Back in 2002, a new RPG came out by the name of Dungeon Siege. Touted as being created by Chris Taylor, a veteran game designer, it seemed intended to be an antidote of sorts to the overwhelming popularity of Diablo II at the time. Taking the action RPG genre down a slightly different path, it featured the beginnings of a strong, linear plot that was more than “Go kill this demon,” and a new approach to skills and character progression, together with an editing suite designed to let players create their own adventures. Unfortunately, it also featured a number of marked problems, and while the game flourished in some circles it couldn’t overtake the following that Diablo II had.
So does Dungeon Siege 2, after all this time, redeem the series and accomplish that which the first game couldn’t? More importantly, is it any good?
From the get-go it’s clear that there is both a lot more polish and a lot more focus towards the single-player game in Dungeon Siege 2; instead of the first game’s throwing a poor nothing farmer at a bunch of enemies, players are instead treated to a lengthy and almost Lord of the Rings-inspired video of tales of ancient battles and big, powerful artifacts, followed by impressively entertaining shots of a gigantic orc army making a landing upon an island beach. Amongst them is a group of mercenaries comprised of a ragtag collection of races, and amongst them is the player and the player’s elven friend Drevin. Albeit with reservations on the part of the mercenaries, the tutorial of the game tells the story of how the pair of characters assist in the takeover of a dryad island and temple, help recover a segment of, yes, you guessed it, an ancient artifact, and how the good Drevin, after entrusting the player with his family medallion, gets skewered by the general of the army he was working for in a moment of madness.
Left for dead, the main character is captured by the dryad owners of the now-razed shrine, and the first part of the game details first the road to freedom then the lengthy attempt to return to the character’s hometown – which, you’ll have guessed if you’re following along at home, has been attacked by the evil general about two seconds before the main character steps through the portal. In a surprising twist for the genre, the town is still standing, but barely, and rubble and fires are chief components of the new layout. Swearing revenge, here is where the bulk of the adventure kick-starts, as the character battles through forests, tundra, and deserts in pursuit of the evil general, the evil general’s wizards, a kidnapped princess, a fortress under attack…
Veteran roleplayers might be finding something a little fishy about this plot; even neophyte gamers are probably tapping their chins and making ‘hmm’ noises. It’s true that the main story is endlessly cliché, but when actually playing the game this fact seems to become less important, and almost refreshing. After the recent trend of more cerebral or unusual RPG plots, it’s a breath of fresh air to encounter such a barefacedly unoriginal and joyfully predictable plot, and the flair with which the story is depicted in scenes and movies only serves to reinforce the fact that while it might be cliché, it is also tremendous fun to go chasing after the bad guys once again. To be fair, however, the in-game journal additionally offers a wealth of information both pertinent and extra to the plot. Together with recaps about the quests your character is currently working on, the description of a plot item related to a location close to your character’s hometown may, for instance, include a childhood story or the attitudes of your hometown towards different races. While these extra pieces of information are rarely game-critical or anything more than a couple of offhand comments, they are charming enough to be a pleasant addition.
If you’ve played Dungeon Siege 1, you’ll be prepared for how the basic gameplay works. A strange mix of action and strategy, combat in Dungeon Siege 2 usually involves directing your party of misfits at the enemy of choice with their weapon of choice and letting it get sufficiently beaten up that it falls over and your characters gain experience. Then you move onto the next enemy, and so on, and so on. As a base game mechanic this doesn’t seem like much, and you’d be right; the real fun comes in when you add in all of the spells, talents, and powers that your characters can access. As in the first game, your character development is governed by what your character does. Should your warrior repeatedly hit things with a sword, their strength will soar, whether they’re a fragile little elf or a big troll, while their intelligence will lag. Conversely, constant use of spells will send magic point total and intelligence through the roof, while leaving them sorely deficient when it comes to the art of survival. This applies to weapon types such as Melee or Ranged too, with better weapons and spells earning prerequisite requirements to wield.
