"I find it hard to recommend a sixty dollar purchase when you can't even keep the loot you worked so hard for."
"So, what exactly do you do in this game?"
"Well, you kill stuff to find better equipment and increase your stats."
"So you can kill bigger stuff and find better equipment and further increase your stats."
I usually find myself in this Socratic dialogue with my brother-in-law whenever we discuss the good ol' dungeon hack. He never understands why I love such games, and I can't fathom why he doesn't. The dungeon hack taps into a very specific portion of the brain. You know the part; the one that tells us that we need to have the biggest engine in our car, or the fastest processor running in our computer. We always want what's better because there's always another task to complete or monster to slay. This genre has seen a dramatic resurgence with Runic's Torchlight and the announcement of Diablo 3. One franchise that I missed out on is Dungeon Siege, a series that Obsidian and Square-Enix hope to bring back to the forefront of gamers' minds with the third entry.
Admittedly, my knowledge of Dungeon Siege lore is limited to the ghastly Uwe Boll movie released several years ago. The game hopes to make you care about the kingdom of Ehb and the destruction of the 10th Legion some thirty years ago by the vile Jeyne Kassynder. Honestly, I couldn't care less about the story and tasks laid in front of me. There are numerous quests and alliances to be made, but each one feels so far removed from the hacking and slashing going on in combat that they lose all meaning under a pile of gold and trinkets. You'll hear about massive wars and epic battles, but you never take part in the grandness and spectacle so often hinted at. It's admirable that Obsidian thought to infuse some of their writing talent and knack for developing characters into a genre traditionally devoid of story, but the initial setup proves confusing, leaving far too many questions that aren't answered until the final act. The story does pick up quite a bit of steam towards the end, but it's not enough to salvage a wholly uninteresting world. You'd think that a land full of robots (sorry, automatons) and Evangelion-like bosses would keep me enthralled, but there's little justification to the proceedings besides gathering loot and experience.
Dialogue trees seem to be the new bullet point to have on the back of the box, and they're almost completely unnecessary in Dungeon Siege 3. You're often stopped and told about some horrible atrocity that demands retribution, and the options usually do little more than expand on the lore and characters that you won't care about. It brings all momentum and forward progress to a halt, and I found myself looking for the "Get to the point" option most times. It seems Obsidian was on to my lack of interest in their story, however, as they often hid this option from me by placing it in a different area during every dialogue sequence. The developers try to make you care about your decisions by allowing you to garner influence from your allies based on your dialogue choices, but they rarely make sense and seem arbitrarily designed. I have no clue how my fire-flinging friend is going to respond to my actions, so why reward me? There are also some moral choices sprinkled throughout the adventure, but they simply change a few minor story bits and alter the ending credits slightly.
Meanwhile, Dungeon Siege 3's graphical presentation is all over the place. The game runs quite well on a modest PC, with a smooth framerate even under heavy battle helping to alleviate the stress and confusion associated with numerous AOE spells going on. The environments range from bland, brown forests to creepy haunted mansions. The few dungeons you actually siege prove stylistically impressive and imposing, bringing even further contrast to the boring countryside of Ehb. It doesn't help matters that the locales are a series of long, windy corridors with little in the way of actual exploration. Thank God for the breadcrumb path used to find quests markers. Every environment looks the same, and I doubt anyone could find their way around without the helpful Yellow Dot Road.
The music, on the other hand, is quite impressive when you can hear it, and adds a movie-like appeal to the experience. While this isn't music you're necessarily going to hum in the car on a long ride, you wouldn't be surprised to hear these songs playing during a big budget blockbuster. Voice acting ranges from boring to laughable, with no real performance taking center stage. I found it funny hearing a southern drawl mixed in among mostly British and French accents. Ehb is apparently the fantasy equivalent of the United Nations placed in Mobile, AL.
But all of this is just window-dressing. This genre is all about experience points, skill development and loot. This is where Dungeon Siege not only shines, but actually brings some new elements to the table. Keep something in mind, PC gamers; Obsidian created a hack n' slash with the console market in mind. Everything from the menus to the abilities screams console development. This isn't a bad thing, though, as this is probably one of the most accessible dungeon hacks ever made. But with the console design comes one of the worst PC control schemes I've had the misfortune of using. You will need a gamepad to play Dungeon Siege 3 properly. The game requires precise movements that you can't achieve with the fiddly PC controls. You can't even point and click to attack enemies. You're meant to gently guide your attacks with the left analog stick and let the auto-aim take over. Rolling, which is necessary to survival, requires you to hold the space bar and click around the field. I could maybe deal with these controls if there was an option to reassign them, but, alas, there is not. Obsidian promises a better PC control scheme in a future patch, but it wasn't available at the time of this review.
