Of the enumerated Dungeon Siege games, Dungeon Siege III seems least like it belongs in the franchise. It reminds me a lot of Sacred 2, which was itself inspired by earlier Dungeon Siege titles. Ultimately, all these action-RPG dungeon-crawlers owe everything to tabletop D&D, yet at the same time, they play like they're designed for people who love the fictions of pen-and-paper fantasy RPGs, but don't much care for the actual games. While early PC and console RPGs were obsessed with translating every detail of their tabletop counterparts to computerized versions, today's RPGs in the fantasy genre are heavily weighted toward the action element. They're made for people who crave the flash and wonder of real-time animations and shimmery lighting effects, plus an extra dose of direct combat control. In general, the shift in RPG video game design is a vast improvement over early efforts. Grafting hardcore RPG design mechanics onto video games is similar to ripping print media out of the physical world and onto the Internet. Most people try to do literal translations, but they're two entirely different mediums with unique, particular strengths and weaknesses.
There's a sizable demographic who enjoy a little micromanagement here, a fair amount of button-mashing there, and this promotes the creation of titles like Dungeon Siege III — which attempt both, rarely mastering either. Virtually all action-RPGs serve to remind me there likely will never be anything as fun as Gauntlet ever again — even Gauntlet, if you try playing it today. Of course, Gauntlet had the advantage of being an arcade game, where spending time doling out XP would have been time you weren't busy getting killed, and, therefore, time you weren't shoving fistfuls of quarters into the machine to continue playing. Gauntlet, for reasons of both technology and market, couldn't do what Dungeon Siege III does, mixing up heavy action with all that RPG numerology.
As a representative of the particular genre, Dungeon Siege III is a fair effort. The backstory is either nostalgically whimsical or campy, depending on your age and how long you've been playing fantasy RPGs. Playable characters, or "heroes" in the title's vernacular, are varied enough in aspect and innate abilities to suit a broad range of gamers, also acting in concert with their in-game cohorts. Beginning the game, you have your choice of Lucas, the warrior; Reinhart, wizardry; Anjali, close-quarters combat with a magical twist; and the fair, and most intriguing, Katarina, firearms specialist with both ranged and close-quarters duty. Lately, guns often turn up in what would otherwise be considered classic swords-and-sorcery titles. Gamers like guns, at least in their games, no matter how incongruent the weapons may seem in context of the game world. You can blame it on Devil May Cry. Purists may call foul, but, reasonably, if a character can transform into a fire elemental, another can wield a shotgun.
In the basics, there's not much to differentiate Dungeon Siege III from other games with similar recipes. Partially due to alterations in control and play mechanics suited to consoles, the new game may not immediately recruit fans of the franchise's previous installments. The trick here is in the implementation, where Dungeon Siege is mostly competent, though not without frustrating flaws.
Foremost, I found the PS3 control execution very solid. RTS developers in particular are well aware of the complexities inherent in changing from a point-and-click to a dual-stick control interface, but Obsidian has done a fine job here making the transition. It's suitable for pick-up-and-play by most any gamer, even the ones who don't often play in this sort of isometric-perspective game presentation. Movement, targeting, attacks and revives are all easily accomplished.
I should say, easily accomplished when the camera perspective cooperates — often, it doesn't behave nicely. Dungeon Siege III's camera is automated, as is almost absolutely required for a game with both offline and online co-op modes. The only way to incorporate any amount of player-controlled camera in a co-op title like this is to split the screen. I'm not suggesting the gameplay split-screen all the time, but Obsidian could take a hint from Traveller's Tales' newly enhanced co-op mechanic and split the screen when one player wanders to the edge of the current play area. At that point, each player could have some degree of manual camera control. This seems like a lot of effort, and it probably is, but the game's sometimes unfathomable camera angles are a real nuisance.
Manual camera control aside, I'd have still preferred a dynamic split-screen feature in Dungeon Siege III. No doubt I'm highly motivated by the fact I have children, and I play a lot of games with my children, and they play a lot of games with one another. Offline co-op games are ideal for children and teens, but, especially with younger kids who seem hell-bent on going any direction but the direction you're headed, running up against the false barrier at the edge of the screen every two minutes is supremely annoying. Granted, Traveller's Tales rarely includes online co-op, and they never have to contend with three or four co-op players, as does Obsidian in Dungeon Siege III online co-op. Even in these high-def days, splitting the screen four ways is reasonably out of the question for an isometric action game. Still, I don't know much of the experience would have been lost cutting offline and online co-op down to two players.
The inventory and attributes management screens will be familiar to anyone who's played a few action-RPGs; the unschooled can learn in a hurry. I played some offline co-op with my seven-year-old son; he has very limited experience with the genre, yet at level-up intermissions, he jumped right in and began doling out his points in a logical fashion. When he picked up new items and weapons, he likewise had no problem diving into the inventory interface and equipping new things. This isn't to trivialize the RPG element of Dungeon Siege III as dumbed-down. In fact, it's high praise: If you're going to require the player handle the micromanagement angle in your action-RPG, it should be an easily learned and executed affair. This is something Dungeon Siege III does very well, while in similar games, the menus often confound in their complexity and impenetrable logic.
The audio production in the game is sufficient, though not stellar, and the graphics and animations are above par for titles of this type. Some of the visuals are downright good, and better than they have to be for a dungeon-crawler. Speaking of dungeons, I thought lighting was used to great effect in the confined environments of the game; they're murky enough for contextual continuity, but not so dark you can't see what you're doing. Above ground, towns, camps and fortifications are nicely rendered. Paths through the forests are the only weak spots, mostly bland and often not well distinguished from screen to screen. It's easy to get turned around in forests and head the wrong way; that may be somewhat realistic, but it doesn't say much for inventive art direction. I thought the cut scenes, like many of the dungeon gameplay sequences, were better than usual for the genre.
Square Enix ran a campaign of jokey, live-action TV spots focused on bringing back so-called "couch co-op" with Dungeon Siege III. While they certainly don't have exclusivity for the feature — quite a few contemporary games include offline co-op story modes — I can see why they attempt the claim. It's really the only way to play this game. With humdrum story progression and uninspired character interaction, a solo hero walks a lonely road. Playing with a friend beside you completely changes the game, mutating it into something a lot more enjoyable, covering over the more mundane aspects that are so painfully obvious playing alone. If you like high-fantasy realms, but are willing to overlook alterations to what are ultimately some pretty arbitrary conventions concerning weapon types, and you have like-minded friends who'll play with you offline, Dungeon Siege III is definitely worth your time. If you're going to go it alone strictly for story and gameplay, then know that you've already played this game before in similar form, probably a dozen times.
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