Dungeon Siege, from first-time developer Gas Powered Games, is an action role-playing game, except that maybe the word “action” doesn’t do it justice, and “adrenaline-rushed non-stop massacre-athon” is more appropriate. That’s because Dungeon Siege takes a page from the Diablo series of games and gives you hordes of creatures to kill. If it walks, crawls, flies, swims, or shambles, it’s probably in the game, and you’ll probably get to kill it -- a lot. But Dungeon Siege isn’t just a Diablo clone. It uses an impressive 3D engine to bring its expansive world to life, and it does an effective job of allowing you to control up to eight characters as you hack and slash your way through the game. But Dungeon Siege does have one overriding thing in common with Diablo: it’s a lot of fun to play.
As Dungeon Siege opens, you take control of an anonymous farmer. (In fact, your character is so anonymous that once you allow other people to join your party, your character can die or be replaced, and it doesn’t matter.) But there you are, minding your own business and tending to your crops, when your old friend Norick staggers up to you and lets you know that the Krug (wimpy beasties) are attacking. Norick promptly dies, but not before telling you that you should warn the nearest village. So, with hoe in hand, it’s off to battle the Krug and deliver the message. Eventually, you’ll meet other people who will join your group, you’ll receive some more quests, and, ultimately, you’ll figure out why normally peaceable creatures are suddenly attacking. It’s all in a day’s work.
Since your character is anonymous, the good news is that you can customize yourself and select your name, gender, and appearance. (In multiplayer games, you can even choose your race, including that all time favorite, the skeleton.) But you won’t choose a class when you create your character. Dungeon Siege doesn’t really have classes. Instead, you can gain levels in four different areas -- melee attacks, ranged attacks, nature spells, and combat spells -- depending upon how you play the game. So if you use a sword a lot, you’ll gain levels in melee attacks, and, consequently, you’ll also gain strength. But if you use a bow, you’ll gain ranged attack levels plus dexterity. And so forth. It’s a nice enough system, and Gas Powered Games balanced it well so that you can become skilled in one or two areas without becoming the master of everything.
Gameplay consists almost entirely of killing stuff. Gas Powered Games created a nice background story for the places you visit, but the story in the game is almost nonexistent, and the quests aren’t very exciting, either. So the story and quests won’t drive you forward, but wondering what creatures you’ll face next will. For example, goblins are mechanically inclined in the game, and when you get to their stronghold (or industrial complex, take your pick) you’ll first encounter spider-like robots, then flame-throwing tanks, then lightning-spouting helicopters, and then... but you get the idea, and I wouldn’t want to spoil the area for you. So while the combat’s the thing -- the only thing -- it’s fun and varied enough to keep you going.
Combat is also pretty simple -- or maybe mindless, depending upon how you view such things. There aren’t any skills in the game, and, since you can set AI properties for the characters (including allowing them to attack at will), you don’t even have to click on enemies to attack them. Spellcasters get maybe a couple dozen spells to choose from, but mostly what you do in combat is direct traffic and tell your nature mages to switch between healing spells and offensive spells. That doesn’t necessarily sound like a lot of fun, but it is. There are always new things to see, and your party members are just fun to watch. I mean, when your character uses that hoe at the start of the game, he / she looks like an extra from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Plus, as the Diablo games have shown, simple combat against hordes of enemies isn’t a bad thing.
What helps combat a great deal is how easy it is to control the characters in your party. Because of the AI settings, you don’t have to micromanage their actions, and spellcasters do a commendable job of healing on their own. Plus, you can pause the game at any time to give orders, and there’s an amazingly convenient command that allows you to have your entire party quaff health or mana potions. And the potions themselves are even nice. Characters only quaff as little or as much as they need, so they don’t waste anything, and they don’t even need to have the potions equipped or in a belt or anything. The only problem with potions is that they don’t “stack” on the inventory screen, and they can take up a lot of space.
But that little nitpick about potions aside, Dungeon Siege was designed to be convenient, and to prevent you from wasting time doing anything but killing stuff. And so you don’t have to worry about buying arrows for your bows; bows have unlimited and free ammunition. You don’t have to stop in town every hour to repair equipment; equipment never becomes damaged. You don’t have to wait around for long periods of time to heal; health and mana both regenerate on their own, and quickly, and there are even health and mana shrines in the game to help you along. What’s more, each character’s inventory capacity is generous, but if you find it’s not enough, you can hire a mule to carry stuff for you. Mules count against your party limit, and they won’t attack or defend themselves (why not?), but otherwise they’re cool.
The only part of Dungeon Siege’s gameplay that I didn’t really like is that Gas Powered Games created the world so that it is completely linear. Every so often you’ll find a cave or something off the beaten track, but otherwise there’s a straight line from your farm at the start of the game to the final boss at the end of the game. Towns don’t act as hubs; you just pass through them once and then kiss them goodbye. And there aren’t even any convenient teleportation devices or movement spells. You just explore and kill stuff in one area, then move on to the next area, and then rinse and repeat. I like the gameplay to be a little more open ended than that, and Dungeon Siege’s linear style is probably what kept the quests from being very interesting. It’s hard to have quests when, in most cases, you never see the quest-giver again.
But while Dungeon Siege’s world is linear, it at least looks pretty good. This isn’t the type of game that rewards you for zooming in on the action (the engine mostly doesn’t allow it anyway), but what Dungeon Siege lacks for in absolute quality, it more than makes up for in quantity. For example, there are 250 creatures in the game, and this isn’t a case where Gas Powered Games created one creature, changed its color a little and then said voila, two creatures. Almost all the creatures are distinct, and they even have neat mannerisms, like a wraith soldier who swipes at you with its hands most of the time, but then every so often grabs its head and tries to whack you with it. Plus, the locations are modeled well -- Gas Powered Games took good advantage of the 3D engine here -- and they include just about every setting you could think of: grasslands, forests, swamps, deserts, mines, crypts, and even a pretty amazing castle at the end. But here’s the kicker. You get all that without needing a super fast computer. Dungeon Siege ran great on my Pentium-III 600 Mhz machine, even at the 1024x768 resolution, and even with other programs running in the background.
The sound is also pretty good, but it won’t wow you like the graphics. Dungeon Siege isn’t much on conversations, but most of the dialogue is acted, and acted well, and the battle sounds and background music are first rate. The only odd thing here is that for some reason Gas Powered Games included an audio cue for each enemy, so you know when they’re charging for the attack. That’s a little more friendly than necessary, and some of the cues are weird. (Why do the Krug say “purr” or whatever?)
Are there any real chinks in the armor? If you don’t mind that the battles aren’t complex and that there isn’t any real story or character depth, then no, Gas Power Games gets everything just about right. And of the things they missed, the problems are minor. For example, formations are far too cumbersome to use. You need to select the entire party, then right click the destination, and then push the mouse to indicate the direction. If you actually try to do that each time you move you’re going to kill your wrist. And I found that just left clicking for movement and having everybody follow randomly behind the leader worked out well enough anyway. Other issues with the game are mostly balance issues -- like drakes being way too easy to kill, and some mana costs being off -- but those are things I expect will be fixed quickly when Gas Powered Games releases its first patch. Dungeon Siege didn’t crash on me even once.
In some circles, Dungeon Siege has been called the “Diablo Killer,” but I don’t think that’s right. Diablo II is more about finding equipment and gaining levels, with killing stuff as a ways to a means. With Dungeon Siege it’s still fun just to kill stuff, without anything extra going on. (It’s more like the original Diablo in that way.) So the two games don’t compare especially well, and that’s ok. They’re both fun to play, and that’s enough.