Friday, June 10, 2011

Dungeon Siege 3 Demo

The other night I eagerly downloaded and fired up the Dungeon Siege 3 demo. I quite enjoyed the first game, and while the second dragged on and was tedious at times, it was still a fairly enjoyable action RPG clickfest romp. Blizzard's Diablo series still reigns supreme in this genre as far as I'm concerned, but the two Dungeon Siege games have been some of the more entertaining competitors. And no matter what happens, the first Dungeon Siege was still a great achievement for the continuous world / "no loading screens" approach it showcased.

When I heard Obsidian were looking after the third installment, I was a little excited. I'd generally say I'm a fan of Obsidian's work - their titles are frequently let down by technical issues (engine, lighting or modelling), or having some of their content removed because the studio tries to bite off more than they can chew in terms. But on the whole, they produce interesting games with reasonably solid game mechanics, and typically have excellent characters and writing. KotOR 2 was great until the horrendous ending, Mask of the Betrayer is one of the best roleplaying adventures I've had, and I'd consider Alpha Protocol one of the most unfairly maligned games of the past few years. I like Obsidian, hence why I was eager to try this new demo. Then they turned around and slapped me in the face as though I'd called them something unpleasant.

If you thought this was badly made, wait until you get a load of Dungeon Siege 3...

The Dungeon Siege 3 (let's shorten that to DS3 from now on) demo gave me the option of picking a sword wielding male, or a fire-wielding female "archon" (some kind of half-human, half-fire-spirit). I confess that I have a soft spot for mages in action RPGs, so I picked the archon and jumped into the fray. Controls were explained: basic movement, attacking, blocking, dodging, special ability use. The controls seemed simple enough and at a first glance seemed like they would make for an enjoyable game. It soon dawned on me that I couldn't have been more wrong, not even if I'd predicted Quake Wars would be the best online FPS. DS3's simplicity equates to fewer tactics than whack-a-mole, and unfortunately for it, a lot less fun.

The game quickly gets into combat, which is pretty much the bread and butter of the action RPG genre. If you're playing one of these games, you're here to take on hordes of enemies in fun, RSI-inducing, keyboard-killing, mouse-destroying combat. It's the endless combat with good mechanics, and the ever-increasingly powerful loot that you use to obliterate your enemies with ever-growing power and ease that keep people coming back to play. Now DS3 may have the chops when it comes to delivering items - it's hard to gauge that from the demo, but there definitely seem to be enough statistics for the game to offer a colossal variety of items. However, that's possibly the only bright point in a title so drearily bereft of sparks of inspiration that it feels like a black-hole sucked out anything that might threaten to cause you to enjoy yourself.

This is not fun. It might look like it could be, but it isn't.

For starters, I've never been so comprehensively confounded by a control system in my life. The controls, particularly the camera, are hideously clunky. There's no easy way to move your character sideways without using the mouse, making any sort of tactical movement as pleasant as a particularly angry hemorrhoid. The camera is also tedious to control, with only two arbitrary zoom levels meaning you're stuck between having limited visibility of the battlefield, or not struggling to predict the attacks of individual enemies. I frequently found myself having to rotate the camera a full 180 degrees using the keyboard, which is on par with missing mouselook in an FPS.

Enemies usually come in groups of at least 3, but frequently 5 or more. As such, you're usually bound to starting off with the "group stance" first. As an archon, this means getting up close and personal with enemies, whereas her 1v1 stance is a ranged mode where you really don't want to be tangling with enemies in melee. As such, you're forced to operate the combat in the opposite of what would be logical: getting into melee range where you can get beaten up substantially before backing out and finishing off the stragglers at range. While I endured a second run-through to determine that the warrior was designed by someone with at least a modicum of intelligence, the combat design for the archon is akin to something you'd expect from a poorly implemented budget title.

Even with a warrior... nope, still not fun.

