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Obsidian Entertainment has us crawling through the many dungeons of its latest RPG...
It takes a certain sort of sociopath to be an RPG hero. Someone who can slaughter legions of undead fiends without collapsing into a PTSD-wracked quivering wreck the next day. Someone who can casually saunter into a stranger's house and rob them blind as they sit around eating dinner. Someone who can just stroll up to a dragon, and stab it in the face. Someone with a name like Lucas Montbarron, last in a long line of distinguished warriors, skilled of sword and short of options.
Lucas accompanied us on our co-op play-through of Dungeon Siege 3, which took place in the vast haunted hallways of Gunderic Manor. One of four playable characters planned for the game, Lucas covers the warrior end of the RPG spectrum, hacking away with a snappy sword-and-shield combo, and switching to a lumbering two-handed broadsword for heavy crowd-control. Each character has two offensive stances which they can toggle between, and a further defensive modifier which they can adopt to cast healing magic or nimbly evade attacks. Our character, Anjali - an archon, or "legend come to life" - transformed into a fire-spitting floating mage in her second stance; a dramatic departure from her other staff-wielding martial-artist persona.
Kill. Loot. Equip. Repeat. These are the staples of the dungeon-crawler genre, and Dungeon Siege 3 only tampers with them slightly, draping itself in a few contemporary RPG trappings, and fitting the action around a console pad rather than the clicky-clicky mouse action of old. Although there is a semblance of a story running through the game, and even the occasional outcome-altering dialogue choice during cut-scenes, Dungeon Siege 3 is an old-school loot-crawler at its heart: the game is viewed from a classic top-down perspective and takes place in a labyrinthine maze of corridors filled with treasure-hoarding beasties, and destructible furniture filled with gold. The main quest in the manor revolves around clearing out its hostile paranormal inhabitants and freeing the trapped spirit of Alise Gunderic. Pressing up on the d-pad sends out a breadcrumb trail leading directly to your next objective, but there are plenty of side-rooms begging to be looted off the beaten path, and you can pull up your equip menu at any time to try out new armour or embark on a secondary quest.
Anjali works well from a ranged position, pinning down enemies with fireballs as Lucas charges in to attack, and is particularly adept at picking off the skittish flying enemies that prove too fast for straight-forward melee assaults. However, she's also a formidable close combat warrior in her less-agile staff-wielding stance, and can knock back enemies with her special move if they crowd around her. A different special move or 'Proficiency' is available in each stance; Lucas can charge at enemies, or knock them back with his shield, while Anjali can summon a devastating circle of fire dubbed the 'Aura of Immolation' while in her spellcasting form. These attacks use up your 'Will' - the Dungeon Siege 3 analogue of a magic bar - although this gets rapidly replenished as you engage in combat with enemies. A super-powered magic attack is also available in each fighting mode: spellcaster-Anjali releases a barrage of homing fireballs that can destroy multiple assailants for example, but these take significantly longer to regenerate than your standard attacks.
As you progress deeper into the manor, you encounter a circle of dark mages that are in the process of summoning a demonic rock-hurling sub-boss. Frequent use of your evasive rolling manoeuvre is required to survive the frenetic battle that ensues, but once you take out the outlying mages, the boss itself doesn't present too much of a challenge in co-op play. A later event involving a talking door is short-lived if you happen to find the right password earlier in the dungeon, but guess at the code enough times and the door eventually takes pity on you and lets you through anyway. Different approaches to these 'choice' sections net you various permanent stat bonuses known as 'Deeds'; in this case, knowing the password earns you an agility boost, while assiduous guessing results in a party-wide stamina augmentation.
Accumulate enough experience by dispatching enemies and you'll level-up, gaining a Proficiency point in the process; these are spent on upgrading your special moves in one of two possible directions: Anjali's Aura of Immolation can be tweaked to heal party members within its radius for example, or simply upgraded to deal more damage to enemies. The former upgrade really showcases the co-op potential of the game, allowing you to lay down a healing area for Lucas as he hacks away at enemies on the front lines; this strategy proves particularly effective in dispatching the Manor's final boss, Lord Gunderic, who summons a horde of skeletal warriors to support him in battle. Later levels see you unlocking additional Proficiencies; there are eventually three for each stance, making for a total of 9 unique special moves per character.
Two further 'choice' events occur towards the end of the level when you encounter the Heart of Nagog - an occult crystal that binds the spirit of Alise Gunderic to the manor. You can either choose to destroy the artefact, freeing Alise, or leave it untouched, and either choice has its own unique repercussions further into the adventure. You also have the option to leave the manor in the temporary guardianship of a mysterious witch, or allow her to keep it for good, and every choice you make in this section unlocks a specific Deed with its own particular stat boosting bonus.
Although only Anjali and Lucas have been revealed so far, two further characters are set to be unveiled closer to launch, one of which appears to be a ranged pistol user (judging by a sillhouette on the official Dungeon Siege 3 website). The single player story is slightly different depending on who you choose as your primary character, and various NPCs also join your party along the way. Co-op is drop-in/drop-out, and supports two players on one console, or up to four online, with the A.I. taking over if any accompanying player remains idle for too long.
Despite the occasional rudimentary fetch puzzle (such as finding a round stone to complete a lever mechanism), Dungeon Siege 3 is focussed firmly on combat and exploration, and while it might not have the complexity expected by hardcore PC fans of the genre, Obsidian is clearly trying to broaden its appeal by introducing more accessible RPG action and story elements into the series. Hopefully the developers will strike the right balance here, without compromising too much of what made Dungeon Siege successful in the first place.