By Alec Meer on June 27th, 2011 at 1:45 pm.
The third siege of dungeons arrived a little while back, with Obsidian taking the reins of the Gas-Powered Games-created loot’n’kill fandango. I’ve been frantically clicking my mouse button at it for the last few days – an act which I have now transmuted into some words.
First point of interest for me in any dungeon crawler: can I summon animals? Silently beating up monsters in rock corridors gets pretty lonely, after all. Also, I’m really very lazy – if there’s some companion animal doing half the damage for me I don’t need to press so many number keys. Get to it, my furry friend.
Dungeon Siege III delivers on this front, at least. My stocking-wearing gunwoman can summon a spectral hound to antagonise foes while she snipes them from afar. On top of that, one of the AI-controlled companions (only one of which you can have with you at any one time) can summon a flaming hound. It’s doggy carnage out there.
Fightin’ hounds are hardly a defining element of Dungeon Siege III, especially as they just vanish after a couple of minutes instead of being a constant companion, but their token-yet-dramatic presence does speak to the conflict at the heart of the game. There’s something excessive and ludicrous in there trying to get out, but it’s restrained by a formulaic hack’n’slash structure, dour dialogue and rather insipid aesthetics.
‘Formulaic hack’n’slash structure’ is a bit of a stupid thing for me to say though, isn’t it? Hack and slash is by nature formulaic, and the appeal of these games is less about grand adventures and more about killing and collecting things until your fingers are raw stumps and your eyeballs are blood-hued gooseberries. Dungeon Siege III has that – this review is later than planned because I kept diving back in for more, under the false pretext of ‘I’d better investigate this element a little more before writing, or maybe there’s something important in that side-quest I didn’t bother with yet.’ I was lying to myself – the interest in returning was simply the pleasant, self-chosen boredom and fleeting sense of reward that comes from click,click,click,click, die,die,die,die.
Trouble is, I can’t think of anything to pick out from Dungeon Siege III and hold aloft as being better than the myriad other killfests in this ever-compulsive sub-genre. It doesn’t have Diablo’s CGI-bolstered story or escalating sense of doom, it doesn’t have Torchlight’s gleefully unbridled just-getting-on-with-it… and it doesn’t have Dungeon Siege’s organic skill levelling or party system. Only the name and the background hum of Ehb lore makes Dungeon Siege III particularly a Dungeon Siege game – take that away and it could be any old dungeon crawler. And despite being far flashier, in many ways it’s a backwards step from the first DS towards something far more simple and over-familiar.
The closest it comes to its own identity is the skill system. As well as a neat and fluid system that has you insta-switching between two distinct trios of skills – in my character’s case, one set best for hordes and another for wearing down stronger single foes – it makes a noble attempt to hide all its numbers, presenting abilities as big, friendly icons you click on when levelling up to make ‘em better. Obviously this is anathema to the cRPG devout, but it lends welcome immediacy – that power’s fun/easy, so make it better with a click then get on back to the action.
It’s probably most comparable to console hacky-slashy such as Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance, placing an emphasis on powers looking flashy as much as achieving useful things, but there are gentle hints of strategy to it. For instance, stacking together various abilities to whittle down the occasional big, bad bosses that much more quickly, and upgrading them in certain ways (you can put about half a dozen points into each, with each point choosing broadly between either improving its raw power or a bonus effect such as healing you or stunning foes) in order to lean your character slightly more towards more efficient self-healing or more regular critical hits.
Still though: too often the overall experience is as dry as a plywood sandwich. For every power that does something visually over the top (like dog-summoning or turning into a human torch), there are two that just emit a small purple glow and change a number for a few seconds. There are a reasonable number of side-quests (quite a few of which you’ll need to do in order to level up enough for the main quests), but they’re almost always long, samey kill-treks through more disguised corridors rather an an adventurous diversion in and of themselves. Some of the deathly-dry conversations between missions offer response options, but bar a few that have a poorly-explained positive effect on your companion NPC, it pretty much doesn’t matter what words you click on. This is a game about pressing the left mouse button until everything’s dead – it might have been better if it had concentrated on making that element as glossy and varied as possible, instead of cramming in unengaging cutscene filler.
