KOTOR 2: Ebon Hawk

(This is part of my journey going checking out Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords. You can follow the entire series on the Retro Gaming page.)

Now that we have a little breather after escaping Darth Craggy and his Sith Predators, I guess it’s time to chat up the crew. Hm… who to pick? The whiny pilot? The grumpy Jedi without a hand? Or the BLEEP BOOP droid?

Why not do all three?

Turns out that there’s actually a fourth passenger on board the Ebon Hawk, although he’s a little worse for wear. HK-47, fan-favorite from the first game, is sitting in a closet deactivated. He’s missing four key parts, of which I only have one. Hope to find the others and get my sarcastic pal back!

The repaired ship is a little sterile and has a few parts with scaffolding still around (for… some reason, I guess to show that this is Where Things Were Repaired). Sterile doesn’t feel like the right word… lifeless, I guess. A little empty. Needs more people. Coming back to a KOTOR game from SWTOR, the Ebon Hawk feels a lot bigger than our MMO ships, and right now there aren’t a lot of people to populate it with.

The talk with Kreia goes about as I expected, considering that I’m chatting up a grumpy one-handed Jedi (?) who keeps saying cryptic things and attempts to shoehorn herself into my life as a teacher. At least there are some delightfully mean things to say to her in response for the game devs trying to foist her upon me. You can see in my character’s eyes up there that she’s so done putting up with this bat.

Oh! And I find out two more pieces of info. The first is that as a Jedi Exile, apparently I was cut off from the Force by the (now dead) council. Which is something they can do, I guess. Still don’t know what I did to deserve it, and it doesn’t quite explain why I’m able to select all of these Force powers in leveling up. Kreia says that we’re connected to each other through the Force and I’m able to learn how to regain my skills through her, but again… I’ve already got the skills. Why do I need training?

The other thing I learned is that whatever happens to her happens to me (and vice-versa), especially in the wound department. I anticipate a long game of going about passive-aggressively pinching myself in tender places just to see Kreia jump.

The game is firmly on rails, as there is only one destination for the Hawk: Telos. It’s another station, this one hovering above a world bombed to death by Darth Malak. We land and are promptly arrested by a completely incompetent security chief, who has apparently heard that we blew up Peragus. Now, how news traveled to this station faster than a ship blasting through hyperspace I do not know, but I will go with it.

After being detained by security and led off to a nice comfy jail cell, an albino woman is seen lurking about the gangplank of the Ebon Hawk. She has not heard that you should avoid white after Labor Day. Or maybe she’s a refugee from The Matrix 2.

As we stew in jail cells, a bounty hunter shows up to sell me to the Exchange. I have to admit that whoever they got to do the voice of this guy did SUCH a good job. He’s got this oily, unnerving way of talking that lends some weight to his menace. Too bad that our group pummeled him to the ground — unarmed, to boot — within about three seconds of his opening up our cages.

The security chief shows up and has a moment of eating crow when he sees what’s happened, but he still keeps me under arrest. House arrest this time, setting us up in a nice apartment. Once again I’m in an apartment with a sarcastic scoundrel and a nervy Jedi, ready to explore the world. Just got to slip past my curfew…

KOTOR 2: The Harbinger

(This is part of my journey going checking out Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords. You can follow the entire series on the Retro Gaming page.)

Believe it or not, even though we’ve left the station and are on board another ship, we haven’t actually left Peragus. No, the plan is to get the Harbinger’s asteroid drift charts and then use the ship to bypass the force field that’s keeping us from the Ebon Hawk. Why we can’t just steal the Harbinger, Sith lord or no, I have no idea.

“You two are the worst Jedi I’ve ever met!” Atton complains. Can’t fault you for that one, buddy.

One slightly new thing that KOTOR 2 does is put more emphasis on companion influence, something that made the transition to SWTOR. Now that I’m in a party, what I say can increase and decrease influence in my companions, opening or closing dialogue options and making them like/hate me more. I’m going to dedicate the rest of the game to being rude to Kreia, because I’ve already had it with her condescending lectures.

