Space Siege Review
When I first started playing Space Siege, about a half-hour into the game, there is a small part where you are dealing with an onslaught of generic alien creatures you have to destroy. It was most memorable to me because everyone else in the house was finally ready to watch a movie together and the game decided that I couldn't save right then. After dealing with the waves of attacking aliens and getting to the escape transport, I was able to reflect on some other things from my first time playing this game while watching the previews before the movie. There were a bunch of different thoughts that came to me pretty quickly. Unfortunately, most of what went through my mind wasn't all that complimentary, and subsequent playtime did little to improve my opinion.
The Name Game
I have been playing some Dungeon Siege: Throne of Agony on my PSP lately due to the dearth of anything new to play, so my kids have become somewhat familiar with the whole history of the series of the PC games as well. That came initially from the tie-in of the PSP game and the PC expansion Broken World for Dungeon Siege II. And once we got there they were asking about the original game as well...and I couldn't help but tell them that at this point the only reason to install the original Dungeon Siege is to play the Lazarus remake of Ultima V.
So when we were hanging around Saturday morning and my wife had to go to work and we decided to all play some games after breakfast before getting to all of the stuff we needed to do that day I mentioned I was going to play Space Siege. My older son quickly picked up on it: "is that like Dungeon Siege but in space?" Yeah, pretty much. "Which one: the good one or the bad one?" So far, more like the first one - I can't remember my character's name, the name of the aliens killing everyone, or why I should care. "Is it at least fun and exciting?" Well, actually it reminds me of some other games that are much more exciting. "Too bad - can we try those 'other' games?" They're both M, so no you can't. "Aw bummer...can I borrow your PSP?" Sure, have fun...
Imitation is the sincerest form of laziness
As I mentioned at the start, playing Space Siege made me think of many things.
Specifically, it made me think of three different games: Alien Shooter Vengeance, Shadowgrounds, and Shadowgrounds: Survivor. All of those are top down futuristic shooters where you deal with an onslaught of alien creatures to save humanity. Two of them (Alien Shooter Vengeance and Shadowgrounds: Survivor) feature level-up systems that allow you to gain more skills and power throughout the game. All three are budget-level games that are available even cheaper now. As for the inevitable comparisons ... you can read my reviews of the other games and let me detail Space Siege, then we can get back together at the end.
How Do I Look?
This summer, a guilty pleasure my wife and I have stumbled across is Style Network's 'How Do I Look?', which basically features friends and stylists giving fashion interventions to people who have no idea how embarrassing they look in public. And while I have been a fierce advocate of 'gameplay over graphics' in role-playing games and love older games and newer indie efforts like the Avernum & Geneforge games and Eschalon: Book I and Depths of Peril, when there is a brand new, 'AAA' developed full price game in any action genre, I'm looking to be impressed by the graphics as well as the gameplay.
From the opening screen where your hero is telling you the backstory for the game in a very dark and serious tone, you get the impression that you are in for a dark and serious endeavor. Sadly, that pretty much ends when you start a new game. Sure things are serious - the plot tells of your dire consequences, but the look never transcends a standard 'rampant enemies overrunning generic sci-fi setting'. Typically when starting a game that I haven't been warned was a resource pig I will play through the opening and then turn everything up and see how it behaves. In this case the game defaulted to near-maximum settings and my changes did little to the appearance or performance.
So...how does it look? In what is going to become a trend, it is neither great nor terrible. The characters are reasonably well modeled and detailed, whether zoomed in or out. The exterior scenes through the windows and the interior areas of the ship also look very well thought out and textured - for example, when you are escorting a character in a wheelchair treads appear on the stair to aid him. Of course, in a move that will also become all too common, the character simply glides up the stairs several feet away from the treads.
The sounds and music are similarly good, yet unimpressive. Your weapons are primarily machine guns and rocket launchers, and the enemies use mostly energy blasts and melee attacks. Everything sounds reasonably good, but there is little that will stick in your mind outside of the gaming session. The soundtrack is pure action-background music. Again, that isn't a bad thing, as it helps carry the game along admirably without getting in the way. Personally I love it when a game surprises me with a stunning soundtrack, but this isn't one of those times.
