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Sort of Retrospective: Dungeon Siege 3 vs Witcher 2
by Taekwan Kim on 12/22/11 11:34:00 am   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutraís community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


This was a pretty good year for RPGs. A little bit of something for everyone, though perhaps not for the most jaded doomsayers of the “decline of RPGs” (give us mature [not “mature”] character depth that actually matters; deep, turn and party based mechanics; etc.).

One of the most pleasant surprises of 2011 for me, though, was Dungeon Siege 3—well, surprise since I hadn’t heard anything about the game being in development until this year. The other “surprise” being that I probably enjoyed Dungeon Siege 3 more than I did Witcher 2 (at the least, I apparently have 131 hours logged in DS3 compared to W2’s 65).

Yes, it’s another of those “contrarian” (onanistic?) blog posts. But what can I say, those hours are real, despite DS3’s time for a single playthrough being shorter than W2’s (mostly because there’s no farming).

Dat Interface
Dat Inventory UI

Witcher 2 strikes me as one of those “too important to fail” (or be anything less than superlative) games. And indeed, it’s a good game. I enjoyed it. But it’s also a deceptively simple game whose complexity and depth are heavily reliant on obscurity. Gamasutra’s own Top 5 PC Games of 2011 praised it for “forc[ing] the player to make sweeping decisions that will affect hours and hours of game content, leaving some areas completely unexplored”.

This is kind of odd to me. You are forced to make uninformed decisions that completely bypass player agency. And this passes for depth. Huh? (Once again, uninformed is not the same thing as morally ambiguous, which is also not the same thing as morally difficult.)

Another, much more cynical way to look at it is that Witcher 2 is basically a four chapter game where money was saved in making the third chapter by reusing 65% of chapter 2 and “cleverly” (or ham-handedly, depending on your viewpoint) gating the player away from the other 35%. Except that you don’t get to play that redundant chapter 3 in a single playthrough to make the game feel bigger than it is. (Yeah. That’s pretty cynical.)

Let’s ask a hypothetical question, then. If Dungeon Siege 3 had gone the same route and forced players to exclusively choose between Stonebridge and Queen Roslyn, and padded out play time with respawning mobs and craftables, would DS3 have gotten the same praise?

That decision would surely have placed DS3 on equal choice-and-consequence footing, and yet I somehow suspect W2 would still have gotten better press coverage. It is, after all, the game with higher production values and more “mature” content (though there is something to be said for its better fleshing out of backroom politics).

It’s a bit harder to criticize Witcher 2’s combat, though, where the worst accusation I can lay against it is that it doesn’t take advantage of all its possibilities enough. Part of the problem is that crossbowmen are the only ranged opponents the player will face, and the player rarely encounters mixed groups of different opponent types unless they are bleeding over from nearby spawn locations.

But the other, more significant problem is that there’s actually not all that much variety to what the players can do in combat, either. It doesn’t really matter which skill tree you choose to specialize in since, at the end of the day, 80% of the gameplay is more or less the same across all trees. And it’s a problem exacerbated by lengthy/inconsistent transition times between animation groups (melee, casting, or bomb throwing), which means there’s usually not enough breathing space to switch up your moves all that much.

Illustratively, probably the most engaging combat to be found in the game is farming the Battlefield in Chapter 2. That was frantic, and challenging, and rewarding. But it’s also something most players will likely never come across or even realize can be done. It’s a strange game, then, when combat can be genuinely challenging and skill demanding, but usually just resorts to cheap shots/forced trial and error guesswork based difficulty instead (at least, in terms of boss fights), which is too bad.

To be clear and fair, it’s not like Witcher 2’s narrative structure and combat are shoddy or anything—they’re actually pretty good. But I have to question whether there isn’t more than a little of celebrating user un-friendliness and obscurity for the sake of user un-friendliness and obscurity in our estimations of the game. Because these operate superbly as facades for difficulty, and we always feel good when we take down straw men, right?

Compared to this, the combat in Dungeon Siege 3 feels much more fluid and deliberate. Perhaps the biggest misconception about DS3 is that it’s a hack and slash. I mean, it is (or at least it’s hack and slash-y)—but it ditches all that loot bothering and makes it about player skill and creative usage of character builds instead. And, as a game that places such a premium on tight player controls and player dexterity, it’s probably a forerunner to the kind of gameplay that Diablo 3 will unleash in a mass of clones.

DS3’s combat cues are unambiguous, fair, and easily interpreted, while transitions between animations are quick and smooth (outside of the one, occasional glitch with movement locking/slow shooting that happens with Katarina). The character builds, despite their appearance, are quite robust as well, and its system of proficiencies and empowered abilities provides a lot of room for experimentation, unconventionality, and some real min/maxing fun. And that’s not even mentioning how differently each class plays and feels.

Players are also placed in the midst of mixed groups all the time, with lots going on onscreen at once, so the demands on situational awareness are engaging and satisfying. And of course, the boss fights. Hands down the best boss fights I’ve played this year, and DS3 is a game that’s really packed with them—all of them quite different from each other. That’s a lot of ludic content, to be sure.

