Saturday, January 30, 2016

Star Wars KotOR: Why Don’t I Enjoy This?

Some months back I did a review of the mediocre Dragonball Xenoverse. To keep things interesting I did so in a new format called Why Do I Enjoy This. I compared the pros and cons of the game individually instead of giving blanket opinions. Obviously I enjoyed the upsides more than I disliked the downs. I’m now returning to that formula, but from the other side. Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic is agreed by many to be a fantastic game. It’s heralded as one of the best things to come from popular company Bioware, one of the best games to come from Star Wars, and some of the best writing to come from the medium. Knowing all this, I purchased the game on sale years ago.

I quit playing after a couple hours.

The game just didn’t grab me. So life moved on, I played other games, and every so often I would stare guiltily at the installed but un-played Star Wars game. After a year or two, I gave the game another shot.

I quit playing after several hours.

Though I lasted a little longer, the result was the same. I didn’t enjoy my time with the game. An indeterminate amount of months passed. A let’s play series I watch by the name of Spoiler Warning started playing KotOR, so I decided to give it one more try. This time, I made it past the infamously long first planet. The game started to open up and become more enjoyable. I kept playing for some time. Yet slowly but surely, it became a chore. After months of diminishing returns, I’ve accepted I’m never going to finish this game. I’ve forced myself to open it up innumerable times, and every time it just bores me. It’s become work to play and I have way too many other neglected games.

Only about 70 or 80 hours to go, and then I can start the sequel!

Normally, I prefer to have beaten a game before talking about it. I want to have all the information. But even knowing a cool twist that happens late in this game, I can’t muster up the enthusiasm to continue. I’ve sunk a total of about 30 hours into this game over multiple saves, and I’ve given it as many chances as I could. Now I want to dissect it, piece by piece, to figure out why I don’t enjoy it. This game is critically adored, and I can understand that praise. But I just did not care, and we’re here to find out why.

But first, let’s talk about the positives.

+ Writing and Characters

Bioware is known for having good writing, at least by the standards of video games. In particular they’re known for having good characters. People say this for a reason, and one of those reasons is Knights of the Old Republic. Your party members are the best example, showing off distinct personalities while still having complexities underneath and character arcs to go through. A fan favorite is HK-47, a passive-aggressive droid who is perfectly obedient yet unsettlingly (and amusingly) enthusiastic about bloodshed and organic inferiority. Party members all have optional dialogue you can engage on your ship, and HK’s are all black humor about how his former masters died.

These interactions are great, and even though the other characters aren’t quite as memorable your party, they can still be fun. The setting also feels fairly fleshed out. Of course, being Star Wars, the greater setting is already established. However, the game takes place thousands of years before any of the movies, and uses that distance to expand upon things and build some lore of its own. The overall plot is simple, but it works and throws some excellent twists your way later on. The writing of KotOR isn’t always perfect, due to some issues I’ll get into later, but it does a lot of things well.

+ Visuals and Sound

The visuals of KotOR are nice. They present a universe that feels very Star Wars without using actual ships or structures from the movies. The 2003 game was late enough into 3D that it wasn’t blocky or awkward. It certainly doesn’t look cutting-edge, but they have enough stylization in the aesthetics that it still holds up today. There’s a lot of variety and color in the different planet designs, and though sometimes corridors can get same-y, overall the game looks good.

Your ship looks very Star Wars-esque without literally being the Millennium Falcon. Although I must say as names go, “Ebon Hawk” is a bit on-the-nose.

It’s not perfect, but KotOR still looks fairly nice.

The soundtrack to KotOR was done by Jeremy Soule, a man best known for his work on the Elder Scrolls series. I think he’s a talented composer and I really like the more passive area themes he does. That being said, if I could slip in a brief personal opinion: I think his dozens of different combat themes are mostly unmemorable and sound alike. But this is a positive section, so allow me to share what he does well.

