Text-like articles have been a little sparse over at the Seventh House while I’ve been at work on Unrest lately. I believe it’s high time I changed that. Let’s start with some commentary on what I’ve been playing recently. What have I been playing recently, you ask?
That’s lovingly-illustrated-picture-dialect for KOTOR. I’m playing KOTOR and recording my thoughts as they happen, for reasons that should soon be apparent.
Now, this might sound unbelievably silly, but I’ve spent the entirety of my life up until this point harbouring the delusion that the two KOTOR games (shut up those are the only Old Republic properties that exist) were third person action titles more akin to the Jedi Knight series than, well… Neverwinter Nights in space. If I’d known this I would have given them a try ages ago!
Having started the game, the extent of their NWN-ness is rather instantly apparent. Down to the part where for some unfathomable reason they want to use D&D rules for a game system where no humans are actually involved in the number crunching – it even refers to it as “behind-the-scenes calculations” – yet the awkwardness of D&D’s system executed in real time is fully preserved for our gaming pleasure.
Yeah, I’ve recently played NWN2 as a bard. Why do you ask?
- Character creation is pretty much the definitive example of what I meant above. I’m immediately assailed by the immutable choice of Scoundrel, Scout, or Soldier before I’m even given the choice of how I look. I get what a soldier does, but “an explorer most at home on the fringes of space” as the sole descriptor for Scout is only useful if I’m trying to roleplay and tells me nothing about what this class actually does. In fact, I’m not even sure these are classes. Am I actually picking my backstory ala Mass Effect? Maybe both?
- I’m at the appearance section and… my head is unprecedentedly large. I’m a black guy with a case of bobblehead gigantism or something, and all of my features are just a little too exaggerated to take any kind of seriously. Now I sort of understand why that… other game looks so ridiculous to me – its predecessors were slowly paving the way with their leading man Spacerogue McBalloonHead, as I’ve now taken to calling him.
- Ah, D&D stats blow for blow. Naturally Strength increases my chance to hit people, and Dexterity ups my defense. Wait… what? I have no idea which of these I should be taking in which order. This is Star Wars so blasters should be much more ubiquitous than the arsenal of medieval melee weapons in D&D… right? Can I or should I duel-wield those with high DEX? What about skills? How do those work? Are there a plainly ridiculous number like in the NWN games, for which I’ll need a lot of INT?
This is the classic problem with these D&D-based PC games – they assume you already have an understanding of how D&D works, and even if you do, everything interrelates in such a way that you can’t make any choices without committing to decisions you don’t even know exist yet.
- Oh hey, here comes the skills page and it looks like there are only eight, most of them situational cross-class entries that I don’t need. I have a ton of INT. Back to the stats page!
- YOU HAVE BEEN GRANTED THE FOLLOWING FEATS. Can I see what they do? No? O-okay then, thanks for telling me…
- Some of these feats are actually pretty interesting, and some of them are the horrible boring +1 to skill feats that nobody I’ve ever spoken to has ever taken in any of these games. Even if for some reason I wanted to set up some min-maxy arrangement whereby I conserved some skill points, I’d have had to know which of these did what back when I was configuring my skills.
I’ll likely only get a feat every few levels, so my choices here are going to define my character and have major interplay with my skills (eg. Stealth) and my stats (no point going dual-melee without… Strength?), yet now I can’t go back and easily change them. If this were a character sheet in real life I could just look back up the page and scratch some stuff out, but this is a video game and apparently I have to do everything “in order”, even when that order makes no sense and doesn’t need to exist.
- Okay, so maybe I’ll call myself Karth J’targ. Or T’ale Chan. Or Junta Khan. It wouldn’t be Star Wars without a hilarious name generator to dole out the superfluous apostrophes. This calls for a different but equally silly face.
- Oh, wait. Apparently my stats/feats/skills are so dependent on my face that I can’t change the former without completely resetting all of my choices in the latter. In fact, I can’t change anything in this character creator out of order without undoing something I’ve just done, and as I’ve established above most categories require pretty deep pre-existing knowledge of not just the contents of other categories, but also D&D in general. Terrible!
- In a galaxy far, far away, dumping exposition on the audience with badly formatted scrolling text was just as rude as it is today, but not half as charming. Okay, so I smiled, but it’s still the most horrible way ever to start a story, which I suppose is what makes it so endearing.
- I know Bioware still gets slammed for offering the divisive dialogue choice of “1) Let’s go. 2) More exposition please.” but… by all that’s unholy in the deepest reaches of space, Trask! Are you talking to Ensign McBobblehead, your slightly addled compatriot, or straight at me, the player? You just asked me to, and I quote, use you to open a locked door. I’m not sure I’m comfortable doing that, especially if there are angry men with swords wearing shiny bronze sausage wrappings waiting in the next room.
- Allow me to reiterate:
- So do I just… pick you up and jam your face into the keyhole? Rotate you clockwise and grip the handle? I’ve- I’ve never done this before, okay? Don’t judge me!
- There are angry men wearing shiny bronze sausage wrappings waiting in the next room.
- Oh criminey where’s the stealth button?
- I hit it and unpause the game, then tell my character to attack the sausagemen with one of my feats. He flickers out of existence for a second and then immediately breaks stealth to charge screaming at the enemy. Trask mows them down effortlessly in a steaming cloud of burning pepperoni before I can get there anyway.