The one area that stands out is the voice acting - but necessarily in the way that Gas Powered Games would like. Some of the acting is very well done - the guy searching for his little girl is emotive, if over-wrought. But generally the over-acting is unbelievable and makes the lines feel like they were recorded one-off without any knowledge of interaction with other characters. And when the voice-acting isn't overdone, it is under-done - much of the dialogue is delivered as though the characters were ordering pizza rather than fending off efforts to destroy the last remnants of humanity.
Button, button, who's got the button?
Action-RPG's since Diablo have used a fairly limited set of controls: click to move, right click to attack, WASD or arrows to rotate and zoom the camera, and a few keys to access the inventory and map and special skills. But the majority of these games are fantasy romps where your weapons are swords and bows and spells. In all of those cases is makes sense based on fantasy game tradition to stand still while attacking. However, when you are wielding machine guns as your primary weapon, shooter tradition pretty much tells you that stationary = dead.
The space shooters mentioned above proved that moving the character with the WASD keys while using the mouse to change direction and shoot primary and secondary weapons works extremely well in this setting. It allows you to move and shoot simultaneously, and once you get accustomed to FPS controls in a top-down setting anything else feels dated. You realize how tactics you have been using in shooters apply to the top-down regime. And it feels like Space Siege had to modify the pacing to deal with having an inadequate control scheme and inability to employ shooter-style tactics. Because no matter how you tweak the controls you will still never get past the click to move problem - and in this game, it is a problem.
Message to Captain: Hire a New Safety Officer
One of the coolest things to do when entering a new area is assess where all of the flammable and explosive things are in the room, wait for enemies to start pouring in, then blow stuff up. When everything is dead, go around and see if there are any extra containers around to blow up and explode them too - because often there are hidden caches in the crates and barrels.
But stop for a second and think about it - you are on your own ship, with the last remnants of humanity, and you are going from room to room blowing up everything in sight? That makes absolutely no sense! In fact, one of the many data pads you find scattered around mentions this very thing - suggesting that they better clean up all of the explosive materials scattered around the ship. But even allowing that the place would be a mess based on having to launch very quickly to escape the alien attack, the huge quantity of explosives in every area of the ship is just absurd. Crates and exploding barrels are high on the frequent 'overused & braindead game mechanics that have to go' lists...but apparently the next time someone makes one of those lists they will have a new 'poster child'!
Of course, there is a reason for all of this - it is loads of fun to blow up stuff and take out enemies along the way. Add in a cool physics engine and it is even better. But the problem is that it only carries things so far. As I mentioned, the inability to make use of familiar tactics hampers the gameplay depth even more, making this 'one-trick pony' approach to excitement look even more desperate.
Physics in action!
No - this is not a discussion of the heavy use of the physics engine in the game, but rather how Space Siege is a demonstration of the optical phenomenon by which an opaque material, when stretched thinly enough, can have a low enough optical density to become effectively transparent. It does so by having a plot so thin you can see how it was haphazardly dropped onto the basic Dungeon Siege game mechanics.
Sure things are serious - as the story tells you, human space expansion has stepped into territory held sacred by a race called the Kerak who in turn have decided to take revenge by wiping out the human race. The game opens with the Earth under attack and you playing the role of cybernetic engineer Seth Walker tasked to put your security training into action by helping to secure areas of the base and hold off the attacking aliens. You make it to the lone surviving escape ship only to awake from cryo-sleep and find that nearly the entire crew has been killed by a Kerak pod that attached itself to the ship. The rest of the game has you led by the nose from area to area - you will typically see one door marked 'red' telling you that you can't go there now. But don't worry, you will be heading back that way soon enough. There is a ton of backtracking - but fortunately not much babysitting: you do need to deal with onslaughts of enemies while traveling with others, but fortunately the enemies only attack you and you never see a 'game over: failed to protect useless NPC #1171'. In fact, most NPC's can make their own way back to safety without your help.
