Genre: Action Role-Playing
Developer: Gas Powered Games
Release Date: August 12, 2008
Space: the final frontier for man, but one of the first frontiers for video gaming. We've been there and done pretty much everything since, from guiding vector-rendered triangles around minefields of asteroids, desperately evading the projectiles of steadily approaching invaders from space, and even flying rockets around the stars and destroying whatever we saw fit to. We've built space stations, destroyed space stations, and gone on many a trek, fought many a war, and even wrestled for control of the stars themselves. It comes as some surprise that after all these decades of commanding wings, destroying nasty aliens, and questing hither and yon that we're still fighting off huge storms of aliens. It's like some kind of alien syndrome — almost enough to make a guy into a xenophobe. Now that I'm done with all sorts of gamer geek references, it's time to introduce the latest disaster in the making: Space Siege.
At its root, Space Siege is a re-tooling and re-imagining of semi-classic Dungeon Siege. This isn't unbelievable, since Gas Powered Games is the studio behind both games, and with this comes a lot of familiarity. Set somewhere in the indefinite future, Space Siege tells the tale of Seth Walker, security officer aboard a colony ship trying to escape the ravages of the Kerak, an alien species bent on destroying humanity as a punishment for unbridled curiosity. Human explorers attempted to colonize the Kerak home world, and now the Kerak have completely obliterated Earth and nearly all of its colonies. The Armstrong is one of the last vessels still standing, but that warm peace doesn't last too long (of course) after the Kerak find the craft and assault it. A desperate bid to destroy the Kerak by flooding the ship with toxic gas forces Walker into cryostatis for a number of days, and when he emerges from the pod to extensive ship damage and mutilated bodies everywhere, he quickly decides the gambit didn't succeed ….
One of the easiest comparisons to draw as soon as Space Siege begins is all the similarities to Dungeon Siege and in turn the granddaddy of them all, Diablo. The game is played from a traditional isometric view, somewhat behind Seth and overhead at an angle on the action. Virtually every interaction is managed via mouse clicks: Movement is a left-click, attacking is a right click, and that is essentially the entire scope of gameplay. Periodically, you'll interact with an item, person or terminal, but the general action is, well, shooting. A lot. Walker is initially equipped with a low-powered submachine gun featuring unlimited ammunition, something he'll need to take out the dozens of Kerak standing between him and a few remaining survivors on the quickly collapsing Armstrong. For the most part, this is all there is: Seth will move through the ship toward a goal assigned to him by someone, be it the ship's AI system, his commander, or another survivor he's located. This always involves shooting lots of aliens, picking up bits and pieces as a sort of currency to purchase upgrades or repair your assistance bot once you have it, and periodically picking up a new weapon or cybernetic part.
Beyond running around shooting, something which strikes me as a highly dangerous idea in a spacecraft, Seth will spend most of his energies trying to better himself. By that, I don't mean he'll be reading through "The Idiot's Guide to Stopping an Alien Invasion" or practicing transcendental meditation, but rather leveling up. Space Siege eschews the standard tradition of levels and experience points and instead makes Seth a variable man in and of himself. By visiting terminals around the Armstrong, he can update various elements of himself, such as armor strength, HP or the capabilities of his firearms. These are all paid for with components found after enemies are killed or hidden in lockers, though what exactly these are (and why the on-ship computers want them) is never particularly explained. These stats are highly necessary for continued success, as the starting Seth is fairly weak and his submachine guns are slow and underpowered.
You'll want to get moving up the evolutionary chain quickly, but the terminals are not particularly numerous, only appearing with the terminals that let you save. Even though the components are extremely common, the prices for upgrades scale very quickly, so it's not uncommon that even after a long fight through a densely packed corridor, you'll wind up in the save room with just enough components for one or two upgrades. It often comes down to debating the trade-offs of picking improved HP or a faster-firing weapon over any other choice. Many upgrades feel tangential at best and non-existent at worst — many weapons upgrades don't feel like you've actually improved anything — which can lead to a serious case of buyer's remorse very quickly. It also doesn't help that the few items, like grenades and med kits, are only found in small allotments in the real world, forcing you to also consider whether or not you'd be better trading components for a med kit or more HP. Once your robotic combat partner is added on, it gets even trickier to balance all of your upgrades, since he has stats of his own, and you also have to think of the costs components to build a new robot if your current one gets nuked.