- We progress through the ship, making minced…er meat of the Sith, until a particularly dark Jedi shows up and Trask locks the door so I can escape, all but ensuring his own death. Ah, so that’s why he had basically no characterization whatsoever and broke the fourth wall like an errant wrecking ball. Thoughtfully he’s left me his blaster, enabling me to double-blaster my way straight through a horde of Sith to the designated tech skills tutorial area.
- I blew up a bunch of sparkly bronze dudes with a computer. It was unexpectedly satisfying.
- Can I dual-wield blasters with this skill?
- I can dual-wield blasters with this skill. Now that’s some proper space roguery.
- Hello first permanent party member. I don’t suppose you’ll be a trustworthy soldier and friend with a complicated past you can manage on your own and don’t really want to talk about, but will do so begrudgingly once I get to know you better, ultimately serving as the basis for a loyalty quest? I may not have played KOTOR before, but I’ve played Bioware.
- There was a space racist right out there on the street. How rude. YOU SIR ARE A BLIGHT.
- The dialogue options for it were pretty shameful. I could:
-Vehemently condemn space racist
-Vehemently condemn space racist in different words
-Walk away noncommittally
-Vehemently agree with space racist
There was no option for “So what makes these aliens so bad, anyway?”, or “You seem awfully passionate about what seem like perfectly polite and reasonable aliens walking around here.” Or, you know, since you can be evil: “Hand over the credits, space racist. Proselytizing bigotry on the streets comes at a cost!”
Apparently evil options in Bioware games are the ones where you’re deliberately playing a character that you, the player, are supposed to hate and feel no respect or sympathy for. You’re not the Count of Monte Cristo. You’re not playing Walter White or Dexter or Sweeney Todd. You’re not even Disney-tier Gaston or Frolo. You’re Shan-Yu from Mulan; you’re petty, songless, unrelateable minion-tier villainy. I would love nothing more than to be an insidious evil jedi or amoral bounty hunter, but if I have to be a rude, crude, classless jerk to get there then forget it.
- Wow, evil people in this universe are incredibly stupid. It’s like the author googled “things criminals do”, and then gave them that extra little touch of irrational, pointless villain-ness for its own sake because real, believable criminality just isn’t bad enough for the Sith. You know, just in case you missed that they were the bad guys.
- So let me get this straight: Gang leader Davik runs a loan-sharking racket where people with no credit or trust can come to him to get money, and he can then hound them for repayment plus whatever interest he thinks is “fair”, giving him a precident for basically turning them into his slaves. He controls the terms of the loan and nobody controls him. They make money ever again, he gets a cut. Sounds good so far.
Except that’s not what Davik does. Davik waits for them to default, then in response to them not paying on time and in full has them KILLED, ensuring they can never recoup his lost money, and also scaring off anyone who might consider taking a loan from him in the future. The only advantage to this is… scaring people? Pretty stupid, right?
Except that’s not what Davik does either.
He doesn’t just have them killed – he puts a bounty on their head. He is giving other people more money to kill someone who originally cost him money by failing to pay back a loan he brokered, and owes him. They’re now dead, ensuring he’ll never see a cent of what they owe, he has to pay the bounty hunter for hurting his business (a bounty which – and I’ve checked – is twice as much as the debtor owes), and he’s scared off his own customers in the process. He’s losing money in three places and gaining… nothing. If he wanted “fear” or “respect” or something, he could literally do this better by just killing people.
Just go out there and kill random people.
They won’t be people who owe you money, Davik. Just think about it.
- Oh. Oh wow. This wasn’t an isolated incident. I mean, who knows? Maybe that first guy was just the example to keep people in line and this would cow them into paying up on time and agreeing to harsher terms, making up for the initial loss. That might actually make sense, and we can’t have that – let’s reiterate the point by having a harmless old man being dragged off for a murdering and a competent lady hiding out because of the bounty on her.
This is actually how Davik does business all the time, and somehow people still take his loans. How did the old guy even meet Davik? He’s a citizen of the upper city, which means he’s already part of the upper class. What did he need money for so badly that he’d not only have no other option but to get it from a crime lord, but then also fail to pay the loan back?
- Robbing occupied apartments dressed as a Sith: all the material wealth of brazen thievery with none of the shame. Not only that, but I can run back outside, change into my normal clothes, come back in again, and pretend to be a thug working for Davik, extorting the same guy I just robbed for more money. Davik is so bad at crime that random people can steal his protection money by dressing up as themselves.
- I know it sounds like I’ve really been ripping on the game, but I nitpick out of love. KOTOR has actually been really quite enjoyable so far. The combat is simple so far, but pretty fun, the star wars theming is done smoothly and is charming in its own way, and the roleplaying is pretty good except for my age-old Bioware gripes coming through from the future.
Except for Davik and the character creation I’m actually pretty impressed, especially given how old this game is. It’s easily as good as Mass Effect in most places and only suffers so far in that there hasn’t yet been a moment where I’ve been truly and honestly sold on KOTOR’s greatness. I want to meet a Wrex or fight a Saren. I want to see a regicide from the perspective of a common soldier, or watch a batty old woman turn into a dragon that I can talk to and won’t have to kill. So far the only proper character I’ve met is Carth, and he’s about as much fun as a taciturn Kaidan (negative fun).
Bioware does characters, and while formulaic at a high level it does them very well. With basically the whole cast yet to be encountered I imagine things can only improve as I play on.