KotOR2 Media Patch: Mini-Review
Hi Feargus Urquhart,
Cheers to the crew at Obsidian,
having been one of the most vocal critics in the past of Obsidian and LucasArts and the poor sound quality the final game was delivered in (see my previous thread: "Music is degraded to *MONO* 10kHz @ 48 kbit/s?!"), I feel an obligation to comment on the (finally) released KotOR2 Media Update Patch. It is one thing to shout when someone does something wrong, but then I find it equally important to shout out loud when they do something right.
And this is a case of doing it right.
What many don't seem to realize is that although the Media Patch is officially said to improve the "Movies and Music" of KotOR2, it also features another drastic improvement to the game's AUDIO: All environmental sounds (ambient sounds) of locations you are visiting in the game have been completely remastered and are now in high-quality STEREO surround sound! It makes a significant impact on the soundscape of the game (the previous ambient sounds were also butchered to muffled MONO), and I will discuss this improvement in my mini-review below.
Yes, the patch took way too long. And yes, we know that LucasArts (LEC) was undergoing a major transition of their business by moving their HQ to the new Presidio area in San Francisco this summer. Many speculations were made in regards to the delay of this patch, many questions raised.
The only question though that kept bothering me was, "Can I trust this developer (Obsidian) to truly care for their games, or would they outright lie to their fans?"
I say "fan" simply because of the RPG legacy that Obsidian brings to the table, under their former 'Black Isle' label. Many gamers know this. But the titles/labels are irrelevant, it's the people that make a company. The devs behind Obsidian have made their mark in gaming history with the previous titles they've been working on, and it's not something one can ignore. They're among the most creative people in this industry. I would have a really hard time to swallow the notion that these legendary devs (yes, they are) would suddenly not care about making great games for gamers anymore, but rather only care to create a commercial "product" to turn a quick profit. I believe that greed kills creativity, and it would surely be the end of their legacy.
As a fan, there was one aspect (apart from the skillful writing and freedom of choices) that impressed me the most about the games they made: They were one of the first (and even today, one of very few) game devs who realized the potential of audio in their games. At a time when games were severely limited by their 2D graphics and underlying hardware, it was their audio that more than made up for it -- years ahead of its time. The classic Fallout series, for example, had an incredible and crystal-clear STEREO score that perfectly set the *mood* for this post-apocalyptic setting, masterfully composed and implemented. And that was 8 years ago, already!
It was always the audio-side in Black Isle games (music, ambients, voice-actors) that instantly captured and immersed me in their worlds, and wouldn't let me go. They mastered it like no other. To me that was always a standout and set their games apart from the competition.
I'm stating the obvious when I say that KotOR2 certainly didn't seem to have this strong signature aspect one would expect from this development house -- the audio quality was just awful.
So, who's to blame? Well, I think we shouldn't be trying to point any fingers anymore, and instead just close this sorry chapter. The public will never know about all the stories which went on backstage, and in the interest of all companies involved it's probably for the better.
But for myself, there's still the burning question: "Does Obsidian truly care for their games?" And that one needs answering, because there aren't that many great developers around in the industry that I'd care about. Well, the 'Media Update Patch' answered my question. In my book, Obsidian has redeemed itself, and I see things clearly now. Why? It's not just the contents of the patch that have convinced me, but also the circumstances surrounding it...
Let me put it this way:
It speaks volumes to me that LEC's website has no mention whatsoever of the patch on their *product* pages, nor in their support (patch download) section for KotOR2, while Obsidian Entertainment features it prominently on the FRONT page of their website. (A typical customer who would intuitively seek out the LEC support pages of their purchased game, would never even find out about this new Media Patch.)
It speaks volumes that a third-party-helper had to get involved (nVidia) to provide bandwith and a home for the patch, while a certain publisher couldn't. And the long delays, and the nature of the patch being "officially unsupported", coupled with the strategic planning of Obsidian to get this patch into the hands of their fans, tell the rest of the story.
