Dungeon Siege III Hands-On Preview
Dungeon Siege III is a very pretty game.
Watching developers run through the game to show of various aspects at Obsidian Entertainment’s offices in Irvine, California, last week, DSIII graphical beauty kept distracting me. The game’s lighting, color schemes and environments offer a whole lot of visual splendor to take in, and things only got better as I sat down with an Xbox 360 controller and try the game out myself.
Let’s just dive right into it, shall we? The portion of the game we got to check out started right at the outset, running down the opening cinematic that told the story of the 10th Legion’s forming of the Kingdom of Ehb, where they ruled justly and humanely for years.
Then, like Jedi, the legion and their descendants were hunted and murdered by a woman called Jeyne Kassynder, who has since taken control of Ehb and made it an all-around crappier place. The last remaining legionnaire, a man called Odo, is attempting to round up the last of the descendants of legionnaires at the beginning of the game, and regardless of which of the four characters you choose, you’re counted among their ranks.
Only two of Dungeon Siege III’s main cast has been announced, so we were only able to see what went on with those characters in the first dungeon of the RPG. Lucas fills the somewhat traditional role of a tank melee character — he takes a lot of damage, carries a big sword and wallops lots of enemies. There’s also Anjali, a more versatile character who’s actually a being called an Archon: half-human, half-fire spirit, Anjali is the only character who isn’t legion-borne, but she was found by Odo as a baby and raised as his ward. There’s also a gun-wielding ranged character and a character who appears to be a caster of some kind, but all we have to go on with them are the silhouettes present on Dungeon Siege III’s official website.
According to Obsidian, the story you’ll play through in DS III is basically the same with each of the characters, and both our runs started in the forest near the manor of one of the legion’s last remaining families. The house belong’s to Lucas’ family, the Montbarrons, although his backstory finds him having been passed among sympathetic friends of the legion for years in order to avoid being hunted down and murdered, kind of like Luke Skywalker. He’s approaching the meeting place late and has never been to the manor before.
Anjali also comes to the meeting late. If you choose her, you find out a little about her story: she’s unaware of her origins or her people, yet has the ability to freely change between her human form, in which she carries a polearm, and her Archon form, in which she hurls fireballs.
In fact, all the characters have two stances for combat, and two sets of weapons, and this becomes apparent as we work our way through the forest toward Montbarron Manor — and find the place in flames, and the bodies of young legionnaires scattered about. As you get inside, you’ll get your first taste of combat, as mercenaries rush toward you through the flames and wreckage.
Stances in battle give you options for how you want to handle each fight. With Lucas, you can fight with his short sword and shield, allowing for fast attacks on a single enemy. Tap the stance button and you can instantly switch to Lucas’ broadsword, which is considerably slower, but allows Lucas to take on several enemies at once.
Anjali is more of a generalist. Her human form makes up her first stance, which is good for melee fighting but not especially attuned to fighting multiple enemies. Her Archon form enables her to use ranged flame attacks and an area-of-effect spell, as well as some other magical moves. Flipping between stances takes no time at all, allowing you to quickly adjust strategy and access several different special moves.
Battling this first group of enemies is mostly constrained to melee attacks. After hacking through them leaves a bit of the manor to be explored — there’s loot to discover, tons of it, from every barrel, chest and enemy. There are also bits of story to pick up, scattered about in the form of letters that give clues to the state of things before the attack started.
Working through the manor, you’ll discover another survivor and, with his help, escape and regroup with Odo at an old 10th Legion chapterhouse. Travel to the chapterhouse is done by cutscene, but as you draw close, you’ll have to do battle with a group of enemies that includes a lieutenant. Not quite a miniboss, but more powerful and troublesome than regular enemies, lieutenants run around with fields surrounding them that can provide buffs to other enemies and debuffs to you and your party.
It’s along the road to the chapterhouse that we were allowed to start messing with the ability and leveling systems. Leveling up allows for different moves to be activated and powered up. Each character has a total of nine abilities, with three per stance to match the Playstation 3 and Xbox 360′s face buttons. The third stance is basically blocking, executed by holding a trigger button, and while doing so, characters can use defensive abilities like healing.
Special moves are fueled by a bar called “Focus,” which appears beneath a character’s hit points. Executing moves drains it, as does blocking — instead of taking damage to HP when you block, you lose Focus points. Focus is restored by using standard attacks on enemies, and this has the effect of really pushing you to be offensive at all times. Most spells and moves have little or no charge up or cooldown times, either, creating an environment in which combat is almost non-stop. You might want to step clear and dodge an arrow or roll clear of an attack (possible by holding the block button and attempting to move), but for the most part, the key is to combo enemies with melee attacks leading into different special moves.
