For reasons that remain largely inexplicable, some companies occasionally send us preview builds of their upcoming titles. Last I saw of Dungeon Siege II, Certis and I were sitting in one of Microsoft's backrooms at last year's E3 where two producers from Gas Powered Games wondered who the hell we were and why they were giving us a behind closed doors sneak peak. Meanwhile we pretended to be journalists by taking careful notes and nodding our head up and down in a very learned fashion. I added my own flair by occasionally making "˜hmm' noises to let the producer know I was very interested in what he was saying. All the while I was thinking, "˜hey, that looks a lot like the first game'.
Now we're here in 2005, and Dungeon Siege 2 is still in development slated for an August release. Microsoft and Gas Powered Games have been kind enough to send us their progress since last May, and so Certis and I decided that we both had something to say on the six hours or so of the game made available to us. And that's how a Conference Call gets its wings.
Certis: Welcome to the annual Conference Call! This is annual, right? Like, once a year?
Elysium: I don't think it was meant to be originally, but frankly the whole thing is so contrived and confusing that I think it has to be. But, you know, I love it!
Certis: I love you too. IT! I MEAN I LOVE IT! LET'S MOVE ON!
Elysium: Disturbing "… carry on.
Certis: Considering this is a sequel maybe we should talk about what we thought of the original Dungeon Siege.
Elysium: When I think back on Dungeon Siege, I usually remember liking it. Then I sit for a moment, and realize that, no, I didn't actually like it. In fact, I stopped playing it after a dozen hours or so, finally bored with the whole exhausting endeavor. You see, I get confused because Dungeon Siege wasn't exactly a bad game, nor was it a good game. It was, simply, an adequate game, not exactly a Diablo rip-off, and probably worse the wear for not just being a clone. For those who don't recall, Dungeon Siege's primary claim to fame was a contiguous world with no load times. For me, however, its claim to infamy was uninteresting story, cumbersome controls, poor AI, inventory management so overloaded that you actually had to have a pack mule, and a game that at times seemed to be playing itself.
Fortunately my first impression of Dungeon Siege II is that they've gotten rid of much that I didn't like about the first, and kept a lot of the touches that left me mistakenly under the impression that I actually liked the first one.
Certis: My experience with Dungeon Siege was mainly a positive one. All the stuff you mentioned about the inventory, plot and auto-play holds true but like any game coop made this about five times more enjoyable. I played through the entire thing with my wife so I didn't have to worry about A.I party members or managing loot and equipment for a bunch of different NPCs. That being the case, it was a much more focused experience so we had a good time. The graphics were good, the environments were plenty varied and the Diablo-like shiver you got when you acquired a rare item was in full force. Oh the squabbles for loot we had"…
Elysium: Good, so the point you're making is that I didn't like the first one because I don't have friends. This is why we only do this thing once a year. Jerk.
Certis: I think you're unbearable because you don't drink. Who wants to game with a straight edge lamer? I shouldn't be allowed to say "lamer" should I?
Elysium: You definitely shouldn't be allowed to do conference calls drunk. Anyway, let's move on to this new game we're supposed to be talking about.
One of the improvements here is the inclusion of an at least passable story; something that makes us friendless loners feel like part of something bigger. Sure the story is the same clichÃƒÂ© and recycled hash that spews from every RPG of late. I'm not sure if there exists actual legislation mandating that any fantasy story must begin with an ancient battle where colliding titans of good and evil forge equally titanic weapons/armor/rings and meet in really freakin' titanic battle ending in the dawn of a second/third/middle age where these antediluvian equivalents to nuclear weapons get essentially forgotten by everyone for a thousand years, but I wouldn't be exactly surprised. So guess what happens next to bring the story into the present! The bad guy in Dungeon Siege II is harvesting these ancient forgotten weapons to bring an end to days, and it's up to you to salvage the artifacts before the bad guy does. I'm just guessing, because I haven't played this one all the way through, but I bet the bad guy gets one of the weapons, and your hero gets the other (in this case, a shield), and you meet in what can only be described as titanic battle!
Surprisingly this is better than the story in the original Dungeon Siege where "… um "… something happened. I'm sorry, I'm stuck here. Did Dungeon Siege have a story that I was supposed to notice?