No folks, this answer is clear: Obsidian TRULY DOES CARE about their games.
And this is good news to all of us, because I'm sure we're all eager to see what this storied and celebrated developer can do, once unleashed.
For now, I think Obsidian deserves a big round of applause for getting this patch into our hands. This was an uphill battle I'm sure, and if it weren't for Obsidian, we would never have gotten this patch. They took certain risks (which don't need to be mentioned here) to push for it, and the fans ultimately benefit from it. This also demonstrates that they certainly care for their fans and gamers. A big thanks to all at Obsidian!
Also, I would like to thank everyone who responded to the call in my original thread and decided to take action to push for this patch by writing to LEC. From what certain parties told me, it kicked up some dust and really made a difference.
Last but not least, I'd like to thank the composer Mark Griskey, who, with the vocal support of the fans (no pun ), also did his part to push for this Media Patch. He was very determined that this patch would see the light of day. Mark, you did an incredible job with this score to capture the unique feeling of the Star Wars universe, and you more than deserve that your work is now honored by being presented in the best possible quality, and finally in STEREO! (sigh) I know you're happy that gamers now have the chance to experience your music the way it was meant to be heard all along. And WOW does it sound great now!
Ok, on to the mini-review of the contents of the Media Update Patch:
1. MUSIC quality improvements:
In one word: Awesome... beautiful!
Alright, two words then. I could write pages about it (you know I could, don't you? ), but I'll spare you the cheese and just mention the most important features:
The retail version of KotOR2 shipped with an insulting music quality, which was degraded to *MONO* @ 10kHz frequency response and encrippled (encoded) with an utterly low bitrate of 48 kbit/s CBR (= constant bitrate). What remained of the music was a muffled, hollow-sounding mess, similar to what you'd get through a telephone line. The music had no presence.
The new music is remastered in proper 44kHz STEREO with a very high average bitrate of around 230 kbps (VBR)! "VBR" means "variable bitrate" and is the best way to encode and preserve musical quality. In fact, I was speechless to see that they had chosen such a high bitrate (192 kbps VBR would have been sufficient to ensure CD-like quality), but they went the extra mile to ensure their music patch was beyond any criticism.
Well, they certainly succeeded: This is what a live orchestra can sound like, it has real presence! It's vibrant and bombastic, with full highs and lows. It feels as if the orchestra is playing right in front of you and all around you, sounding open and wide. Crystal-clear with no distortions. Full dynamics. Full stereo surround sound.
The original recording is brilliant and now you can hear for the first time what these musical artists worked so hard to create for the game: Mark Griskey's score is a perfect mood-enhancing supplement to the game, fully capturing that unique Star Wars feeling. It's now a truly cinematic gaming experience, deserving of the Star Wars title.
On a side note:
Any developer creating a future Star Wars game would be foolish not to consider Mark Griskey's talent for an original game score. I've never seen a composer come so close to the signature musical style of SW. And for crying out loud, please allow a bigger budget for music in the future -- 60 minutes worth of music are simply not enough for a lengthy RPG like KotOR2 (too much repetition.) For comparison: Dungeon Siege II has a score that is 2 hours and 40 minutes long (not including the music for the cinematics; with those it's over 3 hours of Jeremy Soule music!)
2. SOUND quality improvements:
In two words: Big surprise!
All 72 ambient/environmental sounds in KotOR2 were also remastered to full STEREO surround sound quality! As I mentioned in the beginning of my post, the Media Patch does more than just fixing the music and movies. It also fixes the in-game sound. This was not mentioned in the patch notes.
The sound improvements are part of the "Music Patch" file ('K2_Patch_HQ_Music.exe' [148MB]).
