Thursday Review: Dungeon Siege 2 (Part 1)

I’m doing something a little unusual this week because I don’t really have time, but I’m going to go back and review a game that’s pretty old that I just finally discovered, and actually do a case study on it as much as write a review of it. Normally I’d make this a game design thing, but that’s not going to happen right now.

Dungeon Siege, in terms of the mechanics of the first two games, can best be described as “The Elder Scrolls” meets “Diablo”, with a skill-use based progression linked to a much more linear and simple experience that focuses on hack-and-slash combat from a standard hack-and-slash ARPG floating camera perspective. Looking back on it, this is actually an incredibly dull formula, but it’s pretty good at satisfying the reptile brain elements of play and it also allows for customized experiences. The core character is broken down to four skills (Melee Combat, Ranged Combat, Nature Magic, and Combat Magic) and three attributes (Strength, Dexterity, Intelligence). Again, it’s a very simple concept, with most of the brains side of character development being choosing the right path or making multiclassing strategies, and the rest is really just a standard hack-and-slash experience.

Dungeon Siege 2 takes things up a notch by taking  the standard progression model of DS1 that had no special criteria for advancement and providing the additional option to spend proficiency points that unlock at certain levels (determined by the sum of the players’ skill experience) and are tied to the skills. This isn’t anything revolutionary in the genre, but the skills tree consists of passive modules, which, upgraded in certain combinations, unlock general use “powers” which refresh over time and provide an alternative to spells. There’s still a very linear system, but the generally applicable things (More mana, cheaper spellcasting, more health) tend to be available early in the game (levels 1-6 of the respective skills) and the elements further along the tree focus more on things that a specialist would use; instead of decreasing the mana cost of spells you might make powers recharge more frequently.

The main downside of this formula, versus Dungeon Siege 1’s, is that it really discourages multi-classing. This is the sort of thing that’s only practical with a fair degree of grind, since other than combat magic which becomes somewhat ludicrous at higher levels of intelligence, increasing any skill typically doesn’t provide much benefit for other skills, other than the fact that they will increase all the attributes more or less once and the linked one for the skill twice by the time they’re done leveling up (at low levels, the fact that progression is exponential means that this doesn’t necessarily ring true at higher levels). The game, however, does explicitly reward specialization; in singleplayer there’s an option to bring along hired hands, and in multiplayer other players will fill that role.

Dungeon Siege 2 does have some major downsides in the way it handles its systems. Although it shifts Dungeon Siege 1’s item use requirements to skills instead of attributes (which were calculated in a rather misanthropically inflated manner causing the player to lag behind shop item requirements), making the equipment much easier to evaluate. In addition, many interesting UI qualities, including but not limited to the fact that the inventory system is much more clunky and the user interface went from 1’s beautiful simplicity that could be navigated with only a mouse to a much more robust, but limited system. The game seems to have forgotten about the first’s container systems, and the spell book takes up another tab of the inventory, despite the elegant simplicity of the pop-out system used in the first game.

However, from a game design perspective, DS2 does a lot of stuff well; it allows for clear progression and goal fulfillment, is not too difficult for novices to understand, and includes plenty of features for experts to dive into.

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