But, like so many recent movies, the game fails to make you care about any of the characters. So while you hear that Jack is an old friend of Seth's, since you realy don't care about Seth to begin with you similarly fail to care about what has happened to Jack. This extends to the various advice you get from folks during the game - you are never invested emotionally in any of the characters so you don't care about their advice. There is stuff you learn along the way, a plot twist about as surprising as Anakin Skywalker turning into Darth Vader in Star Wars Episode III, and an ending that depends upon how you have chosen to use technology and a single decision. But none of it has any real depth or emotional impact - it barely keeps you going through to the end.
I was not thrilled when I heard that the game was going to be quite short - indeed it only took me about a dozen hours to work my way through it, and I spent less than twenty hours including fiddling with co-op and multiplayer modes. But when I got close to the end, rather than feeling regret or frustration at it being over too soon, I felt relief. I talk about the story being stretched until it was transparent, but had they attempted a twenty hour game they would have ended up with the story in shreds!
“It has become appallingly obvious that our technology has exceeded our humanity.” - Albert Einstein
One of the few 'decisions' you have to make comes fairly early on: will you make use of the cybernetic parts available to you, gaining extra power while sacrificing humanity, or will you remain pure and use only those skills you already have? When you are first offered an enhancement, someone you saved voices a strong opinion against integrating cybernetics - which makes sense since you and she have already been attacked by mutant cybernetic beings who were formerly part of the ship's crew. As you progress the voices for and against using the cybernetics grow more entrenched, while some postulate not so much that you should or shouldn't, but that you must succeed regardless of the personal cost.
The game makes it pretty clear that choosing humanity or cybernetics is a major choice, and a quick glance at the skill tree shows you that there is little advantage to remaining 'pure human'. Cybernetics give you tremendous stat boosts and other powerful advantages and unlock a whole series of skills. They also change your appearance. While you start out looking like a generic sci-fi hero, you can end up looking like something out of a Borg nightmare.
So should you use cybernetics? It really depends upon how dedicated you are to preserving the game's view of this as a major decision point. There are three potential endings based on a few different factors, one of which is whether or not you chose to use cybernetics. But ask yourself this question: in a game with a plot this thin, do you honestly believe that 'choice and consequence' would have any teeth to forcing to deal with your choices, or would be be a 'lightsaber on = dark side' choice that dismisses all past actions like in Star Wars Jedi Academy. In other words, do what you want - there will be no repercussions.
Except, of course, that the game is harder when you are all-human. Which is an interesting approach for those looking for an added challenge. I made a save about half-way through and played as a human first, then tricked out my cyber-self to the max. As I expected I became an invincible wrecking crew that way and the game became trivial and even less engaging than as a human. But as you see in the screens, your character looks quite interesting!
No, this is not a 2-meter tall pooka in the form of a bunny!
Unlike the Dungeon Siege games, Space Siege doesn't give you living and speaking henchmen to help you get through the adventure. It gives you Harvey, or HR-V, a robot who is excellent at drawing fire and quickly dying and then being recreated intact and the many 'manufactury' stations around each area. You are given a series of command options to control HR-V's actions, but they are really pretty useless - except for the one that tells him to patch himself up if he survives a fight. Yes, amazingly enough this complex robot that can perform many complex functions can't figure out by himself that he ought to use his self-repair skill when a battle is over.
Not surprisingly, the lack of any sort of personality for HR-V effectively turns the game back into a single-player game. This is yet another shame - because the moment you see HR-V for the first time you immediately begin hoping for remarks about 'meatbags'. This was something that Dungeon Siege II did very well for an action-RPG: providing your henchmen with personality really adds dimension to an otherwise repetitive romp through encounter after encounter.
Of course, if you really had henchmen with personality it would have added something to the game in terms of making it more fun to go from area to area. But would it have fundamentally changed what is basically a by-the-numbers single player affair? As far as I can tell the overall game would not have been much different, but a heck of a lot more fun. I look at it this way - I used HR-V basically to run in front of me and absorb damage so I could build up an advantage and end up never dying. I struggled more after he died and had to use some hit-and-run tactics and drain my tiny health pack inventory to make it to the next manufactury to resurrect HR-V to soak damage again. Exchange the mindless non-communicative robot for some interesting henchmen and it would make the down-time between fights much more interesting and enjoyable, and I would have used squad tactics to keep all of us alive.
