KOTOR II lacks the originality and polish of the original.
The original Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic was a landmark RPG for the Xbox and a remarkable game in pretty much every way possible. KOTOR applied Bioware's proven RPG chops to the exciting mythos of the "galaxy far, far away" and gave the rabid Star Wars fan base a game that was worthy of the franchise's name. It certainly wasn’t surprising that LucasArts would want to capitalize on that success by releasing a sequel quickly. A scant one year after KOTOR hit shelves, fledgling studio Obsidian Entertainment takes over the reigns of the series and delivers us Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords. While Obsidian’s team had a good RPG pedigree prior to forming their own studio, their first combined effort meets with mixed results. The Sith Lords contains most of the same great elements of the first game, but it's obvious that the sequel was rushed and doesn't have quite the exciting punch of the original.
Shortly after the events of KOTOR, the Jedi ranks are decimated by their war with the Sith, and a new shadowy threat creeps across the galaxy, wiping out the last vestiges of the order. As you awake out of stasis on a strange vessel, you find that you are not only the last living Jedi, you're the last living person on the ship. You're naked and weak; all of your equipment, all of your friends, and even your command of the Force are lost. Your situation is dire; escaping the dead craft is your first step to finding out why your ship was destroyed, why you can’t control the Force, and why it seems like the entire galaxy wants you dead.
Though The Sith Lords' story is a bit different than KOTOR, this opening eerily mirrors the beginning of the original. You'll recall that you're awakened in KOTOR, naked and powerless, on a Republic vessel under attack. As you progressed through KOTOR, you unlocked latent Jedi abilities, and your forgotten past, en route to challenging the mighty Sith and ending their war on the Republic. As you progress through The Sith Lords, the story follows a very similar vein. While you don't have amnesia this time around, you do spend much of the game remembering the decisions that brought you to reject the Force and walk away from the Jedi. It's still an interesting story, and the plot is more personal than KOTOR’s, but it just feels like you're replaying the same game again. Ultimately, the game is disappointing as you travel around the galaxy, revisiting the same places that you went, and following the same story that Revan did in the first game.
There is one element of the story which does stand apart and is by far the most interesting piece to the plot's puzzle. Your first companion, an old blind woman named Kreia, is an intriguing character throughout and will give you pause many times to consider the path that you are taking. She is a thinly disguised Jedi, but her allegiance to the Light Side of the Force is tentative at best. While she is far from the best fighter you'll acquire, you might find that you'll keep her in your party to see how she'll react to what you do. She questions your altruistic decisions to fight other people's fights or give a hand out to a beggar. However, she also chastises you for bloodthirsty acts of violence and deception where it isn't called for. As you engage her more and more, you discover a rich history to this woman, and start picking out bits of her sometimes dark past. Kreia is an amazing and deep character and is a breath of fresh air to what is mostly a stale game.
The rest of your companions are less interesting, but serviceable. During the course of the adventure, you'll pick up a group comprised of the standard Star Wars character types. This includes a female bounty hunter, a naive monk-like fighter, a crazed Wookie, a scruffy Han Solo wannabe, a shady criminal boss, and a couple of others. You'll also be reunited with HK-47, the assassin droid from KOTOR, whose villainous demeanor and dismissal of humans as "meatbags" is still hilarious; conversations with him are always entertaining. You'll engage each party member in conversation to bring out their pasts, but there's more to the dynamic this time around. KOTOR didn't really reward you for talking to your companions, except for maybe getting an item or some experience. In The Sith Lords, on the other hand, choosing the right conversation path will lead your companions to grow closer to you, which changes their Light Side/Dark Side alignment to match up closer to yours. If you can get these people to bond closely enough with you, you may have the option of converting them to Jedi. By the end of the game, your party will become a Jedi wrecking crew, slicing through all but the strongest enemies. Putting another few lightsabers in the hands of your three man team is incentive enough to speak with your companions, draw out their history, and open their eyes to the Force. Like KOTOR, every character in the game has full voiceover for their dialogue, and the actors' skills are very impressive throughout.
Beyond getting to know your companions, you'll spend a lot of time wandering from area to area, talking to people and taking on various quests. They are the standard mix of fetch quests, assassination missions, and a few "talking quests" where you'll try to resolve a dispute by getting each person's side and acting as an arbitrator. Like KOTOR, these quests are well done in making you feel that your actions have real consequences. A key battle on Dantooine involves you being recruited to protect a settlement from marauding bandits. You can choose to help the settlement or to let the bandits pay you off to sabotage it. This seemingly random quest is one major milestone that changes a pivotal confrontation you'll have later in the game. Like KOTOR, The Sith Lords is worth a second playthrough, just to see how the story changes when you choose the Light Side or Dark Side.
Combat was an exciting part of KOTOR, so The Sith Lords doesn't mess with its successful formula much. Combat still takes place in a hybrid real-time, turn-based setting. You can pause at any time to give orders to your party, or just sit back and let them wade into the fray and hack away at the enemy. There's a lot of turn taking, number crunching, and hidden dice rolls happening behind the scenes, but combat still looks fluid and dramatic, especially when two lightsaber wielding foes square off. Several different lightsaber styles are added to the mix, and add a bit more depth to saber combat. You'll learn these different styles during your adventure, which offer a number of bonuses and penalties to different categories like parrying, blocking blaster fire, and dealing with multiple enemies. Each style has a couple of new animations to add some visual flourish to your fights. Blasters still feel useless, as many of your enemies carry melee weapons and will close the distance before you get more than a shot or two off. While that's a bit off-putting, you likely won't care since you know it's only a matter of time before you switch to exclusively using lightsabers anyway.
However, combat also exposes The Sith Lords most glaring problem. This game was developed in a very short period of time, and it shows. Where elements were recycled from KOTOR, the game is smooth and looks as good as the original. The pieces that Obsidian added lack a lot of polish. More effects were added to combat to spice up the visuals, but they wind up dragging down the framerate to abysmal levels when multiple attacks, force powers, and grenades are all onscreen. By the end of the game, it feels as though you're trying to play The Sith Lords on an underpowered PC rather than a console. The cutscenes in the game look awful, with jerky animation and a surprising lack of visual and auditory punch. New areas and textures are dull and flat, and some of the new characters simply look ugly. There's also quite a few conversations that infinitely loop where it doesn't make sense, and you'll probably get caught in a conversation that will freeze up the game, forcing you to restart from your last save. These issues are all unfortunate, especially because any of them could have easily been cleared up during testing if given time.
“Rushed but good” is the most accurate description for Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords. Throughout most of the game, you follow the same path as you did in KOTOR, more or less, while occasionally running into bugs and technical limitations that could've been resolved in quality assurance testing. Some of the pieces of the story show glimmers of greatness, but one year isn't enough time for a new developer to start from scratch and recapture the spirit of KOTOR without merely mimicking it. The Sith Lords is still a very good game, but it could've easily been a great one if Obsidian had more time to make it great.