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(Still Not A) Dungeon Siege III

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RPS Best Friend For Life Richard Cobbett went freelance last week, abandoning his “Ma-gasine” (which I gather is like an overweight pamphlet) to live off nothing but his charm, wit and contacts. As we’d hate to see Richard starve, we offered him the chance to go and play the latest build of Dungeon Siege III for us. Has this franchise been changed for the console-devices after all? The truth follows.

One question kept coming to mind while playing the first section of Dungeon Siege III. Who gets to name all the loot? Seriously. Can any rubbish old blacksmith hiccup while forging a sword, end up with some distorted, twisted piece of metal, and still happily sell it to the nearest adventurer as the Rapier of Transcendental Virtue or the Bastard Sword of Maihrse? It would explain why most of it just ends up being dumped in unlocked chests for any passer-by to get their hands on.

But Dungeon Siege III isn’t judgemental. It loves treasure. Any treasure. All treasure, from the overambitious swords to the deeply unflattering pauldrons. Its treasure chests don’t so much hold gold and trinkets and all the other RPG trappings as belch them out, ready for you to hoover them all up into a big sack and hurl them at the nearest shopkeeper.

What? Heroes don’t count. They LOOT.

Being a Dungeon Siege game, this obsession for anything that can be sold, equipped, or used to stab people won’t be a surprise. The first game gave you a sturdy pack-mule companion for a reason, and it wasn’t in case felt peckish in the middle of your quest. Oddly though, that’s about the only connection I really saw to the original games while playing a taster slice of the sequel. Here’s the other. The action is still set in Ehb, the fantasy kingdom named after an apathetic sigh, but takes place long, long after both the original games and that dreadful Uwe Boll movie have faded into history. And actually besieging a dungeon played no part in things. Again.

Careful, you’ll have someone’s soul out with that

Everything else though? Changed. The characters are new. The look is new, with a new engine, and some strikingly strong and omnipresent depth of field that makes the new heroes look like they need a trip to Specsavers before they even think about heading out to save the world. Even the developers are new, with those RPG heroes and plucky entomologists at Obsidian now handling the franchise for Square-Enix, and original creator Chris Taylor only consulting.

The most noticeable change though is that while this isn’t the first Dungeon Siege on consoles (there was Throne of Agony on the PSP, which I’ve never played because I don’t even want the smell of that thing in my house), Dungeon Siege III really, really borrows from the Xbox and PS3 arcade-RPG playbooks. Where the old ones were like Diablo, this feels closer to Fable.

The result is a completely different game – or to be more exact, about four or five different games, thrown into a blender and pureed. From every other console hack-and-slash, we get the new camera and control systems – now up close (with the option to pull back a bit) to better follow your hero as you mash buttons to swing your sword and unleash the fury. Talk to a character and the Mass Effect conversation wheel pops up. Facing multiple enemies? You can switch between multiple combat styles, just like The Witcher. Get lost? Fable’s golden breadcrumb trail will point you in the right direction – although unlike Fable, it only appears on command, so you shouldn’t have that same sense of being dragged by the nose from encounter to encounter. Etc.

No dungeons were sieged in the writing of this preview. Stupid bloody name anyway.

None of this was bad in itself. Really, it all seemed fine, I thought, as I picked up green health orbs and slammed my shield into enemies hard enough to leave an imprint of the crest on their ghosts. Still, it felt underwhelming. I wanted something new. Something… more.

I didn’t really see it in the bit of the game I got to play, nor was Square talking anything they weren’t directly showing, but there were a couple of hints at things that might be coming later on when I got to the first proper town. Its name is Raven’s Rill, and it’s your entirely generic fantasy village with a slight Slavic flavour, surrounded by a terrifying army of walking experience points called the Lescanzi. A good starting point for an quest, at least, and when you’re a hero, you go where you’re needed. My will was strong, my sword was true. And my bags were empty.

In true RPG style, the place was quiet, but combat clearly wasn’t going to be very far away. For starters, as soon as I showed up, I was met by a ridiculous looking girl called Katarina in an incredibly hardworking +2 Corset of Holding, who warned me of a nasty ambush just outside the town gates. Since ambushes in RPGs only ever mean “Yippee! More loot!”, that didn’t seem like a huge problem, but I figured heroic honour demanded at least chatting to the locals and doing their inevitable odd-jobs first. Needless to say, they had plenty – but the style was slightly unexpected. I was expecting quick and dirty mission briefings, like the ones most hack-and-slash games throw in to pad things out. Instead, the appearance of the dialogue wheel quickly reminded me that I was playing an Obsidian game, and that they like their talky bits.

Co-op mode. It’s in, but I give it five seconds before you’re fighting over THE LOOT.

Dungeon Siege III offers far, far more dialogue than most hack-and-slash games, with full conversations, optional subjects to chat about, and proper back-story. This is good. Most of it is clearly optional, but its presence hopefully means a bit more narrative weight behind the later hack and slashing, as well as a return of Obsidian staples like proper relationships with companion characters and maybe even some decent choices. I doubt we’ll see the villain of the piece delivering lectures on Hegelian dialetics like in New Vegas, but every little helps.

The most intriguing bit though came once I’d been given a mission, dutifully headed off to put my sword through its face and take its stuff, and returned. Now, in a game whose name is synonymous with ‘give me more stuff’, I had the option to… turn down a reward. How… odd.

Selecting this option purely in the name of scientific investigation, the conversation ended with my hero brushing off my act of heroism on the grounds that maybe the person I was talking to would speak well of the noble 10th Legion he was trying to rebuild to challenge Ehb’s current Big Bad. It may be nothing. It may just the Lawful Stupid option, and whenever you choose it, a little red light may flash in Obsidian’s office so that everyone to laugh at the pathetic little boy-scout. But let’s hope not. The way it was presented least smacked of the possibility of some kind of Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood type metagame involving building the Legion later on, if only to grow it to the point that it can’t fit in the back of a Ford Cortina and still give everyone a window seat.

Uh, guys? Think you’re adventuring in the wrong direction…

The rest of the demo area stuck to pure hack-and-slash though, kicking off by getting directions from one of Katarina’s friends, another girl who apparently put all her talent points in Dual Weapon Specialisation, and then taking on a few of the Lescanzi witches and paid goons in traditional one-on-twenty combat. This being an action RPG, this was still lousy odds for them, and it didn’t take long to get to their leader – an evil-eyed crone who was willing to chat for a quite a while, even if attempts to defuse the situation with words instead of swords didn’t quite work out. We fought. I lost. I blamed it on a bug. And that was the end of the demo. I may not have saved the world, but at least I died with lots and lots of its gold in my pocket.

So overall, I think I’m calling it a win.

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Richard Cobbett

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