Taris is the first planet you spend time on in KotOR, and it has a very Star Wars feel to it. There’s a reserved majesty to the softly vibrating background strings and lonely leading horn.

Manaan is a pristine, peaceful and carefully neutral city floating atop a planet-wide ocean. Its theme captures its stark white corridors and sparkling sunset waters well. Calm and flowing, this is definitely one of my favorites.

The pristine Ahto City, on Manaan. It looks nice and the aesthetic means you don’t have to put much in it! Hooray!

Dantooine has music that reminds me a bit of World of Warcraft, though that could just be the particular sound font of horns. The tinkling opening brings to mind the start of a new adventure, fitting since this is the world of the Jedi academy. The rolling plains that make up the rest of the planet are represented well in the sparse and open sound of the latter half.

- Combat

And so the complaints begin, not with a trickle, but with a flood: The combat in KotOR sucks.

I considered burying the lead, gently lowering this point down on a fluffy cloud of qualifying statements, as is my tendency. But this is something I want to be blunt about. Whenever I try to say something nice about it I feel like I’m just ticking a checkbox to appease others. I don’t like this system, and that’s important because of how much of the game it encompasses. RPGs typically stand on two legs: The writing and the combat. The story and characters here may be fairly strong, but the withered stump of a leg that is this combat makes it hard for the game to stand.

The first and foremost problem with the combat in KotOR is that it’s based on D&D. Dungeons & Dragons and similar tabletop roleplaying games have very chance-based combat systems. Though your stats can help, the results of a battle can vary wildly on the roll of a die. This works better for these systems because every turn can take minutes to sort out, and battles as a whole can take upwards of an hour. On top of that, in these games one person plays the role of a game master, commanding the opposition and planning the adventure. That means if things turn out to be unbalanced or exceptionally bad luck comes your way, they can soften the blow or give you a chance to change things.

“Jim, why aren’t the goblins aren’t accepting our diplomacy?”  “YOU MURDERED SEVEN ALREADY!”  “Oh, so we should be rolling intimidate.”

Tabletop combat in a video game inherits all of its downsides with none of its benefits. Video games automate all calculations and move at positively blazing speed by comparison. With so many battles playing out in a short time, you are guaranteed to have luck determine the outcome of a fight before long. In a tabletop setting this can be an interesting setback that changes the course of a narrative. Here it’s just a frustrating failure state. Video games are also far more restrictive than tabletop ones. You can’t ask the DM if you can swing from the chandelier, break into diplomacy with the blood-thirsty goblins, or other improvised acts. Everything you can do is set in stone, and boring to boot.

Here is what you do to win at KotOR character-building and combat. Pick one of the following: melee, ranged or force powers. Now upgrade a damaging ability, like power attack, to its fullest capacity. Now spam that ability, spam some type of healing when you’re about to die, and quicksave before every fight. Congratulations, a winner is you! Hopefully you chose something involving force powers for the main character, because like six hours in you’re forced to change your class to a Jedi whether you like it or not. There are small nuances to the combat you COULD use, but why would you? Brute-forcing it is easier, the rewards for extra thought are minimal, and the heavy degree of randomness makes it all feel like an unsatisfying mess regardless.

The action bar in the bottom center will give you an idea of the complex tactical genius I whip out for this game.

The abilities you have access to are boring and very narrow in potential. Things like extra damage, passive stat buffs and a bunch of stuns behind saving throws. If you’re wondering what saving throws are, allow me to explain by way of a parable I made up just now out of spite:

The Monk and the Monkey

Once upon a time there lived a wise monk who lived alone in the mountains. He spent his days in solitude but for a pet monkey he kept as company. One day, the monk received a visitor from a foreign land, begging for his assistance. The stranger came from a village that was once a year beset by a terrible beast. The beast cried out in a terrible voice that assaulted the brain with paralyzing waves. It then descended upon the helpless and disposed of them at its leisure. The stranger asked the monk for help because he was world-renowned for his mental fortitude.

