It’s surprising what abdominal pain can do for one’s ability to type. My weekend went straight to hell, so I’ll amaze and wonder you with some words about a game series I like: Dungeon Siege.
In the ages past when personal computing technology was evolving too fast for a young teenaged nerd to keep up, Dungeon Siege was a blessing from the heavens. It worked on my old computer and was very, very pretty. The rugged, forested mountain at the beginning with its huge trees, clear streams and thick undergrowth mesmerized me. In addition, the first music you hear in the game was pure amazing in the age when music was either nonexistent or some variety of techno (for me, at least). Actually, Dungeon Siege may have been the game that inspired me to pay attention to game soundtracks. Visually the game was pretty much perfect. The gameplay was… well, gameplay. I did not consider gameplay in those days. I just played it because it was a pretty, nice-sounding game which had lots of characters and a mule.
Later on I started to understand the shortcomings of Dungeon Siege. It had a pretty non-existent story that was easy to forget. The automatic combat was both a blessing and a curse: It made drudging through combat effortless, as you only needed to press “H” or “M” when a character was low on health or mana, and it also removed lots of player input. Inventory management was rather easy, as the game could sort the inventory by itself. Apart from the introductionary dialogue (or rather, monologue as the main character was silent), the side characters never said anything. And while visually really impressive, the game world was a linear corridor from the protagonist’s farm to the evil overlord’s domain. Dungeon Siege was impressive technology. If someone just made a game on it.
Later, Dungeon Siege II appeared. I got the game’s Deluxe Edition, and I was not disappointed. Dungeon Siege II, while not having as memorable musical score as it’s predecessor, was an improvement all around. The game world was filled with lore, the characters had dialogue in some parts of the game and the visuals were as impressive as before. The game world was still quite linear, there was some backtracking (which was not quite as annoying since the game world had portals). After the first wave of euphoria had passed, however, I realized that the cosmetic improvements were pretty much average fantasy schlock. But gameplay-wise I was overjoyed. The core mechanics were still the same: You select a character, click on a dude to hit him until he dies, press Z or X to collect all treasure laying around, move on. But there was also an added layer: Special attacks and a power meter. Attacking enemies would fill your power meter. After becoming full, you can unleash a devastating special attack. With a basic fighter getup it’s Brutal Strike, which deals 2000+ % more damage with one attack. It’s quite impressive to deal 1700 damage to some monster and see it blown up in red, chunky bits after hitting it for about 12 damage per attack for a while. The special attacks provide a rhythm to the game: The anticipation of waiting for the meter to fill, the glee of selecting a target and the reward of seeing a big chunk of its health bar evaporate.
Overall I love Dungeon Siege II for what it is: Brainless, delicious fun. It’s not trying to be anything clever or new, nor is it ashamed of being a rather unimaginative fantasy lite-rpg. It was fun to play through once and tickled my nostalgia. Then Dungeon Siege III rolled in.
Dungeon Siege III is a radical departure from the series. It plays more like a modern beat’em up rahter than a light rpg: You control the protagonist directly and can only have one ally active at a time. The combat system feels functional, if uninspiring. There are two stances, one of which is the powerful stance and the other a light stance. Depending on the character they may also be a ranged stance and a close stance. By beating up opponents you build up Focus that can be used on Focus Attacks or blocking. Blocking fills up Power, which can be used on Power abilities, which are either bigger versions of Focus Attacks or healing abilities. Item handling is an irrelevant chore: The items you can wear or wield merely improve. There is no choice between two equally good but different items. All the differences are in the invisible numbers. And every character has their own item sets so there is not even a choice whether to give the old sword to your sidekick. Tsk tsk.
The problem is not the forgettable gameplay; I still liked the first game despite being even bore bland. The problem is the feel. This game does not feel like Dungeon Siege. DS has always been about big, colourful fantasy environments. DS III feels small and too grounded. Everything is explained: The clockwork city of Stonebridge, the crystal mines of Glitterdelve, the twisted Mornweld forest… Many characters and lore pieces explain how they formed and when, eliminating the wonder and fantasy. They are also small, most likely due to technical limitations. Another Dungeon Siege’s strengths was the music and this one is just not Jeremy Soule. The Dungeon Siege theme is nowhere to be heard, and I couldn’t get in the proper mindset without it. And finally, the endless legions of different monsters. DS II had a bestiary where all the different monsters were logged. There was at least hundred different monsters. In DS III, there are dogs, spiders, men, other men, floating archon thingies and Shivas. That’s pretty much it.
So there is not much to take home from Dungeon Siege III. But there is something: The character system. There are four protagonists you can choose from at the beginning, and the rest will appear as NPC partymembers. Every character has a distinct (if a bit bland) personality and making dialogue choices can increase Influence to the currently active partymember. And every line is voice-acted. While wasted in Dungeon Siege III, this system has potential to be a true roleplaying experience. This is because you basically choose your personality from the start. The dialogue options should reflect that personality. This eliminates the need to include both good and evil dialogue options every time to provide the player the option to play as either. This means more work for the writers and voice actors, but so does pretty much anything that improves the narration of a roleplaying game.