"The main story is well-written and interesting, full of entertaining characters with actual motivations and a rich history."
Let's get one thing out of the way, before we say anything else about Dungeon Siege III: this is not a game in the vein of Diablo, Torchlight, or even Dungeon Siege I or II. If your expectation is to click click click thousands of enemies into oblivion in an open-ended PC-style loot grab that eschews narrative in favor of massive customization, then you should look elsewhere. What Obsidian Entertainment has done here is approach the hack and slash from a different angle, positioning the story as a focal point and forging a battle system with a strong focus on dodging and thinking about enemy attacks, rather than being wailed on and chugging down potions .The burden of expectation is one that weighs heavily on Dungeon Siege III, given the PC-style hack-and-slash trappings of its predecessors. As I've already mentioned, this is a different kind of action RPG than the previous games in the series, and it is clear from the first moments that it is no longer a PC-style game. However, none of this should deter you, because this is Obsidian Entertainment's most polished, entertaining game to date, and an exceptionally fun cooperative experience.
The game takes place many years after the close of Dungeon Siege II, with players taking control of one of the last four living descendants of the 10th Legion in the land of Ehb. Years prior to the start of the game, the Legion was nearly eradicated by the Joan of Arc-like antagonist Jeyne Kassynder, for their supposed murder of the previous king. After selecting one of the four heroes, players hit the ground running as the last stronghold of the Legion is being razed to the ground and its inhabitants are under attack by a powerful band of mercenaries. What follows is a tale of rebuilding and redeeming the Legion in the eyes of the world, while fighting an enemy that believes just as strongly in her own righteousness as you do your own. Here is one of several ways in which the game diverges from expectation; rather than the typical "go fight the bad guys" bare bones kind of narrative, Dungeon Siege III is largely a plot-focused game. The main story is well-written and interesting, full of entertaining characters with actual motivations and a rich history (communicated through books and scrolls, as well) informing all of it.
Also surprising for a hack-and-slash is the fact that the game integrates a fairly large amount of (fully voiced) dialogue. In the years past, the Legion served as a mediating force for the people of Ehb, and Obsidian has allowed this to become a part of the game by asking you, at various points during the story and side quests, to listen to two sides of an argument and make a decision. These decisions rarely impact the course of the journey, but they do have plot implications, and it is rewarding and fun to see how your choices pan out in the ending. Also, since each character has a unique backstory, you will encounter different situations and dialogue for each of them, depending on the circumstances. These story aspects are actually where the game gets its replay value, as it does not allow you to continue after the finale and it does not featured a tiered difficulty system like Diablo or Phantasy Star Online.
The combat itself, as mentioned earlier, is not in the same vein as past titles. Gone are wars of attrition, with players madly clicking foes to chip away at their health bars while downing gallons of potion to counteract the unpleasant effects of copious facial bludgeoning. Each character possesses two combat stances, such as Katarina's dual pistol stance for close combat and rifle stance for ranged fighting, or Reinhart's close range lightning punches and long ranged dynamic magic combos. Each stance has its own selection of three special abilities (used via a Focus meter that regenerates via basic attacks) that are unlocked by gaining in levels, and each character also earns three defensive abilities, for a total of nine powers per character.
Every character also has block and dodge moves, which are vital for avoiding damage, since there are no potions of any kind. In order to heal, players either need to grab health orbs that randomly drop from enemies or make use of their first defensive ability, which grants a healing-over-time effect. However, the defensive abilities draw from Power Spheres, which players gain (up to four) as they meet major milestones in the story, and which recharge through the use of abilities. Power Spheres can also be used to execute more potent versions of regular attacks and "secondary fire" for all nine abilities. The fact that focus regenerates by attacking and power spheres regenerate by using abilities creates a fun dynamic in combat that allows you to make extensive use of your varied powers. The game truly does an exceptional job at giving you new combat options, and while you will start out whacking with only regular attacks, combat quickly becomes spectacular, with tons of abilities being hurled around and you at the center of it all, dodging and doling out punishment judiciously.
The game has a level cap of 30, and is designed so that you will reach that cap around the end of the storyline, if you do every side quest. Every level up nets you a proficiency point and a talent point, and every few levels before 20 will allow you unlock a new ability. Proficiency points are one of the primary ways in which you can differentiate your character. Each ability has two proficiencies – one may add a splash damage effect, and the other may increase damage, for example. You are able to use up to 5 points per ability adding and strengthening these effects in any combination, so you can opt to create very potent secondary effect or have both effects, though weaker. Talent points allow you to add effects like "4% higher critical damage per rank" or "abilities cost less focus per rank." With the large number of ability permutations, proficiencies, and talents, it's easy to tailor your character to your liking (although you won't earn enough points to max out everything, so choose wisely).
Rather than health bars, the enemies feature colored circles underneath them indicating their health, which keeps the interface from getting cluttered and allows you to track multiple foes at once. Additionally, while the game features only a mini-map, pressing up on the d-pad will form a breadcrumb trail that leads to the next objective (based on whatever quest you have selected), which keeps things focused and allows you to stare at the world rather than an onscreen map, like in many other hack-and-slash titles.
This turns out to be a great thing, since the game is gorgeous. While it isn't the most amazing game technically, it runs well and is full of color and detail. There isn't a huge variation in armor appearance, but what there is looks good and unique. The art in the between-chapter cutscenes is great, as is the art design behind simply everything. Additionally, the menus and item art are appealing and well-designed, too. This is simply a pretty game. The audio fares well, offering some nice background melodies that always capture the mood of the scene and get you pumped for major battles. The sound effects sound nice and meaty too, ensuring that each hit is satisfying. The voice acting is largely pretty good as well, and there is a lot of it. Combine this with the fact that this is the least glitchy game Obsidian has ever produced (by a long shot), and you get a game that comes off really strong in terms of production value.
The cooperative system in the game allows up to two players per console, and when playing offline the game works beautifully. Players share an inventory, so both people can grab everything and sort it out later, with no worries of sitting in menus dropping and trading (although the menu system is very organized and easy to use). The camera attempts to focus on both people at once, and it does a mostly competent job, although there were times where it was difficult for me to avoid getting smacked around offscreen.
However, it should be noted that the online play may not be what many players are looking for. It functions identically to the offline, meaning all four players are locked to one screen, one camera, and one inventory. More egregious than that, playing with random people is all but impossible, given that the host's save file stores data for all four characters. This means that when you join a game and pick Anjali, you are playing the host's Anjali – equipment, abilities, and level. When you leave, you don't keep anything. While I commend Obsidian for creating a great local coop game, this is utterly bizarre and inexplicable, given that cooperative hack-and-slash RPGs have been around since the dawn of online consoles. What all of this means is that unless you intend to play with the same four people throughout (which would certainly be a great time), the online play is essentially useless to you. It doesn't break the game, but it is undoubtedly going to be a major factor in many people's decision whether or not to invest in the game.
So, in the end, what we have is an exceptional local-multiplayer action RPG with a good story and great combat and production values, fused with some of the best-loved trappings of the hack-and-slash loot-grab genre. You also have an essentially broken online component, which is a huge, bizarre flaw in a multiplayer-focused game. Players have to ask themselves whether they want a great local cooperative experience or a great online experience, because in the end, this game can only give you one of those things.