I'm A Star Wars Nerd And I Don't Get The Excitement For The Switch Port of KOTOR II Having The Restored Content Mod
By ZombiePie 8 Comments
For those of you that have been following my blogs, you know that for the past three years, I have been penning a yearly series titled "I'm A Star Wars Nerd and..." about updates related to the Star Wars IP in the video game industry. If you have not read those blogs, here are links to my asshole nitpicky musings about Fallen Jedi and my minor annoyances with Squadrons. Likely due to the pandemic, there is no major Star Wars video game to discuss in 2022. Unless there's a groundswell of interest, I do not plan to examine the desiccated husk that is Zynga publishing Star Wars Hunters, which is yet ANOTHER mobile-focused competitive arena combat game. However, that's not to say there is no Star Wars video game news worth discussing this year. There is a cavalcade of Star Wars games in active development. Still, the vast majority have tenuous release dates and are projects that we will not see in the foreseeable future. For example, I am happy that Bit Reactor, a team of former developers that led the XCOM and Civilization franchises, will be making a Star Wars strategy game. I am hopeful that at some point in my life, I can stop jerry-rigging total conversion mods onto Star Wars: Empire at War - Forces of Corruption to scratch my itch for a Star Wars RTS game. However, considering how little we have seen of this game, odds are it is a long way from being something anyone can play.
However, despite a massive agglomeration of new and potentially exciting games to talk about, I want to discuss something old that is getting a highly predictable console port. As many of you are already aware, Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords is coming out for the Nintendo Switch. That alone is not worth discussing, but what is worthy is the subsequent news that Aspyr Media, the team behind previous KOTOR port jobs, will be releasing an "official" version of "The Sith Lords Restored Content Modification" as free DLC on the Switch. This revelation has the Star Wars community jumping to conclusions, especially considering Aspyr is in charge of the PS5 timed exclusive "Remake" of Knights of the Old Republic. If you check social media, you will find dozens of people positing that this might even signify that Aspyr plans to give KOTOR II a similar remake treatment. On the other hand, I have been a part of the vocal minority of Star Wars video game fans asking, "How the fuck are they going to make this work?"
I don't plan on reviewing the "complete" developmental history of KOTOR II, but the long story short is that the game was initially released in an incomplete state with entire character arcs and storylines left unresolved. Obsidian was the original developer and, in post-release interviews, have painted an incredibly bleak picture about their timetables. As mandated by LucasArts Entertainment, the game's original 2005 release date was changed to December 2004 after it demoed well during E3 2004. On top of the excessive amount of cut and dummied content, the PC version launched with a plague of bugs. All of this is to say that the game was good but "problematic" even at the time of its release. Yet, some people believe a single, solitary Switch port with free DLC will magically fix all of this. Not only that, but some are already claiming that this version of the game is somehow going to legitimize the Restored Content Mod and make it a guaranteed part of any future attempts to "possibly" remake KOTOR II. Yeah, let's talk about why all of that is bullshit.
Reason #1: The Cut Content Is Notoriously Unfinished
It's important to note that The Sith Lords Restored Content Modification (i.e., TSLRCM) doesn't promise to provide a complete experience. The minute you find its Steam Workshop page, you'll note the words "unfinished but playable" used. Yes, it should be praised for being a monumental undertaking and is a passion project many years in the making. However, there's no denying that it is still a close, but not exact, facsimile of what Obsidian wanted to make. The source code that the TSLRCM team worked with had whole swaths left in an incomplete state, and the people leading the project were, at several points, forced to fill in the gaps on their own. Sure, they will point to the many interviews they had with the game's original design team to guarantee that what they created would be as authentic as possible. Nonetheless, while it does make the game less buggy and assist some characters in having better story arcs, there are still plenty of rough edges. The transitions between old and restored cutscenes are often abrupt, new dialogue sticks out like a sore thumb, constant hitching bugs are easy to come by, non-shippable crash issues still exist, and the list goes on and on.
Also, this is not an insignificant modification. Making everything in TSLRCM work on a console will be no easy task. That's why I think it's HIGHLY UNLIKELY the Switch port will be getting a complete version of the mod. It would not surprise me if what Aspyr release is only a partial emulation of the mod. Furthermore, there's no way Aspyr will tackle the more incomplete sections of the source code, and they're likely going to highlight the areas they can more easily run through an algorithm. As someone who has been following the Restored Content Mod for a while, I don't blame them. Many are unaware, but TSLRCM is not the first time the KOTOR II mod community attempted to address the cut content in KOTOR II. In 2005, an even more ambitious attempt was made to restore "everything" in the game's source code called The Sith Lords Restoration Project by a group known as "Team Gizka." That group burnt out in approximately one year after Team Gizka discovered the dummied content was far more unfinished than what they anticipated.