Dat Interface
Dat Boss Fight

I’ve previously proposed that the feeling that our peers hold a game in high esteem tends to amplify our enjoyment of it, and similarly that games regarded as dismissed are more readily dismissed by ourselves as well. So I think it’s worth questioning what exactly those magical attributes are that we seem to deem “important”.

DS3, then, has the misfortune of being actually rather complex, but appearing simplistic by virtue of the fact that it’s very straightforward and transparent (something of the opposite of W2). It’s a troublesome situation, and one that finally brings up the whole point of this comparison: is it fair to value obscurity over transparency in judging the “worth” of games? Isn’t that just patting ourselves on the back for figuring out something poorly documented? You know, feeling good about being “smart”.

I am reminded of the Academy’s bias against science fiction/fantasy and comedy films at the Oscars, and that there’s basically a type of film that’s predictably Oscar bait (self-seriousness and all that). It’s good because it’s supposed to be. Do we do the same thing in trying to “elevate” games as an art form? Perhaps. And I wonder if I’d be discussing this at all if Dungeon Siege 3 had been called “Last of the Tenth Legion” or some such instead (fun thought experiment: what if it had been called Diablo 3?).

So it’s too bad that DS3 was knocked for “not being ambitious”. But really, how much more ambitious can you get than taking a more or less abandoned franchise and making it something entirely new and as much of one’s own as the publisher is probably willing to allow, or turning the dated convention of the primacy of loot over player skill in hack and slash games on its head? And all this from a studio that perhaps isn’t in the most financially free place to be taking such expectation breaking risks—that seems pretty ambitious to me. Again, it does raise some questions about what we consider to be “worthy”.

All in all, Witcher 2 is indeed the game with superior characterization (though this mostly rests on the badassness of Roche and Iorveth and the slightly stiltedness of DS3’s characters’ presentations). But in terms of gameplay and mechanics themselves, I’m gonna have to give that one to Dungeon Siege 3. And the more I play games, the more I find that that is what keeps me coming back.

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Josh Bycer
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I haven't played Dungeon Siege 3 yet ,but having played The Witcher 2, it is easily my personal most disappointing game this year. I'm going to talk more about it when I come up with my games of the year list in a few days, the gameplay just did not win me over in any way, shape or form. I got as far as a quarter of the way through the second act when I just raised my hands in the air and said "done."

I also am in the "gameplay first" camp when it comes to enjoying video games and I just found myself unable to get into The Witcher 2. This year I've spent more time with indie titles like The Binding of Isaac that tried to deliver original gameplay as opposed to big name releases.

Taekwan Kim
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Hey Josh, thanks for reading, and commenting.

Yeah, it's the strangest thing. It used to be that I could not care less about gameplay if the characters or narrative were gripping enough (and my bar on that was pretty low too)--to the point that I regularly cheated and completely ignored mechanics to play out the story (to my disadvantage, loss and shame--shame that I didn't really appreciate games enough to actually play them). That was years ago, but it's strange and amazing how much I'm at the opposite side now (the power of games to change people, right?).

Obviously narrative and good characterization still matter to me, and we all want that perfect synergy where we have to fight for both our narrative _and_ ludic goals, but these days, I'm pretty willing to overlook weak narration as long as there's enough satisfactory ludic challenge. But it's harder the other way around, unless the narrative is exceptional.

I'm a sucker for well paced grinding though (stereotypically Korean?), so I actually did have fun with Witcher 2 gameplay.

Greg Wilcox
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Amusingly enough, I haven't played DSIII yet, but I love grind-fests to death. I've sunk about 170 hours into Trinity: Solus of Zill O'll (perhaps the most tightly focused grinder this year on a console) and I'm sure I'll get that same time or more from DSIII, as I liked the two previous games. The game has been discounted for a while (I think it was less than a month before the first price drop), so I may as well buy it and see what's what.

As for The Witcher, well, you need to respect that series for being set in its own rules (like a good deal of European-made RPGs). I liked the first game, despite the combat being annoying. But like Gothic and Gothic 2 (and to a smaller extent, Hard To be A God, Night Watch/Day Watch and other Euro titles), once you understand that part of their arcane charm are all those battle systems or other elements that throw you for assorted loops, there's fun to be had and respect to be handed.

That said, someone needs to remake Shadowflare one of these days. I still have that old creaker on my PC and it's still fun for killing time (and a ton of monsters) every now and then.

Taekwan Kim
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Mr. Wilcox, thank you for your comments (and on my previous post too).

To be sure, I _do_ respect The Witcher and CD Projekt--they've come a long way and W2 is a significant achievement (again, I enjoyed it, and I've been anticipating their games since they announced they were doing new things with the Aurora engine years ago). It's just I wish people would be more self-reflective and honest about their own experience before jumping on the love or hate hype wagon. That's kind of a silly wish, of course, since it's assuming that people _aren't_ being honest, which is rather presumptuous.

But I would say that there are "underdogs" and then there are underdogs (was W2's narrative structure really that risky considering the critical praise it was likely to garner?), and I think we're maybe too eager to put certain types of games on pedestals because it appears safe to do so, and everyone else is doing it anyway. But again, this is probably just me being biased against perceived received opinion.

