Dungeon Siege offers an appealing mix of innovation and imitation. At first, one must assume the game is about its beautiful 3D environments. The world of Ehb is enormous, gorgeously detailed, and may be explored in one continuous journey with no load screens. Yet after a few sessions, the player realizes that the pacing of the game, and its balance of story and action, follow the down-to-business hack-and-slash formula established nearly five years earlier by Blizzard's Diablo. Above all else, Dungeon Siege is simply about killing all the monsters you can find and taking all their treasure. Uncomplicated quests are light on puzzles and heavy on enemies. Rewards come in the form of random loot that spills to the ground in a good fight. As they begin to feel the groove of the gameplay, players will cry out, "They stole this from Diablo!" Chances are they'll keep playing, though, and soon will also be asking, "Why didn't anyone think of doing it like this before?"
Through an empowering interface, the single player directs a party of up to eight adventurers as they cleanse the monster-infested Kingdom of Ehb. Dungeon Siege features sophisticated party-management tools and the game can be paused at any point, but the way that it plays is only superficially similar to most other party-oriented combat adventures, such as the Baldur's Gate titles. Dungeon Siege is not laid out for that kind of tactical organization. The game is focused on chaotic, real-time battle instead of careful, incremental planning. Deep strategic challenges are few. The draw of each new encounter is not in the positioning or plot advancement, but in the thrilling combat action itself. And yes, they stole that from Diablo.
Actually, Dungeon Siege seems admirably shameless about its inspiration. Beyond the general style of play, the title recycles numerous specifics from Diablo and Diablo II. Perhaps these should be considered "tributes." Magic items are noted by their blue text, and have names like "Amulet of the Badger" or "Blade of the Fox." Other elements, from the paper doll inventory window to the "red equals health, blue equals mana" scheme, are instantly familiar. Also as in Diablo, characters are basic archetypes, defined more by statistics than by personal history or cultural background. Old tomes and bits of NPC gossip allude to the long and storied sagas of Ehb, but only to players who actively seek these things out. Most will be worrying more about the hit points and armor ratings of those scary looking Droog up ahead, and less about ancient game world legends. Nevertheless, those who do look for the stories will find they are well written and nicely presented.
Presentation is the area in which Dungeon Siege truly shines, surpassing the techniques of its PC RPG forbearers by a quantum leap and rivaling the best efforts of contemporary 3D releases in other genres. Although a useful "megamap" facilitates cross-country navigation, it is common to lose one's way in the main view. This is to the game's credit; the player becomes lost in different areas not because they're purposefully designed to be confusing, but because they're so realistically huge and thick with detail. Though less of a technological breakthrough, the game's sound is also first-rate. Effects are full and crisp. Voice acting is sparse, but excellent. Music enhances the right emotions. Resolution, EAX support, and other video and audio attributes are easily adjusted for play on a variety of systems, allowing hardcore action gamers to make good use of their latest toys while still running solidly on the casual player's more modest system.
Aside from the spectacular presentational differences, Dungeon Siege is set apart from other action RPGs by its ease of use. It's a laid-back game to play. While it didn't discover the fun of straightforward hack-and-slash adventuring, it comes close to perfecting it. Instead of relying on cumbersome RPG standards to bolster the challenge, Dungeon Siege strives to remove all inconvenience. Nearly every task that was considered a chore in games such as Diablo and Baldur's Gate can be automated in Dungeon Siege. Need to organize your inventory to make room for that magic armor the Trog boss just dropped? Don't drag-and-drop each individual item to the top of the grid -- just press the "K" key and inventory items instantly pack themselves to free up space. Instead of clicking on each individual potion and gold pile littering the floor after a big battle, just press the "Z" key and the nearest characters quickly collect all the treasure in sight. Some players might almost feel like they're cheating. Inventory space limits and attribute requirements play the same roles as in other games, but tedious micromanagement is replaced by efficient automation wherever possible. In fact, it could almost be said that the game plays itself.
Of course, the biggest danger in creating a game that "plays itself" would be keeping the player involved. As eight brave characters enter free-flowing battles against swarms of various enemies, the player's only direct involvement in the fracas may be a few game-paused mouse clicks. But the player's role is not diminished in Dungeon Siege, it is merely transposed. Instead of carefully steering individual characters and continually reassigning orders in the heat of battle, the player can set basic tactics for each character beforehand. Perhaps melee fighters should be set to "Engage," "Attack Freely," and "Target Closest," for example, while the archers and combat magician are set to "Target Strongest" and the healers are set to "Hold Ground," so they'll cast their spells from a safe distance. Different movement, attack, and targeting behaviors can be assigned to anticipate different situations. There are many possible combinations for any party, and a hotkey system makes it easy to switch between preset configurations on the fly. The player is still in control, but basic tactical stances are more easily assigned before the battle begins.
Perhaps the most comparable precedent for Dungeon Siege is not Diablo itself but Delphine Software International's Darkstone. That 1999 game also closely followed the Diablo formula of heavy action and easy control, while adding multiple player characters, a simplified interface, contemporarily impressive 3D graphics, and a toned-down "T" ESRB rating. Before its release, Darkstone was heralded as the "Diablo-killer we'd all been waiting for." Though many reviewers really liked the game and it sold well enough, Darkstone was often too easily written off as derivative, its brave innovations overshadowed by its competent imitations. But do we really need to "kill" Diablo to enjoy another game created in its image? Hopefully Dungeon Siege will meet more distinguishing praise and better sales than its underappreciated predecessor. It is certainly worthy.
Graphics: The prettiest third-person RPG to date. Even many hours into the game, you'll still gape in awe as you enter a new area, encounter a new weather effect, or meet a new monster. Mountains and forests, buildings and bridges, individual trees and flowers are designed with artistic talent and rendered with technological expertise.
Sound: Battle sounds are crisp and rousing, ambient noises are spooky and unsettling, and the dynamic score is nearly always appropriate to the situation. Not the game's most immediately impressive feature, but the music and sound effects more than hold up their end of the presentation.
Enjoyment: Dungeon Siege finds the essence of what makes an action RPG fun. The ease, convenience, and engaging urgency of the Diablo games are made even easier, more convenient, and more immediately engaging, brought to life in a rich 3D game world you must experience yourself to fully appreciate.
Replay Value: One reason that Dungeon Siege can present such a detailed and varied world is that unlike the Diablo games, its levels are hand-designed. The lack of randomly generated dungeons is no great loss though, for the lands of Dungeon Siege are large. Once you finally do make it through the enormous Kingdom of Ehb, the multiplayer game offers completely new worlds to keep you hacking and slashing for many nights to come.
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Dungeon Siege: Legends of Aranna, Dungeon Siege II, Diablo 2, Diablo, Elder Scrolls 3, The: Morrowind, Dungeons & Dragons: Dragonshard, Elder Scrolls IV, The: Oblivion, Divine Divinity
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