Torches are flickering light through the dank room you've just stepped into. You can hear, rather than see, rats crawling under your feet, and between you and daylight are six skeleton guards that want you dead. You're wounded pretty badly and you're not going to make it in a fight, so you decide to side-step the bones and make for the exit. It's touch and go, but just as the skeleton brings his sword back for the deadly stroke you hit the doorway and... Please wait. Loading. You're suddenly transported from the inner sanctum of your imagination and back to your bedroom, complete with overflowing ashtray and dirty underpants.
Eliminating this problem is central to the philosophy of Chris Taylor and his newly formed company, Gas Powered Games, and it looks like you're going to witness the very first no-load game when Dungeon Siege is released early next year. At first glance it looks like another Diablo clone, but just try scratching the surface. In Chris Taylor's words: "When we set out to do Dungeon Siege, we wanted to do the same thing that we did with Total Annihilation a couple of years back. We wanted to expand the genre, and something I like to do is break rules. I like to do things that no one else wants to do." And, if you could see what we've seen, the sort of things the new 3D engine is capable of, then you'll already have scrubbed Diablo II from your must-buy list. Believe us. Dungeon Siege looks that good.
Classed as a game that combines "the immersive elements of a role-playing game with the intensity of a real-time strategy", Dungeon Siege is set in a continuous 3D world that can transport you through the deepest dungeons and straight out into the outside world without a single loading screen. Likewise, the game can put you at the foot of the highest mountain or on top of the deepest chasm, without a single pause. Creatures can inhabit any area of the world and, unlike other games, they're not restricted by invisible boundaries. Piss something off and there's a very good chance that it's going to follow you everywhere you go. Likewise, spy something in the terrain below and you can fire off a few arrows from a position of relative safety.
You can command up to ten different characters in your party (this number isn't set in stone at this stage of the development), and you decide exactly how their skills are going to develop. So if you want an out-and-out fighter you concentrate on hacking anything that dares to step in your path. After a certain amount of time your sword skills will go up. This means that you don't have to worry about selecting certain classes at the start of the game. It's all about freedom - a concept that more and more developers seem to be picking up on.
Money Back Guarantee
Talking about freedom, Gas Powered is also implementing other small changes that go against the norm. The interface is completely customisable, with floating palettes for your main characters. Don't like the stats bar down the left? Get rid of it or drag it down to the bottom. And there are other niggles that Chris Taylor has eliminated from his game. "One of the things that's always been a pet hate of mine is you buy something and then go and sell it back and you lose 50 cents on the dollar. That just drives me nuts. It's like, can't I try it on before I buy it?" So all the shops in the Dungeon Siege world are going to have money-back guarantees.
And then there are the visuals. Static screenshots don't do justice to one of the best 3D engines we've ever seen. According to Chris Taylor: "Everything in the game is true 3D. No tricks. No 2.5D. Everything's real."
This means that all the characters are fully 3D animated and cast real shadows as you walk around. Likewise, all the spell effects are 3D, as was proved when Chris paused the action and flipped us inside and around a fireball in mid-flow. And because the game is in true 3D it leaves the developers open to some interesting tricks. For example, part of your party might fall through a trapdoor in the floor. Do you follow them down and risk dying in a locked cell? Or do you try to figure out a way to get around and down so that you can rescue them?
It's Awesome, Man
The secret lies in the fact that the engine only draws what you need to see on the screen. Camera angles mean that the engine never has to draw to an impossible horizon line, but you can pull out in the engine and see an amazing amount of detail. We were shown behind the scenes, when Chris pulled us out of the action and on top of the world. At the extreme borders we could see the world being created on the fly, and as Americans would say, it was totally awesome.
With a game time that's expected to top the 50-hour mark, and full co-operative and deathmatch-style multiplayer, Dungeon Siege isn't going to be a title that's spent over the course of a single weekend. But just to ensure that it has every chance of becoming the action RPG of 2001, Gas Powered is including the full Siege Editor in the box - the same editing tool that the development team is going to be using to create the full and finished game. This is a feature that producer Zachary Drake is very excited about. "Total Annihilation had a very similar system and people in the Internet community went crazy and did all sorts of stuff, and we're really opening it up even further than TA." This means that you can create your own characters, spells and entire worlds consisting of huge, seamless indoor and outdoor areas. You can then post these onto the Internet so that the real world can sample your fantasy creations.
We may have been hard on Diablo II for being visually lacking, hut Dungeon Siege from Gas Powered Games could soon wipe away all those unpleasant memories with some truly magnificent graphics and an amazing 3D engine. We're still not sure how the story will hold up. but the game does seem to be much more driven by party-based real-time battles, such as Baldur's Gate, rather than by a story such as Planescape: Torment. Not that this is a bad thing, especially considering how good those battles are looking. The massive 3D world is a continuous map that requires no loading between areas, so exploration will be a lot less painful. As reported last month, the multiplayer side will have to be confined to smaller parties, even if we were all hankering for the gigantic world being populated by hundreds of players. If only EverQuest looked this good.
