Old gold

I have played computer games for almost 30 years, and during that time I have encountered some wonderful games. And some of these games I like to replay once in a while. Just a few years ago I set up my C64 again to play Impossible Mission. And while I was at it, I spent some time with M.U.L.E., and the few games I created myself for the C64. I know, ports of these games (except my own) exist, but the nostalgia is all the more powerful when playing in front of a small TV holding the standard C64 joystick. And having those load times…

In the last weeks I replayed Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords. This game is only seven years old, but that is ancient in video game terms.

I am not a Star Wars fan, but I am always keen on experiencing games by BioWare, so when Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic was published, I played it. And I liked it a lot. It is one of my favorite games. When The Sith Lords was announced, I was eager to play it too. The Sith Lords was not produced by BioWare, but by Obsidian, using the BioWare engine. That gave a few grounds for worrying, but as some of the people who worked on it were also responsible for Planescape: Torment, my all-time favorite CRPG, I shoved those aside quickly.

The Sith Lords was a very weird experience. On the one hand, the game was epic in a way that not even the first game had been able to achieve. On the other hand, about three-quarters into the game is suddenly turned into a gauntlet where you only sliced down hordes of Sith enemies, until you got to fight Darth Traya at the end. Frankly, it was boring. And it was annoying as hell, because all the side characters, who seemed to play important roles in the story, failed to come to fruition. But there still were those first 25 hours of game time, which were building up a carefully-constructed tale — a tale with no real ending.

Nowadays we know that the reason for this epic failing is publisher LucasArts’ insistence that the game should be released in time for the Christmas sales. Obsidian had only 14 months to produce it. And when time fell short, they cut corners. They removed several sequences from the parts of the game that were already built, and lashed on a relatively short end sequence. And by that, they reduced what could have been one of the rare truly great video games to a mediocre mess. If one needs any indication of the lack of a heart in LucasArts, even for their cash-cow Star Wars, one only needs to look at how they treated The Sith Lords.

Interestingly, most of the content that was cut still existed somewhere on the release discs. Voice files had been recorded, areas had been designed and populated, and story sequences were defined. And through the years, fans of the game have been working to restore some of that lost content. Recently, mods were released which re-activate some of what was removed (you can search for “Restored content Sith Lords” to find it). For me, that was a reason to fire up the game again.

I just finished it, and this is what I think: The Sith Lords had the potential to pay off what it had set up. There were spotlight moments designed for all characters in the game. They all came together in the end. There was insight and understanding. There was truth, vengeance, mercy, and redemption. There were underhanded tactics, meaningful confrontations, actual challenges, and the culmination of several heroes’ journeys. There was sacrifice, heroism, joy, and finality. And the character that was the driving force behind the game, Kreia, proved to be more iconic than Darth Vader. It could have been wonderful.

Unfortunately, the Restored Content does not make the game what it should have been. It does bring the game as it should have been a lot closer. But areas are still bare, some story lines falter, and several pay-off moments that were planned are lacking, as there was insufficient material to get them in. Some of the sequences added (notably the HK50 factory) did not fit well into the game, and could even make it impossible to finish for an unprepared character.

Amongst Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons, Terry Gilliam’s The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, and Richard Garriott’s Ultima IX, Obsidian’s The Sith Lords lies on a pile of potential masterworks irreparably hurt by the money behind them. I do really appreciate all the work that went into the Restored Content mods, and I am grateful for having had the opportunity to experience what could have been. But the masterpiece that is hidden in The Sith Lords will never see the light of day.

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