There are very few instances where it’s perfectly acceptable to fall asleep in the middle of playing a videogame. 24 hour marathons come to mind, as does forced prison torture. Though you may not see it, the commonality between those two examples is that the player has a greater goal in mind (making it to the finish and not getting swatted, respectively). Now, imagine you are playing a strikingly mediocre hack-and-slash RPG like Dungeon Siege III and the greater goal is simply personal enjoyment. We’re man enough to admit that it was a struggle to get past hour seven. But don’t be a hero; if you need a nap, take it. Dungeon Siege III – a game with alarmingly few dungeons to actually siege – may do that to you.
To be fair, you may get some enjoyment out of the Obsidian-developed sorta-RPG, but that’s if you like games with identity crises. At its roots a Diablo clone with its loot gathering and malleable character builds, Dungeon Siege III was a PC game obviously developed with a console crowd in mind. There’s nothing wrong with this if done right, but certain design decisions ultimately make the game feel half-cocked and bland. So, the core of the game is Diablo, but for an audience that focus testing must have spawned, it is Diablo that made coitus with Fable with a dash of Mass Effect (and yes, that is a mixed metaphor), and not enough of the best bits of any are present. Dungeon Siege III, then, is an all-too linear hack-and-slash RPG marred with strange omissions of standard features and boring, repetitious combat. Oh, and online co-op, but we’ll get to that.
Like the previous entries in the series, DS3 is set in the fantasy land of Ehb where your character – one of four pre-set classes – is a descendant of the Tenth Legion, which is basically the equivalent of Jedi. As it turns out, thirty-odd years before the game takes place, the Legion is stepped on by military commander Jeyne Kassynder and thought extinct. You are a descendant of some of the old guard of the Legion and are charged with rebuilding your ranks while laying down some fantasy RPG payback to Kassynder and her minions. Over the course of the game – which is as close to a straight line as any this side of another Square Enix-published game – you meet and recruit the other three characters not chosen at the beginning, take in a series of side jobs to build your abilities, and interact with various NPCs through a series of very BioWare-esque dialogue trees.
Everything mentioned in the above paragraph winds up being some of the best parts of the game, if a bit underdeveloped. While the characters themselves are fairly typical as far as this setting goes, the game makes a unique decision on giving each of them two different fighting stances each: one for crowd control and a one-on-one option. Anjali, for example, uses her spear for wide swipes that can hit a mob within a reasonably sized cone in front of her, but when it’s just her and a boss, the click of a button will change her into an elemental being that tosses small fireballs at the singled-out adversary. Much of the pleasure comes from timing the swapping of fighting styles to deliver the maximum amount of damage possible. Each stance can unlock three skills apiece, along with three defensive abilities for healing or attack/defense buffs. You can spend points to augment these abilities, as well as spent other points to strengthen passive skills like max attack muscle or faster healing.
The problem here is that nine total abilities across the game is limiting. By the time all of them are unlocked near the end, the experimental phase is over and you’ve found what works. More abilities given at regular intervals may have alleviated this, and even though you can spend points to grow the abilities in slightly different ways and even evolve them with copious use, they’re still the same special moves over and over again that you’re stuck with, and many of them from the beginning of the game. This can make combat get tiresome quickly. This is where the PC game with a console in mind becomes blatantly obvious. On a console your normal attack is mapped to the A or X button, with the abilities covering the leftover three face buttons. Normally, games like Torchlight, which had a more successful port to console, will give you more options for special attacks and let you choose which to assign to your controller buttons. But nine is all you get with Dungeon Siege III, and you feel it with every underwhelming button press.
The game is also stiflingly linear. The minimap shows the narrow paths leading to most objectives with little variation, and hitting up on the d-pad will give you a Fable-like golden trail to follow, saving you the need to do any exploration yourself. The vast majority of the game takes place in overworld settings like forests and mountain roads that don’t exactly make the eyes pop. The actual dungeons in the game, which are, again, all too seldom, are the few places that make the game shine. Though not exactly original or brain-taxingly complex, settings like haunted mansions and overrun foundries are a welcome change of pace from fighting yet another group of thugs on your way to the next town.
