Now this is a surprise. I don’t think anybody was expecting Dungeon Siege III to be anything other than a by-the-numbers cash-in, a hack n’ slash action game churned out with little thought or care purely because Square Enix had the licence going spare and Obsidian needed some money. I certainly wasn’t expecting it to turn out to be one of the better games I’ve ended up playing this year.
In retrospect this probably wasn’t giving Obsidian enough credit. Baroque RPG games (by today’s standards, anyway) are their speciality, and while I’m not saying Dungeon Siege III is the next Planescape: Torment or anything it still has a story that’s really far too good for the action RPG it’s ended up bolted to. It’s been a while since I played the original Dungeon Siege, but I seem to recall the plot there being something along the lines of KRUG ARE ATTACKING KILL THE KRUG – a simple, uncomplicated excuse for hitting things, and ultimately one of the reasons why Dungeon Siege isn’t that fondly remembered these days. DS3 by contrast seems rather shallow and superficial – “The bad lady killed the order of good knights protecting the country! Rebuild the order and restore peace and justice to the land!” – but as I made my way deeper into the game it revealed plenty of hidden depth – not quite to the same degree as KOTOR 2 or Alpha Protocol, but certainly more than can be found in the average Bioware RPG. There’s plenty of decisions to be made as the story unfolds, some of which appear to have game-changing consequences and all of which get a little callback during the Fallout-esque end narration.
This is going above and beyond the call of duty as far as Dungeon Siege is concerned. A complex story wasn’t necessary but Obsidian did it anyway, and it makes the game far better than it really has any right to be. Yes, there are some concessions that have been made to the format – it’d be very, very hard to miss even one side-quest, for example, and any hard decisions I had to make were literally signposted in conversation (presumably for the hard-of-thinking console players the game is primarily aimed at), but it’s more than enough to raise it up above the horde of Diablo-alikes I’ve attempted and abandoned over the years, not least because I finished Dungeon Siege III on the strength of its story. The denouement is something of an anti-climax – a common problem with most RPGs these days – but the end cutscene more than makes up for it.
So that’s the major surprise attached to Dungeon Siege III. What about the actual game? As it turns out, Obsidian surprised me again by making a game that was:
- Fun to play.
- Very good looking (from the isometric perspective, anyway).
There’s a few rather odd choices like having every single conversation take place with the camera squarely aimed at the back of the player character’s head the whole time, and when zoomed in to the level necessary to have conversations the graphics definitely start to show their rough edges. Still, by Obsidian standards this is nothing short of a triumph, not least because they got the crucial combat element almost exactly right.
I played through the adventure as Reinhart, a teleporting git-wizard who started the game uppercutting everyone so hard they flew off the screen. The difficulty quickly ramped up so that this was no longer possible – especially since Reinhart has a nasty tendency to crumple under two or three hits from even a normal baddie – but this simply forced me to get acquainted with my dodge button. His combat abilities and talents are well thought out so that there are several synergies which boost each other and the boss fights are structured so that each one isn’t beatable with just one ability or tactic. I died a dozen times on one boss before I realised that blocking her blue homing deathbeams was much better than dodging them and having them hit me in the back. Another boss amassed a similar heap of Reinhart corpses with his merciless barrage of shotgun-snot until it occurred to me to toss a mirror image at him first so that he’d have something else to shoot at. It’s a very nice piece of design, and one which I wish more games would emulate.
Unfortunately – this being Obsidian – there are still a few gaping holes here and there. The primary one is that Dungeon Siege III is designed and marketed as a co-op game, yet it goes out of its way to make co-op as frustrating and unfriendly to the player as it possibly can. There’s two major problems with it.
1) All the characters in a game are stored locally, with the host. This means that I can’t take the Lucas from my game and go and play with Kenti. I have to use his Lucas in his game. When I quit, that Lucas will stay on Kenti’s computer. I can’t take the character or any items out of Kenti’s game, and if Kenti decides never to play again I’m screwed. This means that the only one with a stake in the game is the host player; anyone who joins is basically just playing for shits and giggles.
2) So let’s say we’ve got two players willing to put up with that in-built limitation, and that they’ve agreed to only play that particular game together so that both characters progress at the same rate. This is where the second problem rears its ugly head: the camera is permanently nailed to the host player’s perspective. It’ll move a little with the client player, but they’re only allowed so far away from the host before they get tugged back on their invisible leash. This pisses both players off because the client can’t hit anything outside of this magic radius while the host can’t aim properly due to the client constantly moving around to try and hurt things that are off-camera.
Both of these problems are down to the game being designed for this mythical beast called “couch co-op”. Dungeon Siege III is great if you happen to want to sit down with your buddy in front of a 360 and pick up a controller for a few minutes of multiplayer mayhem, but this comes at the expense of the vast majority of players who primarily go for online co-op. Ironically this all means that co-op’s latest poster child is far more fun to play in single-player than it ever will be with a friend. I don’t quite know what Obsidian were thinking here.
Still, I’m not going to let that cloud my view of things when the single-player stands alone remarkably well. There are other more salient flaws: the shop and inventory interfaces manage the astonishing feat of actually being worse than the ones in Mass Effect; most loot will only change the colour of a character’s outfit when equipped and not the outfit itself; combat occasionally gets too noisy to see what the fuck is going on; there’s no tooltips explaining what all the special equipment effects are and they’ve all got non-intuitive names (so +Critical Damage is now “Doom” and Stun is now “Warding”, or alternatively “Stagger”), etc. etc. Crucially, though, none of these flaws were serious enough to significantly hamper my enjoyment of the game, and I enjoyed it a lot. For that alone Obsidian deserve high praise.