If you are going to claim that Aspyr is a professional team that will have more time and better resources to fill in these gaps, I'm not so sure I agree with that. I agree that they are better equipped. Nonetheless, that does not change that the workable source code they would have at their disposal is teeming with game-breaking bugs, non-existent audio, incomplete questlines, and placeholder text for important dialogue choices. Making all of this work with a base game that is already "problematic" would require an enormous team, and there's no way a Switch port of KOTOR II is getting that. Finally, I think some people hyping up this news have forgotten that this is for a Switch port. I can promise you that the portions of this mod, as it stands today, that can pass console certification, can be counted on a single hand. Therefore, unless Aspyr is in it for the long haul, I don't plan to retire my PC KOTOR I and II save data anytime soon.
Reason #2: It Being Free DLC Should Set Expectations Low
Now that you understand why bringing the entire Restored Content Mod to consoles is impractical, let's return to what Aspyr has already promised for their KOTOR II Switch port. Currently, they are promising general bug and gameplay fixes, engine optimization, and major graphical upgrades. Furthermore, the Restored Content "Free DLC" will arrive after the initial Switch release. There is no official word if this DLC is exclusive to the Switch port and if it will ever become available on Aspyr's KOTOR II Xbox or PlayStation releases. They have confirmed that this Switch DLC will NOT replace TSLRCM on the Steam Workshop. Like any video game enthusiast trying to pinch pennies and survive this smoldering hell-pit we call a planet, I will take "free" any day. However, I hope that after the previous section, you understand that a "complete" version of TSLRCM would warrant an absurd budget, and with the DLC being free, that's all but certain not to be the case.
Connected, but if the Switch port were the "definitive" version, instead of a press release about smoothing things over, it would have talked about partnerships with some original team members that worked on KOTOR II. With Obsidian now a wholly-owned subsidiary of Microsoft, that's pretty unlikely unless someone unfurls a fat wad of cash. It's crazy to think, but much of the core team that made KOTOR II is still working at Obsidian. Despite their frequent hardships, people are willing to follow Feargus Urquhart, Chris Parker, and Leonard Boyarsky through thick and thin. The ones that are available to commission to rewrite lines of dialogue aren't going to do it for free. Also, with Chris Avellone rightfully a persona non grata, I don't know if you can rewrite the incomplete lines of dialogue that plague whole parts of the source code without summoning his specter. And what would you want them to do with all of the lines of dialogue that have no voice acting? Even Baldur's Gate: Siege of Dragonspear, which did bring back the original voice talent for nostalgic purposes, was a commercial product with a price tag.
It is also worth noting that even TSLRCM has its limits. The mod currently purports to "fix 500 bugs" present in the base game, but Bringing the base game to a modern console will NOT be easy in and of itself. While the announcement of "Restored Content DLC" certainly got people's attention, if you review Aspyr's press release, you'll notice that their significant promise is that the Switch version of the base game will be a smooth and relatively bug-free rodeo. That ALONE will require the lion's share of development time and resources from the team working on the Switch port. Likewise, anyone wishing for the "Droid Planet" is fucking crazy! The M4-78 Enhancement Project is separate from TSLRCM for a reason. The workable audio for the M4-78 area left in the code is next to none, with some modders substituting their voices to make up the difference. For example, this kind of shit will not fly in an official video game release unless someone wants to deal with SAG-AFTRA busting their kneecaps.
Reason #3: The KOTOR I Switch Port Wasn't That Great, And Aspyr Are Busy Working On The Knights of the Old Republic Remake
So, you can already buy an Aspyr-led Switch port of KOTOR I. I wouldn't recommend it when there are already other versions of the game that are better and easier to modify. I have played KOTOR I on many different platforms, including an Amazon Fire Tablet, and the Switch port still ranks relatively low. My antipathy primarily stems from one of Aspyr's bizarre design decisions about world navigation and item collection. Each level or room you are in has dozens of interactable elements with chests to open and computer terminals to hack. In almost every version of KOTOR I, when you want to interact with any part of the environment, you move your cursor to it and then click it. With the Switch version, you press the shoulder button to cycle through clickable parts of the environment. As you cycle through your options, you can click one and then watch your character move to that object or item. It was incredibly clunky, but it also removed the mystery of searching environments and discovering hidden goodies.
