Being the sequel to the finest RPG on any platform in 2003, Star Wars fans the world over breathed a collective sigh of relief when it was announced that Knights of the Old Republic 2 was being developed by Obsidian Entertainment, a company formed from the ashes of Black Isle, who were responsible for some of the most critically acclaimed RPGs of recent years; namely Planescape: Torment and the Fallout series. There was also fevered anticipation that Obsidian wouldn't simply rehash the original, but build upon and refine the game, and provide a tale of less clear-cut morality.
Here, all these expectations have been realised. Whilst the base game engine is the same as in KotOR, the tone of the game is very different, and several tweaks have been made to both the interface and the game mechanics. All these tweaks add subtlety and extra depth to the game, though newcomers might be bemused by the additions to the Workbench system, and the wider range of item upgrades that can be produced. The ability to build your own weapons and items like implants or health packs is a welcome improvement, with your skills and attributes directly influencing the things you can build.
Likewise, the addition of Lightsaber Forms (fighting styles that you can change to make you adapt your stance according to the enemies you face, which also alter the attack animations), prestige classes, new character feats and Force Powers all significantly enhance the way you can customise your lead character. Also, in an effort to prevent you from simply using the same three characters throughout the entire game (one of the original game's few flaws), the game refreshingly shifts focus away from the protagonist at several points, forcing you to use the majority of the other characters in your party.
There is also a feeling of continuity in your party, as several characters from the original game make reappearances: some in little more than a cameo, others as full-fledged members of your party. Obsidian have acknowledged the popularity of HK-47 by not only having him return, but by incorporating a veritable army of successor HK-50 droids into the plot, all manifesting his trademark illustrative prefixing of statements and homicidal attitude. A couple of planetary locations from the first game also make a reappearance, though they have been slightly modified, in accordance with the events taking place in the five years between the two games.
It's here where you start to get your first inkling that things aren't quite as well developed as they ought to be. If the wholesale reuse of textures and locations from the first game is indicative of a slight lack of imagination or lack of development time, then the absolutely identical overriding quest structure should come as no surprise. This time, it's not star maps you need to find, but Jedi Masters in hiding. Not exactly revolutionising the principle of RPG construction here, are we, Obsidian?
As if that wasn't bad enough, KotOR 2 starts slowly, and takes a lot of time to build up a head of steam. Casual players may indeed lose interest long before the intrigue begins to thicken and you're hooked into the well-written plot. The prologue and tutorial may be skipped if you're a veteran of the prequel, and just as well, given that it doesn't really add much to the overall game experience. The opening planet of Peragus is likewise mostly an exercise is slamming your forehead into a brick wall, thanks to some uninspired level design and a lack of enemy variety. The escape sequence, in which you flee the Peragus mining station from Darth Sion, one of the two curiously underused villains, is a direct copy of the closing scene on the Leviathan in KotOR, and doesn't inspire either the urgency or fear it should, either.
The most bizarre thing, however, is that Obsidian, having wisely decided to make your character a Jedi (albeit an exiled Jedi) from the start of the game, then make the rather perverse decision to not allow you to acquire or build a lightsaber for almost 15 hours of game play. This might vary a little according to how completist you are with side quests, and according to which planet you tackle after Peragus and Telos, but it's easily double the length of game time compared to the original, and a substantial portion of the 40 hours it took me to complete the game. It's almost as if Obsidian are deliberately trying to alienate their target audience. If they are, then they did a rather good job of it, and no amount of pseudo-psychological questioning from Kreia about why you should desire to have one justifies this decision, either...
This isn't the only problem - having finally constructed your lightsaber, or been rewarded with one via a quest, upgrade crystals are then very scarce on the ground, hardly making it an advantage to equip one over a standard melee weapon, though at least one good tweak allows you to open some security doors with your lightsaber, Qui-Gon Jinn style.
