Seems as though everyone’s trying to rush out a hack’n’slash roleplaying game before Blizzard’s long-awaited Diablo III turns up and inevitably corners the market. Following indie delight Torchlight and EA’s rather dour Darkspore is a new Dungeon Siege, marking its first move to console (though we’re reviewing the PC version here).
The thing about Dungeon Siege is that it’s always had a faintly satirical title, a suggestion that it knows full well its players are really only in it for the treasure-hunting. Sure, it’s always set in the forever evil-besieged fantasy kingdom of Ehb, but the lore very much takes a backseat to the looting. Alas, Dungeon Siege III plays it almost deadly straight, interspersing the fairly satisfying beast-bashing with miserably dry and over-earnest talking heads delivered by actors who sound as though they could only just be bothered to turn up to the recording session.
Obviously, pacing and variety is necessary to break up the frenzied fighting (a lesson Torchlight could do with learning), but the playfulness of the combat is such a far cry from the plodding time-filling of the story and dialogue. Optional side-quests in theory flesh out the world as well as helping level up your characters, but in practice you’ll only want them to gain bonus experience points and loot.
Fortunately, it’s a much less by-the-numbers affair in terms of combat. Granted, it’s based around an all-too-familiar model: narrow roads filled with monsters who shower gold as well as blood when slain by you and your array of over-the-top powers. The key difference from something like Diablo or Torchlight is a certain streamlining of your abilities. Rather than having a sprawling tree full of abilities to carefully bind to various number keys, your character (chosen from a roster of about half a dozen) has two Stances: broadly, a fast and light attack and a slow but strong one.
Each stance has, as the game wears on, up to three special powers associated with it, such as a flaming spinning kick or a headshot from a steampunk sniper rifle. Then there’s a trio of defensive powers, such as healing or summoning a spectral hound to create merry hell on your behalf.
You can choose the order in which you pick up your nine powers, but you don’t choose which nine powers you get - Dungeon Siege III is very much a fixed affair, intent simply on your abilities getting bigger and better more or less in tandem with enemies getting tougher. This means you can blast through it without worrying about how to build your character, but still making on the fly tactical choices about which stance to use and which powers to employ from battle to battle.
Admittedly, it’s about as complicated as peeling vegetables in practice, but a whole lot more compulsive, as it does a decent job of making you feel like you’re being a smart fighter rather than a button-mashing meathead.
Unfortunately the same immediacy and slickness hasn’t been applied to the loot itself. You’ll hunger for better guns, swords and items of clothing (with apparently unironic titles such as ‘stockings of rage’) constantly, and you’ll get them almost constantly - but you’ll only have a faint sense of whether a new trinket’s better than your old one and why. While the game’s careful to steer away from stats in terms of levelling up your character - opting instead for big, friendly skill icons - the loot’s a mess of unexplained numbers. Some numbers have an obvious bearing on your character’s key skills, but others such as Momentum and Doom arrive out of nowhere with no explanation. Is it better to have less Attack but more Doom on your sword?
Fortunately, the game does answer its own question to some extent, by assigning a value in gold to each collected item. The best course of action is almost always equipping whatever’s worth the most, regardless of what its other numbers are. This means, however, that there isn’t much excitement to be had from stumbling across a better weapon - it doesn’t seem to do anything especially different, but it’s worth 500 gold more, so on it goes until the next slightly more valuable item comes along. It's a shame to not get a concrete sense of why your new item is superior, but it does at least mean you feel like you're near-constantly becoming stronger and better-equipped. The desire for new rewards is the dark heart of a game like Dungeon Siege, and it understands that - but it's a shame its surface is so formulaic.
All told, it’s an effective time-killer but an oddly cheerless game despite the colourful torrent of death, magic and death-magic. The immediacy of the combat, the excessiveness of the powers and the ongoing shower of loot means it’s forever compulsive, but it never quite manages to feel like an adventure. A few of the environments and sub-quests offer up suitably absurd bosses or strange scenery, but for the most part it’s just a matter of running up road after road, killing a load of monsters, impatiently skipping through a cutscene then doing it all over again. With the party system of the original Dungeon Sieges discarded in favour of just one playable character with an AI-controlled companion, there isn’t much room to tailor your fighting style to your tastes, and instead it’s just a one-note stomp to the finish line.
Co-op play, with up to four player-controlled characters, brings this dim world to life a little more, as real tactics and inter-character interaction comes into play, as well as the inevitable loot-squabbles. Find some chums to play with and you’ll be able to resurrect some of the spirit that’s so oddly missing in singleplayer.