It’s a testament to the influence that Diablo 2 has had on the gaming industry when, even five years after its release, virtually all action-RPGs are measured against its genre-defining gameplay. While some efforts to mimic Blizzard’s powerhouse have gone almost completely unnoticed, others have made somewhat of a name for themselves, such as Gas Powered Games’ Dungeon Siege. The latter, which was released not long after the game it sought to emulate, fared reasonably favourably in critical circles, and apparently sold well enough to warrant the recently released sequel. Not just content to correct some of the mistakes made by its predecessor, Dungeon Siege 2 also looks to expand upon the now-standard Diablo-style features with its own unique blend of intricate story details and 3D-action.
The plot behind Dungeon Siege 2 is as standard as you might expect from a fantasy-themed game in that it revolves around ancient, long-forgotten, world-altering powers, the rise of a seemingly unstoppable villain in pursuit of the aforementioned power, and the subsequent rise of a hero to stop said villain. As you might have guessed, the player takes the reins of the burgeoning hero as he constantly struggles two steps behind the game’s primary marauding evildoer. As he travels across the land, he seeks to obtain certain mystic artifacts which will enable him to essentially unmake the world, and as the game opens, you are a mercenary in his employ. After helping to secure one of the artefacts for him, he rewards you by levelling the temple around you, killing your childhood friend and leaving you for dead. Your unconscious body is found by the owners of the temple, a sort of druidic elven race, and you’re imprisoned. When you awaken, you become determined to right your wrongs and stop the madman before he can bring about the end of the world.
Even if the story itself is as clichéd and overused as they come, one has to admire the amount of detail the developers have attempted to inject into the gameworld. As you pursue your nemesis from place to place, you’re provided with various bits and pieces of lore about the region you’re in, the local residents and monsters, and some aspects of their shared history. Either by poring over some of the books you come across or speaking with village historians and elders, you can come to understand some of the regional nuances. This system can perhaps best be described as being comparable to Morrowind in how a sense of a persistent, storied world can be created by using a detailed atmosphere to lend the impression that the people that surround you have been there long before you arrived, and should you be successful in your quest, will be there long after you leave. Those who want to tear into the action without worrying about historical perspectives can do so without penalty, but it’s great to see that purists who want to really dig into the lore have the opportunity to do so.
Like the overarching plot, the core gameplay is extremely conventional. In keeping with the Diablo 2 mimicry that the genre lives by, the bulk of the game is spent roaming the countryside while doing battle with endless hordes of monsters in simple a fashion as possible. By holding down the right mouse button and waving your cursor over any one of your many enemies, your chosen character will immediately start attacking with whatever weapon or spell you’ve selected and will continue to do so until tell them to do otherwise. It’s that easy. Even when you manage to accumulate a small team of additional heroes, things aren’t much more complicated; a single press of the mana and health potion hotkeys will ensure that each person in your party will consume as much as they need to get back up to maximum recovery, which is pretty handy. The only part of basic combat that becomes slightly problematic is party AI, as your heroes will occasionally instigate fights with mobs that you might have been able to avoid, or they might fail to attack who you’d like. With a bit of practice with the party command hotkeys, you can make these issues somewhat negligible, however: setting your party to Mirror will have everyone attack who you attack, while Rampage gives your heroes free reign to attack who and whatever they like. It’s far from perfect, as you’ll still spend some time manually managing your party members, but it’s passable. All told, managing right-click attacks, health and mana potion hotkeys, as well as party formations makes up the vast majority of the core Dungeon Siege 2 experience, so if you’re not a fan of relatively brainless hack-‘n’-slash RPGs, you’ll get next to no mileage out of this one.
While the straightforward click-kill is definitely king within the Dungeon Siege 2 experience, there is some degree of depth in terms of the game’s character skill development. Each hero has access to four separate skill trees which enhance attack skills and provide new abilities as level-up points are invested. This is nothing new, but what is interesting is that even a sword-swinging hero can choose to toss some points into some archery talents, if he so chose, while a combat mage might want to gain the ability to dual-wield. It’s hardly complex or even revolutionary but it helps the player to tailor each character just the way they’d like, either to become more powerful as individual fighters or to help enhance the group by developing complementary skills. Unlike in Diablo 2, however, levelling up doesn’t allow you to boost core statistics; no, in order to improve your basic stats, you need to actually use them in the field. This means that you can only bump your nature magic statistic by actually casting nature magic spells, not only boosting the lethality of your spells but also the number and type of spells you can slot into your spellbook. Similarly, certain weapons and armor are only wearable by characters who meet certain specific statistical requirements. It’s a logical way of handling skill development, and allows for just enough customization to keep things interesting.
Anyone who’s spent any amount of time with Diablo 2 will instantly recognize the ‘named item’ system that Dungeon Siege 2 uses, which is functional if something we’ve seen many times before. Defeated enemies will frequently drop all sorts of loot, especially weapons and armor of varying degrees of quality. As the item sits on the ground, you can mouse over it to see what type it is as well as its relative rarity. A white-named short sword is fairly common, while a purple-named shield – a unique item – would definitely be worth further investigation. Handily enough, all that’s required to identify any and all items is to simply place them in your inventory, which will then reveal the rest of their important statistics. This saves you the trouble of hauling all sorts of loot back to town only to discover it’s all quite worthless, which was a headache and a half in games such as the aforementioned Diablo 2 as well as the PS2’s Champions of Norrath series. Genre fans will also be familiar with the idea of ‘item sets,’ which are relatively plentiful in this game, adding better and better statistical and damage enhancements with each newly equipped item from a given set.