Certis: I'm thinking really hard and I honestly can't recall the story in the first one, it's probably just as well. I'll point out that the preview build we got is roughly six hours of a supposed 40 – 60 hour game. So I'd say if the main plot and sub-plots continue at the current pace we're in for a very different (read: actually exists) narrative in the second game.
One of the differences you'll notice right away is that the interface has received an over-haul. Quests, Lore, inventory and spells all feel much more streamlined and easy to work with. Even small things like allowing for four spell slots instead of the original's two make a big difference to the variety of combat. Another quirk that adds a new dimension to what many felt was a bland combat experience are the new special ability trees you employ to further customize your character. The way Dungeon Siege works is you mainly start off with a blank slate and your avatar becomes whatever you focus on. Cast a lot of nature spells? You're a nature mage. Hit things with sticks a lot? You're a fighter. Churn butter? You're probably Amish, what the hell are you doing playing a video game?
Point is, your skills go up based on what you use. The new part of character development is the specialization system. Much like Diablo II you have a skill tree for each class and as you level up that class you can specialize in certain aspects. For example, a fighter could focus on two-handed weapons which in turn will make accessible a two-handed weapon specific special move. It adds much needed depth to character development and activating skills in combat makes it more interactive and a little less like a screen saver.
Elysium: And so, once again, being like Diablo 2 pays off! Which is not a bad thing!
On to a topic that is a bit more original, the addition and implementation of pets. The pack mule from the first game makes a triumphant return if you simply need that level of nostalgia, but there's just no good reason to use him with the game's new pets. Pets act not only as the required dumping ground for several dozen potions, but also as combat functional members of your party as well. More importantly, they develop and improve in a rather unique way. Instead of casting transmute on all those unwanted items, a spell hotkeyed in the first game, you actually feed your pet equipment. The stats on the items you feed your pet then become a kind of skill set that defines how it develops. My little casting ice monster, who I named Frosty because I'm not particularly good at naming things, ate many a piece of armor with mana and casting bonuses. As a result Frosty makes things magically cold much better than he did before he started eating people's clothes. I'm not saying it's particularly logical, but it clears out the unwanted inventory in a productive way.
And, as it turns out you don't really even need that pack mule like you did in the first, as there are plenty of teleporters to keep you connected to your home city where you can cash in that equipment and not feel quite so alone for quite so long. There's even a handy town recall spell when you can't find your way quickly to a teleporter, meaning you're always within quick reach of an inn, a blacksmith, or some pesky half-wit who charges you with finding his long lost brother last seen entering the cavernous maw of some demon infested crag. It's a small change, and admittedly breaks to cohesiveness of the world, but one that enhances the single player mode greatly. More than that, it's just nice to be somewhere familiar every so often. It's like mom, and apple pie, and stuff. Wouldn't you agree?
Certis: I love your mom's pie.
In the end, I think this is a good way for a sequel to develop. They've taken the core gameplay and tuned it up with a lot of improvements to alleviate the worst parts of the original. That said, underneath it all this is still Dungeon Siege and although the game is not complete yet, those who had a strong dislike for the original may not find enough different here to turn their opinions around. For the rest of us, I think Dungeon Siege II is shaping up to be an excellent evolution of the original and there is going to be plenty of fun to be had both in single player with the new pets and playing coop. One last thing worth mentioning is that like many games of this type you can play through again with your high level characters at a higher difficulty once you've finished the game. The obsessive among us should enjoy that.
Elysium: Oh good, go back through the same game only harder. Later, can I jab a pair of scissors in my eye, only deeper this time?
I can't be quite as positive about my anticipation level for this one. I see that I'm supposed to play for forty to sixty hours in the final version, and I just know I'm going to get fifteen hours in and become distracted by something shiny. Look, I could be all "˜this is a preview so I'm going to go soft-gloves' but I'm just not sure that the differences here are going to convert me. There are some positives to look forward to, including the pet, the improved AI management options, the cursory story – sadly, a genuine improvement – and a moderately revamped graphics engine, but bottom line this is Dungeon Siege. Again. If that gets you hot, then you've got a lot to look forward to in August.
- Elysium & Certis