Dungeon Siege III hands-on preview

The once-dominant dungeon-crawler hasn’t seen much love during the current, shooter-obsessed generation. But with plenty of high profile hack-and-slashers – Lord the Rings: War in the North, Diablo III, and Dungeon Siege III – on the horizon, the blacksmiths and barmaids could be enjoying brisk business once again. We recently got our hands on the latter title and came away impressed with its ability to blend classic looting-and-leveling gameplay with the sort of fast-action today’s frag-focused gamers have been brought up on.

While the suggestion of “fragging” might sound out of place in a preview of a fantasy action RPG, it‘s actually quite fitting in Obsidian Entertainment‘s updated take on the nearly decade-old franchise. In fact, players who choose to brave Dungeon Siege III’s dangerous world behind Katarina – a witch who shares more than a passing resemblance to Angelina Jolie – can plan on spraying more hot lead than all those Call of Duty soldiers combined.

According to DSIII’s character selection screen, Katarina’s “skilled in both warfare and magic,” so she seemed a well-rounded choice for our first few hours in the kingdom of Ehb. After a few minutes of dropping baddies from behind her two combat stances, we were confident we’d chosen wisely. With a quick tap of the left bumper, she alternates between a ranged, rifle-toting position and an up-close, dual-shotgun-packing pose. The former is perfect for thinning angry hordes from a distance, while the latter works well for more intimate crowd control. We got to employ both these strategies against mercenaries, skeleton warriors, and oversized arachnids while traveling through DSIII’s fantasy-rich world.

With names like “Determined Shatter Gun of Shrapnel” and “Carbine of Life-Stealing,” it wasn’t easy narrowing down which three weapons to equip, however, RPG-style stats like agility, will, block and attack made the decision a bit easier. In addition to crunching those numbers to determine which hand-cannons offered the best bang for the buck, some guns also sport chaos stats; we found ourselves relying heavily on the aptly named Shocking Double Barrel because its chaos perk held the promise of occasionally giving our enemies an electric jolt as well as a body full of bullets – watching blue bolts course through enemies while they wonder if you’ll finish them with a headshot is pretty satisfying.

Adding more depth to our arsenal – and blood to the battlefield – is DSIII’s use of abilities and proficiencies, which you access as you level-up. Abilities allow you to select items that further complement your attacks. As Katarina, for example, we were granted Heart-Seeking Shot, as its name suggests, this ability stands a chance of scoring a critical shot. Proficiencies inject additional elements of danger into abilities; we chose to load our points into one called Magic Bullet, a proficiency that increases the chances of those heart-breaking bullets ricocheting into other potential victims. If all that’s not RPG-ish enough for you, talents are also unlocked as you level. In Katarina’s case, we decided to split these into offensive and defensive disciplines, choosing one that steadied our aim and another that healed her quicker.

As we dove deeper into Katarina’s adventure, we discovered that simply pulling the triggers of her pimped-out pea shooters wasn’t cutting it. When facing a witch who conjured undead allies and a towering red knight whose health bar was as long as his oversized sword, we found a more focused strategy was in order. After filling swarms of forest-crawling foes full of holes, we almost forgot our pistol-packing heroine was a witch. It seemed time to unleash some death not delivered through a gun barrel, and magic abilities like Caress of Suffering and Warding Ritual were just what the witch doctor ordered. The former, an enemy-stunning poison, worked perfectly for stopping charging enemies in their tracks, while the latter forcefully pushed harder-to-manage hordes backward. These did little harm to the knight or witch, but worked wonders on their minions. Managing the magic abilities’ cool-down periods, we alternated between the two, then broke out our up-close guns to clean up the mess; with little time remaining before more swarms were summoned, we then switched to our ranged attack and fired a few of those aforementioned heart-stoppers into the primary threats. A third stance, used for defense, also came in handy during these more daunting encounters, as it allowed for quick healing.

While DSIII’s combat is fast-paced, deep, and visually appealing, its mechanics are what impressed us most. Switching combat stances with the left bumper and rooting yourself in a defensive pose with the left trigger is effortless, while selecting abilities and basic attacks with the face buttons is a similarly seamless affair. Additionally, a simple HUD shows what you have equipped and also tracks health and focus levels. Mouse-and-keyboard diehards may have to overcome a bit of a learning curve, but those raised clutching a gamepad will have no problem with DSIII’s well-mapped controls.

While our demo focused on combat, with a character that prefers bullets over blades, DSIII should not be mistaken for anything but an action RPG. Fans of the genre can expect to loot, level and lay waste to mythical beasties deep within dimly-lit dungeons. They’ll also chat up villagers, take on critical and optional quests, and shape their story through cinematic dialogue sequences. If brandishing a broadsword and reducing skeleton warriors to more bone piles than a rib joint sees on a Saturday night is your thing, DSIII’s got you covered. Still, if sword-swinging and fireball-spitting isn‘t quite your cup of mead, it’s nice to know Katarina’s also got a Musket of Rage at the ready.

May 18, 2011

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