Dirty Harry once said “A man’s got to know his limitations”. That was back in 1973, when Harry used to hang up his .44 at the end of a hard day’s flouting of police regulations and unwind with a monster session of Lemonade Stand.
As with most things Dirty Harry said, his words are even truer when taken out of context and applied to videogames. Take Dungeon Siege III — it sets its sights reasonably low, but keeps it all in the bowl. This is different from L.A. Noire, which aims high, but ends up pissing in its own mouth.
Dungeon Siege III is the result of an unlikely alliance between JRPG publishing juggernaut Square Enix and the niche, but my kinda guys Obsidian. It’s like Hamish and Andy going on tour with Steve Hughes. DSIII is an action-RPG, Diablo-style, with some dialogue choices thrown in.
The game’s setting is fantasy with an early steampunk twist. Guns, cannons and robots coexist with swords, magic and gnomes. Like aioli with fries, the presence of renaissance-era technology adds some extra flavour to a familiar dish.
Your choice of characters to play also has the “with a twist” vibe. There’s four, starting with your typical RPG trio: melee fighter, magic-user and ranged attacker. The fourth character is a fire elemental who mixes area effect attacks with melee and strong healing abilities. Also, the ranged attacker uses guns instead of bows. After being an archer in Dragon Age 2, I went for the gunslinger, who also dual-wields a pistol and shotgun for close-up attacks.
One of the other characters can fight alongside you and revive you when you get croaked. This buddy can be controlled by a human or the AI. I am very fussy about who is allowed into the Bunker of Experience and onto the Couch of Play, therefore my buddy was AI-controlled. The AI made a good sidekick — it healed me when necessary and provided assistance during fights without upstaging me.
The story is forgettable … something something something JEYNE KASSINDER BAD something something … thankfully all the cutscenes and dialogue are brief. I haven’t played the previous two Dungeon Sieges, so neither know nor care about continuity of lore.
The environments are pretty too — there’s forests and caves and swamps and mines. As I typed that list I realised how generic it appears. It’s not amazingly original, but once again, it just does the standards well, like Michael Bublé. The colour palette is varied instead of being brown and browner. Are we finally seeing the re emergence of colour in HD games, or is it just that I have not played a shooter for a while?
The thing that really lifts DSIII above its rivals sitting on the action-RPG shelves is the action.
Action-RPGs on the PS3 are rare. Sacred 2 and DeathSpank are recent examples. Action RPGs run the risk of becoming button-mashers, where you spend 87.4% of your time spamming one attack, regardless of circumstance or enemy type, pausing only to replace the Square button on your controller and put ointment on the callous on your right thumb. Sacred 2 and DeathSpank are recent examples. Some people will still find a button-masher fun if it’s pretty enough. It can be relaxing if you don’t think too hard about the formulaic and repetitive nature of it, like watching an episode of Masterchef.
Like the Masterchef judges, DSIII tries to avoid mash, mostly by being a little more action and a little less RPG. Standard attacks become underpowered in the mid to late game, even as your weapons get better, so it is necessary to build up your “focus” meter with timed blocks and successful attacks to execute power attacks. Essentially you have to do the basics well to earn the room-clearing power attacks. Other special ability attacks have a cooldown, so they cannot be solely relied upon when the game swarms you with enemies, as it often will. DeathSpank tried a similar system, but the blocking mechanic was too wonky and it was too easy to stock up on healing items and scoff them as needed. Here is another nice touch of DSIII — there are no healing potions. Instead, downed enemies drop health. This brings defence into the game and means you have to learn how to fight well to progress.
Various combat levels and boss fights have a puzzle element to them, e.g. you have to flip switches, destroy structures or hit weak spots on big enemies. This will be familiar territory for action gamers, but may be a rude shock for stat-obsessed RPGers who just like to press a button and watch something die with numbers coming out of its head.
The game is kept appropriately challenging throughout. Critters’ toughness and number ramp up in proportion to your stats and abilities. You can’t wander off, do heaps of side quests and grind your character up to be overpowered by the end. It’s not to say the game is brutally hard, but you have to fight intelligently to survive.
The linearity of DSIII also prevents you from maxing out all of your abilities, so you have to think about your build and adapt your playing style to suit. If you’re going to max out your defensive abilities, learn how to block properly and time your attacks while you chip away at enemies’ health. I went the “glass cannon” route and opted to maximise my offensive capabilities and critical hit chance, while ignoring defensive buffs. It was a challenging way to play — I could dish out punishment, but couldn’t take much of it. That’s how I noticed how good the AI is at reviving me.
Aside from the combat, there’s a rudimentary dialogue system, a few choices to make along the way that can mildly branch the story and a fledgling companion approval mechanic, where a companion will give you a boon if they like you — a baby brother to the Dragon Age system.
Loot is of the randomly-generated variety and it is doled out generously. Different combinations of loot can make a major difference to your stats. Based on what trinkets I was wearing, I could become a critical hit maestro, or a tank with the health of an elephant and the attack power of a gnat. I had the sneaking feeling that my AI partner was getting better stuff than me in the late game, so I sold it all.
I played through DSIII to the end, enjoying it more than I felt I should have. When a game does that, it’s doing something right. It’s relatively short at 16 or so hours, but that feels right for what it offers.
Dungeon Siege III is a game that knows its limitations. Like the drummer from the White Stripes, it doesn’t do much, but what it does do, it does well. The combat has just enough complexity to avoid being a button masher and just enough challenge to avoid late-game boredom. It’s gaming comfort food — you may not remember it in a year, but you’ll eat it all up when it’s put in front of you.