Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Star Wars KOTOR II Playthrough Pt 2 - Exiting Peragus, Telos, Hidden Academy

Bao-Dur is probably my favorite character in the grand scheme of KOTOR II's companions. Being Obsidian, the relationship isn't perfect and both are reflective upon each other. Both of you are veterans of the Mandalorian War, and while you went off to be exiled from your order, Bao-Dur put himself in exile at Telos trying to fix its completely screwed over ecosystem with his tech knowledge. He buries all of his pain and guilt deep beneath his lucid, calm demeanor, and tries to do something that will save lives instead of ending them.

The Exile and he both have a great relationship - it's not happy, but their camaraderie is tight from the getgo. Atton basically fell into your lap (canonically, I think he literally does by the end), Kreia was in the wrong place at the wrong time and now can't leave you, T3 is a loyal servant, and Handmaiden is sent to spy on you. Bao is the one who you feel actually close to, even though you don't remember him at the start. He is a loyal friend.

If you go Light Side, the Exile is just as tortured by what he did as anyone, even though it was for a good cause. Their pain makes them closer. There's no gallows humor, just a lot of despair and unity in how they both feel like horrible murderers and are doing what they can to make the world better. It's a very unique relationship.
Bao-Dur's revulsion at Dark Side actions is some of the most damning in the game.


The section section in Tutorial Planet Telos is where the game stops being nice, yet it offers you only Bao-Dur to accompany you, another tech guy. This game really wanted you to play Guardian. I now have two tech guys (T3), a rogue, and a cleric.

Bao-Dur might not be the toughest warrior, but until Handmaiden shows up to bludgeon things to shit with her telescoping pole like the future version of Donatello (it was a real thing in Archie, look it up), he's the best I've got (which is not great). 14 strength is something.

Due to the sheer volume of mercenaries and robots I had to fight to get out of that area and to the Hidden Academy run by Atris, I ended up dropping the difficulty to get through some of the tougher fights, and I blame this entirely on my not choosing Guardian. I worry the game resents me for it - as though the warning at the start of the game wasn't trying to advise new players, but instead refusing was the game giving me the silent treatment and passive-aggressively glaring at me the whole game.


I like how the game seems to subvert the player's knowledge of Star Wars as a whole. Much of the figures from the first film are in place, such as the wise mentor Jedi, the scrappy rogue, and the villain, but it throws everything into reverse. Kreia is the complete reverse of Obi-Wan's mystery - you literally do not know if she's good or bad. She lands solidly neutral on the character screen and much of her actions seem to imply neutrality is the best path, and she's bitterly cynical of your actions at every turn. Yet, unlike South Park, she always knows where she's going and feels like she has real reasons behind being this way, even if she doesn't say it to you. Meanwhile, Atton's own secret slips to light and he begs Kreia not to tell, calling him a murderer. Han Solo dashing-rogue-with-a-heart-of-gold, he ain't.

From the getgo, Chris Avellone and the Obsidian team make you know this is by them. Kreia's not-malicious-but-not-altruistic outlook is a incredibly hard to get a handle on, and you start to wonder if this is this game's Ravel Puzzlewall; a curious, enigmatic old woman who communicates the game's prevailing themes without you knowing (and spoiler warning, this is pretty much the case). And yet, instead of dying in conflict with him to create a connection to the hero, her hand is cut off, awakening you to a connection that already exists.

Even this early on the writing still fascinates me in how good it is. Characters talk like real people, with Star Wars slang and lingo slipped in. Everyone is a character and feel real, not just a cliche the game felt like it needed to land on (in retrospect, maybe I was a bit unkind to KOTOR, maybe it was shooting to fit in the shoes of Star Wars IV). Even T3, once you get talking to him, has enough of an independent personality to stand alone. He even ends up fleshing out exactly why it is you're running around with the Ebon Hawk, something that, written by lesser talent, would be like the Millennium Falcon showing up in other areas. Even the dumb subquests have gravity and meaning.

People stick to you for a reason, like Bao-Dur's -camaraderie, Kreia's bond, 'Forces' you to stay with her, and T3's direct order given by Bastila herself. The only one who seems to not really state why is not revealed other than some vague mention of your presence and maybe the sorta-friendship he has with you, which (in true Obsidian fashion) I seem to remember being mostly bullshit. Everyone has their reason for what they do. There's no dumb shrug and "guess I'll hang with you now, got nothin' better to do."