It is a system that has always, since the first game, rewarded specialization over generalization; better to make a full warrior than a warrior that can use a little magic if that little magic is going to become completely outclassed. This led to the problem that a warrior, without any form of special moves present in the first game, spent the entire game bored and doing normal attacks for hours upon hours and yet had such gigantic hit point totals that they could sit there all day in complete safety. In this second installment, however, things are a tad different. Together with the increases in statistics and weapon skill, a character periodically gains a character level and with it skill points that they may spend on skill trees full of passive effects suitable to their class; melee warriors may gain greater critical hit probability, while mages may increase the power of their healing or offensive spells. Certain combinations of passive skills unlock Powers, which are the highlight of the combat system; larger-than-life special moves with often-gigantic areas of effect that send armies of enemies scurrying for the hills – or, alternatively, flying across the landscape in chunks.
Since even at lower difficulties a party of four characters may be coming up against twenty to thirty enemies at a time, this turns battles into something nearly cinematic. As your group of stalwart heroes disappears under the press of enemies, the ice mage manages to send an iceberg across the battlefield to freeze them all, closely followed by a fighter sending out a wave of force to leave most of them shattered to pieces. As the remaining monsters are mopped up, along comes another group over the hill, and your group races forward to meet them… The overall effect, especially in the largest late-game battles, is stunning to watch and it is very hard to deny that painstakingly building up a character that can suddenly slaughter a battlefield of enemies is a very heartening experience. Put more simply, your character feels heroic because they’re up against such odds. While the battle system drags a little at higher levels, when each kill can become a slog, it still remains simple and easy to rain down death and control your group, and should things ever become too hectic the player can pause and think about the next tactic at length.
It is worth noting there have been other battle system improvements from the first game. The extremely friendly potion system – where each healing potion is not a discrete object but rather holds a certain amount of healing, which can if desired be only partially used – is back, while the former game’s problem of experience not being shared – thus letting the archers pick away all the good experience before anyone else can reach it – is gone, with everything evenly split based upon whatever is equipped at the time.
As stated, the first game tended to be a bit of a slog. A very linear main plot and very few sub-quests could give the impression that nothing was really being achieved, bar an endless journey across admittedly pretty bit ultimately similar locales. Fortunately, Dungeon Siege 2 is stuffed to the gills with bonus bits. Quite apart from lots of nooks and crannies to explore, there are a gigantic number of collectables and side-quests to go on, including ones specific to your other party members to provide them with more plot than the occasional remark. Some may benefit you in unique ways, such as giving you a newly accessible pet creature to add to your party; others may give you set items or chants of knowledge to further your killing capabilities.
In the grand old tradition of RPGs, there is also a set of books and mysterious items you can pilfer from a variety of locations to complete a secret sub-quest. Chants are an interesting idea; every so often the party may roll across an incantation shrine, and using the chat window the player types in a latinesque phrase to provide some form of temporary boost. Most of these are found at plinths throughout the game, but some may be found from quests or ever worked out by an enterprising player with a dictionary and an eye for patterns.
Speaking of eyes for patterns, the graphics are a strange affair. Should you look at shots of the game, it will become quickly apparent that the locations and models are somewhat blocky and simplistic, and you’d be quite right. On its own merits, the game is not what one could call pretty by any stretch, let alone beautiful, and yet something happens to make these blocky, simplistic graphics utterly appropriate and fluid to the game. Weapons are unabashedly over-the-top, with gigantic glowing spiked maces and great gnarled wooden clubs in evidence, while spell effects are simple but effective and, as mentioned, often massively large-scale. Landscapes have a similar effect; individually caves are blocky and graphically unimpressive, but from the overall effect of hurrying down an underground flight of stairs into a waterfall-lined cave with shafts of light lancing down from above, or emerging from a cavern into the sudden canopied sunlight of a forest with little green motes floating around, it becomes very easy to not care about how blocky or rough the edges of the polygons are and instead sit back and enjoy the ride. The overall style is enough to more than carry it through.
The same could be said for the music, which is full of rising triumphant trumpets and sudden, frantic beats as you face down an army, if it weren’t for the fact that the timing is just a little off. While I appreciate the dramatic quality of the score, it’s hard to take it seriously when your sudden fearsome enemy is a flight of stairs or a dastardly, evil door.
Dungeon Siege 2 is very much a game out to have fun. It’s not there to break any records, or to do anything tremendously new or innovative, or even to look graphically stunning. It’s there to show off its own version of the standard story, and its own version of the underground fortress filled with goblins or trek up the evil burnt slopes of the giant mountain. Endlessly light and easy to play with untold improvements over the first game, this is a simple and easy blast for any players looking for something a little mindless to put on their PC.