Total Annihilation was a total overhaul of the crowded RTS genre when it debuted. Its concept was simple - RTS without all the nonsense and hang-ups of traditional RTS titles. Its core emphasis was on the battle strategy, and less attention was given to resource management and logistics. In short, it was a success. It aimed only to excel at being fun, and many people agreed that it had accomplished just that.
Chris Taylor, the chief mind behind the Total Annihilation franchise, decided at this point to move on to bigger, better things. He jumped ship, during the dot-bomb days when startup companies were made into a laughing stock, and formed a development company called Gas Powered Games, and teamed up with Microsoft to produce something he had long wanted to do - An action RPG not unlike Diablo.
Chris enjoyed Diablo quite a bit, as well as many other RPGs in the day, but he had a couple of quibbles with the approaches taken in each, and believed that applying the same formula he used in Total Annihilation would most likely work for a title of this type as well. In reality, Dungeon Siege's ties to Total Annihilation don't stop there at all. Read on for more details.
The driving force behind many RPGs today is the plot. In fact, to many gamers, the term "RPG" is synonymous with "superior plot", in that RPGs are more generally the most story-driven of all genres of electronic gaming. Dungeon Siege, on the whole, has elected to take a backseat to the standard plot development approach. In most cases, an RPG introduces a story to explain why your character is the savior of the world, and the cruxes which accompany your character throughout the span of the game. Dungeon Siege instead takes one fact for granted: The player knows that his character is destined to be the savior of the world. He doesn't need to rediscover that fact.
Instead, Dungeon Siege casts a shadow of anonymity on your character, allowing you to fill shoes the size of your choice. From the beginning of the game, all you know is that your character is a simple farmer, looking to wreak vengeance upon the Krug, a race of vicious orc-like creatures that have decimated the countryside and killed all the local townsfolk. Your character has little purpose other than the vengeance he begins with, and the tasks that you choose to take upon yourself. The story (and a rather expansive one at that) is conveyed via conversations with people throughout the game, and a great number of books you'll find elsewhere. One note - I wish that the information from the books could have been compiled into your journal, for reading later after you've long since shed the book in favor of more loot.
But, the primary point is that the game lets you choose your level of involvement. If you just want the action, you can skip past the cut scenes, ignore what all the NPCs say to you, and sell all the books you find. However, if you want to become more immersed in the world and the reasons for its demise, the game offers a wealth of information detailing the histories and tales of the cities of Ehb and the King's legionnaires, among many other things. You're also presented with many sidequests through the game, most of which you're under no obligation to complete, but they, like in a traditional pen-and-paper RPG, help to add background and development to your character, as well as lining your pockets.
This leads into an interesting argument. In a recent interview in Computer Games Magazine (March 2001, Issue No. 124), Cindy Yans writes "Taylor does not believe in the type of 'Go forth and find this item and bring it back to me' activities in role-playing games. 'I don't like that,' says Taylor, 'I don't know if anybody likes it. Here you are, gearing up to save the world, and there's this woman in town insisting you go find her cat.' " On the surface, this is a perfectly reasonable claim - Inane sidequests can certainly get in the way of the fun and plot of an RPG. However, while Taylor makes some aspiring claims, Dungeon Siege ultimately gets saddled with the same sidequests - In Glacern, for instance, I was tasked with saving a young man's bacon by locating some books he'd lent out to friends that hadn't yet been returned. Granted, it was a very short sidequest, and one I could have easily overlooked…but it certainly qualifies as one of the same elements of the genre that Chris Taylor hoped to avoid.
Do the frivolous sidequests detract from the gameplay at all? Hell no. It's actually somewhat of a relief. The gameplay in Dungeon Siege is very much like multiplayer Diablo. While your character starts the quest alone, before long you'll be recruiting new members to join your cadre as you sally forth through the Kingdom of Ehb. You can typically pick the "class" roles you want your characters to play with very little penalty, but you should also make decisions that are sensible. For instance, if you recruit a mage with an Intelligence of 19 and a Dexterity of 10, don't expect him to do a lot of bow firing.