The Harbinger is, once again, strangely empty, save for all of the corpses. Turns out that it’s actually crawling with stealthed Sith assassins, which are about as threatening as silverfish (to people, not to books). Various crew logs fill in more of the backstory leading up to the start of the game, namely that I was an “important passenger” that the Harbinger had to deliver posthaste to Telos. Along the way, the ship picked up a distress call, went to investigate, pulled in an empty freighter that turned out not to be so empty after all and a dead Sith lord that turned out not to be so dead after all.

The Harbinger is an obvious reuse of the Endar Spire map from KOTOR 1, which I guess is economical but a little disappointing to bump into so early in the game. Makes you wonder how much else is going to be reused.

I had a hearty good laugh when I saw that Atton had the EXACT SAME “I’m clutching my right side because I’m wounded” pose that shows up all over Star Wars: The Old Republic. Guess it was a tradition by the time the MMO came along, I didn’t know that.

The Harbinger serves to fill in the last few tidbits of the game’s backstory, filling in the blanks about how HK-50 put events into motion to disable me, how the ship got a distress call from a Sith attack, and how Darth Craggy here (not his real name) and a platoon of invisible Sith assassins Trojan’d their way about the warship to take it from the inside. I love this Sith’s design and description, which mentions that his body has been broken and repaired so many times that he should be by all rights falling apart… but he isn’t.

There’s a remarkably effective moment when you face Darth Craggy for the first time in the lower deck corridor. You look back and see far off, amid blinking lights, this figure standing still, very small but very threatening. It’s kind of nightmare fuel, especially after being so on edge during this whole opening with the dead bodies and the dour soundtrack.

Kreia faces off against Darth Craggy by herself, earning a chopped-off hand for her efforts. My teacher, ladies and gentlemen. I guess it’s a grand Star Wars tradition, right up there with “I’ve got a bad feeling about this” (which Atton actually says two minutes earlier than this scene).

After going through the Harbinger (I got a new pistol that fires through shields, woo), we loop back on board Peragus through the fuel line and fight another few dozen droids for good measure. Can’t we just leave already?

And then, finally, there it is: The Ebon Hawk, repaired and awaiting our grand escape. But first, a somewhat pointless turret scene to kill a whole bunch of Sith troopers. I’m reminded of how we were all oohing and ahhing over their reflective armor back in 2004 when KOTOR 1 was on the scene and now it looks very dated. Anyway, any troopers you miss end up boarding the ship and require hand-to-hand fighting before leaving.

Our party of four (Kreia sans hand, Atton sans patience, T3, and myself) blast off from the facility and cover our tracks by blowing up an entire planet thanks to the gas leaks. What’s a few trillion lost credits and a crippling fuel shortage compared to a grand escape?

Sounds like we still need to get to Telos, my original destination, at some point, although I wonder about how wise that is considering that everyone knows I was going there to begin with. Also, Kreia tells me that after a civil war and the events of KOTOR 1, I’m the very very very last Jedi in the galaxy, and I’m an ex-Jedi at that. I don’t know what she’s advising me to do, exactly, but she gets cheesed when I state that I’m going to take a stand against the Sith instead of run away. You’re not my teacher, woman. Go teach yourself a new hand, why don’t you.

KOTOR 2: Peragus Station

(This is part of my journey going checking out Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords. You can follow the entire series on the Retro Gaming page.)

KOTOR 2 begins in a most mysterious and confusing fashion. Figuring out what’s going on and what led up to the events of the start of the game are the goals of this area.

So I awaken on Peragus, a mining asteroid station that’s silently — ominously — empty. I stumble out of a bacta tank and start investigating; the medical logs give me some clues, such as a series of mining explosions and malfunctioning droids. Clearly something went very wrong, since nobody’s around and the other people in the tanks were killed on purpose with sedatives.

Oddly enough, it’s in the morgue that I find another survivor of the Ebon Hawk: Kreia. She’s a blind seer-slash-pain in my tuckus, and she urges me to figure out how to repair the ship and leave quickly. To help, she’ll sit on a bed and clear her thoughts and occasionally throw me snarky telepathic comments. In other words, your typical NPC companion competence at work.

I’ve always felt that Peragus was a misstep as an opening level for KOTOR 2. It’s serviceable in helping you get to know the game and its systems, but in so many other ways it is a dull start. There are only two people to interact with, everyone else is dead, the environment is a boring metallic grey everywhere (except for the even more boring tunnels), you fight droids left and right, and just as you’re getting familiar with your character, the game makes you play as a droid for a while. It’s a level that I just can’t wait to be rid of, frankly.

