Recently I’ve found myself with an overabundance of free time and some friends have helped fill the void by getting me thoroughly addicted to tabletop role playing games like Dungeons & Dragons and Pathfinder. It’s interesting... you won’t look at RPG’s the same way again. The reason is simply because by rolling the dice and doing the math, you work out (via the algorithms that were created over 40 years ago) the damage you cause based on both your ratings and that of the enemy. Video games, of course, do this for you in a much faster digital environment. Sadly, it’s sort of like meeting the man behind the curtain... it takes away some of the mystic.
So what fortuitous circumstances are these that I find myself reviewing Dungeon Siege III, a perfect example of what I’m talking about! I always knew at a basic level what all the statistics meant in games like these, but things like Will, Stamina, Agility, and Critical now have new significance.
You take the role of one of four characters/classes. Lucas Montbarron, the sword wielding “Tank,” is the last of a noble lineage, seeking after the truth of his father’s untimely death. Anjali is an archon; a legend of old, a fire spirit. She basically serves as an offensive caster, but also carries a spear for melee combat. Reinhart Manx is a quirky guy, but as your standard wizard/mage his knowledge of arcana is unparalleled. Lastly, Katarina is essentially the ranger/ranged class. Rather than using a bow and arrow, she employs rifles, shotguns, and pistols.
No matter whom you choose, you play as a Legionnaire, the last of the 10th Legion. The Legion were the former guardians of the Kingdom of Ehb, but with the death of the old king were vilified and exiled. Conspiratorial whispers surround them, and they have been all but wiped out by Jeyne Kassynder, who hunts them relentlessly. Thirty years later, the Venerable Odo, one of the few survivors of Kassynder’s purge, has raised you to fight back. His goal is to rebuild the Legion, taking on their nemesis, and regaining their lost glory and honor.
Once you get out into the world, combat is basically standard hack and slash or casting depending on your preference. However, developers Obsidian have added an interesting twist: two different stances per character. Lucas, for example, can carry a broadsword and shield combo or wield a mighty claymore two-handed. Anjali has her spear that she can use in a variety of melee attacks, but when turning into her archon form she hurls fireballs at the enemy from range or conjures area of effect attacks. She can even call a fire jackal to fight alongside!
When you level up you get to put points into both an “Ability” and a “Talent,” each having five levels. For instance, you can upgrade said fire jackal, making it a stronger companion or granting it an extra percentage chance of setting your foes on fire. Since you have five available slots you can mix and match between the two as you see fit. Talents are slightly different. Sticking with Anjali, her Phoenix’s Warmth talent gives her a ten percent chance per level to regain health when she is attacked.
Those are just two examples, since each character has quite a few abilities and talents for you to check out, some of which are only available at higher levels. You won’t be able to max them all out, so it’s a good idea to spend a few moments looking over your options and planning ahead. My only complaint about this system is you can’t save your points for use later on.
By far the biggest headache with combat is the camera. It has an unfortunate habit of zooming in at the most inopportune times, especially in tight places. All of a sudden you’ll be staring at the back of your head, if not completely blocked by a nearby wall, all the while getting whacked by unseen foes. This is only exacerbated by the fact that the frame rate can jitter when panning around.
While you start the game on your own, you’ll soon pick up your allies to fight alongside you. Different characters come into the story at different points. Fortunately, when playing single player, the AI companions do a good job of taking care of themselves and actively contributing to the battle. They tend to fight appropriately, healing themselves and reviving fallen comrades as needed. All you really need to worry about is equipping them with the latest loot and spending their ability/talent points. Word to the wise though, pay attention to how they fight. See what they use the most and make sure to put points into those abilities.
Conversing with NPCs reminds me a great deal of Mass Effect or Elder Scrolls with a classic conversation wheel of optional choices. There is plenty to learn by asking questions, and you can sometimes gain “Influence” with your companion by being decisive in certain situations. Hitting milestones like garnering 25% influence gains you a “Deed” such as +3 points to Will. You can also gain deeds by completing tasks out in the wide world.
Having said that, I think that the conversations lacked emotion. Both your characters, as well as the NPCs, seem awfully stoic, even in the face of bad news. I’m not entirely convinced this is poor voice acting or the script itself, but rather a combination of the two. You WILL make choices that ultimately effect how the story plays out, but even then the influence you have seems almost mundane.
