Obsidian are one of the most interesting developers, they are consistently brilliant and consistently flawed, time after time exhibiting the same strengths and weaknesses. Knights of the Old Republic 2: The Sith Lords (referred to from now on as KOTOR 2) is possibly the most Obsidian game ever made. It is, in fact, the platonic form of Obsidian games (don’t get the reference? Go dig out a philosophy text book).
What does this all mean? Well, let’s start with what Obsidian are good at – because they are a really talented studio (and one that I have a lot of love for). They are brilliant at building upon ideas, taking known things and putting their own spin on them. They excel at playing in the playgrounds of others, which is why a sequel to KOTOR was the perfect fit.
This isn’t just a positive though, there is a flip side. Obsidian have shown time and time again that they have some problems building things from scratch. That’s just not where their main skill set lies, what they are good at is implementing interesting systems and filling up games with masses of amazing writing. Their latest game – South Park: The Stick of Truth – may seem to be a counterpoint to them having problems building things from scratch, it is actually somewhat emblematic.
Stick of Truth is a game where Obsidian got to play around in a known framework. They got to leave their stamp on something and what they are really good at is doing interesting things with known quantities. Stick of Truth ticks those boxes. Stick of Truth isn’t broken though, it was made from the ground up by them and it wasn’t broken. Clearly showing that Obsidian can build things really successfully from the ground up, right?
Not as such. One need only look at the development history of Stick of Truth to find out that it wasn’t plain sailing. This is a game that was delayed heavily, re-directed and seemingly salvaged by Ubisoft. Obsidian on their own terms are wonderful, but flawed. They needed an external influence to come in and restrict them, give the game more time and focus on putting out something consistent.
So how does this reflect on KOTOR 2?
KOTOR 2 is a game that shows off Obsidian’s strengths admirably. It is a very iterative sequel, just them building smartly on what’s before; same engine, same look and same basic framework. Obsidian chucked a lot of really cool stuff into the sequel to make it stand out, but it always felt like they couldn’t have done this without the foundation. They are amazing at adding on to things, seeing where they can invent or improve, but not so good at laying the ground work. This is why some of the more unique segments in the game fall flat and why many of the grand ideas come off as half baked.
Their main strength is writing though, really well written characters and morally ambiguous story lines. They implement dialogue choice really nicely and set up super interesting scenarios. They are brilliant at evoking an amazing feel in a game and a compelling atmosphere. This is all true in KOTOR 2, as so much of the dialogue is outstanding. There is a cast of great characters and they meld gameplay around dialogue really nicely. There are interwoven systems which aren’t as complex as they could be, but still have a nice impact on your relationship between your companions.
Sustained narrative isn’t always their best point though. This was true of New Vegas especially. The irradiated world was full of outstanding side quests and one off adventures, genuinely fantastic stuff that oozed creativity. However the main line was disappointing and just not all that good. KOTOR 2 kind of gets into the same problem, it starts out so well and continues so well for a good amount of time… Then it falls apart. They just can’t seem to sustain a cohesive narrative the whole way through a game. It seems they are great at RPG systems, but not at RPG storytelling. They still write characters very well though, so role-playing games are a decent fit. In fact, the reason New Vegas fit them so well was because the focus of that game was on side content. Lots of one off tightly structured adventures that could sustain interest from beginning to end.
KOTOR 2 falls apart spectacularly. The final few hours are so rushed and so slap dash, game balance falls out of the window and the ending feels almost missing. You fight a series of underwhelming bosses, go through some irritating areas, and that’s about it. The game builds and builds, then suddenly goes all the way downhill. It feels like they ran out of time or just couldn’t do what they wanted to do, the end result being this massive inconsistency.
The game also exhibits Obsidian’s talent for bugs. Things don’t load, interactions trigger at the wrong time, content repeats, segments appear to be missing (though you can restore cut content with a mod), the game enjoys crashing to desktop and there are just a wide array of interesting glitches. It’s somewhat endearing, most of the time – occasionally it just breaks the game though. The whole experience is far too fragile, they try to do too many complex things and the game falls apart under the weight of things. It’s so easy to break it by doing things in a different order than the developer expected or just by being in the wrong place at the (apparent) wrong time.
The game has such heart though, it’s truly rather inspiring. It is doing really interesting things and attempts some really awesome stuff. It’s wonderfully ambitious and should be celebrated for this. It achieves this potential brilliance on a number of occasions, making it a great game in spite of its myriad flaws. Once again, Obsidian’s many talents are all on show here. It’s easy to criticise iterative sequels, but that’s usually because they are so marginal. Obsidian make clever iterations, they push things and create wonderful new things. They think about what is there and intelligently update it, throwing great new ideas onto safe foundations.
KOTOR 2 is a game you want to love – and it’s a game you ultimately will – but it tries so hard to stop you from doing this. It shows off the limits of this wonderful studio in a brilliant fashion, serving as a great history piece. It also finely exhibits why Obsidian are so brilliant though, they do make clever systems and they are outstanding writers. KOTOR 2 at its best is head and shoulders above its predecessor, even considering the originality the first game has going for it. However, the game doesn’t reach these heights that often and drops far below them on many occasions. They throw so much in, not all of it works and the game isn’t long enough to show off some of the more promising systems. It’s still a brilliant game though and, perhaps more importantly, it’s really interesting.