Published in Gulf Times on August 11, 2003

From ploughshares to swords


By Daniel Lam
"Listen, children, for I am about to tell you a tale. A long time ago, before most of you were even born, the world was a simpler and safer place to be in."I was young then, not much older than most of you are now. Life revolved around the farm - it was hard, but simple. There was plenty of food for everyone, if you look and work hard enough.

"Then the Krug came. Never seen one around these parts before then. Heard of them, yes. Ugly, nasty brutes, kind of like your Ma and Pa, only shorter by a head, much wider at the chest, and dimmer than you can imagine. I was hoeing that morning, when I heard the cries. Life was about to change..."

Dungeon Siege is a 3D action/RPG game by Gas Powered Games, published by software giant Microsoft (yes, the very same company that publishes the operating system that runs on 95% of all computers worldwide). Having played excellent games published by Microsoft, including the Age of Empires (in all its incarnations and sequels) and the console-to-PC port games like Final Fantasy VII and Metal Gear Solid, I had high expectations of this offering.

I must say that I was not disappointed. What more when I later found out that the game is created by none other than Gas Powered Games supremo Chris Taylor, the fellow who gave us the award-winning Total Annihilation game.


What you need

Dungeon Siege is NOT a game for those with less-than-acceptably fast machines. Although the game's minimum specifications are given as: Pentium II 333MHz, 128MB RAM, DirectX 8.0, 8MB DirectX-compatible video card, DirectX-compatible sound card, 4x CD-ROM drive, and 1GB hard-disk space, my game machine, which FAR exceeds the specs given, still chokes during some of the more crowded battles.

What is it about
The game is about a farmboy (or farmgirl, if it strikes your fancy) who stood between the hordes of an ancient evil and the (formerly) peaceful kingdom of Ehb, and plays a major part in the future of the world. In the opening intro, you see your hero tending farm when a neighbour drops by and dies. But not before imparting vital information about what to do in the face of the Krug hordes that quickly pay your farm a visit. Armed with naught but your wits (and fists), your hero goes on to save the world. Easy, yes?

Anyone who has played Blizzard's excellent Diablo (and/or Diablo II), DSI's Darkstone and Interplay's Icewind Dale would notice similarities between those games and Dungeon Siege. In Diablo, the player gets to play a hero who hacks, shoots or blasts his or her way through hordes of monsters. In Darkstone you got to play not one but two heroes in a completely 3D environment, and these two also hack, shoot and blast their way through rank upon rank of beasties. In Icewind Dale, you get great music and nearly non-stop action. All these three are hack-n-slash games of the highest order (although some may argue that Darkstone was a flop). Yes, Dungeon Siege is a hack-n-slash game, too.

The making of a legend
The player picks either a farmboy or a farmgirl, and the game begins. No toying with the hero's stats like in similar games. You do get to choose what the hero looks like, but that's all. Once you have your hero, you see the opening intro, and your first encounter with the Krug begins.

Gameplay is easy - just point and click. If the mouse pointer hovers near something that can be attacked, your hero will charge forward and engage it. If it is a barrel, your hero will smash it. A chest? Voila! It opens! A door ... well, you get the idea.


What do I want to be

What's great about Dungeon Siege, which you will soon realise (if you haven't bothered to read the manual), is that your hero has the potential to be ANYTHING. In Diablo, Darkstone and Icewind Dale your hero's profession or character class is more or less fixed: A warrior can bash, a wizard can hurl magic, a priest can heal, and an archer can shoot. Don't expect one to do something else ... no warrior mages for you, then (note: Icewind Dale does allow for some limited customisation).

In Dungeon Siege, your farmboy or farmgirl has the usual basic stats and skills. What happens is, the more often you use any particular skill, the faster the skill improves. That means if you want your hero to be a Conan the Barbarian wannabe, by all means let him use his melee skills more often. That means using a hand weapon to do everything. His strength and combat skill will improve faster than the rest. If you prefer a battlemage-type hero, make use of combat spells more often, and he will improve in those skills faster. A Robin Hood? No problem. Just shoot everything that moves. Simple as that.

This system of character development definitely makes things easier for the player ... no need to assign stats and skill points (like Diablo II) and what-not. However, for those of you who would prefer an all-rounder, you'd be disappointed. Because of how the game plays, as your skills get better it gets harder to improve them. In short, you won't be having a master swordsman who can call lightning on foes AND hit the bulls-eye from 150m away. Something has to give. Worry not that your hero can't be a master in everything ... there will be non-player characters (NPC) to recruit along the way. 

Some join your hero for free, others cost a pretty penny. In fact, you can even buy a donkey to help carry all the many, many things that your heroes will pick up: dropped by slain foes, from broken chests, shattered vases, etc. Anyone who has played Diablo would appreciate this feature. 


Step back and blast 'em beasties

Combat in Dungeon Siege is simply point-and-click. But that's not all. You see, like Icewind Dale, the fights take place in real time, BUT you can pause the action at any time to issue commands to your heroes. That means if one hero is pretty much close to dying, you can pause the game and instruct another hero to heal the poor bloke. 

Somewhat like Interplay's excellent Baldur's Gate and Baldur's Gate 2: Shadows of Amn, you also get to set your heroes' default AI. That means how the hero will act or react to enemies ... would they charge in, or step back and let loose some arrows? Would they seek out the biggest monster? Thus, even if you don't point and click at an enemy, your heroes will act accordingly if they "see" anything. Definitely a boon for those who are susceptible to carpal tunnel syndrome.

No loading times
Well, not really. Gas Powered Games designed the game to load just once - when you first start the game - and no more. Even when your heroes enter a new town, dungeon or whatever, there is nothing to load. The transition from indoors to outdoors and vice versa is seamless, so be prepared to get hooked from start till end.

Plenty of eye candy
I have never seen a better-looking game. Final Fantasy VIII comes close, but that's only the cinematics. Like any respectable 3D game nowadays, Dungeon Siege allows you to zoom in, zoom out and pan the camera angle 360 degrees. The graphics are detailed enough to spend some time enjoying: the leaves on the trees, the strap on the hero's leather hauberk, even the path of the lightning bolt unleashed upon some hapless critter. Plus, if your heroes enter a building, the walls or roof fades away so that you can see what's inside. Typical for most 3D games, but Dungeon Siege's game engine handles this very well.

Great music, too
When I heard the music the first time, it sounded familiar. Then I realised why. The same team that composed Icewind Dale's musical scores handled the music in Dungeon Siege. That means music that fits the action, and not some tinny-sounding notes that don't do justice to your (for example) Creative Audigy soundcard. The music is so good that some people actually rip it off the game CDs and play it on their CD players. Cool.

Just one problem
There are times when Dungeon Siege crashes for absolutely no reason. I have played the game straight for hours at times, and the game is wonderfully stable. But other times it crashes within minutes of loading. That means you have to save, and save often ... there have been times when I have had to slay a particularly tough boss monster again, because the game crashed right after the coup de grace!

Overall
Great game. Great graphics. Great music. The seemingly random crash bug is tolerable. What more is there to be said?

"From dawn till dusk we fought. My swordarm, for I still had it back then, had become so numb that I was using both hands to wield the sword.

"Yes, that same sword you see hanging on the wall here. See it's chipped blade? No ordinary monster blunted the edge - I swung it hard on its head, and its skull turned the blade.

"But I grow weary now. It has been a long day. Come back tomorrow, children, and I shall tell you more."


Dungeon Siege
Developer: Gas Powered Games
Publisher: Microsoft