Combat is more resource oriented than I was expecting. In addition to a standard health bar is a focus meter (think mana) and power spheres that augment abilities and provide buffs for your character. Focus regenerates when you use your standard combos, and using focus-based abilities and regular attacks allows you to regenerate power spheres. Orbs dropped by fallen enemies resupply your resources, preventing DS3 from devolving into a potion spamming nightmare. This system allows for constant combat, and proper use of skill and tactics keeps things exciting and visceral. Granted, you could find yourself in a position with low health and low focus, leading you to a stalemate against some of the tougher enemies, but these moments are few and far between. In addition, each of the four characters has two stances; one to deal with enemies one on one and another for crowd control. Dungeon Siege 3's skill based combat can be quite awesome, and it's something that I'd love to see expanded upon in future installments.
Unfortunately, the combat system's depth on the field is somewhat tempered by the limited character development. Each character only has nine abilities, though each ability serves a specific purpose in battle. Some allow you to quickly move about the field, and others buff your stats to better survive some of the harsher encounters. But DS3 falls into the same trap as Borderlands; most of your skill allocation involves increasing percentages and rates that aren't readily apparent in combat. Oh goodie, my health is regenerating at 21 HP a second instead of 19. Woo hoo! I would have rather had more skills and abilities to use in combat, but again, everything was designed with a controller in mind. Each ability is assigned to a face button, and you use the left and right triggers to apply buffs or power points respectively. You'll have access to most of your skills by the halfway point of the adventure, so you have little new to look forward to late game. While the combat is fun and exciting at first, it turns into a grind by the end.
Obsidian did a decent job with the loot in DS3. New pieces (complete with colored font and "of the" naming, naturally) come at a decent pace, and I love watching my character model change while wearing my hard-earned equipment. There are often too many stats to worry about, however. I was constantly switching to the glossary to figure out if "warding" was more important than "vampire." It's often difficult to tell what's the best piece of equipment, though standard stats like "attack" and "armor" help to mitigate the obfuscation.
Dungeon Siege 3 is fun, exciting, and breaks new ground for the genre with its skill-based combat – so why the lower than expected score? Obsidian essentially broke DS3 and limited its appeal with two key problems. The first is the overall length and lack of endgame content. DS3 is about ten hours long, meaning you can clear it in one solid weekend. What happens after you beat the game? Nothing. All you can do is replay the game from the very start with a level one character. You can't take your equipment or character to a higher difficulty to search for more loot, which is almost sacrilegious for the genre. Why would you want to restart the game just to find the same loot and learn the same abilities you already know? Obsidian didn't have to make a game as absurdly long as Oblivion, but they could have at least incentivized the player to continue. Of course, the title screen hints at upcoming DLC, but who knows when that's coming out or how much content it will truly add to the title.
The other major problem (and this is the deal breaker, folks) is the multiplayer. Dungeon Siege 3 is a couch experience. You're meant to bring over a friend and play through the game with the same characters all the way from start to finish. In person, this works just fine; there's something almost quaintly satisfying about going back to a Gauntlet-style experience. But this is 2011, and you need to be able to take advantage of the technology and capabilities of your hardware. You can play DS3 online, but I don't know why you'd want to: you can't bring your character into another player's world. All you can do is play their version of your character, which is truly baffling. To make matters worse, you can't bring any of your earned experience or loot back to your game. The host character gets to keep everything, and you're sent on your merry way after the session ends. It makes you the equivalent of an indentured servant and kills any reason to play DS3 online. Finally, you're restricted to a single screen even when playing online. All of this makes sense when playing on a couch, but why it was extended to the online component is beyond me. I guess it's a good thing that Square-Enix is advertising this game as "couch coop," because there's no other reason to play this game with a friend.
Dungeon Siege 3 is an ambitious game that attempts to change the genre but fails in nailing fundamentals that were perfected over a decade ago. The satisfying combat and console-driven gameplay show all of the designers' ambition, while the mistakes in multiplayer narrow the game's appeal to a select few. If you have a friend to play with on the couch then you can't go wrong with DS3. Otherwise, I find it hard to recommend a sixty dollar purchase when you can't even keep the loot you worked so hard for.