These flaws are compounded further by the fact that the enemies do enough damage such that you merely can't just engage in the standard click-fest fare once enemies are in sizeable groups, which they almost always are. That's right, adhering to the "group stance" combat mode is typically what will get you killed faster than taking on a dragon with a putty knife. While I applaud the aim to remove the mindless hack and slash fest of continual attacks with something else, there's a need to make the replacement more engaging and exciting than the repetition that is being replaced. Once again, DS3 fails miserably, as it attempts to require incessant use of block/dodge in order to avoid taking this damage, which quickly becomes a laborious exercise that merely prolongs the battle through a series of dodge/attack beats.

The special attacks do serve to help you clear enemies quickly, but tactically appear to add little to no depth in the overall scheme of things. In essence, combat devolves into a series of left/right click swapping in order to succeed, and the majority of the combat is spent trying to avoid enemy attacks rather than dealing damage. Alternatively, you can use a character's inbuilt "defensive ability" aka an ongoing heal (activated by the wholly unintuitive Space & 1 key combination) to enable to reduce this tedium and largely allow you to just beat away at your enemies as per standard fare.  You're not playing the biggest hero in the Land of Ehb, you're playing someone who prevails through a countless stream of ninja rolls or magical teleportation punctuated by the odd attack. Apparently the most vital skill of the legendary 10th Legion was gymnastics classes from the age of 2. Well, that and innate magical healing skills.

In terms of character development: you get access to 9 skills, each of which can be "empowered" to make them better; 2 "specialisations" for each skill providing different bonuses to these skills; and about a dozen "talents", each with 5 levels which provide varying passive benefits during combat. However, the relationship between these three things is muddy at best, as is the details of how the combat system works. Even the character/quest/inventory/equipment screens are poorly designed and difficult to navigate. The "equip" menu shows you your inventory, but only those items that you can equip. The "items" menu shows only the items that you can't equip, and clicking on them in this screen will ask you if you want to "transmute" them - this allows you to "sell items in the field" as it were, but for less gold than if you hauled them to a shop. I'd hate to think how much or a nightmare it would become when managing a party of characters, as navigating the menus is headache enough with a single character let alone two or more.

You guessed it... this isn't fun either.

The graphics upon starting are nothing jaw-dropping, though I wouldn't call the game unattractive. Animations are smooth and fluid, and switching stances for a character changes all their motions significantly, which is a nice touch. Visual effects were flashy and suitably fire-infused for my character, and were quite good elsewhere. There's a reasonable amount of detail in the game world and individual creature models, as is show-cased through the various dialogue scenes which get a little more up close and personal with them. On the whole, this aspect of the game is fairly pleasant.

The writing itself here appears to be fairly standard action RPG fare. Again, it's hard to judge this from a demo, but I'd say the writing really didn't seem to be up to the sort of quality that you would typically expect from an Obsidian game in the writing department. Generally writing is the one area where Obsidian nails a game, but their efforts seem a little off here. The dialogue wheel is clunky due to the fact that your mouse doesn't actually have to hover over a response for it to be selected. Your mouse cursor traces an invisible line from the centre of the "wheel" and whichever dialogue option is crossed by that line is the "active" line. It also doesn't deselect unless you move over another dialogue option. (Leading to silly situations as per the screenshot below) This might sound like a really small gripe, but it makes the system feel unresponsive, which is bad considering you're already overwhelmed with that feeling due to the awkward combat mechanics. The solution is simple: Unless the mouse is hovering over a dialogue choice, don't have it selected. This is pretty much GUI design 101, and really not a mistake that should be made by a developer who says they are creating AAA titles.

No, I shouldn't be selecting a dialogue option right now. Look where my cursor is!

