd take them out, lose at most 1/5 of my health, heal those minor scratches, and move on to the next group. Eventually I'd reach a boss. And then die. The boss takes out two-thirds of my teammates' health with a single move and at that point there's no way to stop them.
This happened multiple times, and you can imagine my frustration when the game suddenly shifts from total cakewalk to trained killing machine in a matter of seconds. But let's say that the game had been hard from the get-go-it still would have been an issue regardless. Battles are turn-based (though they appear real-time) and you can pause and issue orders to your teammates. This, theoretically could lead to some carefully executed tactics that would work well in a high difficulty setting. And you can see that theory in practice in a game like Dragon Age Origins, where the going is tough, but a thinking player can triumph with careful application of strategy.
And technically speaking, you can definitely do the same type of thing in KOTOR2, but the interface is a major challenge. Whereas several other cRPGs offer a zoomed out, bird's-eye view akin to RTS games, that let you view the whole battlefield and issue commands, KOTOR2 opts for a closer perspective, more akin to an action RPG. This isn't the fatal mistake though, as various tactical shooters like Tom Clancy games and Freedom Fighters show that issuing orders can be fine from a third-person view. The issue here is that you can't issue orders to anyone you aren't currently controlling.
Thus, if you want to give all three of your party members orders to enact simultaneously, you need to swap to each of them. Then you have to deal with the changed camera perspective, and if you want the character in a specific position, you need to manipulate them manually, since orders don't include a simple move command. Of course, you could just let the AI handle itself, but their self-preservation is so low that they'll run straight through mines to attack an enemy. Every single time.
In a high-difficulty battle this is all incredibly awkward to deal with to execute simple strategies, making these tough battles more frustrating than fun. I hate to admit it, but I actually turned the difficulty down for these one-off fights very regularly; I don't do that! Surprisingly, and disappointingly, the low-involvement easy battles are actually more fun than the battles that should require thought and tactics, because of the aforementioned terrible interface.
Over the course of the game, I dealt with its alternately breezy and frustrating combat, to see the interesting story play out. I had fun, I was engaged, I cursed things and swore I'd quit multiple times. But I persevered, and let me say, the ending is not worth it. The last chapters of the game are among its worst (read: linear, repetitive, maze-like), and the ending (without spoiling anything) is so abrupt that I thought the game had accidentally glitched out of the final scenes. People love to complain about Mass Effect 3's ending, but that game's got nothing on KOTOR2.
And so I sit here typing a review, and I'm still not sure what to make of the game. I might have liked the plot for the most part, but the beginning and end were purely bad. And the gameplay, while only bad in the few frustrating difficulty spikes, wasn't particularly great either. The sum is an experience that is tough to recommend or condemn. Playing KOTOR2 like going on a rollercoaster. You wait for a while in line to experience its thrills. The ride itself has its ups and downs, and there are definitely some moments of great fun, but suddenly it's over, and as you idly wait for the cart to stop, you wonder if those fleeting great moments were actually worth all that time waiting.