The dialogue in this game is superb, seriously. I think the main reason I feel more kind to KOTOR II is because it doesn't insult your intelligence - I recall picking a Soldier in the first game and the tutorial character calling you "a powerful warrior," which not only shatters the concept of this game trying to be serious, but breaks the fourth wall a bit too. Seriously, who says "powerful" in terms of "fighting"? It breaches even the concepts of fantasy-in-space and makes the whole thing an episode of Dragon Ball Z, where power levels are discussed and measured as a fast-track way to set the stakes.

Meanwhile, in KOTOR II, characters exchange dialogue about The Force, the Dark Side, the Sith, and stuff like it much in the same way characters in Rokugan would discuss bushido, honor, and in-world politics.* It might come off a bit heavy-handed, but this is the universe these characters live in - thinking about the comparison between the two reminds me of when The Dark Knight landed at the theaters and movie critics insisted it was genuinely like any crime drama, such as the film Heat (because, at that time, people needed to be told that in a comic book film). Obsidian writes characters in their world with respect of what that world means for people that would exist in it, and it's so, so nice.**

Take the argument with Atris, a Jedi Master who was present for your exile. She hates you for turning your back on the Jedi Order and running off to fight in a war against their orders. You can (I think, I didn't re-play the segment) either confirm her suspicions of falling to the Dark Side and repulse her utterly, or point out - quite rightfully - you went to war for perfectly valid reasons and neither she nor the Jedi Order have a fucking right to tell you what you did was wrong just because the men in charge were Sith.

And, much like the rest of the game, the dialogue is perfect. You can feel Atris' emotions of hatred and fascination at you and your righteous defiance, in direct conflict with the cleanly good/evil axis of Jedi and Sith that she is indoctrinated in for her whole life, twisted through years of letting these conflicting emotions just sit and boil. I'm not positive, but it feels like a Hunchback of Notre Dame situation - everything Esmerelda (Exile) does, Frollo (Atris) was raised and told that he should hate and be repulsed by, and yet they can't help themself to be both attracted and fascinated by it. Esmerelda's "disgusting" sexual display and publicly calling him out repulses him in ways that make his pants feel funny.

The Exile went to fight in a war rashly based on what she believed the right thing, siding with Sith Lords (Revan and Malak) for the purposes of saving lives by stopping the Mandalorians. This concept, fighting in a war led by evil to stop other evil, completely undoes Atris' black-and-white view of morality and the Sith and Jedi. Inside, she's forced either to reconsider her understanding of it all, or take her aggression out on the person who created this paradox. I wonder which she's going to pick!

The difference being that while Frollo just thought about it really hard, then convinced himself that it was okay because he was a devout Catholic and he'd just burn her alive if she didn't fuck him and it's alright, Atris...well, I've still got my fanfiction, but I don't think it's going to turn into a Jedi lightsaber duel that ends with lesbian makeouts (or in my case, straight ones).

*Rokugan being the fantasy world based on Japan, Korea, China, and the like. It might sound like a fetishized asian wank-sock, and the concept of Bushido doesn't help, but it's actually a very fully realized fantasy world that I like quite a bit.

**Holy shit I just made myself think of Chris Avellone and the Obsidian team working on a Rokugan wRPG and I think I need to clean myself off now.

Screenshots are taken from Google Image Search, I'm still working on a widescreen hack and haven't started taking screens yet.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Star Wars KOTOR II Playthrough Pt 1 - Tutorial and Peragus

I ended up going Jedi Consular, male, for my first character, mostly because - despite that I know that lady Exile is canon - I really remember liking Handmaiden, and I want to see about pursuing a romance with her. Atton's great and all, but I'll leave that to future playthroughs. Besides, I've always liked playing 'myself' in these games, or at least as close as I can ever be to myself, IE the reactions I am drawn to first.

I'm a sucker for en media res, through and through. So when the game starts and you control T3, the astromech from the first game, on board the Ebon Hawk which has been completely wrecked, with Kreia (seen only as an unnamed old woman) and your character in the medbay, I'm already going, "Oh this is going to be good."

