I cast a glance over my shoulder, reassuring myself that my bold companions are ready. The elf draws forth an ice arrow and fits it to her bow; the mages ready their staffs, eldritch energy sparkling, their summoned creatures fidgeting and growling, ready to be unleashed on the enemy. Just ahead, shambling forms fill the trail through the misty woods, blocking our path. We will need to get past them to reach the cave that is our destination. I break cover and howl, my glowing war hammer singing a song of death and destruction. ?Attack!?
Ah, the glory of a good fantasy game just cannot be matched. Over the years, titles such as Diablo, Diablo 2 and, more recently, Gas Powered Games? Dungeon Siege, treated players to richly detailed worlds of monsters, quests and adventures. They filled the hours with frantic click-fests, tense exploration, complex quests and, perhaps most importantly, oodles and oodles of treasure, weapons and other ?lewt?.
In the recently released Dungeon Siege II, developer Gas Powered Games and publisher Microsoft once more spin a tale of brave heroes and dastardly villains, set in a lush fantasy world. We previewed DS2 back in February and expressed our excitement for the title?s promised improvements: the all-new graphics engine and the innovative ?Coach AI? system which promised to bring new life and realism to the games? foes.
Having spent some time in the newly imagined world of Aranna, we can report that the sequel to Dungeon Siege is indeed a better game than its predecessor, but it is not without faults.
Your character begins as a mercenary, recently employed by the ominous warlord, Valdis. The first mission, in which the player travels through the war-torn trenches of Valdis? army, serves as a tutorial, acquainting the player with the game?s myriad of controls and interface screens (the inventory window, the quest log, etc.). At the end of the tutorial, the player is taken captive after witnessing, first-hand, Valdis? brutality. It is up to the player to find their way out of captivity and venture back to their homeland. Along the way, they just might decide to take a side in the conflict and become a hero.
The game world is richly detailed and lovingly populated with waterfalls, dense undergrowth, vine bridges, dank caverns and hordes of monsters. The world of Aranna is so well realized, in fact, that it often becomes a character in its own right- the artists and mappers that built the environment obviously made it as a labor of love, and the quality of their dedication shows.
Unfortunately, the ?all new graphics engine? that we were promised back in February disappoints- the actual player and monster models are still low-poly affairs. Magical auras and spell effects (a hallmark of the franchise) are still breathtaking; often filling the screen with particle effects as fireballs explode and lightning bolts sizzle. The armor and weapon skins that give the models their character get the job done, however I was expecting better given the breathless quality of the developer?s pre-release statements.
Game play in DS2 is exciting and fun, with the player initially able to control a party of up to four characters and/or pets (the ability to have larger groups can be unlocked by completing the game at its default difficulty level). As in the original, the player directly controls the actions of any one party member, and the other NPCs follow along. Default attacks can be pre-set, as can ?auto-cast? spells, which proves to be very useful- if not absolutely essential- given the waves of attackers that will soon be thirsting for your blood.
Gas Powered Games seems to have re-thought their position on character advancement this time around. In the original Dungeon Siege, skill and ability advancement were purely a result of the player?s actions. If you used your bow then your marksmanship went up. If you took lots of hits, you got tougher. Using nature magic resulted in your healing and nature spells becoming more effective, etc. While this same transparent skill advancement system is in place in DS2, the developers have also introduced a ?skill tree? system that allows for even greater customization. For example, Combat Mages can now develop their abilities down specialist paths, utilizing Fire, Electricity or Death magic. The reward for developing certain abilities is the addition of new special attacks and powers.
Combat is fast and furious, and at the higher levels is only made possible by the use of an easily accessible pause system. When your party gets overrun by the teaming hordes (and it will be, trust me), pause is only a space-bar press away. Players can then change attacks, queue up spells, assign orders and drink healing and mana potions before resuming the action.
Unfortunately, the ?Coach AI? system seems to be MIA, which is a great disappointment. Monsters still more-or-less rush forward into the waiting spells and weapons of your party, employing force of numbers rather than tactics in nearly every case. Boss fights tend to start out as two minutes of initial panic as the player jockeys for position, advancing and retreating in order to pull away the minions surrounding the boss, but almost always degrade to the party dog-piled on top of the villain. The Warrior spams their ?Provoke? skill to grab and hold its agro, the spell-casters desperately attempt to keep the tank alive and everyone gobbles healing and mana potions like Pez. In the (much) later game the enemies do seem to wake up and buy a clue, employing alternative tactics, but it?s almost too little and much, much too late.
