Dungeon Siege 3 Review
Hard to believe, but it’s been nearly 7 years since Dungeon Siege 2. Since then, the Dungeon Siege Franchise was sold to Square Enix, Jason Statham starred in the hilarious and awful In The Name Of The King: A Dungeon Siege Tale, and games in general have advanced in leaps and bounds. Though the series has generally been popular, previous games received mixed receptions and after such a long break, we had to ask if Square Enix’s take on the Dungeon Siege series could even be successful.
At E3 2010, I had the opportunity to sit down with Square Enix for an enticing look at the still in-development Dungeon Siege 3, and what I saw at the time made me believe the answer would be ‘yes’. Dungeon Siege 3 is the first installment to include versions for consoles as well as for PC. It therefore represents something of a big departure from previous entries. Yet the couch co-op, excellent and beautiful graphics and easy gameplay hinted at something that might successfully marry RPGs and casual gaming, and since then I’ve been looking very forward to finally getting my hands on it.
Dungeon Siege 3 (XBox360 [Reviewed], PS3, PC)
Developer: Obsidian Entertainment
Publisher: Square Enix
Release Date: June 21, 2011
Alas, that time has finally come, and while Dungeon Siege 3 lives up to almost everything I saw in that demo, it’s also somewhat of a disappointment. Splitting the difference between casual gaming and deep, involved play, it winds up missing the appeal of either. It’s not a terrible game – very pretty, easy and fun, and the co-op is excellent – but it contains some frustrating flaws and once I finished, I was left wishing there was more to it, and more to do.
NOTE: A lot of what I’ll cover here was effectively done by Phil Hornshaw in his Dungeon Siege 3 hands-on.
The first thing Square Enix did right is the balance between the game’s hack-n-slash play style and RPG elements. Hard core RPGs tend to require resource management skills akin to someone with advanced degrees in both accounting and grocery store management. In Dungeon Siege 3, it’s a nice split-the-difference between easy interface and lots to do with it. New weapons or magical devices are a simple matter of collecting items, equipping the ones your character can use and selling the ones they can’t. You also level up as you fight, which helps you to earn new powers on a very simple talent system dependent on your rank. As you fight or level up, you earn points that can be used to purchase new powers or abilities as they become available to you. It isn’t reinventing the wheel, but I found it to be easy and actually effective and more than mere window dressing.
And speaking of, combat is really fun. There’s much to be said for the simple pleasure of hacking through waves of enemies, or flinging magic at them, and watching them die in a puff of hitpoints. That pleasure is increased by the very excellent coop, which allows other players to simply join your game at any time without impacting the progress of your mission. They simply materialize in your game as soon as they press start on their controller and select a character. Better still, they can leave at any time, at which point their character is taken over by AI until it is killed off. Kind of cool, in a Cylon way, and I like it.
Another success, surprisingly, is the 4 characters from which players may choose. Each character has a unique skillset which affects their magical and weapons using abilities. As Anjali, the character I chose, you’ll be able to change back and forth between human form and fire demon form. As a human, you wield a melee weapon (generally a variant of a spear) and can deliver a devastating secondary attack such as a roundhouse kick. In demon form, you’ll float above the ground, shoot fireballs at your enemies and have the ability to rely on a secondary magical attack, like a protective wall of flames. These abilities are extremely easy to figure out, thanks to the very well-mapped controller scheme, and players will find it simple to pick up a controller and start playing with little learning curve.
Other characters include Lucas Montbarron, a swordsman who can alternate fighting styles, Reinhart Manx, a mage with the ability to switch between ‘Entropic’ and ‘Dynamic’ magic, and Katarina, who wields two different guns. They all have awesome mccoolnames, and are as easy to use as Anjali. They are, of course, basic archetypes of fantasy fiction and somewhat interchangeable, difficulty wise, but that’s fine since the point is to jump into the game as painlessly as possible. They’re perfect for Dungeon Siege 3′s very thin story, something I’d normally complain about that, but here it’s a suitable backdrop for the fighting-your-way-through-monsters goodness that doesn’t really need a plot. At least not when it’s about getting drunk with your friends, right?