Of course, most of us didn't notice the flawed environmental/ambient sounds before, simply because we had no comparison to make... we didn't know what we were missing. But all ambient sounds in the game were actually created and mixed by the sound designers in full stereo surround, originally. Unfortunately, they ended up (like the music) in a crippled state in the final retail game: Muffled 10 kHz MONO sound.
The whole purpose of ambient sounds is to create a soundscape, a sound environment, in which you can hear sounds coming from various directions and distances. This depth effect of ambient sounds can only be achieved when using at least STEREO, in order to simulate the complex "room" accoustics. If you convert ambient sounds to MONO (as in KotOR2 before this patch) this depth effect is negated and lost -- the whole soundscape collapses and many sounds will actually be inaudible (they get drowned by the other sounds when all are lumped into the one MONO channel.) To make matters worse, the previous ambient sounds were badly compressed and filtered (10 kHz lowpass filter.) What remained was a fraction of what the sound designers originally wanted you to experience while playing KotOR2.
With this new Media Patch, all locations that you can visit in the game will have real ambient sounds: The environments will sound vivid and spacious, like real soundscapes do (e.g. standing in a bar, standing on a city street.) The ambient sounds will surround you and you will feel like you're in the middle of it. This makes a drastic improvement to the sound experience of the game... it is much more immersive now.
If you don't believe me, listen to these great examples in the game's 'StreamMusic' folder:
Copy these 4 files to a newly created folder (e.g. "amb_MONO") and rename their file extension to ".mp3". You will need to play them back with a proper MP3 player like WinAMP. You will notice they're MONO and sound very tiny. Now, apply the 'K2_Patch_HQ_Music.exe' patch, and afterwards copy the same 4 files (which are in STEREO surround now) to a different folder (e.g. "amb_STEREO") and again rename them to end in ".mp3". Now do an A/B-comparison listening test and hear what you've been missing... the sound environments come alive!
Kudos to Obsidian for improving/restoring all the ambient sounds, particularly since nobody requested it. That was a nice gesture, and it makes a tangible difference in the game's audio experience.
3. Six audio files that were "missed" (not updated):
I'm almost certain that these 6 files are not used within the game, because they look to me like leftovers from during the game's production that should have been removed before release. Therefore it makes sense that the Media Patch doesn't update these files.
However, I'm not sure, and it would help if an Obsidian dev could quickly comment on this for clarification. These are the 6 files:
bed_950mal.wav (same content as 'bed_950cor.wav'... unused leftover?)
mus_a_801.wav (similar to 'mus_a_800b.wav', but synthesizer-recorded instead of live orchestra)
mus_a_kreiadark.wav (same as 'mus_kreiadark.wav'... unused leftover?)
mus_a_main.wav (same as 'mus_main.wav'... unused leftover?)
(mus_kriea.wav) (this is a clear dupe of 'mus_kreia.wav', probably due to the typo)
mus_s_kreiaevil.wav (same as mus_s_darkside.wav'... unused leftover?)
4. MOVIE quality improvements:
In one word: Solid.
The original movies/cinematics had a resolution of 640 x 272 (30 fps)
The remastered cinematics have a resolution of 1600 x 680 (30 fps)
As some have already mentioned, the new cinematics aren't necessarily sharper, since they weren't completely re-rendered. In order to do that, Obsidian would have needed access to the original 3D assets and probably pay the company that was previously commissioned to dig out these files, and invest the time and money to re-render them all from scratch in a higher resolution. That would have been perfect, of course. Right now, the almost tripled resolution (and the resulting huge file size) is a bit wasted, since no additional detail is captured.
However, it's not totally wasted, since the additional pixels are used to interpolate and filter the image, making it look much better than it was before. It's more film-like now. The previous quality of the movies was a pain to the eye, with all its big scanlines and pixelization due to the low TV resolution and heavy compression.
