The final verdict on Chris Taylor's epic RPG.
I bashed my last monster a few days ago. My party cracked the big bad meanie over the head in a spectacular demonstration of particle pyrotechnics, before settling down to their packed lunch to watch the final conclusion of the story. I have used the intervening days to allow my brain to dismantle and disseminate what I experienced whilst playing Dungeon Siege so I could write a better, more balanced review for our readers. There have been a lot of words written about Chris Taylor’s new game and now here are some more from that unique perspective of the British gamer just in time for the title’s release. The delay had nothing, absolutely nothing, to do with starting up a new game of Civilization III. No, really. Let me begin by bringing up the main criticisms that this game has been receiving; that the gameplay is simplistic and derivative, that your characters do too much for themselves, that the monsters just clump around you to attack and that it looks too damn nice for its own good. Well yes I say, the gameplay is simplistic, this is an action RPG after all. There are no real puzzles to speak of and very little interaction with the environments as a whole. From beggining to end the player will be engaged in nothing else but banging monsters on the head, picking up new gear and healing up the party. There are no stealthy bits to slow the pace down, no opportunities to split your party up to gain an advantage. The essence of the gameplay has not been changed from that laid down by the first dungeon crawls many, many years ago. If that seems to be a real problem to you then you might as well leave now for this game isn’t going to be for you. I have one simple request to the early leavers - using the spare time you have from not playing this game could you please search out an action RPG which showed even the slightest hint of moving the gameplay into a new direction and bring it back here for me to see. For those of us keen to continue and who have passed their reality check let’s go on. This is hack and slash, that’s what it set out to do and that is exactly what it has done. The enjoyment one gets from this game comes from building up your party with newer, bigger and badder equipment to take on greater numbers of fiercer and uglier monsters all the while exploring changing environments for hidden treasure and hidden dungeons. Just like Diablo 2, except with more then one guy. I personally have the suspicion that if this game had been released by any publisher other then M$ it would have suffered less under the typing skills of the pernickety. It differs very little from Blizzard’s big daddy in terms of the mechanics of the gameplay, giving the player the tools to run around endlessly smashing things with a minimum of fuss. This game has been designed to let you play the game without having to play against it. The system that the player uses to interact with the game world is as unobtrusive as possible. What some might criticise as being too simplistic I see as being a refined experience. While it is true to say that the party can often be left to their own devices when it comes to engaging in combat and defending themselves from attack it is also equally true that you can’t just leave them to it and go have a lie down to read the paper. Your characters do not need constant shepherding as they are able to look after themselves and are not afflicted with the curious immunity to pain that prevents them from having a swing at an enemy which is trying to cleave them in two, something common to many games of a similar nature. The player will have to keep a constant eye on the health of their party, administering aid to the whole group by pressing the H key. There are also spells which can be obtained which will allow the caster to bless the entire group with a healing wind which keeps topping up their health for a set period of time. Does this make it too easy to keep your guys alive, or rather does it relieve you from the hassle of having to click on each character individually to personally encourage them not to die? You can even pick up resurrection scrolls which anyone can use regardless of abilities, meaning that the termination of your healer was not the end of the party as your brute of a warrior can revive any dead member. I found myself enjoying the game more as I didn’t have to constantly retrace my steps because my party had clumsily allowed themselves to die. That would usually only happen because I had been too impatient or too stupid to take on a group of bad guys in a sensible manner. Saying that, the game’s autosave function might as well have been omitted for all the good it is. As is true with any RPG type game, save, and save an awful lot, for on the occasions when your entire party is annihilated you could find yourself with a very long walk back to the action. Diablo 2 took the route of permitting control of only one character, expanding the options available by implementing a skill system through which the player could develop their individual’s abilities to suit their personal taste. Dungeon Siege allows you to control a party of up to eight members which gives the player far more scope to utilise any of the abilities, weapons and spells that populate the game and frees them of the hassle of having to replay the game as a different class of character just to be able to use an interesting looking sword or an impressive sounding spell. You can chose exactly how you want your party to be formed, specialising characters in one form of combat, letting some or all of them be jack-of-all-trades or brave it and have a cut down crew which will advance in experience that much quicker then a full party. There is a pause function like Baldur’s Gate but I very rarely found myself using it, even in the later, more intense stages. The interface is such that