Game Name:  Dungeon Siege
Developer:  Gas Powered Games
Publisher:  Microsoft Game Studios
PC Release Year:  2002
Review Date:  August 29, 2015

It is hard to understate the impact that Diablo has had on the gaming industry as a whole.  In typical Blizzard fashion, they took a traditionally niche genre, like the oft-derided role-playing game, boiled it down to its most basic elements, and packaged it up in a way that could appeal to a much broader audience than anyone dreamed imaginable.  Straightforward character development mixed with a simple, click-driven combat system turned out to be an instant recipe for success.  By the early 2000s, with 2.5 million copies of the initial release sold, and a massively successful sequel just starting to grow into its own, jealous competitors began releasing their own Diablo clones in a bid to capture a piece of the action-RPG pie.  Dungeon Siege is one such title.  I know this because, in my younger and more irresponsible days, I received a free copy of the game with a video card that I had spent far too much money on.  My buddies and I tried it out then and quickly grew bored, but I figured it was worth another shot to clear it out of my ever-expanding backlog.  This was a mistake, and the 38 mind-numbing hours it took me to complete the playthrough proves just what a poor imitation it really is.

Dungeon Siege’s twist on the genre, because all copycats need some unique feature to lure players away from the established game they know and love, is that instead of one character, a party of adventurers saves the world.  It is an intriguing concept in an action-RPG, for sure.  After all, if a gamer has a blast outfitting and upgrading a single protagonist, would the fun not multiply for each additional hero?  Sadly, this line of thinking is flawed.  For starters, free time is a precious commodity that Gas Powered Games already seems to have disregarded with its bloated campaign, but an extra group member means more time managing spell books, more time organizing inventories, and more time shopping for gear upgrades.  Take these logistical hurdles out of the equation and players are still left with the practical challenge of controlling more than one character simultaneously.  Sure, there are formations and engagement rules that can be assigned to automate much of the action, but inevitably a damaged enemy will run for help, a computer controlled ally will stupidly give chase, and a whole new group of monsters will be pulled into the scrum.  Even if a player develops a personal system to handle this madness, they then have to deal with the fact that experience points are split between all active party members; meaning progression slows as group size increases.

Gamers are quick to find a workaround when they come across such design flaws, so the natural inclination is to limit the number of adventurers.  This is exactly what I did in my own Dungeon Siege playthrough, which saw me develop a tank-healer hybrid alongside an archer with the ability to summon magical creatures.  I use such terminology because, in a refreshing change of pace, characters build their attributes like strength, agility, and intellect based on how they go about fighting the game’s many foes.  For my party of two, heavy armor and a strong shield helped mitigate much of the damage, a pet was available to off-tank if needed, and a steady stream of arrows continued to drop enemies, even when I used combat time to heal.  It was a very efficient combination, but perhaps too much so.  Gas Powered Games made very little effort to alter the underlying formula of its source material, so unlike Diablo II which introduced useable abilities for melee and ranged classes, most spells are designed only with casters in mind.  As a result, my heroic duo did the bulk of their damage from standard attacks, which were already heavily automated by AI intended to control eight characters at once.  Much like World of Warcraft, there is definitely some skill involved in pulling single enemies out of a group and positioning squishier heroes out of harm’s way, but combat is otherwise very boring, since most fights only require players to appropriately time the consumption of health and mana potions.

Of course, this vapid gameplay is not helped by the fact that Dungeon Siege has only the vaguest outline of a story to pull players through the adventure.  What was a once-peaceful kingdom has, in a mere span of days, devolved into absolute chaos.  For mysterious reasons, the orc-like Krug and Droog have declared war on their former human trade partners, bringing death and destruction from the capital to the most distant farmland.  Unfortunately for them, they picked a fight with the wrong farmer!  Players quickly trade pitchforks and shovels for swords and shields in order to defend their land.  This makes sense.  What does not make sense is how this same hero makes it the local town to seek aid, and finding none, decides to go on a crusade to rid the world of evil.  Beyond the obvious motivational question, which is never answered, how does agriculture prepare someone for such brutal combat?  Gamers unfortunately have plenty of time to ponder these brainteasers, as the exposition fails to develop past that point until the end boss is confronted and, in a cheesy supervillain cliché, he reveals his dastardly plot via monologue.  It might have been funny if I had not wasted a small piece of my life getting to that point.

Perhaps I am just getting old, but I do not understand why classic games in general, and Dungeon Siege specifically, needed to be so long.  While I am thankful that developers have been moving away from this trend in recent years, I wonder whether they honestly thought that extending the playtime was enough on its own to move a potential buyer off the fence.  In fairness to them, the commonly shared industry metric is that 90% of gamers will never reach the closing credits.  For those that do, however, they will have subjected themselves to hours upon hours of shoddy and simplistic gameplay, which will make them angry at the thought of a smarmy Chris Taylor pitching the idea of a party-based ARPG to a conference room full of publishers with dollar signs in their eyes.  Minor complaints are just icing on the cake, like the fact that healers generate experience at a slower rate than combatants, puzzle elements are so infrequently used that they work to stymie unsuspecting gamers when they are encountered, and the title’s once-touted graphics have aged horribly because of relatively early 3D models.  It all just adds up to a terrible experience, and it is hard to imagine anyone smiling when they have finally managed to save the Kingdom of Ehb.

Verdict:  Not Recommended