Generally, when you go to town to recruit followers, you'll have a few to pick and choose from to round out your ranks, so you won't ever be without. Characters in Dungeon Siege develop their skills as they use them more often. There are four separate classes of combat skills: Melee, Ranged, Combat Magic, and Nature Magic. Using any one area of these skills will advance your overall skill level in that field - This is mostly important for magic users, as many spells will require the caster to have attained a specific level of the appropriate magical discipline in order to cast the spell. Using any of these skills will boost all your stats, of course, but one in particular will rise much more quickly, dependent on the field. For instance, an archer will find his Dexterity rising much more quickly than the other stats. Ultimately, I would have liked for a bit more diversification in the physical attacking skills. Swinging an axe in battle is totally different from using a club or a scythe, for instance. Narrowing this down to a few weapon types would have been more appropriate.
Another change Chris Taylor elected to make with the standard formula is concerning the inventory. Any Diablo player knows the rule of Town Portals. Once you've cleared a floor or area of baddies and maxed out your inventory, you fight a little longer, drop your high-value armor and weapons to be able to carry just a bit more, and then return to town to sell it all off. Chris found frustration with this method, saying that if gamers need more inventory, they should just have it. Thus, he added in pack mules to the game. Pack mules act as another player character (and thus will permit you to have one less party member), except that they have about double the inventory space (when you figure in character equipment slots), and no stat boosting capability. That's not to say that they're useless other than being walking suitcases, of course. Pack mules will defend themselves in a fight, and gain more HP as you progress through the game.
One really brilliant touch that Gas Powered Games made with this title was the inventory trading system - Allowing you to manage multiple inventories using the shrunk inventory screens and Ctrl-click makes things a breeze. Unfortunately, it's hindered somewhat by the game's inability to auto-sort items. While it does have a sort/shuffle function in the inventory, it'd be nice if the game would auto-fit items as you're exchanging them in the inventory.
Unfortunately (depending on your view), Gas Powered Games seems to have made little effort to differentiate itself from the Diablo series when it comes to the inventory items themselves. You have basic item classes, each of which have varying degrees of quality (Worn, tattered, sharp, etc.), and then an associated weapon/armor strength identifier. Beyond that, you have magically enhanced items, which, not coincidentally, appear in blue, and have "enhanced" names like "Conflicting leather greaves of perception" and the like, and have similar stat-altering traits to those you find in Diablo. Items you can't equip due to stat deficiencies appear in red. One really can't fault the developers for sticking with a working formula, but on the other hand, it isn't their formula, and it doesn't appear that they ever considered trying anything different. On the positive side, of course, all armor and weapons have an actual 3D representation in the game world, so your character's appearance reflects the individual pieces of equipment he/she is wearing, instead of a character generalization, as seen in Diablo.
Managing combat is generally a breeze. You have a wide array of formation and behavior controls at your disposal, and many functions can be mapped to hotkeys for easy battle management. I usually found mid-battle changes to be unnecessary, but it is nice to know that I can easily change tactics during the battle should I deem it necessary. One downer to the whole concept is that the teammate AI is rather spotty. Quite often my party would come under fire, and I'd have to explicitly order a teammate to return fire. This led to a tendency on my part to make sure all my combatant party members were selected, in the event that I needed to attack or defend myself.
Otherwise, combat is a joy. Dungeon Siege takes a lot of the micromanagement nonsense about battle and tosses it out the window. For instance, in Diablo II, you were forced to manually distribute potions to your hirelings to keep them healthy, or otherwise heal them yourself. In Dungeon Siege, however, the lower toolbar contains two potion icons - one for health and one for mana. Clicking on either one of these forces all your party members to drink to their fill. If you're in battle, you're generally only concerned about those in danger of being knocked out, so Dungeon Siege smartly limits the drinking order to those with less than 50% HP remaining. Furthermore, while potions aren't stackable in inventory, characters only drink as much as is needed, and partial potions can be combined to take less inventory space.