Even worse is the fact that I have to jog around half of the level in nothing more than underwear. Seriously, it’s kind of a plot point.

If there is one thing it does well, it’s instilling dread in the player. It’s an unnerving, not a welcoming, start to a game. It’s like touring around a haunted house knowing that the monster is going to come back soon and you best be gone when it does.

Since there are so few people to talk to, most of the backstory is filled in via logs (which makes this oddly feel like System Shock 2). To summarize a lot of it, my character was somehow brought on board the Ebon Hawk after an ambush hit the Republic cruiser Harbinger. When Peragus took the Ebon Hawk in and realized they had a Jedi on their hand, the staff started to bicker over whether or not to turn me in to the “Exchange,” a mob-sounding organization that put a price on Jedi heads. To make matters worse, droids and tech started malfunctioning all over the place, hurting and killing the staff. One employee says it seems like someone is clearing a path to “get the Jedi out of here.” Hm.

Along the way, the droid I played eventually got killed by an off-screen character, so we’re probably being set up for some big reveal.

The role of “smarmy smuggler-type” in KOTOR 2 will be played by Atton, who seems like a slightly less self-pitying character than Carth. As a female character, I’m a little put out by how much he keeps hitting on me, but hey, I have force powers and can scramble his brains. I’m not worried about it.

Clothes! Blessed clothes! Peragus isn’t a treasure trove of gear — it’s specifically mentioned that only low-level blasters and grenades can be kept due to the explosive nature of the gas — but I’m able to cobble together a functional outfit. I even have my first blaster, a mining laser, which is a start in my goal to have a dual blaster-wielding Jedi fighter.

You like fighting droids? You better, because Peragus is wall-to-wall droid encounters, and each one is more dull than the last. A couple of them are surprisingly tough, so using energy shields and a Stun Droid force power is definitely recommended.

After battling through the mining tunnels, I arrive to find another survivor of the Harbinger/Ebon Hawk: HK-50. Kind of knew he was around, what with cutscenes and all, and it isn’t that joyous of an encounter. He’s barely hiding all sorts of condescension and malice toward me, and he refuses to help me gain access to the dormitory levels. I had to trick him into it, thanks to KOTOR’s equivalent of a tape recorder.

HK-50 somewhat fills in more of my backstory, saying that I passed out/was drugged on the Harbinger, stuffed into cargo, then transferred unconscious to the Ebon Hawk. He all but points his thumbs at his chest and says “I DID IT! ME! MUAHAHA!”

The dormitories are a tomb, full of gassed victims and left-behind recordings. I take an unscheduled spacewalk on the outside of the station, only to see the Harbinger come out of hyperspace and dock with the station. For the record, this WAS the ship I was originally on before getting carted off like a lump of expensive meat. So who is piloting this spacecraft right now?

It’s Darth McCraggy! I’ll give it to the game: He is a very disturbing figure, visually, and his reveal is nicely done. He’s doing that Jedi/Sith meditation pose on the bridge among all of those dead and decaying bodies. Couldn’t have jettisoned them?

As an aside, the Star Wars franchise doesn’t make a great case for becoming a Sith. It seems to be a motif that all Sith lords have to be messed-up physcially, missing body parts or turning yellow or, like this guy, looking like a parched desert floor. At least Jedi retain their good looks.

After a lengthy time running around the station solo, I’m finally able to form a full party — Kreia and Atton join up with me. Probably in the nick of time, since stealthed figures start trailing us from a distance, all Predator-style.

Surprise! HK-50 is a bad guy after all! Yeah, so he was under contract by a mysterious client to bring me in, which is why he’s been drugging me and sabotaging an entire station to facilitate my extraction.

KOTOR 2 seems to relish zigging where KOTOR 1 zagged. HK-47 was your friend and ally in KOTOR, but in KOTOR 2, the first HK you meet is your enemy. And it just keeps on going like that. It’s a nice change-up but it makes me wonder if Obsidian felt a little too pressured to be as different from KOTOR 1 as possible.

KOTOR 2: Prologue

(This is part of my journey going checking out Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords. You can follow the entire series on the Retro Gaming page.)

Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords (henceforth referred to on this site as “KOTOR 2” because there ain’t no way I’m typing all of that out every time) is a very odd and special duck in the Old Republic series. While the first game, developed by BioWare, was a huge hit, this sequel was farmed off to Obsidian and rushed through to make it for a Christmas release. It did well in sales but was criticized for feeling unfinished and didn’t quite attain the level of popular acclaim as KOTOR 1 did. However, in the years since, it’s become a cult favorite, especially as fans have restored a lot of previously cut content into the game that was lurking in the game files.

I have played KOTOR 2 a couple of times in the past but never to completion. The first time was on the Xbox (I had one for about ten minutes back in the early 2000s) and the second time was a few years ago. I’ve always wanted to get through the entire game, especially since I did like what I had experienced so far. It was a darker title, full of morally grey scenarios and topics, and even had an evil Wookiee. So why not now, in 2017?

You might know that I don’t tend to like the Force-using characters in SWTOR, so while KOTOR 2 forces me to choose one of three types of Jedi to play, I’m going to push against that as much as I can by making a blaster-wielding Jedi who eschews lightsabers. Inelegant? It’s who I am, baby! That’s right, what are you going to do about that, game? Probably kick my butt.

I’m also not going to aim for a strict light or dark side playthrough, but simply choose whichever choices seem the most interesting or appealing to me at the time. We’ll see where that leads.

I love how KOTOR 2 starts. I’m a different Jedi than Revan — the “Outcast,” as I’ll soon be called — but I’m still on the Ebon Hawk. Apparently the Sith have been ravaging the galaxy, killing Jedi left and right, and I barely escaped an ambush. While I’m AFK in the medical lab, a lone astromech (T3-M4) is tasked with saving the ship and getting it to a nearby mining station.

You can skip the prologue, but personally I think it’s pretty interesting from a tourism and storytelling point of view, so I’m going to do it. There’s a lot of tutorial stuff about how the KOTOR games work, and while KOTOR 2 does make some odd UI changes from the first game, essentially it’s still the same.

Probably the coolest part is when T3 ends up going outside on the hull to recover parts. It’s here that you can see that a good chunk of the Ebon Hawk is simply gone (the lounge area, if I recall). T3 doesn’t have a problem getting the remaining engine online, and he even makes a friend by repairing another droid and recruiting it into his party.

A cutscene shows a very familiar figure emerge from the flames as the ship docks at the mining station. Some blaster bolts fire off-screen, and I think that’s it for our little astromech friends.

I still love ya, HK-47!

My character finally emerges from unconsciousness in a bacta tank on the station. She’s surrounded by all of these other figures, but other than that, the station is quiet.

Very quiet.

TOO QUIET.

Looking back at The Sims

 

Back in 2000, I was working as a youth ministry intern in Colorado and living in the basement of a church family that was kind enough to give me a rent-free home. Still, it was among one of the most lonely times of my life, as I was suddenly separated from all of my college friends and wasn’t exactly making a lot of new ones. During that year, I turned to computer games in my free time, thanks to my brand-new desktop. And one of the games that really helped pass the time was The Sims.

Oh, The Sims! It’s so hard to express how exciting and revelatory this game was when it first released. I had remembered playing Sim City 2000 back in high school, but this was far more up my alley. Creating a house and watching people live in it? It sounded mundane but ended up being very engrossing. I spent months playing the core game, but for some reason never did buy into the hundreds of expansion packs. Sims 2 and 3 did get on my play list, although they never quite grabbed me as hard as the original (and I’ve yet to fiddle with Sims 4).

In a powerful fit of nostalgia, I searched out a copy of The Sims a month ago. EA doesn’t make the original available online for some reason, and GOG doesn’t have it, so I had to actually buy a physical copy (my original box having vanished into the nether some years ago). It took an additional patch and some research to get it to run on Windows 10, but finally I was able to get this 17-year-old title up and running for some retro gaming!

The very first Sims neighborhood was very small and basic, especially compared to later editions (or even Sims 1 expansions). I always play a Sims game the same every time — I bulldoze all of the houses, evict all of the premade characters, and start from scratch. For my first home, I tend to buy the cheapest lot so that I would have the most money available for building.