apart from the overhead map screen everything is superimposed on top of the game world. No more delving into a characters backpack only to return to a pitiful scene of slaughter. There are useful formations which can be used as well, similar to Age of Empires and other strategy games. They really work, too, both in protecting the weaker members and maintaining the group’s cohesion. Got an overly ambitious fighter chasing a wolf down a trail while your mage is getting twated by a scorpion? Click one of the formations and that Rambo will come back to squish the bug. I’ll admit that I used the formation option mostly to keep my party a tight and cohesive fighting unit rather then to implement a plan worthy of Sun-Tzu but the important thing is I used it often and it worked a charm. The quick item slots work very well and allow you to make full use of the unrestricted and classless abilities of your characters. With one slot each for melee, ranged, combat and nature magic you can swap about weapons and fighting styles as you please, which for example allows a mage to switch to a staff for defending themselves against overly close monsters. The rare times I did use the pause button was to swap one magic spell for another, until one glorious moment when I discovered that holding down the mouse button would bring up the list of all the spells in my book, allowing me to select a fireball to replace a summon spell on the fly. Grand, and a good example of the amount of thought that has gone into producing a game that doesn’t hinder the players progress unless it is meant to. This is what it’s like to play the game, but why would you want to devote hours to clicking on a variety of monsters when there’s not much in the way of storyline? To be frank the plot is rather lame and suffers from relying on the game engine to display any cutscenes. It would definitely have benefited from the luxurious rendered glory of Diablo 2, hell it would have been better served if it was anything more involving and original then the ‘unknown plucky farmer fights to free the kingdom from re-awoken ancient evil’ crap that passes for a story in much of computer gaming. To be honest I rarely give a toss about the plot in a game as I’m too busy delivering punishment to the evil ones so that didn’t bother me here much. So why did I finish it off? Was it because the graphics are wonderful? With a rich variety of different environments to wage war through and increasingly pyrotechnic displays from magic users the game has a morish appeal just in its visuals. As you can tell from the screenshots the game is a real looker. It also has plenty of visual appeal in the detail of the game’s setting, with richly realized towns, camps, dungeons and outdoor environments. I often got the feeling I was playing through a real world not just a randomly generated map of graphic tile sets and knew that a lot of time had been spent by loving artists to make Dungeon Siege the most visually splendid RPG to date. Was it the appeal of the set-pieces? From battling a massive, majestic dragon to taking on a mechanical monster in the Goblin’s realm there are many staged fights and events which break up any sense of repetition or mundaneness that might have set in. Or was it because the combination of all of the above amounts to a very playable and enjoyable game? Aye, that’s why. The multiplayer side of things is enjoyable and provides another campaign to fight through into which you can import a character from the single player game. It’s a bummer that you can control only one person in multiplayer which means you must join up with other online players to have a chance to make your way through the larger second campaign. It’s simple to join or set up a game although the fact that there is no central server a la Battlenet leaves things wide open to cheating, something that will only get a lot worse when the editor is released. It’s very unlikely that the online side of things will approach anything near the popularity of Diablo 2’s but it does give more game to play through and I think that was all that was intended by Gas Powered Games. This game also has massive potential for modding and has a long life ahead of it once third party dungeons and scenarios become available. There are already projects in the works to use the engine to remake some of the Ultima games and the comprehensiveness of the forthcoming editor means we could be seeing a Cowboy Siege or a Warhammer Siege in the coming months. The game is not perfect. The item drops are too random and often give you either spectacularly useless items or objects which will be unusable until your characters have levelled up considerably. Too many of the large monsters will leave nothing behind at all and some of the secondary dungeons reward you with nought but empty chests. The automap is too small to show you enough of the land to be truly satisfying, although it is conceivably possible to play the entire game from its top-down viewpoint. The AI routines of the monsters are the same as those used to set your party member’s combat stances and involve nothing more complicated then attacking the nearest, weakest, or strongest party members. And there is no getting away from the fact that pointing and clicking can get a bit wearisome after eight or ten hours of solid play, but that is just the nature of these types of games. Overall this is a cracking game which really is the new benchmark for action RPGs. The Gas Powered Games team has pushed the evolution of game interfaces into pleasingly usable and useful territory and have created the most enjoyable fantasy world that I have ever had the equipment to rampage through. This is not a technical demo, this is a great game, with solid gameplay driving a compelling gaming experience, and now I’ve beaten Civ III at monarch level I’m off to beat up some Krug monsters online.