The monk agreed to help, and went into complete isolation. The months before the beast came he spent every day from dawn til dusk in intense meditation, attempting to strengthen his mind. The week before the beast came he ventured into town and spent all his savings on artifacts of mental strength, which he wore about his person. The morning before the beast came he drank a powerful alchemist’s brew to strengthen his mind against intrusion. Then the moment arrived, and the monk stood resolute in the center of the village, monkey at his side, as the beast emerged from the woods.

The beast crawled out from behind the trees, a hideous amalgamation of pulsating flesh with a gaping maw. It glared at the monk and his pet with a single baleful, bloodshot eye, and then struck. The monk froze in place and fell to the ground, completely paralyzed. The monkey shrieked, fear-pooped on the monk’s face, and ran away.

Perhaps it would have comforted the monk to know, as the nightmare monster descended upon his shit-stained visage, that he had a 3/4ths chance to resist the beast whereas the monkey only had 1/4th. Then again, perhaps not.

So quite a few fights end up as an awful game of “who can stunlock who first”, with the determining factor not being skill but the roll of a die. And when the roll itself is so important, why bother spending lots of money and time to increase your chances? That’s what you have a quicksave button for.

The combat system in KotOR is difficult to learn yet shallow and unpredictable. In other words, it’s the opposite of what it should be. Sure, the game is easy enough that you can muddle through, but it’s not difficulty that’s stopping me here. Fighting in KotOR feels like a chore I have limited control over, and which goes counter to all the things I admire in RPG combat. Considering the large portion of the game this takes up, this is...unfortunate, to say the least.

This image has no bearing on anything. I just hit my screenshot key at the PERFECT TIME.

- Out-of-combat Gameplay

I’ve beaten on the combat so much the horse isn’t just dead, we’ve already scheduled and attended its wake. So let’s look at the other gameplay on display. You can walk around, talk to people, and interact with terminals. Talking to people lets you make choices, but that’s typically limited to getting more information or choosing one of the games dull, one-dimensional moral splits. More on that later. The point is that actually changing the course of coming events through dialogue is rare, and even when it’s possible the speech check is just that: a check. The game rolls a die and adds your persuasion skill, or has a separate check for the force persuasion skill. That’s all the input you get. You don’t even see the result beyond passing or failing. There’s no indication how difficult certain speech checks are, which is good because they secretly make some of them literally impossible.

It’s true that plenty of other games have dialogue as limited as this. But it’s significant here because I find the combat so deplorable. I’m counting on the story to pick up the slack, but there’s barely any enjoyable input I have into the “game” part of this video game. Case in point: hacking. The one other bit of agency you have as a player, this allows you to use computers for things like scouting future rooms, dispatching enemies, unlocking doors and reactivating friendly robots. This is better than nothing, but it’s ultimately just paying a certain amount of computer spikes for help with combat or opening a door. The rare occasions when it’s something further are pretty mediocre puzzles, stuff like basic logic problems.

Here on the deserts of Tatooine, a sleazy hunter was about to be murdered by malfunctioning droids sent by his wife. The only way to stop them? Elementary school word problems solving for X.

- Morality Meter

Being a Star Wars RPG where you can play a Jedi, it’s only natural that KotOR has a light side/dark side meter. Performing good deeds will net you light side points and vice versa. This sets you on the path to one of the games two endings, gives you short term reactions from NPCs and party members, and lessens the cost of whatever force powers you’re aligned with. Morality meters were a fairly new concept when this game came out, so I applaud them for trying something new and letting your choices actually impact the game. That being said, I don’t think what they have here is very well implemented.

For one thing, the objective morality of Star Wars is at odds with the type of story Bioware wants to write. If you want a detailed setting with rich backstories, political struggles and interesting moral dilemmas, you can’t have objective good and evil. Assigning good and evil points to actions shunts every exchange into one of two categories. Encounters could be a frustrating exercise in assigning arbitrary morality to complex issues. Alternatively, they can be comically overblown “build orphanage or murder puppy” affairs. The latter is what morality systems typically go for, KotOR included.