Bernardo Del Castillo
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Hey, good article, at least in your analysis, it is an interesting perspective on both games. I would say that I agree about W2 being too self aware about it's own obscurity and using that to its advantage (i dont think that is necessarily a bad thing). I have not finished it because my computer refuses to go past act 2.

However, I don't really see a balance in your comparison. As much as I did find what I played of the witcher a bit disappointing, the game is absolutely in another league comparing to DS3, the lack of affectation of the story, the noticeable ingenuity of the situations as compared with the bundle of clichťs presented by DS3, and the general level of artistic vision, personality and polish all make the Witcher a far superior game. Maybe it is not as much quick fun, but I find a HUGE problem with dungeon siege 3, I have only played a bit of it, maybe 5 hours, but I can tell how shallow and repetitive it is comparing to the old Dungeon Sieges. It seems to be a lazily designed game that doesn't have anything to do with the classic games: None of the insane character customisation is present, or the original levelling systems, which were extremely intelligent. DS3 in my opinion is a void exercise of action rpg iteration. And although I can sink millions of hours in it, I could never call it a great game. (In fact I would say that my favourite games are ones that are short and concise, because they give me an intense experience and leave me wanting more, rather than creating a neverending chore for me to sink hours in -although I do love Disgaea-).

As a better example of honest fun games, although I dont think they were released this year, I would probably praise Torchlight or Deathspank instead of DS3, simply because they have a lot more charm and personality, and take a way more interesting approach to the well known formula.

But anyway, I am a bit shocked by the relentless over-appreciation of the witcher 2, and it's always good to find a honest view on the subject.

Taekwan Kim
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Mr. Del Castillo, thank you for taking the time to reply. And yes, the comparison was rather arbitrary, wasn't it? (Question: the _gameplay_ was in another league? or the narration was?)

I would say that I actually enjoyed what Obsidian did with the lore, but the narrative _was_ generic enough that people could just ignore it and play it for the mechanics (intentional?). Unfortunately, I canít say I remember DS 1 enough, or played DS2 enough, to recall the previous gamesí character progression systems, so Iím mostly commenting on DS3 on its own, which might color the opinion.

About Torchlight: I actually did not particularly enjoy that game (still, 26 hours loggedóI tend to be pretty patient with games). And, as I mentioned, I donít mind a bit of grinding when itís engaging. But yeah, Torchlight, I did not click with that game as many seem to have. Itís kind of amazing what the integration of dodge and block can do to combat mechanics (how it informs opponent behavior and player controls so that it adds depth to their design) so I would also comment that DS3 was just more engaging for me than the click fest of Torchlight.

Which is not to say click fests are bad. I just had a 4 hour session the other day with some friends on Diablo 2, and Iíve played something like 300 hours on Titan Quest. Hmm. And now Iím installing Torchlight again to give it another go.

Bernardo Del Castillo
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I would say that gameplay wise the games wouldn't actually be very different, which is surprising considering how different they seem. But in the narrative department, I feel that DS3's general presentation just falls into generic territories. Even if neither of the stories seem too mind blowing, the whole approach of the Witcher is decisively adult (maybe too boisterously so?), while DS remains on very tried and true standards. Not that adult is intrinsecally better than generic, but the effort in making the world, story and general tone convey the feeling of a muddled and messy dark medieval fantasy, must be commended. Specially when the world in the Witcher is filled with so much personality and detail.

But anyway you are probably correct about the more real time appeal of DS3, closer to games like champions of norrath (or any of those top down console rpgs) and the original games. This apporach gives the player a hands-on feeling about the combat that makes the gameplay itself much more engaging. "You are the hero" in oposition to "you are commanding the hero" (so I fully understand that you migth not enjoy Torchlight, it's just that the world strikes me as much more unique and vibrant than the regular fare western rpg).

However, observing the gameplay, just from memory, I remember the original Dungeon Siege Leveling systems as some of the most interesting original and promising systems of western RPGs (way before Oblivion and Skyrim introduced similar systems).

It was based on 3 stats, Int, Dex, and Str, and the different items and weapons would grant you experience in a combination of those stats, while also requiring a certain number of stats to equip (IE: a crossbow would give you a lot of dexterity, and some strength, while a staff would give you a lot of int and some dexterity, and so on... also, skills would require certain scores on this different categories). It felt very organic, open and natural. This components didn't need to be removed in order to create a more action oriented game, but they were.. and it feels like they just made the game extremely shallow -if still fun-.

In all honesty, I did not care that much about the original narratives of DS either, but there were other aspects of gameplay that made up for it. Maybe it is the same here. Problem is that now I have become less tolerant about the cookie cutter high fantasy feel, and it keeps on interrupting my enjoyment of the game.

Anyhow, I suppose the simplification explains my general disappointment about DS3. I'm not sure if it is a bad game, but it is deffinately a bad follow up on many of the great concepts that the old games presented.

I might give DS3 another go though, see if some of the ideas are still in there somewhere.