The idea was a good one: Take an established action RPG dungeon-crawler formula, infuse it with a multilayered story, and set it in space. Include multiple player paths that raise important philosophical questions--specifically, How much is your humanity worth? Unfortunately, the decision to focus on story in Space Siege came at the expense of an engaging combat system, interesting environments, and a rewarding upgrade system. The worst part? It didn't have to.
Space Siege is the spiritual successor to the Dungeon Siege series from designer Chris Taylor and Gas Powered Games. The game opens with a chilling cutscene as hundreds of alien warships descend upon Earth with just one goal: extermination. As our home world explodes, a lone colony ship called the Armstrong manages to slip through the enemy armada, but it's not alone. An alien pod attaches itself to the hull, and insect-like creatures called the Kerak pour into a cargo bay, hoping to destroy what remains of the human race. You jump right in as combat engineer Seth Walker, armed with only a machine gun, and begin blasting away at the Kerak menace. Watching Earth explode is powerful, and a great premise with which to begin a sci-fi adventure, but it's all downhill from there.
As you explore the bowels of the Armstrong, eliminating Kerak and restoring the ship's systems, you periodically come across cybernetic parts. In this future, these implants are used to drastically improve human abilities. Those without the ability to walk can install cybernetic legs, while those stricken with paralysis can implant a cybernetic spine. But aboard the Armstrong, these upgrades can be used instead to transform Seth into a cybernetic killing machine. The cost, however, is your humanity, as indicated by a handy humanity meter that appears every time you visit the cybernetic implant kiosk. The cybernetic eye, for example, costs you 10 percent of your humanity. When you install an implant, Seth will scream in pain, an obvious attempt to make you realize that you're losing a part of yourself with each upgrade. There are several problems with this system. Gameplay is not made significantly easier with an upgrade, and 10 bonus attack points--whatever that represents--for installing a cybernetic eye isn't a convincing argument to go through with the procedure. Finally, the few allies you have on the Armstrong barely register a response to your freakish new appearance after you install a cybernetic brain (plus 10 chance of critical strike!). Gina, the communications officer, will beg you not to install any implants; Dr. Desoto, the cybernetics specialist, will tell you that the fate of humanity depends on you installing these implants, and that's about it. Installing these parts feels inconsequential, exactly the opposite of what Gas Powered Games had hoped to accomplish. As expected, there is a special ending for those who choose to finish the game with 100 percent humanity intact, but rest assured each of the three endings is a disappointment.
But hey, none of this would be too much of a concern if Space Siege featured an explosive combat system with over-the-top futuristic power attacks, a deep crafting system, tons of customizable parts and valuable loot, and a non-linear mission system. None of this is the case. You left click to move Seth to a location, and right click on an enemy to fire. A major control issue is that Seth is forced to stop moving when he wants to fire, even though enemies can move while firing. No fair. This wouldn't have been an issue if you had WASD keyboard control or support for a game controller, but as it stands, control is imprecise and outdated. A bright spot is the addition of the Hodgson's Robotic Unit, known as HR-V. He's a loyal robot companion made up of 25 parts of scrap metal and is upgradeable with flamethrowers and laser blasters. There are some rudimentary squad commands if you want to send HR-V as bait while you attack from afar or if you want to attempt a flanking maneuver and catch the enemy in your crossfire, a very useful tactic. Should HR-V be destroyed, you can use 25 more spare parts at a Hodgson's robotic assembly station, hundreds of which are scattered about the ship, and make a new HR-V.
Spare parts are found after you destroy an enemy or in toolboxes throughout the Armstrong, and act as currency as you choose to level up Seth's weapons, armor, abilities, and HR-V. None of the upgrades are particularly appealing, however. A four-percent increase of landing a critical hit would have been more interesting had you installed new parts or made some kind of intricate modification to your weapon. But no, you simply continue to buy new upgrades, and not even the blast from a souped-up rocket launcher appears any more impressive than that of the level-one rocket launcher. Weapons in general are a major disappointment. You'll visit the armory of the Armstrong, with nary a high-tech WMD to be found. Instead, you find new variants of machine guns, assault rifles, and frag cannons at regular intervals throughout the game. The newest weapon is almost always the strongest, and there's no reason to go back to your old weapon. It's a complete surprise and disappointment that even the upgrade system was made linear, and there's little choice in where to apply your spare parts.
Leveling up is also linear and shallow. Instead of accumulating experience points, you level up at predetermined points in the game and are rewarded with two skill points. These are spread between combat and engineering trees, but to call them "trees" would be misleading. No, these are upgrade "branches." Many of the options are only available with cybernetic upgrades, and most of the engineering skills such as bomb drones and gun turrets will go unused, yet you are forced to spend points on them in order to progress down the branch.
For a colony ship meant to house thousands of people on the way to a new world, the Armstrong is a drab and boring place. Each new area that you encounter looks strikingly like the one before it, some combination of gray and metal. Occasionally you'll come across the ship's basketball court or what looks to be a lounge, but the dull color palette leaves a lot to be desired. For some reason, every room and hallway is packed with explosive barrels and canisters, which are fun to blow up but make little sense on a bridge leading to the ship's transit train. Not even the musical score will manage to pull you in, as it is mostly muted, something present in the background that you'll rarely hear or notice.
OK, so the gameplay, graphics, and sound are forgettable, but at least there's that story to keep you interested, right? Well, not really. Though the opening premise manages to grab you, the eventual plot "twists" are ripped straight out of about 20 other science-fiction movies and games, so predictable that they border on cliche. There is one major decision you'll face late in the game and, although the game still plays out exactly the same except for the dialogue, Space Siege does give you the opportunity to answer the question it's been asking during entire campaign: How will you choose to save humanity? It's a good touch, but when the final credits roll, no matter what your percentage of humanity is, you'll still be left wondering, "Is this it?"
The multiplayer portion of Space Siege takes place on the Tachibana, the other lone colony ship that you will discover in the single-player game. A total of four players team together to cleanse each area of the ship of invading Kerak. It plays as more of a challenge mode than a cohesive story campaign. From the outset, you have access to every cybernetic upgrade, main weapon, and enough skill points to fill up either the combat or engineering branch, eliminating the level-up process. But if you eliminate the story and the RPG elements, all you have left is combat, and as you've already read, that's simply not good enough to hold your attention for long.
It's a shame Space Siege went in the direction it did. Gas Powered Games should be given credit for trying to infuse a genre typically defined by hacking and slashing with important moral decisions and branching gameplay paths, but ultimately failed in the final execution. It was a good idea, but it takes more than a good idea to make a good game.