There's a party in my computer, and you're all invited.
It would definitely be embarrassing if I calculated the number of hours I spent yelling at my little orcs in Warcraft II; I probably could have gotten a college degree in the same amount of time. But despite my love of the game, those idiotic little fighters were just so infuriatingly stupid sometimes. They'd stand there getting hit by enemies without fighting back or running away or exhibiting any kind of intelligence at all. Other times they'd run after an enemy all the way across the map until they'd just run into the enemy base to get slaughtered. So I yelled.
Then a clever fellow named Chris Taylor did something revolutionary. He made a game called Total Annihilation, where the little guys (er, robots) were actually smart. They'd return fire on an enemy without waiting to make sure it was okay. They didn't just blindly walk to their destinations. They could patrol an area and do smart things, like repair other units or collect salvage or shoot at bad guys - whatever made sense at the time. Heck, they could even strafe. And they could do all this without ever needing to check with me, their supreme commander, which left me free to focus on larger issues like upgrading my factories or building a new deck on my space yacht for my robo-harem.
Taylor's latest game is Dungeon Siege, and now he's done for the RPG what he did for the RTS. Tired of pausing your game, drinking some health potions, choosing a spell, targeting an enemy, and then unpausing? Sick of watching your character stand there getting pummeled because he won't fight back until you tell him to? You won't find any of that here. With smart characters, a smart interface and a wealth of smart refinements, Dungeon Siege is simply the most streamlined RPG ever made.
The terrific design is immediately evident when you consider the ease with which you can deal with your party. Click the health potion button, and everyone in your party who needs to will automatically drink exactly as much health tonic as they need. Party members will help each other out, defending one another or casting healing spells as needed. These little guys could almost play the game for you.
But you should probably try playing it yourself, because Dungeon Siege plays like a combination of Diablo II and Baldur's Gate, all set in a very pretty 3D world called the Kingdom of Ehb. It seems an era of peace has come to an end, as your humble farming village has been attacked and a new evil stalks the land. A modest farmer, you must take up your hoe, gather others to help where you can find them, and smite the evil. Smite it! Fortunately, you'll soon be able to trade in your hoe for some more effective weaponry.
You'll get better at swinging that hoe, too, at least if you keep at it. Rather than having traditional character classes, in Dungeon Siege you'll get better at things by doing them. Cast a lot of spells and you'll find yourself getting smarter and more powerful as a wizard. Shoot a bow and your dexterity will improve quickly as you become a more proficient archer. In all there are 4 skills - 2 combat, 2 spell classes - that you can mix and match to your heart's content.
On top of improving your skills, Dungeon Siege also features a very impressive array of items to help beef you out. From a humble bone with which you might club a rival monkey to mighty magical swords, the number of different items must be approaching a gazillion. Dungeon Siege even features a very large selection of hats.
Plus, anytime you equip a new item, you actually get to see it on your character. Whip out your Crossbow of Pummeling and watch as your character fires glowing bolts of pain. The graphics are really quite impressive, with great landscapes and well-detailed monsters. Venture into an ice cave and the mist oozes off the ice; load up your pack mule, and his burden gets larger; shoot an arrow into a troll, and there's an actual arrow stuck in him. This is one pretty game. But expect things to get pretty jerky if your system only just meets the minimum requirements.
Still, the lack of load times will wow you despite any performance glitches. The game loads once right when you turn it on, and then proceeds to stream in data effortlessly. You can walk into a room, take an elevator down a few floors, romp about for an hour in a dungeon, then make your way back up to the surface without ever seeing a load screen. Awesome.
The refinement continues when you consider the pack mule, a handy beast of burden you can buy to make more room for the vast numbers of items you'll encounter. Load him up! Need even more room? Then buy another one.
If you get tired of saving the Kingdom of Ehb, you might like the taste of the solid multiplayer game. Finding an Internet game is easy, and there are already plenty of player servers up and running. The big difference in the multiplayer game is that you can only have one character. The theory is that the up-to-eight players you have in a multiplayer game will all group together and act like your party in the single player game.
However, the Kingdom of Ehb is huge and the multiplayer game also includes another entirely new huge land, so in my experience people seldom stick together in large groups, or even see each other as they adventure through the vast world. Another problem with the multiplayer is that while you can bring your regular characters into the multiplayer, you can't bring your newly experienced multiplayer characters back out into the single player game.
Personally, I've been having a great time playing this advanced dungeon-crawl. I remember being impressed long ago when old-school RPGs first made life easier by adding a "pool gold" button, so Dungeon Siege's monumental ease-of-use is particularly impressive to me. Some people may be turned off by the initiative of the party, preferring to control all the little details. Not me. My throat has been spared hours of shouting, and once again I'm free to concentrate on the larger issues... like having fun.