These quibbles might merely be annoying, but the real travesty was when I heard my character speak. I have no issues with having a voiced protagonist; I'm playing a pre-determined role, so I'm happy to have the standard "paraphrase and hear the full line" dialogue model. That wasn't the issue, my character's voice was. Evidently someone felt that an "archon" should not merely sound like an ordinary female, but should have some kind of "otherworldly" element to their voice. Stylistically, I have no issue with this, and to be honest, I think it's a somewhat interesting and valid idea. But the way they implemented it is utterly awful. It's difficult to tell whether the person providing the voice was an inherently appalling actor, or if it was the sound processing which destroyed any human qualities and emotion they were putting into the performance, but the end result is something that sounds more robotic than your average speech synth. I almost felt compelled to click through my character's dialogue, except for the sheer "staring-at-a-train-wreck" voyeurism of hearing how truly terrible it was. I'm afraid to say that the sound designer responsible should be out of a job, and there really should be some serious questions raised with whomever listened to it and considered it acceptable.

You also never get to see your character, as your camera is fixated firmly upon the character you are talking to. If the game has a voiced protagonist, the player really should be able to see their character while they are talking, it's slightly disconcerting that you can't and it breaks what little immersion the game has. This problem also occured when I picked up a party member, who interjected his thoughts into the conversation while the camera remained firmly fixated upon the NPC that had started the conversation. I guess the game can't pull the focus away from the well endowed female NPCs that you're meeting...

Maybe exaggerated anatomy is supposed to sell the game? Gameplay sure won't.

Overall, I'm astounded by the DS3 demo. I've never before downloaded a demo for what is supposed to be a blockbuster AAA that was so comprehensively riddled with glaringly obvious flaws, poor design choices and hideously bad control systems. DS3 appears to be a case study in developers getting so familiar with their own game that they can't see its weaknesses, particularly since these shortcomings are a core part of the game rather than something that can be fixed in a short time-frame. For a game that I thought would be reasonably fun to pass some time, I'm now exceptionally glad that I didn't click that "Pre-Order" button on Steam. If I want my action RPG fix while I'm waiting for Diablo 3, I'll fire up Torchlight, and I'll be steering well clear of Dungeon Siege 3.


  1. Just remember, if you call anything game related a "slap in the face," you haven't been slapped in the face enough. You don't want to sound like you're complaining about paladin nerfs ;)

    I wasn't super-impressed with the demo either, though I didn't have anything like the trouble you did with the archon. Starting in flame mode shooting from a pool of fire and switching to melee when the foe closed in worked pretty well. Not an exciting revolution in dungeoneering gameplay, but it was OK.

    I can see this being a decent co-op dungeon basher - on *console*. I usually roll my eyes at "dumbed down for console" claims, but this is pretty obviously a console game with a half-hearted PC port. Maybe it plays OK with a gamepad plugged into a PC, but if you have a PS3 or 360 I don't think there's any reason not to play this game on the platform it was clearly designed for.

    And yes, it doesn't seem to want named female characters to wear clothes :<

    I'll be watching the (console) reviews with interest, but with Torchlight 2 and Diablo 3 on the way they'll want to be very good reviews.

  2. I thought your review of DS3's demo was spot on. I played it as well and my experience mirrors yours.

    What is the deal with the d-cup NPCs anyway...

  3. I ended up picking this up for PS3. It's a good couch co-op game along the lines of the old Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance/Champions of Norrath series.

    I'd say it's a better game (I like the stance-dancing stuff), and obviously prettier, but the camera is annoying (make sure you turn off auto-correct) and you don't get simultaneous equip/level up menus.

    In any case I wouldn't bother getting it for solo play, or on the PC.

    There's a downloadable game on PSN called Dungeon Hunter: Alliance that's not as good, but has a better interface and is 1/4 of the price, for those looking for couch co-op on a budget.

  4. I think I find the idea of stance-dancing better than the implementation. I can't recall a game that has used that style of gameplay addition where I've actually enjoyed it as part of the gameplay.

    I think I have enough games to play that I can (and will) leave this one alone. I think I've seen all I need to from a mechanics perspective to make a judgment (and learn a few things about "what not to do"), and I doubt there would be any way it would be worth playing for the narrative.

  5. When I played the demo there was a part that killed immersion for me:
    While playing the archon in her elemental form she died from being in the flames too long. She is a freaking fire elemental, why did she get even hurt from flames at all?!

    Apart from that I can just agree with your observations, it is clearly a console game that was poorly ported.