The graphics are also pretty great, even on Xbox 360. Forests are lush, green expanses, fires are rich and flamey, dungeons are dank, dark and suitably scary looking. The outdoor environments pop with rich colors and realistic shades depending on time of day. Generally, it’s just a really nice looking game. Which makes for a fun time as you hack and slash through a series of increasingly difficult – if same looking – areas (more on that shortly).
So if there’s so much to like, what’s my problem?
In a nutshell, Dungeon Siege 3 is a potentially great game hobbled by tiny problems that alone are petty, but combined become almost overwhelming. First and foremost, the unskippable cutscenes. It’s impossible to fast forward through scenes you’ve already seen, or through dialogue you’ve already heard. It’s a small problem but annoying enough to make starting brand new games excruciating. And seriously, come on guys. Unskippable cutscenes? In 2011?
On the other hand, the annoying throwback of unskippable cutscenes is complimented by the retrograde checkpoint save system. What the hell is it with game developers who surely have access to modern consoles, still relying checkpoint saves after so many years when we’ve become accustomed to auto-saves and save-anywhere functionality? I don’t pretend to have the insider take on the decision-making process Square Enix employed during the making of Dungeon Siege 3, but I know for a fact those guys are gamers. They have to be aware of how frustrating checkpoint saves are when every single other game on earth uses superior, less aggravating systems. Yet they still force you wander from checkpoint to checkpoint, losing valuable progress if you die, and elongating games beyond your tolerance level should you decide you’re done playing before you reach the next one.
The camera is also bit screwy. This is partly due to the top-down perspective necessitated by the game’s emphasis on ‘couch co-op’- after all, it’d be a bit difficult to handle non-split screen combat without a Gauntlet-style interface. But the camera also has a nasty habit of positioning itself in the worst places. More than once, during a battle I found myself pinned into a corner only to have the camera suddenly zoom so close that I could only see my character, costing me precious seconds while I tried to move enough for the camera to reposition itself above me. As you’d expect, I tended to die each time it happened.
This problem was compounded by the relative sameness of the game’s environments. After a while, trails, castles, villages, dungeons and so on begin to kind of resemble one another. There are of course distinctions between arenas, but they tend toward the subtle, and the game definitely relies on the transitions from different places to make up for the similarities between the places you’ll go. This sameness extends to the various enemies you’ll encounter. Including the dreaded cliched giant spiders all too common in fantasy games. At some point we need to find some other creepy critter to enlarge, and let the spiders rest, OK?
The voice acting is also hilariously awful. Part of this is that it’s kind of weird seeing people populating a medieval fantasy world speaking with distinct American accents. Not a major problem, considering the theory that English accents in the middle ages would have resembled those found in the American south. But even taking that into account, it’s still quite bad. The best you can say is that the voice work resembles audiobook acting, meaning that everyone sounds like they’re reading from a script, emoting when they need to and so on. Some people do so very well, but others, including the 4 player characters, simply do not.
It doesn’t help that the dialogue itself is stilted to the point of self parody. When, for instance, you ask a question about about an event or location in the game, your character doesn’t just say something natural, like ‘what do you mean?’, they say “I would like to know more about [X]“. And funnier still, when you’ve decided you have no further questions, your character says “That’s all I want to know about [X]“. This isn’t that big of a deal and probably shouldn’t be included with serious criticism, but I mention because it kind of fits in with what I believe to be the running theme with the game’s issues – the feeling it was kind of rushed out despite having been in development for years.
It’s certainly true that most of these are trivial issues, and I want to stress that I really did enjoy Dungeon Siege 3. It’s easy to pick up, fun, in a repeptitive kind of way, and really does pull off couch co-op perfectly. It’s a deliberate update on old school magic-and-swords games such as Gauntlet. It’s fun, and you’ll enjoy it a lot, but chances are you won’t remember why and, once you put it back in the box, you won’t touch it again. Having taken 6 years to come out, it’s a shame that it feels less like the triumphant return of an old school(ish) franchise and more like shameless cashing in on a well-known brand.