Of course, another tradition is that the first character you make in a Sims game is ALWAYS yourself. It’s kind of shocking how few options there are in the base copy of The Sims — just an array of heads and some default outfits. No body types, no customizing more specific elements, nothing. You did get to program your sim’s personality, in which I always set the neat level to the highest for at least one member of the household. This way, you have a neurotic cleaner who was always straightening up — a free maid, in other words.

Oh man, remember when Comic Sans was popular and acceptable enough that you could use it in your video games without irony? The Sims 1 remembers!

Obviously, looking back at a 17-year-old game is going to be a let-down in the graphics department. The Sims isn’t atrocious, but it’s certainly very dated, especially with its 3D models (the sprites that made up the objects and house come off better as more detailed and less jagged). I was also reminded that this game had a very different soundtrack than subsequent Sims games, more of a generic 1950s Americana commerical and less of the goofy and relaxing melodies that started to come into the series with The Sims 2.

I learned the hard way that it’s never a good thing to go big with your starter home. That way lies going broke, fast, and leaving your Sims in a hollow mansion. So I always began with a simple three-room abode: main living room, bedroom, and bathroom. I’m impressed how easy and accessible the building and decorating tools are even today (and boy does it come back fast!).

My finished starter home with all of the essentials. You wanted to make sure that your sims had enough to do and all of the basics, including places to sleep and poop in peace.

Unfortunately, the game wasn’t working quite right enough for me to do a full playthrough (it wouldn’t save, wouldn’t show my cursor half the time, disabled the sound, and had other issues). So I’m going to have to content myself with this brief glimpse.

Was it playing dollhouse for grownups? Sure it was. But there was something soothing and empowering about creating something and seeing life flourish in it rather than just destroying and fighting everything. The Sims probably sparked my ongoing fascination with housing in MMOs, and now it’s making me want to pick up a copy of Sims 4.

What were your favorite memories from the original Sims?

Retro Sample Week: Dungeon Keeper 2

(This is part of my a special week in which I sampled several smaller or more niche retro games from my GOG library. You can follow the entire series on the Retro Gaming page.)

1999’s Dungeon Keeper 2 was one of my all-time favorite base-building games. It ran pretty slowly on my computer back in the day, but I still loved the humor as I got to play an evil dungeon master who was trying to fend off invading heroes. In a way, it was precursor to the now-popular tower defense games, albeit with less structure.

Taking place entirely underground, DK2 starts you off with a base core (your dungeon heart) and then leaves you to expand as you can. You direct your imps to tunnel passages, collect gold, and build rooms. Minions, such as goblins and succubi, wander in when you’ve created rooms for them, and generally you want as many minions as possible to protect your dungeon and ultimately defeat the invaders and the boss.

Since there isn’t unlimited space, you have to trade off between expansion and keeping your dungeon defensible when the “good guys” come attacking. Creating narrow hallways that lead to special rooms for retaliation is important, but you also have to create lairs and hatcheries to attract minions in the first place.

The 3-D design always struck me as very interesting and stylized, with nary a straight line to be seen. Everything is crooked, even though it’s on tiles. Reminds me of early World of Warcraft.

Dig far and long enough, and the good guys will come calling. Like the RTS Majesty, Dungeon Keeper 2 was unique in that it didn’t let you directly command mindless units, but instead the game lets you encourage them and hope that they will go fight for you if taken care enough back at home. So it’s more about mapping out the dungeon design and choosing rooms than it is directly commanding armies, which is actually kind of relaxing.

He’s such a happy demon.

It was a shame that the series didn’t really progress past this second installment. There was an absolutely horrid free-to-play mobile game in which EA showed that it had no shame in trying to monetize every aspect and force timers down our throats. That tanked, by the way, and was taken offline. Would be great to see a proper DK3 some day!

Retro Sample Week: Ultima I

(This is part of my a special week in which I sampled several smaller or more niche retro games from my GOG library. You can follow the entire series on the Retro Gaming page.)

One of the side effects of GOG sales is that you feel like you’re getting an incredible deal by snapping up an entire game series — maybe $200-$400 if evaluated by original box prices — for a pittance and beefing up your library. But as any GOG or Steam sale purchaser well knows, there’s a dark side to quickly amassing a huge library of titles that, let’s be frank, you’re probably not going to ever play. You just paid for a fleeting sense of satisfaction and the feeling of ownership, but not much else.