Role-playing games and stats. The two are synonomous. One cannot live without the other. Generations of gainers have grown up playing RPGs and can happily rattle off all kinds of stats. Dexterity, melee, intelligence, wisdom, agility, defence, attack... it goes on, and on, and on, until you reach the point where one RPG blends into another and it takes something really special to make one that stands out from the crowd.
Gas Powered Games has taken a long hard look at the genre, and decided that the one thing missing from most modern-day RPGs is action, pure and simple. To this end, it set out to make an RPG that's easy to pick up and play, that concentrates on realtime action as opposed to turn-based, and features plenty of splats, as opposed to a myriad of stats.
It's a brave move. Pointy hat enthusiasts are renowned for their penchant for meddling with huge tables of statistics before encountering an enemy. For Gas Powered Games to succeed in its simplislics-over-statistics endeavours, Dungeon Siege would have to have a few surprises up its sleeve. Well, there was only one way to find out. I tracked down the team at its Kirkland HQ and was given a full hands-on demo and lake'll through basics of the game mechanics. This is what I saw.
I'm silling in a meeting room with Chris Taylor, president of Gas Powered Games and designer of Dungeon Siege. The lights are dimmed, and a large screen ai the hack to room is prepared to up - game that RPG fans have been talking about for the past year, but have yet to see in action.
The character creation screen appears. This is where it first becomes obvious that Dungeon Siege is not your typical RPG. Your choices here are minimal. Choose a male or female character, mess about with aesthetics like hair and clothes colour, name your character and head straight into the action. Chris makes a comment about games that force you to go through a complex process of selecting stats: it's clear he is not interested in delaying players from getting straight to the core of the game. I ask him at this point if it's possible to customise your character through a stats system if you want to. He replies that it's perfectly possible to do that, but it doesn't happen through a laborious slats system at the beginning of the game and he promises all will be revealed soon. We move onward.
The first thing I notice while the game engine plays out the introduction (which introduces the player to the storyline) is a detailed graphic environment. The characters are big and colourful, the scenery is lush and alive, the buildings are lovingly crafted. It's clear even at this early stage that Dungeon Siege is a sophisticated piece of work indeed. Unlike its action-based counterpart Diablo 2, which uses a bland, ageing 2D engine and rudimentary graphics, Dungeon Siege boasts a hugely impressive 3D engine, with cameras that give you the power to view every aspect of the action from whatever angle you choose. So, first impressions are favourable.
The initial cut-scene that introduces the plot is short, and straight to the point. It's in stark contrast to the lengthy cut-scenes and plot development movies we've seen in other games of this ilk. The intention here is the same as it was on the character creation screen: cut the excess dross and get straight into the action. The no-nonsense approach evident in every aspect of the game so far also makes an appearance when it comes to the logic behind the character development system.
Staying In Character
Rather than have the player choose a character class at the beginning of the game. Dungeon Siege keeps track of the weapons and spells the player uses and adjusts class alignment accordingly. Thus, if you use melee weapons a lot, your character will level up as a fighter. If you consistently use spells, your character will gain levels as a mage. This is effective as a behind-the-scenes method of steering your character in the direction you want him to go, and while it works well for the character you start with, the advantages of this system become more evident when you have other characters in your party too. Imagine a party of five. You can have two of them up front as melee types and supply them with all the melee weapons you come across so they raise their skills and act as a formidable front line for the rest of your party. Equip another with healing and defensive spells and you have a back-up healer for when you bite off more than you can chew and things are going badly. Equip yet another with offensive magic and you have impressive firepower raining down on the opposition from the back of your line-up. Finally, a party member who is skilled with range weapons will cause a lot of damage from the back if you ensure he specialises in this skill. You then have the classic RPG team, and while it's true that you have this option in other games (except the classes are 'ready-made'), Dungeon Siege is unique in that you can decide to what extent your characters specialise in particular areas. For example, you can have a character who is reasonably efficient in melee, but is also handy with a bow, a sort of mix-and-match character who does not specialise in one area, but is pretty good at a few different things. It's an effective, intuitive system that gives you complete control over how each of your characters develop. It's likely to please both hardcore gamers who like tinkering about with different class types, and casual gamers who don't really care which class their characters are and just want to use whatever weapons and spells take their fancy without worrying about what's going on behind the scenes. Dungeon Siege's approach to inventory management is also unique. An 'extra-large' inventory gives you scope to carry all manner of stuff around with you, and the option to pick up everything in your immediate vicinity means you don't have to painstakingly pick up everything on the ground and place items in your backpack one by one.
Simply draw a square around the area you want to cover (much as you do in a standard RTS), and your character will pick up everything there. It's a neat touch that takes the tedium out of inventory management and item acquisition and. like everything else in Dungeon Siege, it's designed to keep you focused on the gameplay without having to wrestle with the interface.
