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Monday, February 21, 2005

The Usual Sort of Thing

I really don't want this to become one of those blogs that's simply full of explanations for the long gaps between each post. Honest.

Work, flu, laziness and the telly. That about covers it.

Are you all watching Little Britain? You ought to be.

I've recently been playing Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords. So far, it's pretty great, despite having a title, a subtitle, and a sub-subtitle, which i'm not sure is entirely kosher. Word on the street is that it was a bit rushed. I can see that - it's certainly something of a rough diamond. Still all the things that really *need* to be good (story, characters, gameplay, etc), *are* good, which is the main thing. So what if there's the odd glitch, or the framerate drops out from time to time?

I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that the first KotOR was the best RPG I've ever played. So much so that it's soured me on any RPG where you don't have a comparable level of control over your own destiny. Which is pretty much all of them, unfortunately. It's one of only a very select few "Role Playing Games" that actually lets you *play* a *role*. It's odd that this aspect of the genre so often goes overlooked, in favour of nifty CG cutscenes, elaborate turn-based combat dynamics, and custom outfits for your characters, but there you have it. The fact that KotOR was based around the concept of actually playing out a role, and having the consequences of your decisions affect the whole path of the game really hit home with me. Not even Morrowind gave you the same sense of choices.

And really (according to Sid Meier, at least) making interesting choices is what makes for a good game. It's what makes Civilization work, it's what makes KotOR work, and heck, it's even what makes gridiron work. These games don't simply make you practice until you can get the "right" answer, and/or get it faster than the other guy - they present you with a genuine choice between two or more valid, viable options at every turn. And whichever you choose, you get to play them out, and take the consequences of your decisions. This sounds like basic stuff, but very few modern videogames are based around this very simple but very powerful idea, and I think many of them suffer for it.

So, to get back to the point, I'm excited by KotOR 2. Partly because I've been unable to play any other RPGs since the first KotOR, as they've seemed so pointless by comparison. I've got several sitting on the shelf, but they just haven't beckoned me. So KotOR 2(and possibly the forthcoming Jade Empire, which looks very promising) is really the only place I can turn for my RPG fix.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the KotOR premise, here goes:

1. The games are set thousands of years before the Star Wars films. So, you get all the cool stuff (lightsabres, wookies, Jedi, etc) without all the baggage. The story is completely self-contained, and largely guided by the player and their actions. (Well, actually, it's really not. Most of that is smoke and mirrors. But they make it *feel* that way, which is what matters.)

2. Gameplay-wise, it looks like an action game, but under the hood, it's basically D&D. 20-sided dice, Constituion and Charisma, saving throws, that sort of thing. You can uncover all of this stuff if you're interested, and play the thing in turns, or manage it all in real-time on the fly, pausing whenever you like to issue commands, if the pace gets too much. It's an amazingly powerful, flexible and (most importantly) transparent system. No matter what sort of RPG you're into, KotOR is it. You can play it however you like.

3. Some of the best narrative, dialogue and voice acting in games. Actually, I can't think of any better.

So that's the gist. What the sequel brings to the table (aside from a welcome second-helping of all the steaming goodness that was in the first game) is a few tweaks to the system, such as the ability to equip two weapon sets to each character, and have them swap on the fly (depending on your opponent's range or whether they're organic or droids, for example), along with more skils, feats and powers, a higher level cap (woohoo!), and the ability to influence other members of your party. So basically, they haven't reinvented the wheel - it's an incremental expansion on a winning formula. That's fine by me, especially when the plot and characterisation seems to be even better than it was in the first game - no mean feat.

Word has it that the ending is a bit rushed, and unsatisfying. I hope not, but we'll see. So far, it's one of the better games I've played this generation, and I'm actually enjoying it even more than the first KotOR. I'll let you know if that impression starts to sour in the final act. As of right now, however, it's the most enjoyable RPG I've played. If D&D + Star Wars = You, then you're in for a treat.

I'm giving a talk tomorrow. Wish me luck.


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