As far as the actual attacking goes, it's just as easy as Diablo - Point and click. Of course, one key difference is that you only need to click once. Since you can also hotkey each party member, assigning a varied combat strategy is as easy as key-click-key-click-key-click etc. Characters will stay in formation as allowed by their combat orders (Stand ground, pursue with prejudice, etc.), and you can tighten or space them out as you see fit. It's all very well managed.
One major area that works both for and against the game is the display engine. To be flat-out honest, the game is utterly gorgeous. Look at the pictures throughout this article and decide it for yourself. I was continually impressed by how pretty and nice the game appeared, generally. Lighting effects shone out and made an already colorful landscape even prettier. In particular, the spell effects and the colored lighting used in some dungeon areas was particularly appropriate, and in the case of spells…let's just say that it was worth wasting the MP just to cast a spell again to see the graphics. Though it's a simple Nature Magic spell, Transmute comes to mind here, creating some very gorgeous rainbow-colored light spheres.
In a similar vein, something you should also notice about this game is its excellent use of the whole color spectrum. My biggest complaint with Quake II was its total overuse of earth tones. Whenever I saw a map with yellow or blue in it, it just looked so out-of-place. Similarly, Diablo overdid red and grey, and Diablo II picked a single color in each act to stick with, and strayed little. The environments in Dungeon Siege vary widely, and the graphics and objects placed in each environment vary accordingly. I couldn't help but notice how much effort went into the scenery design and layout of the areas. You can't exactly levy a complaint about this at Diablo, since it uses dynamically-generated terrain and Dungeon Siege does not. Still, it's a very refreshing change, and one I was pleased as punch with.
The 3D engine is very effectively used in-game. The mouse lets you rotate and scroll the screen as needed, without getting unmanageable. I was able to use the zooming and angle adjustments to make some very useful adjustments to my battle plan when approaching certain situations. It all boils down to the fact that the camera control is now in the user's hands instead of AI control, and the controls given to the player are intelligent enough that you don't have to fight with them. If any objects in the terrain are obscuring your view or hiding the characters, the game will make them transparent so that you don't have to rotate the camera all over the place. Particularly effective use of this is made when moving your characters around inside buildings - Multi-story buildings, at that.
Unfortunately, there were also a few rough edges to the graphics which, when viewed with the other stunning objects, stood out like sore thumbs. Chief among these elements is the water. I've yet to see a game with believably rendered water, outside of the Myst series. This game tries and fails just as much as any other game has in the past, so there's really no point in making a big deal about it, but I was thoroughly disappointed with the fact that so many great pains could be made to present wondrous imagery elsewhere, and yet the water looked so fake.
All of this game beauty definitely comes at a price, of course. This game will suck every last bit of processing power from your video card with the engine options cranked. Running it on an Athlon 900MHz with 256 MB of RAM and a Radeon 32MB, I couldn't even play at 1024x768 (the maximum resolution for this title). I had to kick down the resolution to 800x600 before it was playable, albeit choppy. The game generally hung around 15-25 FPS in this mode, depending on the situation at hand - Still playable, but far from desirable. Lowering the image quality some produced better results, though I was disappointed to do so, as the visuals were so pretty. With this in mind, you can pretty much toss the game's original target of playability on a TNT2. Anyone with a GeForce2 or better should be okay, but ideally you'll want more. Savage owners need not apply.
The in-game sound in Dungeon Siege points out a critical aspect of game audio that I believe I take for granted too often. The background music and sound clips are all fine…nothing really noteworthy I can say about it outside of compliments on the nice background score…but there's one element that's shown in this game that is frequently bungled in some other games, and skipped entirely elsewhere. The game's background music should complement the sound effects, and vice versa. I always get highly peeved when I'm playing a game and I have to stop and fiddle with the sound balancing controls to get the sound effects level to match the background music. And this isn't just about matching volume levels - This is about having sounds that just go well together. The bowstring snaps…the Krug grunts and spider screams…the water flowing and wind rustling…it all comes together and meshes very well in with the music to create what sometimes feels like a dynamic symphony.