One bizarre facet of Dungeon Siege III is that it’s quite linear. There are some pretty sizable areas, but you never really feel like you are properly exploring. Plus, for some reason you don’t get a map. There is a mini-map in the corner, but it can be disorienting at best. Fortunately, if you get lost you can press up on the directional pad and a series of glowing golden orbs like breadcrumbs will lead you to your destination depending on what quest you have activated, just like Fable. Of course, if you consider this cheating you don’t have to do so. When searching the area you’ll see plenty of little offshoots to search, usually containing a chest containing more loot.
And as with most games like this, it’s all about the loot! Finding new goodies is always a highlight. Admittedly most of the time it’s crap, or at best, a minor upgrade. Still, no matter how many times I play this type of game, whenever you find something truly beastly it always gets your blood going. Here’s a tip: a high gold value indicates worth more so than the color-coded weapon name. Oh, and I love the names they come up with... my personal favorite was the Fierce Hairpin of Vengeance! Sadly, at the time I couldn’t afford it.
Probably a good word to describe Dungeon Siege III is... generic. I’m not necessarily saying that’s a bad thing. You’ve got standard combat, standard character classes, standard weapons, and standard abilities. The game is riddled with the cliches of the genre, my favorite being that people have a bad habit of leaving their life savings and family heirlooms in wooden barrels outside their houses (there’s even gold stored in tree trunks for some reason). All of the stock locales from Lord of the Rings are present: dark forests, creepy caves, fecund swamps, and snowy mountaintops. But they do stray from the template. When you get to the city of Stonebridge, all of a sudden things go Steampunk with giant automated golems walking around town! It’s pretty bizarre.
Easily one of the biggest draws of Dungeon Siege III is the ability to jump online and play the game with the full cast of characters. This can be good fun, but there are some issues with the execution.
Firstly, I’ve heard some nasty rumors about playing online with strangers. Basically, you don’t import your own characters into another’s game, but rather have to choose whoever they are not and use whatever weapons and armor they have. As if that wasn’t disappointing enough, apparently there is an issue with people selling off all your equipment and then leaving the game. I decided to forego this frustration and instead played with a mate online. If you play the story through with a friend from beginning to end in agreement, then it can be pretty cool.
But far and away the biggest problem with online is the camera. It’s even worse than on the single player. It reminds me of the classic game Gauntlet, a virtually top-down, bird’s eye view. This problem especially affects ranged characters because you can’t always see your targets and end up wildly shooting in their general direction hoping you’re aiming the right way.
Then there is the fact that you are essentially tethered together. I was playing as Anjali in our co-op and my friend was Lucas. He’d keep saying “I can’t reach em’!” because I’d be trying to keep myself from getting cornered on the far side of the screen and he was just out of range of his melee attacks against foes offscreen. I don’t get this. If we are co-oping on the couch on a single TV then it makes sense, but on two different systems I don’t understand why they designed it like this. I can’t imagine it with a full compliment of four players.
There are a couple of other major design decisions with Dungeon Siege III that really hold it back for me. The terrible camera aside, what makes these peccadilloes more pronounced is that they seem like rookie mistakes. For example, as previously mentioned, games like these revolve around loot. We want the new, shiny stuff! While spending time in menus isn’t always fun, it’s perfectly passable here. The problem arises when you get your full compliment of allies and suddenly realize that to compare equipment with whoever is not currently your partner you have to select them, wait for them to load, then go through and check all the stats. Once done, you have to switch to the next teammate, and so on and so forth. It’s just frustrating. Even if you want to limit our allies in game to just one, you should still be able to check out everyone from a single menu!
Another thing that I found a bit disappointing was its length. I expected to dump dozens of hours into a game like this, but the single player campaign was over in just one... maybe a baker’s if you’re feeling generous.
Which leads to my final issue... there is no New Game + mode after you beat the game. Seriously?!? In this day and age? Sure, there is some replay value. It’s well and good to play the game through again, starting from scratch with different characters, but still... what about all my loot! I worked hard for that loot! They were the spoils of my conquests! Up the difficulty, let’s go for round two! I’m surprised this wasn’t an option, it seems obvious really....
Dungeon Siege III doesn't reinvent the wheel by any stretch of the imagination, but if you're into these sorts of D&D style, loot collecting, hack and slashers, then it's definitely worth a look. For me though, I ended up disappointed. While the game can be fun, the surprising linearity, terrible camera (both online and off), uninteresting (and seemingly uninterested) characters, and the lack of a New Game + mode made this dungeon crawler feel like a lost opportunity.