Loading... Please Wait
How many times have you received this message (or a similar one) when entering a new area in a 3D game? Waiting for new areas to load is simply something PC gamers are used to. In keeping with Dungeon Siege's determination to keep players in the thick of the action at all times, transition from one area in the game to the next is seamless. There are no loading screens. Once you are in the game, you stay in it. I watch the screen as Chris takes his character from grassy woodlands into a large house with no pause in gameplay. It's one of those things that you don't really think about much (like I said, people are used to loading screens), but when you see Dungeon Siege in action you will truly appreciate how seamless transitions add to continuity of gameplay. He enters a dungeon, again we are taken seamlessly from an outdoor environment to an indoor environment without any break in the gameplay. Meanwhile, his character has been dispatching a variety of enemies along the way, and his skills have increased. Chris brings up the character panel and explains what's going on "behind the scenes''. "This is the character panel, " he says, referring to a small panel at the top left of the screen. "As you can see, we have different melee damage, range damage and armour rating. Our melee has gone up to level four, and our dexterity, intelligence and health have increased to reflect what our character has done in combat. We have a fair amount of stats to look at here, but we're trying to focus the game on adventure, combat and strategy. We're trying to move away front the old-skool stuff which is very number-heavy. Not everyone is engrossed by numbers. We want to keep things simple. If you're a fighter your strength goes up as your melee skill goes up, if you're a mage your intelligence goes up as your magic skill goes up, so things work out pretty much the way they would have done anyway if you were affecting all the individual stats yourself."
Danger: Goblin At Work
As with any real-time game, the enemy A1 is of the utmost importance. Nobody wants a mindless click-fest, and predictable computer opponents will soon lose the player's attention. To demonstrate the flexibility of enemies in Dungeon Siege, Chris brings us to an area with a shaman who immediately launches a fireball attack on our character. 'This is the shaman," says Chris. "He has fairly primitive A1 compared to some enemies, but he is capable of resurrecting fallen comrades. He can run away when he is losing, and if he gets low on mana he will retreat or maybe pull out a melee weapon and start attacking you with it. We want to keep surprising the player by having situations that come up that are different and really make the enemy seem like they are individuals instead of icons you just smash down."
He takes us to another dungeon, this one has stone gargoyles with death-ray eyes. "Notice how the music changes and the lights come on as we're going down the hallway towards the gargoyle," he says. "All these events can be scripted to create real suspense. All our dungeons are hand-crafted. We don't just have a random roll of the dice with random rooms and halls and a smattering of random monsters. Every one of these rooms has been built specifically and laid out using our tools. We will be releasing all of these tools on the Web and people will be able to download them, build their own dungeons and create their own experiences. At the start of the game you saw what we call a non-interactive sequence - it's like a little story sequence in the game. People can take the tools and build levels and create little movie sequences inside them. If you want to play the pan of dungeon master for your friends for example, you can build a dungeon, write a story, create your characters and write scripts for them. You can put all those elements into the game and share them with other people on the Internet."
It's certainly an ambitious game, and even from the demonstration it was obvious Dungeon Siege is vastly superior to other action RPGs (most notably Diablo 2, which is probably the closest point of comparison).
Gas Powered Games' commitment to a fast-paced action game with an interface designed to make life easy for the player at every turn will undoubtedly ensure Dungeon Siege will appeal to hardcore RPGers and casual gamers alike. But only if they can successfully pull together all the elements they have incorporated thus far, and make sure they keep the attention of the player from start to finish (which appears to be the only potential downfall for an RPG based so heavily on action). We'll be returning to the game soon to look at the multi-player side of things, and needless to say. when it's released in early November, PC will be there with the first review.
Death Becomes You
In Dungeon Siege you can recover
The only way you will die and face the dreaded load screen in Dungeon Siege is if your entire party is wiped out. When a character is badly injured and is close to death, he/she will simply become unconscious. You can, if you wish, revive them with a health potion, but if you don't, your character will slowly regain health and consciousness over time. This opens the way for an entirely new strategy in a game of this type. If, for example, you have eight characters in your party, and half of them look like their short career in pointy-hat land is coming to an end, you can pull them away from the fray. Pop a couple of potions in them, or have the rest of your team hold the fort while they regain lost health. The good thing about this is you always have a chance of recovering. In other games of this type, your characters wouldn't become unconscious, they would die and you'd have to take them to a temple to be resurrected, or worse, wait for the loading screen to appear and resign yourself to going back to an earlier save.
A trusty beast is what you'll need
Those of you who have played your fair share of RPGs will have noted that, generally speaking, these games provide you with 'loot' which you acquire from killing monsters and ne'er-do-wells during your travels. Have you ever noticed that you always seem to end up leaving tons of good stuff behind because you can't fit it all in your inventory and you're too far away from the nearest town? Well, in Dungeon Siege, what you'll be needing in these situations is a couple of packmules. These trusty beasts will follow you everywhere and they can carry shedloads of stuff, so bring a few of them with you on your journey and you can keep literally everything you get from battle and sell it all when you get to the next town. Just make sure they don't get killed, or they won't be carrying anything.
Processor: PC compatible, P-100
OS: Windows 9x, Windows 2000 Windows XP, Vista, Win 7, Win 8, Win 10.
Game Features:Single game mode
Dungeon Siege Screenshots
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