The best counter-example I can think of for this is Wipeout. Wipeout has a fantastic techno soundtrack, but the sound effects in the game are thoroughly underwhelming, and totally drowned out by the music. There's no real engine hum or weapons noise…just the periodic injection of explosions and announcer speech. I can play with the audio controls all I want, but the sound isn't ever going to "mesh" like it does in Dungeon Siege. Diablo is even guilty of this in places. While the score to Diablo II is, in my opinion, better than the score in Diablo, Diablo does a better job of matching sound effects to the music playing at the time than Diablo II did. It's a subtle point that greatly increases your enjoyment of the environment, as it helps to immerse you further in the game.
We should also touch on how the game works outside of the single-player campaign. Gas Powered Games wanted Dungeon Siege to have more than just "Let's team up and all thrash the boss" multiplayer, so they implemented an open-ended game engine that allows for many custom scenarios and game parameters to be scripted in, not unlike Starcraft. To the outside viewer, Starcraft just has multiplayer Skirmish playability, but anyone who's played Death Race or Zerg Herding can tell you that it's a big load of malarkey. While Dungeon Siege contains few of these custom game modes out-of-box, you can be certain to find many custom addons for the title in future days, especially with the forthcoming Siege Editor release. Multiplayer matching is provided by Microsoft's Zone.com, and you can also play over LAN with up to eight players. I've never had any lag or clogged servers issues with Zone.com, as opposed to the notoriously finicky Battle.net servers.
Gas Powered Games originally had planned to release Dungeon Siege with the Siege Editor available via the Internet at the same time of the release. However, a month later, it's still not quite out yet, though Chris Taylor has said publicly that there's a planned release date around the 5th of May. This should be excellent news for gamers looking to design their own campaigns for the game.
Siege Editor contains several different components which are all of equal importance. First, there's Skrit, the Dungeon Siege scripting editor, purported to have all the power of Starcraft's event-scripting engine, and then some. Add in Siege FX, a lighting and effects generator, which allows you not only to create your own spells and enchantments, but also to dictate how they appear visually in the game. You'll also be making some use of gmax, a 3D Studio Max plugin that allows you to create game objects in said 3D rendering software, and export them to Dungeon Siege-native model packs. Definitely a boon for those of you used to manually editing mesh and texture files for Quake models.
Of course, Siege Editor also has its own Terrain Editor and dungeon design tools, all of which allow you to create worlds just as big as the Kingdom of Ehb, or larger, should you desire to do so. Chris Taylor originally intended Siege Editor to match the popularity of Total Annihilation's open model, where players could create their own units and maps and exchange them freely. He's even gone so far as to establish basis relations with Microsoft's legal department for anyone who wishes to design a professional-level addon or total conversion to release for sale…so you don't have to worry about skirting the law to make a buck on your hard work.
Pros & Cons
Dungeon Siege is highly cool. There's no doubting that. I still keep having this nagging feeling like it's just evolutionary though, and not revolutionary. Truth be told, if Blizzard killed the Diablo franchise right here, I'd be more than happy to consider this title to be an honorary Diablo 3. It plays exactly like I would expect Diablo 3 to, and has many new features and customization options that address and supercede many of the play issues brought about by the first two titles.
The underlying purpose of the whole shebang is, of course, for it to be fun, and it certainly excels at that. Great efforts were put into ergonomics and playability of this game to make it a hack-and-slash that almost anyone can enjoy. And you most likely will…provided that your computer is up to the task.
Graphics & Sound: 10.0
Fun Factor: 9.5
Lasting Appeal: 10.0
Final Score: 9.5