Let me get one thing set right off the bat: It’s entirely possible that you don’t like “fast-twitch” RPG games. The reason why I said that is because Dungeon Siege raised quite a bit of contention amongst action RPG fans, sometimes because of its presentation, other times because of the sheer amount of autonomous control given to party members. Regardless of complaints, Dungeon Siege did set a number of benchmarks for the genre, chief amongst them being a continuous environment without a discernable load time between levels. While Chris Taylor’s actual sequel to the game won’t be out until next year, players that are still hungry for escapades in the land of Ehb can get some degree of satisfaction with the latest expansion pack, Dungeon Siege: Legends of Aranna.
The backstory of Legends of Aranna may seem like it’s been ripped out of the big book of generic plotlines, but comes across on a much larger scale. The Utraeans, an ancient race in Aranna skilled in magic, has created a ton of mystical items and spells, amongst other things as a demonstration of their clear intellectual might. As is typically the case with most cerebral beings in games, this brainpower leads to decadence and laziness, spurring the Utraeans to create and manipulate other races to perform menial tasks for them. Like most monster stories, the creations inevitably overthrew their masters, destroying much of their civilization in the process and endangering the delicate balance of the world. Unbeknownst to the Utraeans and the rest of Aranna, the toppling of these wizards has also allowed a primordial evil, the Shadow Jumper, to return to the land and start causing massive destruction.
Players start the game not as a continuation of their character from the previous Dungeon Siege title, but as a completely new hero. As the child of two legendary adventurers that’s defeated the Shadow Jumper before, the civic expectation of everyone in your character’s hometown is that you will sally forth and confront this evil just like your parents did. To fulfill this anticipation, you’ll cross a number of differing terrains, including deserts, snowbound mountain passes and fetid swampland, gathering a number of companions along the way. However, Dungeon Siege or Legends of Aranna aren’t like your typical RPG, since they allow players to determine their character’s class based on their gameplay. Rather than limiting gamers to the stereotypical fighter or magic user, Dungeon Siege records which skills you use more often and defines your character that way, even allowing for interdisciplinary abilities. So, for example, you can have a close quarters fighter with combat magic abilities, or an archer who can sling lightning as easily as they shoot arrows.
Ah, but this is supposed to be an expansion pack, you say? Where are the new features that make this stand out from the original? Hold on, my eager friends, for here is a listing of some of the notable ones. First of all, players can create control groups, allowing them to instantly switch spells or weapons in the thick of combat. This can be particularly useful for magic users, because no one likes hunting through spellbooks looking for an effective spell, especially when you’re getting attacked. Considering that there’s a ton of new magic included in Legends of Aranna, (including the ability to transform mages into monsters or summon combat orbs that attack enemies) tracking magic becomes even more important. Thankfully, your inventory has been redesigned with two essential upgrades: automatic arranging storage slots to fit as much loot into your pockets as possible and backpacks, which add a separate compartment for each character.
Even the pack animals have been boosted somewhat with the addition of the Tragg, a creature that holds much less than the simplistic mule but that attacks any beast that dares to come close to its owner. Of course, even in the largest battle, a character may use up their mana or come dangerously close to death. Thankfully, with the press of a button, potions can be quickly redistributed to those characters that need it, allowing for a quick refresh of life or magic. However, without strong armor or weaponry, you’ll find your warriors drinking these potions faster than water. With new imbued items (objects that boost certain stats) and treasure sets (certain groups of armor, weapons and accessories that, when fully found and equipped, provide new skills or abilities), every individual in your party can dish out more punishment that they will ever take.
As an expansion pack, you might expect a radical overhaul to the graphical engine, providing larger, more detailed character models. Well, Legends of Aranna doesn’t really focus upon that, essentially taking the idea of “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” This isn’t a bad thing, considering that Dungeon Siege was impressive to begin with. The seamless environments return, with smooth transitions between regions primarily identified by the world map. The engine also manages to track multiple enemies and objects with very little slowdown, allowing for huge battles to occur in infested areas. This includes independent animation for each character based on the weapon their wielding. So, for example, you’ll be able to detect the difference between swinging a sword and firing an arrow. Particle effects seem to have been boosted somewhat with the addition of some of the flashier spells to the game. Sound is just as nice, with a sweeping score and decent vocal deliveries during dialogue screens.
However, while the technical features are pretty solid, the actual gameplay is marred by a few flaws. First off, Legends is still marred by the lack of freedom presented in many other RPGs. From start to finish, your party is essentially stuck on a linear track of “enter area, slaughter monster, pick up treasure, repeat.” Considering that this is a game that prizes flexibility in character development, you’d think the same would apply to the exploration of areas. However, it’s this confining journey that quickly makes the game repetitive, regardless of the implemented features.
This quickly brings up a secondary flaw, that of features that could’ve been rolled out via patches instead of a new expansion pack. Backpacks, redistributing potions or tweaking the spell system could’ve been handled with an augmented version upgrade, leaving the designers time to develop and implement an adventure for high level fighters. The inclusion of the original title is a great touch, but if you’ve invested a ton of time in building up your character in that game, you can’t bring over your high-powered warrior into Legends without playing a multiplayer game. While I don’t mind multiplayer, I don’t feel like letting multiple hours of my life go to waste like that, even if the expansion pack provides a new storyline.
However, the largest issue with Legends of Aranna is that the game still feels more like managing a squad of superpowered fighters than it does a true role-playing game, especially once your characters get higher level abilities. The AI for Dungeon Siege is good. Really good. In fact, it’s too good, making full control over many functions almost unnecessary. You can simply enter an area and watch the enemies dash themselves to pieces against your character’s weapons like water on rocks. If configured properly, you won’t even need to worry about replenishing your health, since magic users will heal any damage and your weapons will bludgeon anything that comes close. (Speaking of weapons, why do I specifically care how much damage a weapon will do over 10 seconds?! Most fights don’t take that long unless you’re chopping through wave after wave of monsters.)
Legends of Aranna comes off as a definite mixed surprise: if you’ve never played Dungeon Siege, you may want to give Aranna a try to get two adventures in that fantasy realm. However, fans or previous owners of the game may want to hedge their purchase based on how desirous they are of limited exploration, repetitive gameplay mechanics and mild additions that could’ve been presented with a basic patch against the story of the Shadow Jumper.