The towns and other instances of running into NPCs can also slow the pace to a crawl. NPCs begin dialogue similar to Dragon Age and Mass Effect: after an explanation of what’s what, options are presented for more exposition which can increase influence over your AI companion as well as make minor decisions about the overall world, like allying with a particular faction. In the beginning this is fun. By the end, though, you’ll probably skip quickly through dialogue as the decisions you’ve made don’t greatly affect the world. Influence gained over your sidekicks and its use is never fully explained, leading to one to assume it was only there for achievements/trophies, and decisions made over the course of the plot only slightly change the “this is what happened here, and this is what happened here” ending of the game.
The co-op mode is a similar mishmash of undercooked plans. Up to four players (two local and up to four online) can enter a person’s campaign and lend a hand with the thug clubbing. Four people onscreen can really wreak havoc. When everyone’s on the same page, it can make the game quite easy. Most often, though, the more players the more hectic it is. The camera follows the host player. The others have to struggle to adjust to it as they aren’t allowed to leave the host’s radius. In local multi this makes sense since two players are using one screen. Online, though, it’s baffling why everyone can’t follow their own screen. Instead, when the action gets busy, everyone is fighting to go to their specific corner, thus confusing the camera and pissing everyone else off, even though the four of them can logically pound any given target. More baffling is that each player cannot bring their own character build into a multiplayer game, relying on the decisions that the host has made in how they’ve built the allies they aren’t controlling during the main campaign.
Party politics also play a factor. Everyone shares the host player’s bank of money, but they can all go shopping for themselves. When we tested it, each individual player can go to the shop screen and buy their own gear, meaning that if everyone isn’t communicating, player 1 can end up broke before they know it. Dialogue trees with NPCs are also completely at the mercy of the host player, who makes all the decisions. In what feels like a tacked on piece, the other players can cast their vote as to where the conversation can go, but that’s about it.
The plus side is that it’s easy to host and find games. You can set your campaign to let other players drop in and out, and jumping in on a game from the title screen menu is as easy as choosing from the lists available. The one very cool piece of multiplayer is the “take a break” option from the main menu. Since the team cannot move on without everyone following along, you can choose to “take a break” and have AI take over if you need to hit the potty or grab a drink. Of course, trusting a boss fight to it may be less than safe, but it’s a welcome addition to online games.
As a developer, Obsidian has been pretty spotty with how their games perform on a technical level. While not nearly as messy as some of their more recent productions, Dungeon Siege III has a few minor performance gaffes. For one, the brightness and textures of the PS3 version look muddier than on what’s found on 360. Though most won’t find these details too dissimilar, outside of crisper rocks and puddles there are fewer pop-ins and dropped textures in the 360 version as well. Whole walls of dungeons would disappear randomly when played on the PS3. Conversely, the camera rotates in a more stuttered fashion on Xbox than PlayStation. In what was a very odd quirk, the PlayStation version’s multiplayer mode let us hang on to a character in our campaign that the AI took over controlling when the other player had dropped out. This sounds like a small deal, but this is a character we didn’t even meet in our first playthrough until nearly the halfway point of the main game. Bizarre.
The overall game just didn’t seem to be able to catch up with itself. You’ll automatically go into the skill tree after leveling up, but combat must first. Sometimes this is immediate, while often a fight would end and we were left staring at the screen for thirty seconds before something happened. Saving the game is similar - you can’t save until after combat, but sometimes it denies you even with dead bodies everywhere. These and a list of strange omissions that are genre mainstays – no map in the game other than the minimap (seriously), inability to set ally AI behavior, and a lack of a true party of more than two people as in previous Dungeon Siege titles – and it’s clear that DS III was taken out of the oven too early.
Dungeon Siege III is not a game to hate, but there certainly isn’t enough to love. By the end of the campaign we were satisfied with the admittedly-average story, but the stale combat and chaotic multiplayer that are supposed to sell this game just aren’t built well enough. On the cheap, you could probably do worse than this, but we can say for a fact that you can do a hell of a lot better.
Jun 21, 2011