Upon leveling up, you get the ability to add points to different abilities to increase a character’s “proficiencies.” Each move has two possible proficiencies, and they generally either add additional offensive or defensive buffs to the move. With Anjali’s Flaming Aura, for example, you can choose to pump points into increased damage for the area fire spell, or you can choose to make it heal you and your allies a small amount if they stand in the effect area. You can pump a total of five upgrades into each move’s proficiencies, but the rub is that it’s the same five upgrades for both proficiencies — meaning you can either split the five between both by going two to three, load up on one with a touch of the other with a four-to-one split, or pick one proficiency over the other and max it out.
Using special moves increases a character’s “mastery” of them, which encourages even more that players work them into their strategy. You’re rewarded with an “empowered” version of the move once you’ve mastered it, which includes some kind of bonus to its effects.
Levels also give you points to push into one of several “talents.” These get unlocked in tiers (three tiers of four) and function as passive abilities. Each talent can take several upgrades, stacking their effect over time. They include things like damage increases or more critical hits, for the most part.
Upon arriving at the chapterhouse, the last of the legion decide to send the player to a nearby town, Raven’s Rill, to speak with its leader and get some assistance.
Quests and Lore: There’s a Lot of Story
Spending a little time in the massive chapterhouse, we start to get a sense of what Obsidian is bringing to this action-RPG. The building is fairly huge, but in disrepair. Checking bookshelves reveals lots of lore books, providing backstory and a deeper look into the world. Further down, there’s a set of statues and an archway that kind of resembles a Stargate: the chapterhouse’s magical Causeway, an ethereal means of quickly traveling from one place to another.
Deeper still, you can grab the first of the game’s side quests. In the chapterhouse basement is a dead body, and examining it triggers an attack by giant spiders. Fighting through them, you can discover that the spiderbait intruder was attempting to find some kind of legion treasure within the chapterhouse. Now you have the clues for what to look for to find it yourself, so the information (and the letter you discovered on the body) get stowed in your quest log.
Time to (finally) venture into Raven’s Rill. Along the way, the legionnaire (there’s just one of you now, with the rest having stayed behind at the chapterhouse) encounters more of the guys who attacked Montbarron Manor — mercenaries of a nomadic group of people called the Lescanzi, who all kind of look like Colonial minutemen from the American Revolution.
Raven’s Rill is a quiet place, even though it’s bustling with people. The people who are willing to speak with you are brisk at best — apparently, it’s very obvious that you’re a legionnaire, and no one wants to incur the wrath of the powers that be by speaking with you. Lescanzi mercenaries have occupied the town and are set up in the upper end (you enter in the lower), and whoever employed them to murder you is expecting you to show up in the area after they failed to capture or kill you at the chapterhouse.
The people are distrustful of legionnaires, too, which is part of the smear campaign waged by Jeyne Kassynder when she took control of the country from the 10th Legion something like 30 years ago. It’ll take a good reputation to sway these people, and after a bit of prodding, you can pick up a couple of side quests in Raven’s Rill from a few distraught members of the community.
You’re also approached by a woman who claims she can help you. Whether you chose to be trusting or skeptical, you eventually decide to take her up on her word to visit her sister in a cave near the town. That’s your next destination, but in the meantime, you have those two side quests to do. One has you clearing a fishing hole by killing some monsters that have taken residence in the area; the other has you reclaiming a stolen object from a Lescanzi lieutenant. With the side quests completed and the word traveling that legionnaires aren’t the total douches everyone has been led to believe, the town starts to warm to your presence.
Wandering in Raven’s Rill, the first hints of some of Obsidian’s design choices become evident. Dungeon Siege III is set far in the future from the original Dungeon Siege. It’s a difference of hundreds of years, so rather than making a medieval fantasy game, Obsidian has opted for more of a Renaissance fantasy motif; hence the minutemen-looking enemies, the presence of rifles and a few other key aesthetic choices.
Leaving Raven’s Rill takes you through a nearby forest, where more Lescanzi mercenaries are camped. It’s not a long walk before you finally reach the cave you were told about by Katarina, the woman from the Rill, and discover her sister, a Lescanzi witch. She wants you to help with something, and to secure your trust, offers you the information that legionnaires are trapped inside the cave by other witches — and they mean to execute them through magical interrogation.
