Monday, August 01, 2011

The Role-Playing Grind: Dungeon Siege 3

Dungeon Siege III. For many this will be a nostalgia trip that needs no introduction. Albeit a poor one. For the younger ones, Dungeon Siege first appeared on the PC nearly 10 years ago, from famed developer Chris Taylor of Total Annihilation and Supreme Commander fame.

Dungeon Siege set out to deliver a seamless hack n’ slash dungeon crawler in the wake of Diablo’s popularity and were one of only two titles I can remember that managed to rival just that. A minimal story and a huge world full of monsters to kill, lewt to be grabbed, and beautiful environments to explore while carefully building your character into a powerhouse of ass-kickery.

Finished the game to 1000 GS in roughly 30 hours, with every achievement boosting shortcut possible, and sanity still barely intact after 4 hours spent on the Jeyna battle. On Hardcore, in co-op, no less.

The Good
Fast forward to 2011 and several gaming generations later, does the third installment succeed? Sadly no - not by a longshot, but it does have some redeeming areas. At first I did not recognize even a hint of Dungeon Siege, but slowly I remembered what it was like to play the original, and although my memories probably paint it in a far more positive light now, I did eventually get the sort of restricted dungeon crawler feel. My initial mistake was damning the game for being so utterly restrictive and boxed in like most American RPG’s are these days, but then I remembered this was the same case with Dungeon Siege, only much better masked back then. So what’s good about that? I finally got my nostalgia pill for one.

The next good thing about DS3 is that despite being developed by Obsidian, it is thankfully free of bugs and game-destroying faults. Perhaps Chris Taylor overseeing the games production helped some. Then again, being almost shooter-like in it’s restricted progression, any such bugs left in the game, you would have to be blind, deaf, and retarded not to discover them before shipping. Still, it’s goes on my good list.

Finally, Dungeon Siege as a brand reawakened, with solid publishers Square Enix at the helm, can only mean they intend to develop it further. I’m guessing another developer will make the next, and they will also hopefully learn from the mistakes of the first one. More of these types of RPGs are welcomed with open arms.

The Bad
Both the original (I’ll try to limit the comparisons, I promise) and follow-up had co-op multiplayer, and it was sweet. That Dungeon Siege III manages to fuck up this aspect in the worst possible way, on a console and on a system with such a thriving community where finding co-op partners is the easiest thing in the world, is totally and inexplicably insane. That was basically half my expectations for this game, gracefully shot to death roughly a week before release when it became apparent how broken the multiplayer portion actually is.

When joining another player’s game, 2-4 players over Live, only the host is actually ‘playing’ and progressing. All connected players take on the role of henchmen akin to Fable’s stunted co-op. Nothing you do as a henchman matters - you won’t get any experience, forget about items, and where in Fable you could actually make a few redundant gold coins for your local character, in DS3 you get exactly nothing. Thanks for that. The only reason - from a completionist/achievement view - you would play this multiplayer is for the achievements connected to it. More on that ugly feature in the appropriate section.And that’s really such a bad thing as I feel it could be a much better game with a solid useful co-op.

As far as my ideal RPG goes, this falls short in most areas. Extreme linearity, virtually no customization; you pick from four characters and each have two styles of play you mix and match, and a loot system that gives you the illusion of endless possibilites but in reality just continues to spew out worthless items for the class you don’t play, with all the wrong skills, or the usual vendor-food.

The Ugly
You won’t realize it until you scratch the surface, but there are some horribly bad mechanics in place to punish you as a gamer. It’s even so subtle I think it’s clearly intended. Why a developer would intentionally program it this way is beyond me since the only result is a sour feeling of wanting to slap someone on the wrist saying “bad developer!”. We are of course talking about Hardcore mode. I like a challenge as much as the next gamer. Even more so in RPGs since they always offer you multiple options of tweaking your way to success. Yes it’s hard, but here is the tools to get you through it.

For DS3, this is far from the case. Everything Hardcore borders on boring for tens of hours and never putting up even a hint of challenge. That is, until almost the end where you’ll get to fight your nemesis for the first time. Suddenly the difficulty curve shoots through the roof and present you with what seems an impossible challenge at first. After hours of infuriating frustration you will think you did something wrong, chose some bad skills or should maybe have taken a bit more time to level up or get better gear. But hold on; this isn’t the case. Even with the best possible gear the enemies in this battle will easily hit you for half your total hit-points. You might think you need another level or two, but that is where the really bad design kicks in. To prevent you from having a fighting chance, there is a mechanic in place that will stop giving you experience from monsters at a certain level. So, all that grinding and meticulously trying to squeeze every bit of juice out for your character and spending hours and hours more than you intended, is worth nothing more than a developer-chuckle. This should really be a good example from the book of ugly game design thought in schools. Yes, this is the third battle with Jeyna and you do wise to fear it as a game-breaking fault if you cannot invest the hours of low-brow button-mashing.

And last but not least, another ugly thing about this game. There is no mule in Dungeon Siege III.

The Achievements
Achievements in DS3 is a mixed bag for sure. Some funny, some intelligent and creative ones, and some just terrible. The unmissable story related ones are there for sure, and spread out in measured doses. Boss fights also sometimes have extra parameters that can be challenging and fun, like beating a boss in nothing but your starter gear. Next is a ton of co-op achievements that comes off as terrible, but are thankfully doable with a little effort and boosting. They aren’t fun or interesting, just tolerable. Be absolutely sure you have a partner for this as you each have to do your part of the work of playing certain characters and then exchange achievements for these in co-op.

Last you have the trap a lot of developers fall for to try and extend their games longevity; reaching certain levels and completing certain tasks with the other predefined characters you had no wish to play in the first place. I really loathe these and it needs to stop. Unless you make the most fun characters gamers have ever seen, and the most fun game in ages, these forced achievements are only degrading the overall experience.

Summed up there are 44 achievements for 1000 GS, which will take you around 30-40 hours with a good coop partner. The cooperation lies more in setting up savegames to help unlock each others achievements so you won’t have to play the boring characters. Two friends with two controllers each can unlock all the 4-player achievements with relative ease. If you are going for max possible GS mostly by yourself you’re looking at a minimum of 60-80 hours playing through the game with all four characters.

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