Originally created by Chris Taylor, the Dungeon Siege franchise has a reputation of quality among fans. When it was first announced that Square Enix was taking control of the franchise and handing over development duties to Obsidian, there was a little bit of concern that the newest outing may not live up to the legacy of the previous titles. After giving the game a go, it is obvious that any such concerns were misplaced.
Set in the same fictional kingdom as its predecessors, Dungeon Siege III continues the story of the kingdom of Ehb. Of course, no dungeon crawler would be complete if it didn't start you out with absolutely nothing, and Dungeon Siege III does just that. After saving everyone in the previous games, a charismatic Joan of Arc wannabe named Jeyne Kassynder blames the honorable 10th Legion (that'd be the home team) for killing the king. She then pretty much wipes out the entire 10th Legion save for you, a handful of stragglers and a wise old man. It's up to you rebuild the 10th Legion and save the world once again.
The story may not break from the mold, but it serves the gameplay well. Events are written to adapt to your play style, granting stat bonuses based on your actions. For example, early on in the game, you are tasked with helping out someone in a local town. You only need to assist one person to progress the story, but there are a total of three possible side-quests that you can accept. Choose to complete all three, and you can earn some extra cash. Refuse the reward from all three, and your character is awarded a stat bonus for being an honorable hero.
At other points in the game, you are forced to choose between various absolutes. Do I rescue this person or not? Do I kill this villain or show mercy? How you decide does not have an immediate impact on play, but it does force a subtle change to the story. Does this mean that you can have a vastly different adventure every time you replay? Nope. But it does offer up enough differences to make your replay adventures worthwhile, as some Achievements are mutually exclusive. If you're not up for replaying half the game just to see how the alternative version of a later decision plays out, don't worry; Dungeon Siege III provides fifty different save slots, so you can archive every step of your adventure.
Although the story provides a nice backdrop, the core gameplay within Dungeon Siege III is streamlined combat. It's almost as if the developers at Obsidian tried to take what players liked the most about the prior games and distilled it down to focus on that aspect. In some respects, the team may have gone a little too far, reducing basic combat to a button-mashing fest, but there is a bit of depth there if you look for it.
Key to maximizing your offensive power is effectively balancing the three different types of attacks that you possess. The basic attack powers up your focus meter. Your focus attacks are more powerful and are akin to spells. Using focus attacks powers up a special attack orb. The orb can be used to unleash a super attack, a powered up focus attack or to cast a healing spell. Because of the way the three different levels interact, you are naturally pushed into changing things up. It is a surprisingly casual-friendly system, while at the same time offering enough variety to keep veteran players interested.
Where the game stumbles a bit is in its inventory management and character skill tree. Inventory management is a fairly basic system, with core stat comparisons being the only real difference between pieces of loot. Changing out armor and weapons doesn't really change the look of your character and even in the menu, individual pieces don't look different. Sure, rares may have a different color name, but otherwise all weapons of the same type are visually interchangeable. There is no way to designate an item set, which means you can't easily swap from one style of play to another simply by flipping gear. To do so requires manually changing out each piece in inventory.
The character skill trees are similarly basic, with a pre-determined set of abilities that everyone who plays is bound to unlock. You can't save up ability points (as soon as they are granted, you must use them), and you can't directly upgrade a base ability by doubling up on points. Instead, you customize by spending proficiency points. Each ability has two proficiencies that allow some specialization. Each proficiency has five levels, but you can only spend a total of five proficiency points per ability, preventing players from maxing out everything. Finally, there is a passive talent tree, which allows for further tweaking.
Ultimately, the ability and talent trees are a nice way to get bonuses, but the real character buffs come from the items that you find and equip, not the skills that you unlock as you level up.
Dungeon Siege III supports multiplayer, which is nice if you're cruising through a casual session with a friend, but it has one serious flaw that is bound to prevent any serious players from picking it up: You cannot bring your existing character into someone else's game, and anything you gain in multiplayer does not come out with you. Character persistence was one of the key features that made Diablo II such an enduring success. Not having it in Dungeon Siege III feels like a massive oversight. Yes, the single-player is still quite enjoyable, but multiplayer feels somewhat basic.
One nice plus is that Dungeon Siege III supports guest logins over Xbox Live, so if you have a buddy playing alongside you on the couch, you can both hop into someone else's Xbox Live session with a single gold account.
Visually, the engine powering Dungeon Siege III does an excellent job of showing off a detailed world. There are some visual tricks done to ensure a short draw distance, such as keeping the camera focused downward at all times, but the trade-off is worth it. Lighting and spell effects are robust, offering a feast for the eyes when battling it out in some of the later areas.
One design decision worth noting is how the game intelligently makes any obscuring element temporarily invisible as needed. For example, if you enter a small room, rather than force the camera into a tight space, the exterior wall simply becomes see-through. This is an elegant solution to a long-standing problem.
That's not to say that there isn't the occasional graphical glitch or frame rate drop when the action gets heavy, but for the most part, the eye candy is solid. The frame rate issues seem to be engine related, as we noticed them in both a retail copy on the Xbox 360 as well as in the demo on the PlayStation 3.
Speaking of a demo, Dungeon Siege III has what is perhaps the most honest demo we've seen in a long time. Unlike many console demo downloads that last a mere 15 minutes, Dungeon Siege III offers up a demo that is easily 30-60 minutes long. While not all retail content is available, the first few quests are here, along with a healthy selection of items and multiple opportunities for combat. You can even play local co-op in the demo.
In short, playing the demo is pretty much just like playing the real thing. If you like the demo, you'll like Dungeon Siege III. If you hate the demo, then the game isn't going to float your boat.
Dungeon Siege III may not be a perfect game, but for dungeon crawler fans, it offers up hours of enjoyment with solid combat complemented by a dash of humor. It's not going to appeal to everyone out there, but if you're part of the target market, it's an excellent way to pass the time while waiting for Blizzard to hurry up and finish Diablo III.
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