There’s all kinds of more combat to be found in the cave, which is more or less a pretty standard dungeon for this kind of game. You’ll find lots of enemies to deal with and loot to mess with, and more than once probably switch in an upgrade. The inventory system is pretty complex in Dungeon Siege III, with weapons and armor all having various attributes and values. There’s a lot of customization to be had with items, since often they will increase a character’s stats in one area while decreasing them in another. This gives you more freedom to outfit your characters for different roles — you’re only limited by the fact that each character uses a unique set of weapons and armor, so most things can’t be traded between them.
Through the course of the cave, you’ll eventually hit a boss fight when you reach the witches, complete with a whole host of Lescanzi minions for you to deal with. The boss witch has several moves to put the hurt on you, but the worst of them is probably an attack, if it touches you, summons more minions. The battle is pitched but not especially challenging on the normal difficulty setting, even with all the different unit types attacking you. There are just as many ranged units, carrying guns, bows and magical instruments, as there are melee fighters The best tactics usually involve a lot of dodging and strategic blocking is key.
Playing with Allies
As the battle wraps up, you can free the prisoners the witches were holding. One is a random NPC legionnaire, who you’ll discover back at the chapterhouse later. The other is either Lucas or Anjali, depending on who you didn’t pick at the beginning of the game. This other character joins you to haed back to the chapterhouse, as well as sticks with you for the duration, partnering up as an AI sidekick. You share an inventory with your “companion” and can choose how they should be leveled and outfitted, but the player never gets direct control of the companion’s actions — you can’t ever issue them orders — and there’s no switching between them. Once you pick a character at the beginning of the game, that’s who you’re playing the game as for the duration.
Leaving the cave triggers a few more story events and a mission from the Lescanzi witch who gave you the information about the prisoners. She wants your help finding some things at a nearby haunted mansion and gives you the key. That section of the game was closed to us during the preview, though.
Conversations when you have your companions in tow are a different animal from what they were alone, although you might not know it right away. Your conversation tree choices don’t always have a big effect on the story — most of the time, you get the same information and assignments, just in a roundabout way. But conversation choices stack up with your AI teammates, who become more or less “loyal” based on how you treat others. Increased loyalty translates into “deeds,” which are shared abilities or buffs between you and your teammate, giving both characters various benefits. Unfortunately, I didn’t get see any deeds in action to get a sense of what they’re actually like.
The preview ended not long after that, with a return through Raven’s Rill to the chapterhouse. It’s remarkable that the entire trip from chapterhouse to cave and back again (and even to that haunted mansion, if you want) is done without loading screens. All the areas and environments are connected, and you can run from one end to the other pretty quickly and easily. Obsidian’s Rich Taylor mentioned at one point that at the outset of the game, you could theoretically run more or less from one end to the other. The seamless transitions are great for play, and also help give the whole experience a sense of viability as a world, as well as scale.
After a few hours with Dungeon Siege III, I can say that Obsidian has a lot of elements it’s trying to balance in the action-RPG experience it wants to create. The game’s combat and dungeon crawling are relentless, which is great — the pace is always high, and mindless button-mashing is balanced with a lot of thought to strategy about how to most effectively use your abilities. Offense is rewarded, as well, so pounding the attack button feels like it carries purpose. All of the combat is pretty fun, but obviously gets more enjoyable once you pick up an AI buddy to help out.
Evening those things out are the conversation system, inventory system and numerous quests and side quests — Taylor put the game’s length at around 15 to 20 hours, but those numbers are highly variable based on play style, he said. But players who like to spend the time fleshing out the story and getting the customization of their characters just right will appreciate the amount of input they have in those areas, and players who just want to get back to the fight can pretty easily just grab the armor and weapons with the highest attributes without giving the whole system much thought.
Production values on Dungeon Siege III are extremely high, although the PC version looks amazing when compared to its console counterparts. The gamepad controls work and feel great, though, despite the series’ roots in PC play — the stance system balances all the buttons well while still providing a whole lot of different moves to use and master. The only area that seemed suspect was the voice over work: some of the actors are excellent, others, really not so much. This could potentially be a painful detriment, given the emphasis on DS III’s story content.
With that said, the preview of DS III was pretty deep and engaging. Action-RPG and Dungeon Siege fans have a lot to look forward to on May 31, at least in the game’s opening levels.