On top of this, the evil options are even worse than usual, because they’re all so petty and juvenile. I want to plot diabolical schemes that grant me power at the expense of others. What I get to do is shout at people like a child, stamp my feet when I don’t get my way, and unsuccessfully ask for more money. Evil doesn’t feel like a path the developers wanted you to take, but rather a bone they threw you. Only two of your nine companions are evil and only one is neutral. Taking along companions that don’t agree with your alignment leads to conflict, but it’s less tense party dynamics and more an earful of whining.

There’s one final problem with morality meters, and that’s pulling the player out of the experience. Since being good or evil is tied to practical things like abilities, every choice you make has those consequences weighing down your decision. It’s hard to get invested and roleplay when you’re constantly thinking about stats in the background and your options are limited to Asshole McMurderface or Dutiful ProtagonistMan. There’s little benefit to the system the way it’s implemented. It’s a hassle, it’s unsatisfying, and it’s a constant reminder that you’re playing a video game.

- Nitpicks

The interface in this game is tiny and irritating to operate. Cycling through skills in combat is done by pressing miniscule arrows on the top of icons. When you’re reading a journal in your inventory, it’s from a tiny scroll window in the bottom sixteenth of the menu, which itself only takes up about one-fourth of the screen. 2003 wasn’t that long ago. They could’ve done better at the same cost.

What’s the best way to read detailed documents and backstory? Why, from a twitter window, of course!

Your companions are the most interesting characters in the game, but they’re rarely tied to the plot. They can sometimes offer a single line of dialogue in response to a quest, but that’s about it. They have conversations on your ship and all of them have some sort of side quest related to them, but most of their character moments are divorced from the main plot.

Loot from anything but bosses or quests is useless. This game only lets you sell items for 1/4th of their value, so the crummy loot amounts to insultingly little cash. On top of that, the combat system makes upgrades so incremental and unnecessary that it’s a drag to bother with any of it.

Oh boy, I can sell this equipment for a whole 12 CREDITS! Now all I need to do is loot about five hundred and I can buy a single piece of barely noticeable upgraded equipment.


You’ll enjoy Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic if you like...

Good Writing and Characters: The game’s biggest strength. Though writing is of course subjective, there’s a good amount of effort and thought put into this story and those who inhabit it.

Star Wars: I don’t claim to be a massive fan, but this game seems to have gotten the essentials of the setting down really well, while smoothly integrating its own lore and story.

3rd Edition D&D Combat Injected Directly into a Video Game: This one is purely conjecture on my part, because I don’t know what it’s like to have TERRIBLE TASTE.

On the other hand, the following issues could force your opinion in the other direction. Eh? Get it? Force? Y’see it’s a joke about Star Wars because-

Lackluster Combat: With too many issues to summarize in a single phrase, the fights in KotOR will be unsatisfying for many. If you’re anything like me, they’ll drive you up a wall.

Morality Meters: Not a fan of being pestered by simplistic good-to-evil bars? Then this good deed readout will darken your day.

Did I Mention the Combat?: I did? Oh sorry, I forgot.

Rolling Dice: Even outside of combat, every aspect of this game ties back into random rolls modified by skill checks. If tossing the dice isn’t your style, enjoying this game will be a gamble.

I Lied About Forgetting the Combat: I totally knew I’d already mentioned it.

Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic is a game many people love. I can see glimmers of greatness glinting beneath its depths, but I just can’t bring myself to dive back in. The multitude of issues that needle me during play drag the experience down, and the combat isn’t so much a needle as a spear through the heart. If you love this game: That’s great! I’m glad people out there enjoy it and it makes plenty of sense to me that they do. However, for me, this game will stay locked in a galaxy far, far away.

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