I’ve always had a bit of a love/hate relationship with PC Role-playing Games (RPGs). On the one hand you have the type of RPG that has you reading untold thousands of lines of text and developing your character by assigning points to every minute character statistic a la Neverwinter Nights. On the other hand you have the flavor I like to call “RPG-lite,” in which game play is primarily comprised of mouse-clicking your way through dungeons and managing the bare bones of your spells and attacks. Games like Blizzard’s Diablo and Diablo II made names for themselves using this stripped-down but still engaging and fun formula. Games like Neverwinter Nights are deep, no doubt, but can be overwhelming, while games like Diablo can feel a bit simplistic to those reared on detailed character/non-player character interaction.
A few years ago, Chris Taylor and Gas Powered Games envisioned a game that would exist somewhere between the poles of these two RPG types, a game that would offer the interactive depth RPG fans crave while eliminating some of the book-keeping and other chores that such games usually entail. Enter: Dungeon Siege.
I have fond memories of playing the original Dungeon Siege. I loved the party-building and the exploration. The world setting was lush and very detailed, filled with all kinds of beasts for me to destroy with sword, axe, fireball and lightning bolt. I even liked most of the “streamlining” that Gas Powered Games developed to keep the game moving along: leveling and skill development based on your in-game actions and the handy Pack Mule that carried your loot (a beastie made even better by the addition of a few user-made modifications). You get the drift.
But, there was always trouble in this fantasy paradise that many players, including myself, had issues with, the worst of which were poor enemy AI and the overly independent nature of your party members. Some disgruntled players even abandoned the game, calling it “a screensaver with a $49 price tag” or even “the game that plays itself.”
But, let’s skip ahead to the present, where Gas Powered games is attempting to atone for its past blunders with a sequel to the loved and hated Dungeon Siege.
Dungeon Siege II, published by Microsoft Games, is a party-based action RPG in which you create a hero destined to navigate a path between good and evil in the mythical realm of Aranna. Much like previous installments in the Dungeon Siege universe, players can expect to build a party of diverse characters, including staple archetypes, such as brooding mages, stout dwarves, sharp-eyed elven archers, and the like.
But this time around, Gas Powered Games is promising a richer, more engaging experience, one that focuses more heavily on the game’s story and how the character’s actions within it define its outcome.
When players enter Aranna, they find themselves in the middle of a bloody civil war. An evil leader, Valdis, has emerged on the scene as the next potential dictator, one who will crush all resistance to his eventual rule. As the player progresses through the game’s many story-driven quests, they will be forced to make decisions that will affect the outcome of the war and the character’s ensuing disposition in the grand scheme of things.
The original Dungeon Siege was well known for its sublimely effective party-based combat system, and it appears as if the developers over at Gas Powers Games are not going to significantly change this aspect of the game. The Dungeon Siege II‘s developers have stated that they are still tweaking the game engine with the possible goal of creating customizable automation levels. Those that remember the original Dungeon Siege‘s “it almost plays itself” level of NPC automation will find this change a welcome one, and it is to be hoped that the developers will deliver on this feature.
What will change, however, is the game’s character creation and advancement system. The original Dungeon Siege, in an attempt to “streamline” the staple RPG tasks such as level advancement, simply rewarded players for the actions that they performed in-game. If you used your bow often, then you received automatic upgrade points to your archery. Cast spells, and your magic rating went up.
Some of this system will remain in place, says lead designer Kevin Lambert. However, in Dungeon Siege II, the designers are introducing the concept of the “Skill Tree,” which will allow players to build up not only Skill Specialties but also powerful “Hero Powers” for your party. These powers, which can easily turn the tide of battle when used alone, will also be able to be combined with other party-members’ Hero Powers, making for devastating combos. Lambert has revealed that there will be thirty-two distinct Hero Powers available, each with three different levels of effectiveness.
Those that loved the original Dungeon Siege‘s already lush graphics will be happy to learn that Dungeon Siege II will boast a completely new graphics engine, one that has been built from the ground up to take advantage of all of DirectX 9’s advanced features. Expect a wealth of new spell effects, even-more-realistic lighting and other eye-candy. If you recently upgraded your PC’s graphics card, then this looks to be a title that will make you appreciate the hard-earned cash you’ve just shelled out.
Players will also have access to new summoned creatures that will fight alongside your party. These “pets” include (among others) Elementals – creatures comprised of the four “natural” elements of air, earth, fire and water (alas, no “Heart” for all you Captain Planet fans). These allies will help our brave hero defeat a bevy of new foes as well, including the Val’Kesh, a race of elves that, through their worship of Death magic have become rotted shadows of their former selves, banished by their Light brethren to a remote part of the forest. Other new races include the nature-sensitive Dryads and Half-Giants. Numerous enemy monster races have been promised as well.
Of course, no RPG worth its salt would ignore the joys of collecting various and rare magical items such as swords, armor and other goodies, and Dungeon Siege II looks to fare well in this category as well. Gas Powered Games has promised a wide variety of unique loot drops, many with special backgrounds and histories. Some players of the original Dungeon Siege felt that item drops were anemic compared to other RPGs such as Diablo II, a comment that the developers seem to have taken to heart.
Another perceived weakness in Dungeon Siege, namely the enemy AI, seems to have also undergone a radical revision in the sequel. In the original game, most enemies simply rushed forward into your waiting swords and spells, easy prey for a prepared party. In Dungeon Siege II, however, the developers have created something that they’re calling “Coach AI,” which is a system whereby the enemy AI will dynamically assess the combat situation and will, in theory, react in the best possible manner to win. Actions the AI might choose are as varied as running for cover, splitting up to assault the party from multiple angles, and even targeting the most dangerous party-member for quick defeat. No word has been given as to how a difficulty setting will affect the Coach AI system, but it is to be hoped that players of all skill levels will be able to experience the thrill of fighting against enemies that actually seem alive and react to your party’s actions.
So, the question remains: will Dungeon Siege II be more like Diablo II or Neverwinter Nights? It certainly appears as if Gas Powered Games has listened to fan reaction to their earlier works and is beefing up the story-driven elements that were somewhat lacking before. The geek in me is, I admit, drooling at the prospect of even more detailed and lush environments through which to hack-and-slash my way. And the addition of more unique enemies to the original game’s stock offerings of dwarves, spiders, zombies, etc. is certainly welcome.
Gas Powered Games has a challenge on their hands to craft a game that maintains the sheer fun of the original while adding back those very elements that they “innovated” away from in the first place, namely the more traditional skill development system. Whether or not they hit the mark with the sequel is the question that will very much be on this reviewer’s mind.
Look for Dungeon Siege II for the PC in Spring of 2005 from Microsoft Games.