Anyone who's playing this game for the first time is already blown away, but the fact that it features iconic details from the last game here makes it even more confusing for returning players. How did the Ebon Hawk get here? Did T3 steal it? Where did they come from? How long is this after KOTOR, anyway? Is Revan around? Are you Revan again? Where's Bastila? Is Carth far enough away you can't hear him?

It's an effective tutorial too. T3 has a lot of charm I don't remember him having in the first game, and his determined work to saving the day is enjoyable. There's no tension and panic, of course, but there's enough questions that it doesn't matter.

The first game I remember tried something similar, with a sequence featuring you as a soldier on a ship transporting Jedi Bastila Shan, before getting wrecked and crashing on Taris with someone nobody cares about. However, the first game's lack of urgency on Taris compounded with Carth's irritating character to make the whole intro so obnoxious as to be a chore. It, among the corny writing, is one of the reasons I'm not too compelled into playing it first. Don't get me wrong, getting the sexy voice of Jennifer-Hale-as-Elizabeth-Hurley super flustered at me through flirting was a treat, but there's little beyond her. You know, it's just archetypes like Mission as the scrappy teenager, Carth as the dignified soldier, Jolee as three-days-from-retirement, and HK-47 as....well, okay, HK was a bright spot too, but he's in this one, so he doesn't count.

One thing I always thought was a nice touch, as someone who played D20 Star Wars, was the hybridization in the first game. You started off on the first world as one of the three non-Jedi classes - Scout, Soldier, or Scoundrel, and through the game become a Jedi and hybridize the classes. It sounds silly, but since each one get perks to keep pace with Jedi (because Star Wars never cared about realism, so you shouldn't either), Soldiers get natural defenses, Scoundrels get sneak attack bonuses, and the like. Meshing a class for optimization was a ton of fun, even though Jedi were so strong you'd end up intentionally finishing the game at a lower level to get more Jedi levels. Here, the whole system replaced with Jedi prestige classes, which serves the same purpose (picking between sneak attacks, combat bonuses, more Jedi powers, etc) while still initiating the whole "Exiled Jedi" thing.

I quickly was starting to regret my choice for Consular. Having played the games enough, I figured I could figure out how to make the game work for me, but I forgot that the D20 system is entirely based upon Dungeons and Dragons party lineup. Your warrior, your support, your rogue, your mage. With me being the support-class Consular and Atton running Scoundrel with double-pistols, I found myself getting my shit kicked in every fight. The addition of T3 later didn't help, and Kreia herself is just a Consular anyway, so I have a party lineup consisting of two White Mages and two Thiefs. Shortest straw drawn has to wear armor and throw away all their best abilities, and yes it was me.

I know it's old hat by this point but if there was ever any doubt as to how Star Wars as a whole - not just this game series, but the entire franchise - is not sci-fi, I hope this game and the SW D20 system both cement it. Instead of picking locked doors, it's slicing doors. Instead of journals, it's datapads. Instead of winches and gears that control the bridge, it's a computer console that opens the bay doors. Instead of stealing a horse or a sea ship, it's a star cruiser or shuttle.

The components of the first movie were heavily drenched in cliche to draw sharp contrast - the whole point of seeing Obi-Wan guide Luke to defeat the evil Vader with a scoundrel with a heart of gold named Han was not to see how it ended. It's that a wizard fighting an evil wizard with his apprentice of magic and the princess and the dashing rogue isn't in Not Medieval Europe, but in space, was the reason to go. It wasn't until the later films and the expanded universe let this concept breathe into its own vibrant universe.

Seeing this pen and paper game engine created for Tolkien the RPG, put to Star Wars, then translated into a computer RPG along the vein of Baldur's Gate, is such a harmonious coming-together I can't believe it took Lucasarts so long to let Bioware have the license.

Star Wars KOTOR II Playthrough Pt 0 - Preface

Not sure why I decided to do this, but what the hell, I've recently acquired KOTOR II in a Steam sale since I've had a huge lust for Star Wars lately. And, with that, I found I have a lot to say about the creation and substance of KOTOR I and KOTOR II, so I'm going to embark on a long, segmented chronicle of my journey playing through it.

This is Part 0 because it's not really a chronicle of the experience as much as a few short words to detail my experience and what I'm going in with.

