Summary: After the success of the original Dungeon Siege, Gas Powered Games has some pretty big shoes to fill with Dungeon Siege II. Does it live up to its predecessor? Find out what Jakub thinks in today's review!
And yet here I am, well into the game and echoing Terence’s pleasant comments about the original. For starters, Dungeon Siege II is huge, massive, epic and long. The box promises 40-60 hours of gameplay and for once, this doesn’t seem like an exaggeration. The game world is expansive though rather linear, and varied. Like Diablo II, it is divided into acts and chapters, each act bringing the player to a new venue. Also like the Diablo games, there’s a convenient town portal to help unload all that loot you or your mule have been hauling around. Mule? No, it’s not just a special character designated to carry your goods. You actually buy a mule and use him as a party member.
The Diablo similarities carry on, but we’re inclined to give Dungeon Siege II a pass on them. Though not particularly creative – it follows the formula of levels/skills/loot/killing to a tee – DS2 is very refined and brings its own spices to improve the flavor. The party is run by AI, so the player doesn’t need to play in multiplayer to benefit from multiple characters. In fact, we suspect it’s almost impossible to finish DS2 without a party.
Gas Powered Games, the developer, has coded a couple of basic behaviors for the player to choose from for the AI party members. They can be run either in mirrored mode, where they all attack the same target, usually whatever the player chooses, or rampage mode, where everyone does their own thing. Mirrored mode obviously works best against a few tough enemies, where bringing them down one at a time as fast as possible is important, while rampage is most effective against numerous weaker enemies.
Rather than force the player into a mouse-destroying left-click frenzy, Dungeon Siege II settles for simply holding down the right mouse button and running the cursor over targets. If your allies are in mirrored mode, they’ll target your victim and can usually dispense with him pretty quickly. Certain enemies run around with glowing auras and tend to be the elite of a certain unit type, and consequently more difficult to bring down. Of course, there are a number of options to keep the action varied.
One of the more important ways to increase player involvement is to have him select special powers. Special powers are ability-related. Each character has four different areas where he can specialize in – melee, ranged, nature magic and combat magic. It is best to focus each character on one of these fields, since they determine what kind of equipment he can use and what special abilities he’ll have. A special ability is unlocked or improved by using character points to buy skills. Characters receive one point per level they earn in that field. To earn levels in the field, they need to use the skills – so to rank up a “fighter”, he needs to melee, while healers use nature magic.
Special abilities are vital for getting out of tough situations or bringing bosses down quickly. Typical combat scenarios are not the best time to use them, since they recharge only by killing more enemies or by gaining a level. Characters can have a variety of these abilities but can only use one at a time. Thus, as the game progresses and becomes more complex and difficult, the player finds himself balancing his abilities against what he’s facing and expecting to be facing. The designers can be tricky and sometimes set up mini bosses to waste the special abilities, before the actual boss.
The player’s party grows throughout the game but only as much as the player is willing to spend on it. Each new position in the party is increasingly more expensive, and even the mule takes up a slot. The major party members have to be discovered, though if the player wishes he can fill in spaces with mercenaries. Party members have some role in the story but it tends to be minimal, they aren’t as interactive as in the Baldur’s Gate, Fallout, or Knights of the Old Republic games.
Although Dungeon Siege II is a game that makes itself very easy to play and accessible, it is not easy, per se. There are areas that are clearly more difficult than others. At times the difference is so dramatic that we wonder how they made it through play testing. In the second act there are these spitting spiders in particular that come out of nowhere and are more difficult than the boss dungeon encounter that just preceded them. As with Diablo, strategic use of town portals can get the player out of many hairy, ghoulish or even spider-infested situations.
Characters rarely actually die, they usually just fall unconscious and spring back to life once they heal up. This can result in some particularly cheesy tactics that have your sole survivor of a bad encounter running around until his compatriots wake from their power naps. Even should your entire party suffer “final” death, the handy teleporters can bring you within a few minutes of your corpses to recover lost loot, or you can pay the perfidiously greedy necromancer 25% of your gold to recover everything at your respawn location.
While unpredictability is good, the designers seem to have gone off the deep end at several points in the game, with monster difficulty ramping up in general to surprisingly high levels. We’ve already mentioned the spider example, but there are repeat performances that take a while to adjust to. These sections aren’t in any predictable location either, it’s not as if the player is entering a new act. Otherwise, play balancing is remarkably smooth and the game never overtly indicates how the player should upgrade his party. While there’s no shortage of gameplay mechanics that make no sense in the story of the game world (ie, the never-ending resurrections), Gas Powered Games has resisted the temptation of telling the player how to play; at no point are you instructed to take on an extra party member or upgrade certain skills however beneficial that may be.
Where even the most rabid fanboy would have trouble coming up with compliments is with respect to the graphics. At best, Dungeon Siege II can be said to be dated; the engine does not look much advanced over the original and definitely falls short of the standards of 2005. Textures are the least of the offenders, more glaring are the jagged low-poly models with enough jagged edges to slice through a quarter and still cut your tomatoes cleanly. To be fair, DS2 does give off a healthy feeling of chaos in combat and the various special effects do spruce things up with their mere presence though they could obviously have a touch more pizzazz.
Multiplayer is generally solid though it actually gives the player less to do since he ends up controlling fewer characters. The major annoyance comes from having to use GameSpy to connect to public games. While not a bad service in and of itself, it’s yet another account to remember. Worse, the regular GameSpy email/password doesn’t work, you need to create an account especially for Dungeon Siege as well. It’s all so unnecessary and tedious.
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