Obsidian, it turns out, is a great fit for the old series. It's a studio that's made a name for itself by continuing other studios' games (see Knights of the Old Republic 2, Neverwinter Nights 2 and Fallout: New Vegas), both imitating series' conventions while blazing their own way forward (sometimes to fans' chagrin). And Dungeon Siege 3 follows that same formula. While the setting is the same as the first game and the lore fits together, this console-based hack-and-slash RPG takes a lot of liberties with Chris Taylor's original game, but Obsidian's talent shines through anyway. For one thing, your party is made up of characters, not classes. Unlike the first game's freewheeling experience system, the second game did introduce abilities and classes, though DS3 abandons that idea for four named characters (only two, Lucas and Anjali, have actually been revealed so far), each of which have ability lists that cross over the various fantasy archetypes.
"We actually originally did call them by classes," says project director Rich Taylor. "Lucas was originally the Guardian, and Anjali was originally called the Arkon. The problem was, the class names didn't really mean anything, because their mechanics didn't get locked into specific tropes or specific archetypes. So while Lucas is the guy with the sword and the armor, and you can kind of go, well, he's the warrior class, and then we got to Anjali, and we were like, well, she does melee, and she has a spear, and she's pretty good in melee range, and in her fire elemental form, she's good at being a ranged caster. What do you call that, what does it mean?"
Each character has three stances, two offensive stances and one defensive stance, which you can switch between at any moment. Anjali, for example, is a polearm wielding amazon in her first stance, and then bursts into a fire-wreathed floating caster in her second stance. Each stance has three abilities (mapped to the three face buttons on the controller), and each ability has two paths to put points into when you level. Anjali's caster stance, for example, has an area of effect attack which drops a ring of fire on the ground, hurting enemies within it, and you can either level that into "Firey Presence," which increases the fire damage, or "Cauterize" which heals allies in the same area.
"I think people will find that it plays very much like a PC game when we're done with the pass."- Rich Taylor, project director
On top of all that, each character also has proficiency points, which can boost passive traits like crit chance or even a heal-on-hit proc. This allows for a lot of customization: Lucas can go for crit in his two-hand stance and knock enemies down quickly, or boost Will in his sword-and-shield stance and heal, more like a paladin. There's more, too -- maxed out spells get "empowered," which change their attributes, and you can grow "influence" with other party members, which also changes the spells they cast. "We're still working on the tutorial pass at this point," says Taylor, who hopes that the combat still works even for those who just pick up and play the game, despite all of the complexity.
As for gameplay itself, Obsidian has used much of its RPG experience to make sure not only that the progression works, but that the fighting feels crisp and strong. Blocking and dodging are a big part of combat, so while you can grind it out like any other RPG, players with action-tuned reflexes can time their way through a tough fight. Being lucky with loot helps, too -- as I played through the game's first few hours on Normal mode, my Anjali eventually both found some lifesteal gear and leveled up her lifesteal abilities, so I was able to just sit back and lob fireballs while her health bar refilled itself.
I was told that the current build of the game didn't let you respec characters at all, because Obsidian wants to make sure you really identify with the character you choose. The game's story plays a part in that as well. "The game sort of reacts to who you are in specific strategic locations," says creative lead George Ziets. "Lucas is descended from the old Legion, son of the old Grand Master. Arjalis is an Arkon, like Dungeon Siege's version of an angel, and she has this mysterious backstory. So at certain points in the game, that becomes an issue based on who you run into. Someone knows Lucas' family, so they'll respond differently to him than they would to someone else." While there's not a full morality system in the game, there are a few choices to make, and a few consequences to deal with as well, though Ziets declined to say more for now.
"It wasn't like, well we hate the pack mule, let's throw that thing out [...] it was one of those things that just didn't fit the way the game was developing."- Rich Taylor
Taylor says that old-school PC players will appreciate that Obsidian hasn't dumbed-down the interface completely on that platform. "That's something we're starting to tackle right now," he says, "in terms of the control inputs and things like that. I think people will find that it plays very much like a PC game when we're done with the pass."
Sadly, however, for old-school Dungeon Siege players, there is no pack mule to help carry your inventory around. "It just didn't really fit the way the game turned out," says Taylor. "It wasn't like, well we hate the pack mule, let's throw that thing out. We actually spent a lot of time discussing internally where does this go, how does it fit in, how does it match the gameplay. It was one of those things that just didn't fit the way the game was developing."
Too bad. There are a lot of things that separate Dungeon Siege 3 from the rest of its legacy, and to a certain extent, a lot of Chris Taylor's original series is lost forever to the days when Microsoft Game Studios made most of its games on PC. But Obsidian looks to have created yet another sequel of their own flavor, this time in the vein of Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance and other console hack-and-slash titles. Dungeon Siege 3 is worth watching, as long as you're ready for something a little different than what you remember.