Dungeon Siege II?s story is a stock tale of ancient and terrible magical artifacts, prophesied heroes and seemingly all-powerful evil, told primarily through interaction with the game?s many NPCs and with the occasional ?tome of knowledge? tossed in for spice. The party members will also occasionally chitchat with each other, which provides additional depth to the characters. Unfortunately, the conversational cues are horribly timed, and always seem to pop up just as a fresh wave of enemies rushes towards my group, forcing me to make the difficult decision to either read the conversational flavor text or fight for my life. It is strange and somewhat disappointing that the developers went to the trouble to write and record dialogue that most players will likely have to skip in the heat of battle. An ?auto-pause? option that would kick in when such scenes begin would be a very welcome addition.
The game?s sounds do much to further the illusion that this is an actual world- caves echo and drip water in a realistic fashion, tombs rumble ominously and enemies give blood-chilling screams when they sight fresh prey. All of the NPC dialogue is recorded, but is often over the top in its cornball delivery, so much so that I often wondered if the actors had been instructed to just shoot for camp rather than drama. This reviewer would like to invite the game?s audio directors to look up the word ?understated? in the dictionary and paste the definition on their monitors for future reference.
Despite its shortcomings, Dungeon Siege II offers up a merry romp through an exceptionally well-realized fantasy world, one that surpasses its predecessor- no mean feat. The storyline, while a bit trite, is entertaining enough and does fill up the game?s 40-50 hours of game play nicely. Toss in Gas Powered Game?s incredible environmental graphics, background sounds, vast treasure variety, single player campaign or multiplayer co-op modes and, perhaps most importantly, its already-established and dedicated modification (?mod?) community and you have a game that should entertain for months to come.
Gameplay: 8– The original Dungeon Siege was often criticized for its use of automation, which made combat literally a ?click and forget? affair. The developers have responded to this with a ?click and hold to attack? system in DS2, which does make combat a bit more engaging. NPCs still take their own initiative when deciding to attack, however. The addition of the ?Mirror? and ?Rampage? modes, which give the player more direct control over their battle tactics are a nice addition. Quests vary from easy to complex, with some taking literally the entire game to complete. In many ways, DS2 feels and plays a lot like an improved Diablo, right down to the ?enchantable? (read as: ?socketable?) weapons and armor pieces, but always manages to be engaging and entertaining from start to finish.
Graphics: 9– This reviewer cannot say enough about the sheer loveliness of the game?s environmentals: misty gorges are filled with rippling streams which end in waterfalls, cave complexes are organic and labyrinthine and never feel ?tiled? or copied, forests are carpeted with concealing undergrowth in which enemies lurk. Spell and weapons effects are equally impressive, particularly when the ?pause? command is used to freeze-frame the action, something that lead to many ?Hey, honey, you gotta come here and see this!? moments. The ?click and hold? system, however, surrounds your chosen target with a bright orange outline, which I found unrealistic and distracting- the ability to turn off the green circles beneath the player?s feet and the targeting outlines would go a great way to heightening immersion (a change that I hope an enterprising mod-team will create soon).
Sound: 8– While the environmental sound effects do a great deal to deepen the player?s experience and give life to the already impressive visuals, the voice acting is often overly-dramatic, right up to (if not beyond) the boundaries of camp. This made taking the game?s heroic story seriously difficult at times. I know that it can be hard to make lines like ?You must venture forth and seek the thrice-cursed sword of Wannahockaloogie so that you may join it to the mystical shield of Granpoobah and break the curse that hangs over this land!? sound dramatic, but when the actors? delivery outright makes the audience laugh aloud it?s time to back it down a notch?
Value: 9– While the ?out of the box? game relies on unlockable difficulty modes for replay value, a key feature of the Dungeon Siege franchise is it?s pre-installed and mature mod-maker fan base. The required Tool Kit, necessary to create new dungeons and maps, was not included with the boxed game (an almost inexcusable omission given the original game?s support of the mod community) and at the time of this writing, has still not been released by Gas Powered Games. Despite this lack, however, new weapons and armor sets and other ?mini-mods? have already begun to appear on the internet. This reviewer has no doubt that soon after the Tool Kit is released we will see a flood of new models, monsters, weapons, armor sets, dungeons and other areas to explore, which should keep fans happy, and busy, for months to come. The addition of a robust multiplayer co-op mode further enhances this score.
Curve: 9– Dungeon Siege II breaks no new ground in the fantasy RPG category, but it certainly does stake an impressive claim to the territory that was carved out by its predecessor. Almost everything that Dungeon Siege did well, DS2 does better (the anemic and frustrating Save Game system notwithstanding), and this reviewer looks forward to his continued adventures in the land of Aranna.