So, Obsidian decided to go for the next-best solution: They couldn't go back and re-render them from scratch, but they still seemed to have the higher-quality (uncompressed) 640x272 master copies in their archives. From that better source they could upscale and interpolate the images and use a much better compression setting, which results in higher-quality cinematics. Sure, it's a compromise, but I understand Obsidian's decision, because the other solution would have been prohibitive. So, I think it's far better to have this solution, than nothing at all and being stuck with the old, pixely, grid-like movies.
Frankly, I'm quite surprised that Obsidian actually went ahead and did this for the fans, simply because of the enormous >1 GB size that this movie update would need. I don't think any other developer would have done this, really.
Better *perceived* resolution: More "film-like" (smoother), with less pixelization (due to new upscaling/interpolation/filtering) and of course no more annoying scanlines.
Much better encoding: Previous encoding artifacts are gone (no more "wobbling" square-blocks with camera movement or blocking/pixelization artifacts with fast animations; also, "ringing" compression artifacts [pixel noise around hard edges] are practically gone.)
Better contrast: Improved contrast and black-level, with the scene being less "washed-out" (again, more film-like; previously it was more video-like.)
I tested this with Bink Tools: The new movies need about 3x more CPU cycles (~30% now on my Athlon 1.6 Ghz test machine) for video decoding and blitting, due to their larger size. But this should not be a problem, even on a minimum spec machine. There's enough horsepower to playback those movies, and the CPU doesn't need to do anything else during playback. The way Bink works (the format in which KotOR2's movies are encoded in), I'm sure that a good gfx card helps too, since Bink uses some hardware functions of the gfx card to accelerate the playback.
While the cinematics' previous 640 x 272 resolution with heavy compression artifacts might have looked "OK" on a blurry TV screen for XBox gamers, for PC users who play at much higher resolutions (practically in HDTV if you allow the TV-comparison), the annoying scanlines (like looking through a "grid") and the unstable "wobbling" image with heavy blocking/pixelization were very noticeable and distracting.
The new re-mastered cinematics look much better, especially on larger monitors. True, the resolution of the source material is the same (unfortunately they couldn't completely re-render all cinematics in a higher resolution), so you won't get a sharper image... the detail remains the same.
However, what you *will* get is a much clearer film-like image, with no more annoying "video artifacts" and a better contrast. Moreover, the perceived resolution is much higher, because of the well-done interpolation and upsampling to the new native 1600 x 680 resolution of the movies. I think it looks great and it's a solid improvement.
It's up to you to decide if the Movies patch is worth the download of one Gigabyte. At first, I was unsure of its worth, but after I did more tests and A/B comparisons it became clear to me that the improved film-like quality of the cinematics really adds to the experience. After all, Star Wars is a cinematic experience, and that should be preserved even in a "video" game. If you're a PC gamer who appreciates quality in presentation (and if you're the kind of gamer who can't live without FSAA ) then this Movies patch is a no-brainer for you.
However, if you're challenged with bandwith and traffic limits (a 1 GB+ download is not a trifle), and pondering what is more important -- the Movies or the Music patch -- then I'd recommend without hesitating that you download the much smaller Music patch, because in the end it really adds significantly more to the game experience: You will get much clearer sound in *full stereo surround* this time, and the great news is that not only the music gets that much-needed treatment, but all environmental/ambient sounds, too! The whole world in KotOR2 will come alive and sound vivid and expansive, with you feeling right in the middle of it. The Music Patch will give you a greater immersion, and ultimately improves the game the most.
No more muffling, no more lousy mono, no more tiny-sounding game experience. For gamers like me, who play as much with their ears as they play with their eyes, it's a dream come true.
For the rest, who have the habit of turning off music or sound altogether in their games... don't bother. It would be casting pearls before swine...
And to Obsidian:
Please find your way back to your roots. You used to be a pioneer in gaming audio, fully realizing its potential before. Maybe it was just the circumstance of this partnership. But I'd love to see you guys return to your former legacy. I think the lessons were learned.
Thanks again for the Media Patch! This was really done for the fans... I finally realize that.