Dungeon Siege Review
Its polished interface, accessible gameplay, and exceptional graphics make Dungeon Siege a first-rate action RPG.
When Chris Taylor left Cavedog Entertainment after the release of the acclaimed real-time strategy game Total Annihilation, many gamers were surprised to learn that he would temporarily abandon the strategy genre in order to create a role-playing game. In spite of the shift in genre, the resulting game--Dungeon Siege--has a lot in common with Total Annihilation. Both feature excellent graphics, an accessible interface, capable AI, and varied environments. Dungeon Siege, like Total Annihilation, isn't the most novel game, but it is one of most polished games of its type.
Dungeon Siege is essentially a party-based Diablo that imports some of the interface features of real-time strategy games in order to allow you to easily control multiple characters. It's a hybrid of action and role-playing that consists of an almost constant stream of quickly resolved battles and a flexible but simple skill-based character development system. The setting is a very generic medieval fantasy world, and the game's bland and forgettable story is limited to an almost completely linear trek to dispatch various threats. Chris Taylor and his team of developers have essentially followed the same blueprint they used when creating Total Annihilation, GameSpot's 1997 Game of the Year. They paid only superficial heed to creating an involving plot and instead focused their creative efforts on making an accessible game that is great looking, easy to control, and fast paced. Dungeon Siege has all those attributes, and it's particularly notable for the quality of its graphics.
Dungeon Siege features wonderfully detailed and varied environments. The 3D game engine's most distinctive characteristic is its ability to effectively depict geography of varying heights. While the topography of most gaming worlds is limited to flat terrain occasionally disrupted by slowly rising hills, Dungeon Siege routinely features intimidating cliffs and teetering bridges over seemingly bottomless abysses. The dangers the chaotic landscapes imply are illusory, since your characters are essentially glued to the ground and can never actually fall, and even creatures that appear to be flying essentially just hover slightly above the ground. As in the Myth games, you can take advantage of higher ground to loft arrows and ranged spells at hapless foes perched beneath your party, and there are even explosive weapons and spells with effects that greatly resemble the Molotov cocktails hurled by Myth's dwarven bombardiers. Dungeon Siege's physics system may be less robust than that of the Myth games, but its inclusion adds some tactical complexity, and it is consistently satisfying to watch your characters rain explosives on foes that are positionally disadvantaged.
In addition to its use of heights to great effect, Dungeon Siege's graphics engine is capable of rendering some amazingly varied environments. During the course of the game, your characters will travel through forests crowded with gently swaying trees, icy caverns, beaches infested with hovering gulls, and arid desert landscapes. As the game's name implies, there are also a number of dungeons and caves to explore, and the engine allows for seamless transitions into subterranean environments. It also never needs to halt the gameplay in order to load new areas. The lighting, shadows, and weapon and spell effects all look great, and there's lots of nice attention to detail, such as the rippling water effects that appear when your characters trudge through pools of water.
The characters and monsters are even more graphically detailed than the environments. Each weapon and armor type is distinctive and visible on your characters when equipped, and many magical items have their own individualized appearance. The 3D characters and monsters are so detailed that it appears as if you're playing with sculpted miniatures. By pausing the game, you can freeze spell effects and missile weapons in midair to get a detailed look at any ongoing action. Dungeon Siege offers as much graphical eye candy as any isometric-perspective game to date. It also sounds excellent, combining an ambient orchestral score by now-famous Total Annihilation composer Jeremy Soule with plenty of appropriate sound effects.
The game is very linear, although there are a few ancillary areas and dungeons to explore. You can backtrack, but there's little incentive to do so, since monsters don't respawn and dialogue with non-player characters doesn't change in response to events. In order to allow you to maintain situational awareness, objects like trees become transparent near your party members, and you can easily alter the isometric perspective by rotating, raising, or lowering your viewpoint. Despite that flexibility, trees and some environmental effects like snow and rain still sometimes make it difficult to see much of the area surrounding your characters. However, in those circumstances, you can rely upon the game's capable automap, which clearly identifies all nearby creatures and items and allows you to zoom in your viewpoint to essentially play the game from a top-down perspective.
The character development system is simple and intuitive and features only four skills and three core attributes. Your characters develop their abilities to use melee or ranged weapons, or to cast combat or nature magic spells, based upon the frequency of use of those skills. For example, a character who starts using a bow will gradually develop proficiency with ranged weapons, while a character who prefers casting fireballs will gradually become adept at using combat magic. A character's core attributes are similarly derived from the use of those basic skills, so archers will gain dexterity, melee fighters will augment their strength, and spellcasters will increase in intelligence. It's a character development system that lacks the depth, and inherent replayability, of more complex skill-tree development systems, like the one used by Diablo II. But the advantage of Dungeon Siege's system is that it allows players to just play the game in the manner of their own choosing and let their characters naturally develop the skills needed to accommodate that playing style.
Since Dungeon Siege is party-based, you'll likely sample characters skilled in each of the abilities during the course of playing the game. Unfortunately, these skills are not well balanced. Nature magic, in particular, is much more difficult to rapidly develop compared with the other three skills, since there's an early shortage of effective spells. Characters specializing in nature spells won't get as many opportunities to meaningfully contribute early on in the game, other than by casting healing spells, which by their nature are only useful some time after combat has commenced. It's accordingly difficult to sufficiently develop a character's nature magic ability to allow that character to cast the more formidable spells that become available at higher skill levels. That's less relevant during the single-player game, since even a nature mage with half the experience of the rest of your characters will usually be adequate to keep the rest of your party healed, but it's frustrating to play as such a weak character in multiplayer games, where you're limited to controlling a single character.