I love casual dungeon crawlers like Torchlight as much as the next fellow, but they satisfy only up to a point. I realized this about an hour into Dungeon Siege III, a new entry in Chris Taylor's old-school action role-playing franchise-and not just because its lovely graphics make games in the casual sphere look like Flash-based cartoons.
It's about storytelling. I'm not going to claim that Dungeon Siege III is a brilliant work of interactive fiction-its tale of a group of heroes working together to take on a repressive force is far too safe and well-worn to earn that sort of praise-but it is nonetheless a good bit more involved and engaging than anything found in the casual arena.
I met up with an endless stream of interesting characters who offered valuable information and moving personal stories, learned about the world's rich history and how this game's narrative connects with other titles in the series (a dungeon set in the crypt of the previous game's hero is especially memorable), read books that offered compelling details regarding flora and fauna (now I know how the franchise's famously huge spiders came to be), and got caught up in political intrigue that made me question the motives of some characters and forced hard choices about how to deal with others.
What's more, players begin by choosing one of four distinct protagonists, and the non-player characters we encounter may react to us quite differently-perhaps even alter important events-depending on who we chose. Again, it's not an entirely original feature, and I don't know if it's enough to make me want to play through the story all over again, but my curiosity is certainly piqued. I chose to play as Anjali, a fiery Archon, and at one point in the story we encounter another of her species who seems to recognize her. I'd very much like to know how that scene would have played out had I chosen one of the human characters.
Put succinctly, the rich story and intriguing personalities give us ample reason to keep clicking on wraiths and fish-men beyond the simple desire to loot their remains. I cared about the game's characters and wanted to know how things were going to turn out. I've missed that in the more casual dungeon crawlers I've played over the last couple of years.
I also appreciated the depth of Dungeon Siege III's character building system, as well as the simplicity of its menus.
Players will find loads of loot over the course of the game, but it's never overwhelming. It gets pre-sorted into categories in the inventory system. It's a snap to figure out which pieces of equipment are more powerful than others and which items can be equipped by which party members. And if you want to dump extra items mid-dungeon, there's no need to slog back to town. Just hop into the transmute module and start clicking to transform unwanted stuff into gold.
Levelling up, meanwhile, is merely a matter of applying points to abilities, proficiencies, and talents. Abilities-such as Anjali's "hurl spear"-can be called upon as needed while playing, while proficiencies let players customize the effects of each ability. Talents are permanent upgrades that give characters bonuses to healing and attacks. It's a remarkably simple system that's all but impossible muck up. But it also allows allows players to explore a wide variety of paths. It would be easy to play through the story with the same character twice and have him or her end up with a very different set of skills.
Plus, if you take the time to complete side quests and put some thought into how you carry out missions you may receive additional perks in the form of "deeds" that permanently enhance your character's base stats. For example, I steadfastly refused all monetary incentives offered to me by the people of one town and was rewarded with a deed that gave me a five per cent boost to will. I had no idea this sort of behaviour would earn a reward; it just happened. It's an excellent means of making players think about the consequences of their actions.
The only thing keeping me from giving Dungeon Siege III a wholehearted recommendation to genre fans is the PC interface. Perhaps I'm just getting old, but it seems to me that a dungeon crawler played on a computer should demand players touch nothing more than a mouse most of the time. That's not the case here.
I had to keep my fingers hovering over the left side of the keyboard in order to use special abilities assigned to the number keys and interact with objects. Plus, the only way to pick up dropped items and equipment is by pressing "E." That's definitely the sort of activity that should require a simple click.
What's more, I couldn't just click once to walk to a given location. Instead, I had to constantly hold the right mouse button down to run and then move the pointer to navigate. Same thing goes for melee attacks. I couldn't simply click a far-off enemy and watch my hero run to attack it. Rather, I had to move her into position before unleashing melee attacks. Otherwise she'd just swipe at the air.
The upshot is that Dungeon Siege III feels as though it was designed specifically for a console and then ported to PC, with gamepad controls simply mapped to keyboard and mouse inputs rather than properly reworked for the platform. This lack of consideration for PC players seems strange given that the series was born-and, until now, only appeared-on computers.
It's worth noting that a four-player cooperative multiplayer mode exists, but, in truth, I haven't even thought to try it. To me, dungeon crawlers are best enjoyed alone, late at night, with a tall glass of Diet Coke to help fuel bleary-eyed consciousness. Social interactions and teamwork just get in the way of an experience that, in my opinion, should be idulgently, blissfully antisocial.
But, again, maybe I'm just getting old and set in my ways.
At least multiplayer is wholly optional here, unlike, say, DarkSpore, which all but demands it.
Dungeon Siege III is respectful of its narrative roots, and most of its modest innovations within the genre are welcome. Had its PC controls been a little more traditional it could have been the dungeon crawler to beat this year-especially with Blizzard's Diablo III still lacking a launch window. Who knows? If Obsidian releases an update to the PC interface, it still could be.
Dungeon Siege III
Platforms: Windows PC (reviewed), PlayStation 3, Xbox 360
Developer: Obsidian Entertainment
Publisher: Square Enix