For starters, it's one of the internet's most common knowledge that there were huge chunks of this game completely gutted for a last-minute rush to the Christmas deadline. For more, I turn to you with a Kotaku article:

Although KOTOR II was released in December 2004, it was never quite finished. Deadline restrictions forced Obsidian to remove a great deal of content—planets, scenes, and plot points were all left on the cutting room floor. Crafty modders would later find and restore this content, as Obsidian left it in the game's source code, but back in 2004, it was all just scrapped.
So why was it all cut? 
"What happened was—and as a lot of these things happen, no one means anything nefarious, no one means anything badly or anything like that—what happened was we were on the track to get done for Christmas, and the game was looking really good," Urquhart told me. "I think there was some surprise within LucasArts that we were doing as good a job as we were. I think there were some parts of LucasArts that were worried that ‘Oh, this new developer and they're gonna fuck it up like all new developers fuck everything up.'
"And so in early 2004 they took a look and they were like, ‘Wow!' Their QA was playing it, and they were like, ‘This has a lot of potential: let's move it out, let's give it time.' So they moved it out to the next year." 
Urquhart was perfectly fine with that decision, and he changed the project's schedule to reflect that new 2005 release date. But he forgot the cardinal rule of dealing with executives: make sure everything's in writing. 
"On our side we didn't make sure that we had the contract changed," Urquhart said. "And then post-E3 I think financially something happened—I don't know what it was. And we got the call and they said it has to be done for Christmas... Again, I don't think this is anything nefarious, it just happened. Some of the onus is on us: we didn't get the contract changed. So we had to make this decision: get in trouble or get it done."
Yeesh, talk about hindsight. It kills me thinking what this game could have had in it if Obsidian got to do whatever they wanted. And so, according with what the game was Supposed To Be, I'm going pretty barebones with minor exception of The Sith Lords Restored Content Mod, a few texture packs, a Widescreen mod, and a mod that makes the lightsabers light flicker look like the one from the old movies (I'm a purist).

EDIT: A complete list of mods that work with TSLRCM can be located here. The lightsaber mod I mentioned I believe I found here. (It's hard to remember).

Additionally, now is a good time to talk about the original KOTOR - to be honest, it's not great. The amount of critical acclaim it received might have been overwhelming at the time, but Attack of the Stupid Name had come out just one year before, and, well, beggars can't be choosers. This phenomenon would be repeated a few years later with Revenge of the Sith being not offensively terrible and therefore gaining 80% on Rotten Tomatoes, despite the terrible dialogue and being directed by George Lucas.

I can't speak for certain but maybe the writers at Bioware had been conditioned on some kind of volunteer Clockwork Orange procedure and thought that campy, corny dialogue was some sort of Star Wars staple. Sure, Han Solo yelling about "the way you feel about me" wasn't romantic gold, but at least it didn't involve Clark-Gable-written-by-idiots lines like, "Shut up and kiss me, you babbling fool!" Tycho of Penny Arcade (yes, I know, but listen first) once called it "a bad game with one really great plot twist," which I feel is an accurate assessment of what the game is today. The combat animations are choppy and break, the combat's kind of boring, the plot is kind of silly, the dialogue is corny, there's no real 'life' to the game beyond watching talking heads, but overall it was just a good game that didn't age especially well.

Age was one of the main things that made me not want to play this game - a game I thought looked okay on the original Xbox, even if I downscale my expectations and go into a decade in the past, is going to look like garbage today. And what kind of old-game bullshit is it going to pull? I still remember getting frustrated and quitting Bioware games only a few years old for a lack of appropriate autosave.

Speaking of which, my experience with this game is limited. I remember a few bits and details, but I never finished my original Xbox version when it first came out due to, well, fairly obvious reasons - not only was the game horrendously buggy and kept crashing and breaking on me, the game's frustrating missing content was agonizing. Watching quests literally just end for no reason and doors that are supposed to be open go "nope!" was the most frustrating thing, and between the two I just dropped off after a few hours.

I'm still familiar with a decent chunk of the plot, but it's all foggy and I'm kind of excited to play this game for the first time - or at least enough of a 'first time' that I will be surprised by sequences.

And, lastly, if you haven't yet, the first two volumes of the Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic comic are completely fantastic, at least before they completely changed creative teams and the series underwent a dramatic shift for no reason. It, as well as this, are the main reasons I love the KOTOR universe. It's a universe where huge chunks of it have nothing happening, and there's infinite canvas to paint upon.