Games of the Diablo ilk, to which Dungeon Siege 3 (PC, PS3, Xbox 360) squarely belongs, really only need to get one thing right: loot. They might have other positive attributes, too, but what really matters is the loot. Lots of loot. Yes, sir, yes, sir, three bags full, sir. Swords and bucklers and amulets and boots and helms and rings and everything else that might possibly be used to nudge a stat in one direction or another. Loooooot. In this respect, Dungeon Siege 3 does not disappoint, offering up scads of randomly-generated goodies that will keep you happily obsessing over your inventory. Take your eyes off the pile of gold that just popped out of that dead spider, however, and you’ll notice that not only is the game surprisingly beautiful, but looks to be shaping up into a very satisfying RPG experience.
It’s about 150 years after the events of the first two Dungeon Siege games, and Jeyne Kassynder, whose uprising tore the Kingdom of Ehb to pieces, is at war with the Royal Family. You play as one of four characters with ties to The 10th Legion, the warriors who originally opposed Jeyne. As the game begins, the venerable Odo (no, not the guy from Deep Space Nine), is hoping to get the descendants of the Legion together to make one last push against Kassynder, but mercenaries attack and lay waste to the Chapterhouse. Your tardy nature means you missed out on the slaughter; it also means it’s up to you to gather what help you can in order to defeat Kassynder once and for all.
We only had access to two players during our hands-on time at Obsidian’s studio last week: Lucas, the son of the Legion’s former Grand Master, and Anjali, an “archon” fire spirit who was raised by friends of the Legion. The game mixes and matches the story to fit whichever character you choose as your primary protagonist; if you play as Lucas, your first mission will be to rescue Anjali, but if you play as Anjali, you set out to find Lucas instead. The other two playable characters integrate into the story in similar ways, though Obsidian wasn’t sharing details about them just yet.
There is a story, but it’s kept largely to the background so that it doesn’t get in the way of the fast-paced combat and loot-collecting. Finding a balance between Obisidian’s traditional story-heavy RPG approach – these are the folks who made Fallout: New Vegas, after all – and the hack-and-slash vibe of the original Dungeon Siege games was tricky, explains the game’s Creative Lead, George Ziets. The solution was to keep much of the game’s lore on the sidelines, in books, and allow players to zip through the dialog as quickly as possible. Most conversations have an option along the lines of “Whatever, let’s just go do this thing,” that boil down the dialog to the bare minimum, but if you’re interested in discovering how Ehb has changed over the past century and a half (hint: there are guns now!), or simply learning more about the people you encounter, the information is there.
If you’d rather skip the chatter and get right to the hacking and slashing, Dungeon Siege 3 gives you plenty of opportunity and plenty of options. Each character uses different equipment and approaches to combat; Lucas favors a sword and shield, while Anjali uses a staff and her natural fire abilities. Each character has three stances: two combat, and one defensive. Lucas can switch from his sword and shield – great for quick attacks — to a two-handed attack that doles out major damage but is quite slow. Anjali, meanwhile, is on foot during one combat stance, but changes to a floating fire spirit (who’s more than a little reminiscent of the X-Men’s Phoenix) in her other stance. To switch stances, you just hit the left shoulder button or the left trigger. It’s swift and easy to do on the fly, allowing you to change up your combat style depending on the situation you’re currently facing. What I particularly appreciated was that each stance had a clear purpose and use. So often in RPGs, a character can learn other fighting styles, but there’s no real incentive to ever use more than one. After just a short while with Lucas and Anjali, I felt like I understood the basic strategies behind each stance, and their obvious value. Playing longer would only deepen that understanding, I suspect.
In addition to straight-up combat, each character unlocks Abilities as they level up. Eventually, you’ll have access to 9 abilities – three for each stance, including defense – and each Ability comes with a pair of proficiencies that refine it. Anjali might gain the Ability to create a circle of fire on the ground, then have the option to make that fire do extra damage to enemies or heal comrades who step into it, depending on the Proficiency you choose. When you level up, you receive a Proficiency Point; each Ability can eventually be modified with five points. You can dump all five points into a single proficiency, or mix and match as you see fit. You’ll also receive a Talent point, which allows you to upgrade a passive ability that basically acts like a buff. Talents can also be modified with up to five points, but choose wisely – you just get one Talent Point and one Proficiency Point per level, and with only 30 levels, you won’t be able to max out everything you unlock.
Every time you use one of your Abilities, you gain a bit more Mastery of it, until you eventually unlock the Empowered version of it. In other words, the more you do something, the better you get at it. Keep using Anjali’s Pillar of Fire spell, for example, and eventually she’ll be able to throw a Wall of Fire.
Though I didn’t have much choice during the demo, given that only two characters were available, you’ll only be able to have one AI companion tagging along in the final version of the game, too. So long as you’re not in the middle of a fight, however, you can swap them in and out to suit your liking. You’ll be responsible for managing your pal’s stats in addition to your own, as there’s no option to automatically level up, but enemies don’t level with you, instead staying keyed to a particular region. That doesn’t mean that Dungeon Siege 3 is entirely linear, however. Many of the game’s side quests and extra missions are presented can be accessed in whatever order you choose, which means you’ll occasionally find yourself walking into more fight than you can handle. During the demo, I decided to help out a fisherman who’d been chased away from his favorite fishin’ hole by monsters. I, being the heroic hero that I am, naturally put this whole saving the world business on hold so that I might help him…and got my ass handed to me by an enormous fish creature of dubious origin. It’s embarrassing, really, to be beaten so soundly by a giant fish, but I eventually prevailed, only to discover that the mini-boss that was next in line on the main quest was a practical pushover. Some areas, I learned, are meant to be revisited after much leveling up, or at least calling in of the cavalry.
One area in which Dungeon Siege 3 differs from its brethren is its complete avoidance of potions. Each character comes with a health ability already unlocked, and enemies will drop Health and Will (the game’s version of mana) orbs that you can use to replenish your meters, but don’t expect to go into the boss fight with a pharmacy’s worth of healing items jangling around in your pack. It’s not quite as daunting as it sounds. So long as your Will meter is full, you can use your Healing move; of course, you have to engage in combat to refill your meter, so some prudence is required. Completing Dungeon Siege 3 on the hardest difficulty will certainly earn you the respect of your peers -to say nothing of the developers themselves. (Pro tip: If you’re playing on the highest difficulty, you will need to do all the side quests to be strong enough to survive.)
Given the game’s focus on combat and sweet, sweet loot, you could excuse Dungeon Siege 3 for looking a little dated. After all, why bother crafting gorgeous environments when players are going to be busy concentrating on the hordes of enemies trying to do them bodily harm? Because it helps make each region and character feel distinct and unique, says Obsidian. It’s the kind of thing that players absorb unconsciously, perhaps, but it makes a big difference in overall enjoyment of the game, especially if you play it over and over again – a likely prospect, given the game’s design. Anjali’s fire effects evoke the colors of a propane flame, while the rocks of a dungeon look wet with unspeakable slime. Dungeon Siege 3 is absolutely gorgeous, and though the PC version is, as expected, the best looking of the bunch, the console versions hold up quite well, too. If you find yourself thinking, “Gee, this sounds tailor-made for some really sweet co-op action,” you’re right. And that’s all I’m allowed to say about that … for now.
Some aspects of the game still need polish, of course – the breadcrumb trail that leads you to your desired quest looks unsettlingly like Pac-Man dots, Anjali is just a bit too chilly (if you take my meaning), and I got stuck in the environment every now and again – but from what I’ve seen, Dungeon Siege 3 is on its way to being a highly addictive indulgence.
Also, did I mention the loot?