Occasionally though, real character creeps in – the steampunk robotic guards of a major city, for instance, are straight out of HK-47’s Guide To Politely Threatening Horrific Violence, and thus a very welcome change from the endless, endlessly earnest variations upon Basil Exposition. Infrequently, a sub-quest such as the haunted house offers more visual and atmospheric variety – and stuff you might actually remember a few weeks later – but it’s all a bit lost in a flood of cod-fantasy blandness. There’s clever writing hidden in there for sure, but for some reason it hasn’t come to the fore. As for giving loot names such as ‘Stockings of Rage’ – well, the image of angry hosiery made me laugh, but I got the horrible sense that the game wasn’t joking.
That said, it does find more boldness later on in the game, when it moves out of textbook forests and into slightly wilder environments, like cannon-besieged ice-lands and dwarven caverns filled with floating platforms and giant fans made from carved gemstones. The plot even starts to find its own voice and explore grey areas, though it takes for too long to get there and remains a far cry from Obsidian at their best storytelling. Stick with it and you will enjoy it more. It seems to find its feet eventually, but there are issues it never quite escapes.
DS3 even doesn’t quite get loot right, despite including an amount of it perhaps best summarised as A Veritable Fuckton. While levelling up your skills is all big icons and easy percentages, loot quickly starts carrying additional, cryptic stats such as doom, momentum and chaos. Some are easy to figure out, but if you want to do the hard maths on what’s better than what, you’ll need to delve off to some forum or wiki. Is +4 momentum better than having +12 agility? Buggered if I know.
Instead, I just equip whatever the game’s said is worth the most money and sell the rest. Which is quick and effective enough, but between that and the very fixed nature of the class archetypes, I get no sense of building a specific type of character. Instead, I’m just making my little killing machine incrementally better at pretty much the rate the game dictates, and not really caring about what the magic hairclip (yep, really; yep, unironically) I’ve just equipped actually does. It doesn’t feel like my game or my character – just a fairly untaxing charge forward through a chain of death-corridors.
On PC, there’s more wrong still. No support for 16:10 monitors (only console-friendly 16:9) means big black bars at the top of bottom of widescreen displays. This is rendered all the more unforgivable by the fact that it’s the work of seconds to edit an .ini file yourself and force 16:10. Then there’s the fact that you can’t rebind keys, and that rolling the scrollwheel doesn’t increase or decrease zoom, but instead flicks wildly between extreme close-up and not-quite-birds-eye-enough. Roll it up a millimetre and you’ll zoom out; roll it up two millimetres and you’re back on your character’s shoulder.
It’s pretty clear that PC version of the game got a little less tender loving care than its Stationed and Boxy cousins, and while patches have been promised that’s not enough to battle upset that it was released with really bloody basic and obvious oversights. Even aside from this, I can see that DS3 would be far better suited to console than PC anyway – it’s button-mashy, it’s pop, it’s instant, it’s got splitscreen co-op… These are worthy values, but they’ve resulted in a PC game that simply doesn’t try to make its shadow any taller than its years-old rivals and predecessors. It’s all too telling that it’s a significantly more enjoyable, less fiddly play on gamepad than keyboard and mouse – that way, the crazed camera actually makes sense.
(Speaking of co-op, remote multiplayer is perhaps one the game’s major selling points. Unfortunately, the Steam-based review code I’ve been given has a slightly different name and appID to the release version, and thus can find no other people to play against. Gah! I could buy another version of the game to test the co-op properly, but based on my singleplayer experiencedo not feel it would be worthwhile. There’s your full disclosure – if anyone reckons the co-op really does switch DS3 from ‘OK’ to ‘gadzooks!’ do say so below and I’ll investigate.)
Of course, for all its shortcomings I played it for hours anyway, stayed up too late, got RSI, ate only chemically-flavoured snackfoods… That’s how these things go, isn’t it? It’s a solid enough hack’n’slash game with varied environments and some inventive skills, and that certainly kept me playing – but when you can pick up something like Torchlight or Titan Quest for pennies (both of which are also far more attractive and characterful), it’s really hard to recommend dropping £30-odd on this. If a patch that fixes up the PC control and display oversights and rethinks the presentation of stats does show up, I’ll certainly feel a lot more fond of Dungeon Siege III. For now though: resume frustrated waiting for Diablo III.