It’s why I don’t buy a lot on GOG or Steam these days unless I’m pretty sure I’m going to play it, and soon (or if it’s insanely discounted, because I’m still a sucker for a really, really good deal). It was hard to pass up buying the full Ultima series a few years ago, because (a) a FULL series and (b) I had never played these and thought they’d make good blogging fodder. But ever since doing Ultima VII (aka “the best one”), I’ve struggled with returning to these games. Which would I do next? Start from the beginning? Look to the internet to evaluate the “second-best one?” I still don’t have an answer for that, but I do know that it’s highly unlikely that I’ll ever play the first Ultima in its entirety, so I might as well get a taste of it for this sample week!

Ultima I came out back in 1981 and was remastered and rereleased over the next decade on different computer systems. It looks like the GOG version is from 1987, which is why we get a decent-looking opening screen instead of vector art. I’m still not holding my breath for animated cutscenes, however.

Another reason that I have a hard time finding a starting point in this series is that the earlier installments were kind of weird and hadn’t found their footing as a formed franchise. As this menu screen informs, this game goes from fantasy to outer space for some reason, because we all need a hearty dose of genre whiplash in our games.

I was pretty impressed that character creation does allow you to distribute points among different stats at will. This is something that many CRPGs just didn’t have back in the day (a lot would rather prefer you continually rolling an RNG dice). I made my guy super-wise and super-intelligent, just like me.

Cough.

Then comes racial selection:

We’re deep in the Tolkien-and-nothing-else era of fantasy, because we have Humans, Elves, Dwarves, and… Bobbits? Bobbits. Bobbits, really. Bobbits. Bobbits.

I had to look this up because I’d never heard of this before. These halflings apparently disappeared from the series after Ultima III, but yeah, they’re hobbits. Just with a B.

Naturally, I rolled a Bobbit wizard named Syp.

I’ll admit that I can’t really get into the faux-renaissance faire talk that Garriott and the Ultima series seems to cherish (it’s just too cheesy, sorry), but this loading screen charmed me a bit.

Here’s the full Ultima adventure screen in its full glory. Serviceable and straight-forward, I’ll admit. The water is even animated here. No exposition though, just a Bobbit in a field wondering what to do and where to go. Guess the castle?

The arrow keys work as expected, allowing me to get around, but I have no idea how to do anything else. Every time I move, an item of food disappears (we Bobbits are hungry folk), so I’m guessing that’s my time limit right there. I looked up keyboard commands for the game, which include things like (E)nter, (A)ttack, and, um, (H)yperjump. Excuse me, but when exactly will Han Solo pick me up in the Millennium Falcon?

Lord British’s castle, now purchasable for just $10,000 of real-world cash! (sorry, Shroud of the Avatar joke)

Inside his castle, a jester bounces around like a madman and Lord British mourns the fact that he has long arms but no legs. Oh wait, that’s supposed to be his robe? Kind of hard to tell in this era. I like my legless king version.

Lord British asks me, “Dost thou offer pence or service?” which makes me wonder if I was just asked for a bribe. Um, service, m’man. That’s what we Bobbits are good for. He tells me to go find the Grave of the Lost Soul and not to come back until I do. I imagine that kings have a hard life, figuring out lists of weird quests to send adventurers on.

I set out on my quest and am immediately ambushed by a Ranger and a Necromancer. Kind of feels unfair, especially since all I have is a dagger and a complete lack of knowledge about how to cast spells. So I just flail away with my dagger for a while, eventually killing the Ranger. Ah, (C)ast! But before I do that, I have to (R)eady my spell! And the only spell I have is… “prayer.” Hm. Don’t think I’m going to topple this Necromancer with some quiet and heartfelt prayers, but here goes nothing.

Nope, prayer did not work in this case. I would think that the Necromancer would be pleased with this death screen, however.

What I wasn’t expecting is that the game immediately resurrects me back to 99 hits and 99 food, which is mighty generous of it. Maybe there are no multiple save game files, so you just keep coming back as with MMOs? Interesting, but that’s as far as I’m willing to go today.