As you would expect from the minds that brought us Planescape: Torment, the tale told is one of darkness and moral ambiguity, with choices rarely being clear cut into Light and Dark. The script is excellent, and whilst the main quests themselves lack imagination, the sub-quests don't, with shades of grey being the order of the day, as you're called upon to ally yourself with unsavoury characters to complete quests. Characterisation is strong, but fairly limited for all but the principle cast. Unlike KotOR, where each crew member had their own sub-quest, KotOR 2 revolves almost completely around the protagonist and Kreia, a mysterious Jedi who takes it upon herself to be your mentor, and who becomes the first NPC to join your party. The other characters, such as the rogue Atton and bounty hunter Mira, are interesting enough characters, but you'll quickly run out of dialogue with them after they join your crew. There are more NPCs to choose from than in the original game, but a couple of the characters are rendered obsolete by the introduction of some of the later ones. Bao-Dur, the Zabrak Tech Specialist, is made useless by Mira's equivalently high skills and better combat abilities, and the Exchange (read: Star Mafia) droid, G0-T0 is entirely superfluous. At no point do you ever need to use him at all.
Another flaw is the storytelling method. Returning to your ship (the Ebon Hawk, making a return appearance from the first game) triggers a cutscene that moves the plot forward, revealing tensions, treacheries and motives within the ship's crew. If you don't return to your ship enough, it's possible to miss a lot of these events, and despite the game's emphasis on actions not having clear-cut consequences (for example, giving a beggar money could simply make them a target to be robbed, instead of helping them), if you choose to walk a neutral path, not only do you miss out on being able to choose a Prestige Class, you also cannot complete a key sequence on the Sith world of Korriban. Several cutscenes also demonstrate worrying logic bugs. In an early conversation with Atton, you get to decide whether Darth Revan was male or female. There remains absolutely no consistency throughout the rest of the game, with some characters referring to Revan as "he" and others as "she"... and that's if you can read the cutscenes at all.
KotOR 2 has a surprisingly high level of bugs, despite the fact that the Odyssey engine used in both games hasn't had any noticeable graphical overhaul. Despite running the game on an Athlon 64 3500+, with 1GB of RAM and an ATI Radeon X800 XT, performance dropped below playable on several occasions. A word from the wise - if you own a Radeon GPU, make sure you update your drivers. Anything less than the very latest ones will result in the cutscenes suffering from a horrible anti-aliasing and Vsync bug that causes the graphics to be smeared over the screen, rendering the text practically unreadable. There are also a couple of Vertex Object memory leaks, most noticeably on Dantooine, which would have prevented me from completing the game, had a friend not suggested an .ini file hack. Some cutscenes also appear to be out of sequence, or don't have sound, or worst of all, depict events between characters that aren't resolved by the end of game.
Unlike Vampire: Bloodlines, another recently released PC game that suffered from a number of bugs, these technical gremlins really damage your enjoyment of the game, especially given that the game engine is well over a year old, and didn't manifest any of these problems in the prequel. This brings me to the most important part of my conclusions about the game.
Whilst it's fairly easy to forgive the slow start, and grin and bear the technical issues because of the quality of the script; the ending is unforgivably farcical, and is perhaps the single most unrewarding conclusion to a game in recent history. The manner in which the finale is executed is nothing short of laughable.
It's a fool who goes looking for profundity in a Star Wars game, but I was at least expecting some closure, especially after the game has spent the best part of 40 hours hammering home how each choice can have unforeseen consequences for you and the people around you. Instead, what you get is a ludicrously unbalanced final confrontation, followed by a stupefying fortune-cookie ending and a listen to the Star Wars theme (which is presumably meant to make you feel better). It's like the scriptwriter's dog ate the final chapter of the script, and his six-year-old daughter filled in the blanks, the end sequence feels so out of place to the rest of the game.
Some enterprising fans have hacked into the game's dialogue files, and discovered that this absurd finale wasn't what Obsidian originally planned. Instead of a Planescape-esque conclusion, which would have made use of the Character Influence system incorporated into the game, it's quite clear that Lucasarts' moneymen have pulled rank and enforced a sunnier ending, possibly to ensure a pre-Christmas Xbox release in the US.
Knights of the Old Republic 2 could have been the most intellectually challenging and best-written RPG since Planescape: Torment. The quality of the 20-hour section between the plodding start and the preposterous ending is easily 9/10 territory. Regrettably, the multitude of technical issues and the sheer anti-climax of the conclusion almost completely ruin any satisfaction you'll take from the game. Had it not been for the short development cycle, and the imposition of an ending that feels like a creative cop-out (clearly intended to set things up for a sequel), this should have been one of the finest RPGs ever made. Instead, I feel KotOR 2 can only go down in history as one of the most disappointing missed opportunities for greatness in recent years. If reviews are game buying guides, then this one comes with a huge caveat emptor - beware the buyer!