Two years after Diablo 2 and two years before Sacred, Chris Taylor took a shot at the hack & slash formula with his studio Gas Powered Games, under the wings of Microsoft. The result was Dungeon Siege, a million selling cross-over that was influenced by and still influences many games. When it came out in 2002, I remember clicking my way through the crystal caves and the fortresses before getting bored yet again right before the ending. With my retro win98 PC back in place, let’s take closer look at an unconventional approach to the hacking and slashing of the early 2000s.
1. World Design
The medieval fantasy world with bits and pieces of steampunk might not be too compelling for some, but Gas Powered Games did their best in adding a lot of lore and background to keep the world fresh. Instead of orcs, there are Krugs - not a huge difference. The world map is big. Yet, in-game, you see very little of it at any given time due to the disappointingly linear gameplay. The game basically holds hands to guide you from one chapter to the next. Occasionally, there’s a “hidden” treasure chest tucked away in a dark corner, but because of the 3D engine, it quickly all blends together. The problem gets worse: the world map is somehow completely absent in the game, and the automap gets you nowhere.
Your party travels on foot: there’s no town portalling of any kind, and there’s no horse to increase travel speeds. However, there is a donkey for rent that can haul the precious items you collect to sell of in the next town. Yet that donkey has (purposely?) one of the stupidest AIs I’ve ever seen. If one of the party members - say, the donkey - can’t follow, you’re required to click on it and point it in the right direction, leaving your party uncontrolled in the front. This got annoying fast, and in the end, I kicked the mule out of the party and left the useless items on the ground instead.
The engine responsible for the atmosphere of the Dungeon Siege world did its best to emphasize lush forests, creepy crypts, and icy caves. There’s a lot of variety in between chapters, but little in the chapter itself. Sadly, mundane is all that I remember after a few weeks of playing. Compared to Diablo’s grit and Sacred’s charm, DS doesn’t particularly stand out in world design - unless you’re a polygon geek.
Compared to the 3D-rendered player and enemy designs of Sacred from two years later, DS1 still holds up surprisingly well (I’m ignoring the facial area here). The fully three-dimensional world runs smooth and there are no load times - which is impressive for a game from 2002. There is a bit more variety in special effects compared to Sacred, but I still prefer the pixels of Diablo 2’s Firewall and Ice Orb. The Nature magic Zap spell or the Combat Magic fireball feel and look a bit weak.
There is no day/night cycle, but the scenery does change from summer-looking farmlands the player starts in to snowy mountains after emerging from the Krug-infested mines. The engine delivers a fine job, but it’s all very static. It feels more like an early Aurora engine game such as Neverwinter Nights. What about the UI then? Passable at best: things are a bit too small when you crank up the resolution to a daring
1024x768 and the font is absolutely horrible. Luckily, you won’t be spending a lot of time fiddling about as there simply are not a lot of choices to be made, compared to other more complex hack & slashers.
Enemies and Mobs
This is where the games gets mildly interesting again. I’ve read a few reviews that complain about the lack of enemy variety. While I agree if we’re safely staying within one zone as the game instructs us, these designs do change completely every hour or so. “Krugs” (Dungeon Siege) are better than “orcs” (Sacred), goblin robots wielding flame throwers are certainly original enough to keep me entertained.
Alas, mob design is an entire different matter. There are no elite mobs as in Diablo 2/3/Sacred, but there are unique mini-bosses that are more likely to drop a few pieces of hopefully magical equipment. Yet none are lightning-enhanced or anything else crazy, and enemies are “set” in the world of DS: no respawning, so no farming. Wait, how are you going to do your magic find runs then? You’re not - except for re-creating multiplayer instances.
Enemy AI is not as bad as the donkey but it doesn’t need to be complex if you simply dump everything in a dungeon and attack at sight. Enemy spellcasters occasionally gave me trouble because of their healing or reviving abilities so that was a nice surprise.
Another minus, perhaps. The main quest, told in in-game rendered cut-scenes, did not entertain me, and the few available subquests even less so as soon as I learned their reward system: none. I killed a bunch of bandits, and as soon as the leader was killed, the quest was done. Our party didn’t need to go back to town to bring the good news - apparently reports spread more quickly than me clicking my way back there. Just to be sure, I made it back, and they said “oh yeah thanks I’ll never forget it”. Sure bro, but where is my unique item? Oh. Cough, yeah well, I’m off then…
This might have been my own fault: In Diablo 2, you’re even given much needed skill points, and in Sacred, the whole map is filled to the brim with sidequests (admittedly, most of them are stupid fetch quests, but they do offer precious runes!). I shouldn’t have played Sacred before this.