Also helping to round out the item department is the ability to enchant your own magical weapons, armor, rings and amulets using ingredients you find in the field. You’ll find that your downed foes will occasionally drop plain, enchantable items that are perfect for combining with any of the enhancement items that will add effects that range from strength boosts to higher maximum damage capacity to better chances to find magical items. Certain vendors will sell you these ingredients if you’d rather not have to track them down on your own, though they come at quite a price, which is something to keep in mind when you consider that you’ll also have to pay the enchanter to craft your item for you. As a result, putting together your own customized items can be somewhat costly, and while they rarely result in something better than what you could easily find or buy from weapon vendors, it’s still a fun diversion.
It should be pointed out that Dungeon Siege 2 has what is easily one of the greatest in-game tutorial systems seen in any game in recent memory, thanks in no small part to the extremely handy self-annotating journal. As you move through the opening stages of the game, you’re presented with journal entries that describe the inner workings of many core concepts. This is handy in and of itself, but what’s great is that you’re fully able to flip open your journal and check through these entries any time you need a refresher. What’s more, the tutorial entries are numerous and exhaustive, with no less than fifty in all. It’s a truly great system that other games would do well to emulate.
That being said, the journal is extremely useful in several other meaningful ways, not the least of which is the way in which it tracks the Dungeon Siege 2’s many quests. While your heroes are constantly being asked to work towards one central goal per chapter across the game’s three central acts, you can easily accumulate several dozen sidequests along the way. Many of these are peripheral to your central goals, but you’re still able to amass a wide number of completely unnecessary quests by talking to people you come across in your travels. Some involve just keeping your eyes open in areas that you already have to traverse for your main quest, while others encourage you to explore the many hidden nooks and crannies scattered across the landscape. In fact, Dungeon Siege 2 possesses an impressive number of extra mini-dungeons and hidden areas, and unlike many modern semi-linear RPGs, thankfully encourages you to seek out and explore such areas, and provides you with ample incentives for doing so. Given, the optional quests rarely amount to more than mere fetch or kill quests, but they’re often presented in ways that are at least marginally interesting. Were it not for the journal’s handy separation of primary and secondary quests, trying to sift through them all would be an exercise in extreme frustration. As it stands, the journal does a tremendous job of keeping the sometimes staggering number of quests in order.
The journal also serves a number of other, lesser purposes that are nevertheless quite helpful. For example, all books are stored within the journal itself, along with all unique quest-crucial items. This may sound insignificant, but it actually saves you the problem of having to figure out how to store each of these items while still giving you the ability to check them over at a whim. More interestingly, the journal also tracks your accumulated collection of “chants,” which are essentially short phrases you can utter at one-time-use shrines you sometimes stumble across in the wilderness. Upon saying a chant, the shrine will accord you a benefit of some sort, depending on the phrase you’ve spoken. Some boost your attack power, while others temporarily give you a small number of allies, and others will even give you random magical objects. It’s an interesting idea, though the problem here is that the benefits are short-lived enough that you’ll rarely make any significant use of them, especially if you’ve found the shrine after defeating all nearby enemies.
Where Dungeon Siege 2 particularly stands out from previous action-RPGs is in the graphical department. Using a rather attractive 3D engine, the game enables the player to rotate the camera and zoom in and out rather fluidly, enabling them to take a nice close-up look at the various weapons and armor represented on each of their characters, which is an extremely nice touch. While the heroes and humanoid NPCs are largely low-poly beings, the monsters are nicely fleshed-out and look quite respectable. The animation is also more than respectable, as enemies lash out with believable ferocity just as your heroes will bob, weave, hack and slash believably enough that you’ll want to zoom in and take a close look at combat now and again, even if doing so is tactically inadvisable. What’s more, the atmospheric visual touches are wonderfully done, with any number of particle effects being put to good use; at any given point, you’ll see either spells, sparks, smoke or even simply forest dust flitting through the air. The local area always feels “busy” even without actually being so, thanks in no small part to the carefully crafted landscape details such as the many gnarled trees – which, unlike in most 3D games, actually look good – and wild plants that sway gently in the breeze. The game also gives you a decent sense of perspective through the use of terrain of varying heights, even going so far as to frequently portray the “out of bounds” areas as tree-specked valleys just beyond your reach. Sound is no slouch either, with virtually all in-game conversations using recorded speech – which, given the sheer volume of conversation, is a bit of a feat – with surprisingly few aural turkeys amongst the voice acting. Combine all of this with the orchestral music and you’re left with a cohesive, stand-out aesthetic presentation that stands as the best-looking action-RPG to date.
It’s difficult to try and stand in the shoes of a giant such as Diablo 2, but Dungeon Siege 2 makes a respectable go at it and manages to produce a rather entertaining game in the process. Combat is every bit as simplistic as anything you’d expect from the genre, and while the early stages are a tad mind-numbing, matters become much more interesting as things progress. The graphical presentation is as complete as you could hope for, with the 3D engine doing as great a job as you’ve ever seen in the genre, as the spectacular sights provide you with incentive to explore the game’s many expansive lands. The addition of numerous party members and an extremely comprehensive journal system help to round out what could already be seen as a pretty complete package, with only some spotty party AI standing in the way. With an extremely lengthy series of quests and a robust combination of action and RPG-lite features, Dungeon Siege 2 is a great modern alternative to Blizzard’s venerable powerhouse.