Written by: Stoo

Date posted: January 31, 2011

Undead approach! Wedge formation! Actually i have no idea if that helps.

So, here on this site roleplaying games are meant to be my department. All things involving wizards, goblins, elf chicks, and even those with a more futuristic take on skill lists and experience points. It’s what I laughingly call an area of “expertise”, and thus my responsibility while in turn Rik looks into things I’ll never begin to understand (like football). I’ve not done well lately though; the last one I wrote about was May 09 and in 2010 I think I covered nothing but first-person shooters. So time for a renewed effort.

I was actually going to write about the intellectual, wordy and story-driven Planescape Torment. That’s going to have to wait for later this year though, because today we’re looking at an RPG of the far more action-packed sort. Dungeon Siege is, as the name might suggest to genre-savvy fans, a straight up dungeon-crawler. You control a team of heroes who hack, slash and fireball their way through a series of wilderness, caves and temples (and dungeons). Hours upon hours of slaying monsters, from wolves to goblins to monstrous undead, and gaining ever better loot.

You start by generating your hero, although the initial choices are merely cosmetic. Then you’re thrown straight into the game – a humble farmer working their field when a neighbour staggers over, mumbles something about the normally peaceful Krug attacking the realm, then keels over dead. So you run into your hut, drink yourself into a stupor and hope the King’s army handles it. No, wait, that’s not much a of beginning for a hero. Instead you grab a dagger or a shovel and charge off to warn the authorities.

You might be wondering where factors like, choosing a character class, or combat skills or other such RPG character-building things come in. Well this is all handled in a very straightforward way, with four ways to fight. You have melee weapons, bows, and two kinds of magic each with a range of spells, but one kind more offensively-oriented and the other more defensive. Whatever your hero does, they get better at it. Their skill goes up and so do relevant base stats. So swing a sword enough and you get more melee skill and more strength, which allows you to wield bigger swords and heavier armour.

I mostly took pics outdoors cos they look better than actual dungeons.

So the first chapter of the game eases you in pretty gently, dashing around knocking down various wimpy enemies. It could all be like Blizzard’s own action-RPG diablo, except rendered in 3D. However you discover the real nature of the game when you start picking up additional members, who are usually ready-specialised in one of the four-disciplines. Eventually, you can have up to eight members. (or seven and a pack mule, which can haul a far greater amount of loot). With a full party, a bunch of new options become relevant. For one, you can choose various formations (like a narrow line for tight corridors). There are also some general AI choices, determining if for example your guys will engage nearby enemies without orders, or hold position.

Overall the action flows pretty well. There’s a satisfaction in watch your warriors crunch into the next mob of skeletons, while fireballs crash around and careful healing spells keep everyone standing. There’s not a huge amount of tactical thinking mind you. I did appreciate the AI options, and the ability to give orders while the action is paused, is enabling you to think a sec, reassess and get your squishy mages out of harms way. That said, a lot of the time just charging in got me by okay, as long as I had the awareness to run away when it looked like I was about to be overwhelmed.

Oh and watch out for flamethrower-style attacks as they’re a horror on your squishy mages. Also a threat are enemy goons ignoring three heavy warriors beating them to death, just so they can live long enough to score a few hits on those aforementioned squishy mages. But really there’s not a lot of depth here, just a bit of common sense. And thus it can all get repetitive quite quickly.

Here's a dungeon, where it goes a bit steampunk.

Also I feel the magic system could have done with a bit of work. Some useful “utility” spells like paralysis are super-expensive in mana terms. And the interface doesn’t support having more than a couple of spells per character ready for “quick access” anyway. So I tended to just toggle between one or two fireball types, a healing spell, and ignore the rest. There just wasn’t the incentive to try to be more clever.

Anyway though that’s how it works. And thus you’ll romp on a joyful killing spree across the kingdom of Ehb. To the game’s credit, it still looks good. Even if the gameplay stays constant at least the scenery provides a lot of variety. There are dark and haunted forests with trolls and worse lurking in the foliage, murky swamps with hidden lost temples. Also castles, and of course a few dungeons, full of treasure and also horrors, deep and gloomy beneath the earth. One of the highlights near the end is a series of desert canyons. So while clearly dated, it’s all easy enough on the eye and reasonably atmospheric.

Don’t expect much freedom to roam though, it’s all strictly linear progression apart from a few semi-hidden side paths. In fact there’s not even any real questing in the nature of “go do this for me and return for a reward”, because that would mean backtracking. Which DS never does. You go from wilderness to dungeon to town and onto the next wilderness, always onwards. Any piece of civilisation is nothing than a one-off pitstop for buying and selling gear.

Dragons, and a forest. And my guys apparently cowering in the undergrowth.

Meanwhile there’s very little of a narrative to propel you along here. It’s clear someone did sit and write down a backstory to Ehb but the presentation is meagre to the point of complete disinterest. I guess our expectations wouldn’t be all that high for a dungeon crawler like this. What did bug me though, in terms of factors that can bring the experience to life a bit more, is the lack of any sort of characterisation for your heroes. Again I’m not looking for highly developed subplots or anything. But they don’t even say anything apart from a brief recruitment speech. Not even “yes sir” comments when thrown into battle. It’s a band of mutes.

So then. Dungeon Siege is kind of a hollow experience. Just endless hack and slash. To which again you might say “duh Stoo, dungeon crawler”. Still we could have had some characters. Or a bit more story-driven questing. Or expanded tactics. I mean this is a fairly slick Microsoft-published affair from 2002, not some 1990-era relic.

Yet. I did find myself playing for hours at a time, some evening. The core crawling experience still works – “just a bit further” you think, wondering if the next chamber will bring some shiny loot. Or if the dungeons will emerge into some new wilderness. Or if your mage will finally up his skill level enough to cast Flaming Arse of Doom. It sucked me in for quite a few evenings anyway. And maybe you don’t want to sweat over the complexities of something D&D based. So this isn’t an essential but if you want a sword and monsters based timesink with which to relax after work, if you find this cheap it’s not bad.