Sunday, February 21, 2010
Knights of the Really Old Republic
I figured since I have this blog format going, and it won't disrupt the iTunes feed, I really should start reviewing games on here, instead of spamming my Twitter followers with dozens of messages about whatever game I'm playing. I mean. I'll still do that. But anything requiring more than 140 characters to explain will go here. Not turning this into a reviews site, don't worry. Still going to concentrate on the burly men of the games we love.
I picked up Knights of the Old Republic when I got my XBox back in 2004. Yeah, the system was rendered obsolete a year later. I know. I also bought a Gamecube in 2004, which also died a year later. I never finished the game. Not because I disliked it, but because I was expecting something either like the old Gold Box games of the late 80s, or like Final Fantasy. Knights of the Old Republic was neither. My experience with BioWare games, to this point, was limited to the 2 or 3 hours that I put into Baldur's Gate, another game which did not play in any way as I thought it would.
These games are complicated in a whole different way than their turn-based predecessors, and I think I was confused by the combination of an action-looking, real-time presentation, and the turn-based nature of the combat. To put it succinctly, I didn't get it. So I shelved it for a while, pulling it out again every one and a while and trying furtively to get somewhere in the game.
Five and a half years later, I finish the dang thing.
The main impetus for actually getting a handle on the subtleties of KotOR's combat was finishing Mass Effect 1 and Dragon Age: Origins. This combined with really diving into the RPG genre, and trying harder to understand RPG systems, made it much easier to come back to these games. I wasn't confused any more. I understood all the stats. I no longer used the Auto Level feature. (I learned the folly of the Auto Level feature in Dragon Age, after realizing 30 hours in that my version of Morrigan was practically useless because Auto Level chooses not to concentrate on any area-of-effect spells.) Trying to complete Dragon Age on Normal made me understand the importance of party composition as well. This might seem basic to anyone who has played MMOs, but somehow I never realized why I should, in fact, have a mage, healer, tank, and damage dealer in a party. I was against the whole idea in general, because I felt that basing your party on what would win the most battles was a lazy form of min-maxing, and I liked to compose my party of characters I, you know, liked. In JRPGs you can - mostly - get away with this. In Dragon Age, you can't.
After the grueling lesson that was Dragon Age for me, Knights of the Old Republic was a relatively simple venture. Every class was reasonably good at combat. The tech trees were limited. I was pausing and commanding everyone easily. The only battle that I had any problems with was the final one, as long as I didn't do anything stupid. If I found anything too tough, I just put Jolee and the Cathar Jedi in the party, because Jedis are pretty much invincible. My scoundrel-turned-Jedi Dyke Spacelover was, as is always my choice when I play through these Moral Choice games, a goodie-goodie, going out of her way to save pretty much everyone in the galaxy.
The difference between Mass Effect and Knights of the Old Republic are pronounced. KotOR has more dialogue, but the presentation was flat even for 2003. It's a seven year old game at this point, so I was fine with it - the writing was general lively, and many of the characters were enjoyable. After playing through Dragon Age and Mass Effect, though, you do get a sense of the stock sense of humor and sensibilities of the BioWare writers. They have a reasonably good sense of humor, but very little is laugh out loud funny. KotOR's moral decisions had definite right answers, wrong answers, and sociopathic answers, and there was no real reward for trying to play a balanced, middle-of-the-road moral code. The game's best moments were those that involved Mission and Carth, in my opinion. Of course, since I was a nice, pleasant Jedi, they weren't harping on about my moral choices. HK47 had some of the most clever dialogue, but after several hours of Shale in Dragon Age, it all seemed a little familiar.
There is absolutely nothing cinematic about KotOR. Games had, for the most part, not quite hit that level of cinematic appeal outside of Japan at this point. The cutscenes all play out either in static close-ups, or wide overhead shots. But the lack of cinematic qualities in KotOR also extends to the plot. There's plenty of backstory, a wad of good dialogue, and a heroic arc. But there is no tension whatsoever. There is almost never excitement. You clear a room, and move on. Perhaps the only exciting moments in the game are the first fight with Calo Nord, during the Sith orbital bombardment of Talos, and the final epic showdown with Malak and his new apprentice.
Knights of the Old Republic II, even though it was developed by Obsidian, bridges the gap between KotOR and Mass Effect almost perfectly. I'm about twelve hours in now, and the difference in narrative is striking. It does feel more constrictive than KotOR I, and the trade-off is a much better sense of urgency, and set pieces that are constantly pushing you forward. The opening training sequence with T3-M4 bests anything that the first game had to offer in terms of excitement, and that was a training mission.
It feels much more like Star Wars, too. Not that KotOR I had a lack of Star Wars elements. It had Banthas and Twi'ileks and lightsabers aplenty. In the first game, though, T3 was a complete non-character. He did nothing and said nothing, except for occasionally generating computer spikes for you. The BioWare writers never got the hang of how characters spoke to T3. Here, he is bitchy and funny, and yet never communicates with anything but the R2 squawks. Other robot interactions are great, too. There is one memorable sequence where you can sneak into a base by reprogramming a protocol droid with your agenda, and giving it the ability to lie. Although these conversations lack the usual range of dialogue choices, they have to be some of the funniest stuff I've read in a game in years.
I'm not sure how much BioWare was influenced by KotOR II, but it seems like much of the darker narrative, characters with distinct secret agendas, and more set-piece oriented design has leaked into their later games.
The voice cast features Timothy Omundsen, too, which is both distracting and awesome. He does seem to be doing every other voice in the game, though. Atton Rand's voice actor, Nicky Katt, is downright terrible though. The character is cool, a deliberately Han Solo role, but his delivery comes off grating or odd.
I should mention that my character in KotOR II is Vag LeCouer. Also, it does not seem to be accessing any information about my KotOR I save. It makes up for it by asking me whether or not my character in KotOR I was good, and what gender she was. But then it forgets and calls her a him.