At fixed points in Space Siege, Seth will be handed Skill Points, which are an opportunity to move through one of two skill trees to buy new abilities, such as bullets made of fire or portable motion-sensor turrets. These are useful, but it's only possible to move down one tree or the other — Combat or Engineer — as the scant points don't let you move all the way down both, and the trees are very narrow, obligating buying lesser skills before getting down to the meet. Notably, many of the skills feel wimpy or underpowered, and I found myself relying more on straight-out gunplay than special abilities.
The only other evolution Seth gets is strictly optional: At an early point, Seth is offered the opportunity to implant cybernetic components into himself. These act as one-time, non-removable upgrades, enhancing various stats at the cost of a single stat, Humanity. Given the opportunity and a bit of hunter's luck, the player can gather up a number of these pieces, eventually converting Seth from a mundane human being into a hulking metal being of mass destruction. The catch is that some skills can only be used if you have a certain amount of Humanity left, and according to the developers themselves, there's a "super special reward" if you finish the game as a 100% human. What that may be is anyone's guess, and the benefit of the upgrades is certainly tempting — it's basically short-term rewards versus long-term ones.
It's unfortunate that the gameplay boils down to such a simplistic formula; the engine itself is capable and attractive, if not stunning, but it's being used to power an anemic Diablo clone with a story that's very difficult to become engaged in. It seems to have difficulty rising above a mundane "save the survivors, kill the enemies" narrative, and Seth is a very bland hero without much in the way of personality or background. Other games of this nature have managed to remain interesting by mixing up the story or breaking it into more manageable portions, but Siege doesn't bother. Instead of interesting locales and enemies, you'll run through the same corridors over and over, shooting up a menagerie of similar-looking enemies without much in the way of strategy. It's not unattractive, but it's very hard to keep playing when everything looks the same as has for the last hour or so, once in a while breaking the monotony with a lab or arboretum before going right back into corridors again.
The game throws one interesting-on-paper idea into the mix, the Dodge Button (default E), and while it proves to be a very necessary mechanic, it's very difficult to work with. The button "sticks" a little too easily, and the dodge is coordinated by the mouse pointer, so if you hit the button one time too many (and you will) and swing the pointer back to an enemy to start shooting, Seth will roll right into it. While you don't take contact damage in all cases, it's certainly enough to throw off the rhythm entirely.
That winds up being the entire tune of Space Siege: little things that just don't work right or aren't well thought-out. Seth has a bladed weapon of some variety — what it is never made clear — but it works very poorly and in most cases serves little to no purpose. There are no armor upgrades anywhere and only a handful of guns, removing one of the things that made Diablo and its ilk a blast, finding loot and upgrading. One of the simplest yet annoying things is Seth himself; he's entirely uncustomizable, which is one of those little things we've come to expect in games of this nature. The enemy AI tends to involve "rush at Seth" or "shoot at Seth" and little more, and the decision to put camera controls on WASD is obnoxious. No matter which view you choose, you'll find you're either a bit too far in or a bit too far out; save points are slightly too spread out; some guns seem purposeless and certain upgrades don't have any tangible effect on the game — the list goes on.
I'll admit that as I started going at it hardcore, I began to feel a twinge of affection for Space Siege; it had become some degree of fun to slaughter aliens wholesale for no other reason than because I could, and the controls were finally starting to sort of gel despite their oddness, but the restrictive nature of mouse-based combat with a dodge button really never sat well. (Point of order: I am a fan of games like Alien Shooter Rampage, where the player is given free motion, and this may have biased my opinions on the controls.) I've found that despite executing a number of things competently, Space Siege really has little going for it as a whole and winds up being a simply average product with an uninteresting cast, a plot full of clichés, and some confusing design decisions. This one may prove to be an appealing bargain bin title for a few hours of entertaining destruction, but only Diablo fans will feel truly at home, and they have other choices that they'll probably enjoy more.
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