Admittedly, some of Aspyr's other old Star Wars video game ports have been perfectly acceptable. I thought the Switch version of Star Wars: Republic Commando was an almost perfect way to play the game, and to get off of Star Wars for a bit, I thought their Civilization VI Switch port was AMAZING. Aspyr has done some incredible work, and I don't want to suggest that they are an incapable developer who cannot solve many of the issues I have presented. However, they are already a developer stretching themselves a bit thin. Lost in the mix is the fact that they are the team behind the highly speculated Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic - Remake. If you want to tell me that a Switch port of KOTOR II has development priority over that, then I am willing to call you a fucking crazy person. No rational human being should even jokingly suggest that.
At some point, I plan to issue a second one of these "I'm A Star Wars Nerd And..." blogs for the KOTOR Remake. In the meantime, if getting the Restored Content Mod to pass console certification is an eight out of ten on the difficulty meter, then making a full-fledged Remake of KOTOR I that doesn't piss off fans is a fucking eleven. That game will need a sizable team and a collection of designers to tow a very hazardous line between paying homage to the original and needing to modernize its old-school RPG sensibilities. You are going to get a real-time action RPG combat system, and you are going to like it. If there are skill points and attributes, they will be light and breezy. As much as those last two sentences disappoint me, I have come to terms with them as today's CRPG landscape is considerably different from the one that existed when KOTOR I launched. But even if Aspyr whips up a lazy action-RPG combat system, that will require a ton of design and programming power. Power that they likely do not want to sink into a niche DLC project.
Reason #4: This Isn't New News (i.e., Aspyr Have Bootstrapped The Restored Content Mod To Previous KOTOR II Ports)
We now turn our attention to the reporting of Aspyr's supposed sudden loving embrace of TSLRCM with their recently announced Switch port. I have to admit to getting a little peeved when I saw recognizable video game publications extol surprise that Aspyr even admitted to the existence of TSLRCM. If you go to their company website and try to buy a KOTOR II PC key, you'll notice that they straight-up TELL YOU to download TSLRCM. Them supporting the project is not new news. Aspyr has been in charge of porting classic Star Wars titles and updating digital-only releases of those titles since 2015. One of the first things they did when they secured the rights to update KOTOR II's Steam release was to announce Steam Workshop support. Months before they made Workshop support official, they contacted the team behind TSLRCM and assured them that they wanted the project to be compatible. When the mod team stated they were unfamiliar with the ins and outs of the Steam Workshop system, Aspyr taught them how to use the platform and even offered their QA team for additional support.
When the TSLRCM team attempted to develop the mod for iOS and Android, Aspyr helped them. Because of Aspyr, this mod has come to non-PC platforms, and its arrival on the Nintendo Switch is not that surprising. Aspyr has done TSLRCM a solid for over seven years. However, to return to the topic of alternate platforms getting mod support, I think you get a better idea of what is in store for this Switch release. With the mobile edition of TSLRCM, they started with a fraction of the PC mod and then worked from there. Aspyr laid the groundwork, assisted in the QA process, and eventually handed things over to a small team of modders. That will be difficult on the Switch, but it wouldn't be impossible. Aspyr has the clearance to publish things on the Switch online store. You could reasonably assume they might hand over their tools to a group of designers and programmers they can trust since they have been working with them unofficially for over seven years.
I don't know how there can be THIS MUCH EVIDENCE of Aspyr working with a mod community, AND YET people are acting like they don't know what the future will hold. This Switch port will have a small bite-sized chunk of a massive fan project that barely works as-is, and they have done so at least once before. What the fuck are people thinking when they take to YouTube and speculate that this is a prophecy of a future direction for the KOTOR Remake? However, none of my pessimism should take away from the one undeniable positive thing to note about this news. Simply having some version of TSLRCM on a console is a huge step for that modding community and will bring even more attention to it. Maybe the Switch version of TSLRCM only has one-sixteenth of the content of its PC counterpart. Even in that case, a non-zero number of people become aware of its existence in the first place by sheer virtue of it existing somewhere outside of the PC. That alone is worth a little bit of excitement.