NPC design - or city architecture, for that matter - is also a bit lacking. In Sacred, NPCs also “go to sleep” and move about a bit, while in Dungeon Siege, they’re as static as everything else. Most cities are not bigger than five houses, of which three provide facilities such as your smithy and magic bookshop.
In hindsight, when I wrote in the Sacred review, “The loot system might be my biggest problem with Sacred”, I might have been wrong. It’s even sadder in Dungeon Siege. The amount of rare drops is staggeringly low - or for that matter, the amount of anything. Money is of great importance, as I found myself constantly buying better equipment and in need of cash. That’s a good and bad thing: shops are useful (good), but it also means that drops are useless (bad). Some pre-determined dropped things are good enough during the early hours.
Caves and dungeons are littered with crates and trapped chests that contain nothing but potions (much needed) and gold (also much needed). The problem is, it’s not that compelling to open - even if needed. After all, hack and slash games resolve around loot, a key game mechanic, and the reason why I’m playing this. And that is clearly wrong: Dungeon Siege is another kind of game. Its successor, Dungeon Siege II, goes a tad wilder on loot and items.
On the plus side: since you’re playing with a party of up to seven members, you can equip up to seven characters. Found a nice axe, but started as a mage? No problem, give it to your fellow dwarf! Instead of selling cool items that are unusable because of class restrictions, you can use everything - and not only because there are no classes at all!
3. Character Progression
Veteran hack & slash players will be amazed when trying to distribute points after leveling up: there’s no such thing in Dungeon Siege. Instead, the game employs a classless system where skills grow as the appropriate item gets more use. Whack at enemies using a melee weapon? Okay, you’re now a knight. Use your bow a lot? There, ranged combat. Then there are two kinds of magic: nature magic (summons, heals, good AoE stuff) and combat magic (mostly explosive offensive stuff). You can mix and match, but training jack of all trades in DS is usually a bad idea.
Next to the four basic skills, you have your run-of-the-mill attributes: strength, dexterity, intelligence. Equipping items require a certain amount of a certain attribute. The trouble is, my primary character was an archer, that automatically raises ranged combat and of course dexterity. There are “secondary” attributes: occasionally, strength would go up too, albeit at a much slower rate. However, many armor pieces had quite high strength requirements. This forced me to wield a sword for a few hours to bump up strength - which made my character useless in fights. The medium difficulty gave me a lot of trouble as an archer without many companions in the first half of the game. I don’t like hit-and-run strategies in these kinds of games, but they were needed to survive. In the end, I got tired of it and switched to easy. Indeed, that is possible in-game, without having to start over again. According to forum posts I’ve read, this also alters the amount of XP distributed, and might alter drops. I didn’t see a any of that.
If you dislike choosing and putting a lot of effort into a single build, this is the game for you. The companions you’ll drag along with you each are either fighter, archer, or one of the two mage types. In the end, in a single game run, you’ll have experienced it all, instead of having to build a specialized ice sorceress or whirlwind barbarian in Diablo. The downside of this system is micromanaging your party. While in combat, quickly switching to another spell means clicking, clicking, and more clicking. There are two “quickslots”, as seen in the screenshot below, and besides switching from damaging to healing spells, I didn’t use them very often.
Sound and Music
Thanks to EAX, the sound effects perfectly complement the games' moody engine and color palette. Muffled effects in caves, splashy zaps and icy frost spells: it’s all there, and it’s executed well. I also particularly like the beginning background music that makes me roll up my sleeves and go for it. Alas, after a few hours, the music never manages to catch my attention again.
Every NPC encounter is fully voiced, without the funny tones of Sacred. The cut-scenes are also voiced by a narrator but never last that long. In all, having squeezed everything out of the
500MB installation is quite a feat (well, there aren’t many NPCs and they don’t have much to say…). Sound design in general is pretty well done, although I wished the music track was as good as the first hour in.
To show off the 3D engine, cinematics are all in-game and quite fluent. But exactly because of that zero transition, they don’t really feel as a cinematic. Diablo 2’s excellent CGI grabs players by the throat - something that few non-Blizzard games manage to achieve.
Dungeon Siege is not quite a typical hack and slash game: you control a party, there are few attributes/skills, and they’re all automatically accumulated. Furthermore, your party by default automatically attacks enemies on sight, so when things go well, there’s little for you to do but press a hotkey or two to grab the uesless gear. To put it bluntly, it feels like you’re watching a marathon of Lord of the Rings extended edition movies instead of playing a game where thought must be put into correctly building and equipping your character. After about ten hours, I simply gave up: the game more than overstays its welcome. I’ve finished it once in 2002 and played it again until halfway through the goblin fortress. After dreading the thought of encountering more and more of the same mobs, I decided my time would be better spend trying out Dungeon Siege II: they say it fixed a lot of DS1’s shortcomings.
Only one way to find out!