A hack and slash lootfest like Dungeon Siege III doesn't really need to try all that hard to be a success. Take some adventurers, give them lots of equipment, enemies, and treasure, and you've probably done a pretty fair job of keeping up your end of the hack-and-slash bargain. Dungeon Siege III comes through admirably on that formula, delivering a fast-paced experience that's heavy on the action and even heavier on the loot. But for every element that keeps you playing, there's at least one that makes you wonder what the hell the designers were thinking.
Story isn't normally a major draw for games of this ilk, but the plot Dungeon Siege III is actually pretty good. It's been thirty years since the murder of the king was pinned on the elite soldiers of The 10th Legion, and Jeyne Kassynder gathered forces to wipe out the entire group. Civil war has raged throughout the Kingdom of Ehb ever since, with royalists on one side and Kassynder's soldiers on the other. A few descendants of the Legion have managed to survive, and are banding together in an attempt to rebuild the 10th and restore peace to the kingdom. You begin your adventure by choosing from one four characters with ties to the Legion, eventually adding the other three to your party as you make progress. Though they all favor a particular martial or magical style, they're balanced enough so that no one class is a better choice than any other. You can only bring one companion with you into battle at a time, but the even-handedness of their skills makes your selection largely one of personal preference, rather than necessity.
The combat in Dungeon Siege is fairly shallow, relying more on fast fingers than strategic genius. It compensates for this simplicity with flashy special abilities that can wreak havoc on the battlefield, but require an expenditure of Focus. It might be tempting to hoard your Focus until the really important fights, but the only way to master your abilities and gain access to their stronger "empowered" versions, is by using them repeatedly. There are no potions in Dungeon Siege III, but you can refill your Focus by wading into battle and doing damage with regular attacks. It's an elegantly simple system that rewards you for using all of your character's skills, rather than just relying on the same old spell or weapon all the time.
The skill system is relatively small, with just nine Abilities available for each character, but Proficiency Points provide an interesting twist. Each Ability can be upgraded in one of two Proficiencies; a ring of fire might do more damage if you spend a point on offense, or heal anyone standing in it if you go for the defensive option. But you can only spend a total of five points upgrading each Proficiency, so you have to decide if you want to go all one way or some mixture of the two.
The scenery of Dungeon Siege III is also particularly lovely. When so many games seem obsessed with gray and brown, it's wonderful to see so much color, even in dusty crypts and dank swamps. It can actually be a bit distracting at times, especially when a bunch of magic is being chucked around, but the momentary disorientation is well worth it. The intricacy of the environments imbues each new location with its own distinct feel and personality - you never have to ask yourself "Wait, where am I again?"
Which is not to say that you won't get lost. You can't zoom out of the minimap or study it full-screen, which makes using it for navigation almost impossible. The camera is similarly unhelpful, with just two positions: too close, and not quite as close but still not far enough away. It also can't be tilted up or down, which meant I never quite felt like I could see well enough to get my bearings. Most of the time, the uncooperative camera was merely an annoyance, but it actually became a hindrance when trying to use a ranged character in a boss fight. Whenever I tried to give myself some breathing room before turning and firing, I'd have to first swing the camera around to see whatever I was trying to hit - or just fire blind.
The camera is just one of Dungeon Siege III's disappointments. The loveliness of the visuals does not extend to its cutscenes, which are stuffed full of lifeless characters and shockingly awful voice acting. There are a few bright spots - Lucas is believably heroic, and the clockwork constable of Stonebridge is a hoot - but for the most part, the talking bits of the game are too painful to endure.
Awkward cameras, shallow character development and bad voice acting are all things that can be dealt when a game compensates with as much fun as Dungeon Seige III does, but the multiplayer will undoubtedly be a major source of disappointment for many would-be players. Not because it isn't fun - playing with people instead of AI exponentially increases the appeal of the frenetic combat - but because there's little incentive to do it unless you're the host. When you join a friend's game, you take over one of his companions, rather than bringing in one of your own. You don't acquire experience, loot, or advance in the game - you just make your buddy's life a little easier while not gaining anything for yourself. (Except perhaps the warm feeling of having helped out a friend.) That setup will suit some just fine - Dungeon Siege III's co-op is well-tailored for roommates or couples who just want to work through the game together. That's a pretty narrow slice of the audience, though.
Bottom Line: I love playing Dungeon Siege III despite its many flaws, and if you don't mind that the overall experience is pretty shallow and meant for single player, you probably will, too.
Recommendation: It's mindless hack and slash fun, but adjust your expectations appropriately before diving in.
This review was based on the Xbox 360 version of the game.