Aw Cool, I found...um, stuff?!?
The action-RPG genre has evolved around a few key elements: waves of enemies to kill, level-up schemes that feed skill trees to give you new ways to kill waves of enemies, and picking up cool loot that will allow you to more efficiently kill waves of enemies and gold to buy more loot. It is not the deepest of role-playing foundations to begin with, but it is largely satisfying when done well as in games like Titan Quest or Nox or even Dungeon Siege II. But imagine what would happen if you simplified those core elements even further? Would there even be anything left to allow a role-player to sink their teeth into?
Look at the core elements of Space Siege: waves of enemies to kill, skill points doled out at fixed intervals, and 'upgrade parts'. Let's look at the last two in more detail.
There are no 'levels' as such in Space Siege, so you don't get to mess around with attributes and skills on a regular interval as you hit a new level. You only get a skill tree and skill points that are given out after completing tasks key to the story. For example, you need to find a part for the doctor, and when you do so you get 2 skill points. You can then go to the skill tree and choose how to assign your points. There are combat and engineering skills to choose from, many of which have requirements before you can take them on. You might need certain levels in another skill or a minimum total engineering skill count, or you might need certain cybernetic implant or percent humanity. The skills are mostly passive things like increased offense or defense, and are immediately useful. Because there are relatively few skill points given you have to pick and choose your skills carefully. If you choose to use cybernetics you will have to be even more careful. There aren't nearly enough skill points to master all things. That almost sounds like choosing a class...but it isn't. These are just skills to help you cruise around and kill stuff - or at least survive the waves of attacking Kerak.
When you kill enemies or open crates or blow stuff up, you will often see 'loot' left around. So cool! This is the stuff an action-RPG fan dreams of...or not. What you gather up (pressing a key to pull it all in, which is one of those nice additions that have evolved through the years) falls into three categories: 'weapon packs', 'med packs' or 'upgrade parts'. Weapon packs are basically grenades, and med packs appear often enough to help you attempt fill out your meager inventory limit of four. These are useful and relatively obvious. But the last one is perhaps the most controversial element of the game. It comes down to this: you find no weapons, no rare weapons, no unique and powerful weapons or armor sets, nor do you find any bags of gold - you find upgrade parts.
So how do you get things like weapons and special attacks? Like skill points, these come to you when the game decides you should get them. You have no option to buy anything or choose which special attacks to learn - you just get a secondary quest to find a weapon or cybernetic part or upgrade for HR-V, and then on occasion when you finish a primary quest and get your two skill points you also get a new special attack. You get to choose between two weapons at any time by using the key, and can select which two are available by clicking on one of the slots on the interface bar.
Upgrade parts are the currency of the game; they allow you to improve your armor, your weapons and HR-V. They also substitute for level-up bonuses to constitution and strength as you can use the points to raise your health and attack damage using upgrade parts. So after you have been granted a new weapon, you can start spending your cash...um, parts...on improving the attack speed, damage, critical hit chance and critical hit damage. Oddly, some of the later weapons offer little advantage over previous weapons - even when you haven't upgraded them fully. There are some choices that make sense - you get a fast firing weapon with low damage and then a slow weapon with heavy damage. But by the time you get the second you have fully upgraded the first, so the differential damage is much lower. So you stick with the original weapon until you get enough parts to upgrade the new one to the point of being a worthy replacement. Sometimes it seems that a new weapon serves no real purpose at all compared to your current tricked out implement of destruction. But upgrade parts are handed out so generously, especially to completists like myself who visit every little side room in search of just a few more items, that there is never a reason not to spend all of your points whenever you find an upgrade bench.
Upgrade benches are found in the health station rooms scattered on every level. These rooms also serve as quick-save and respawn points. Aside from upgrading weapons and armor and HR-V, you can also create disposable items like grenades, health kits and security turrets. It is a simple system that completely removes any of the complexity or depth of the alchemy or creation systems in other games. And the items you can create are plentiful enough that you will rarely find yourself in need of creating more. The other two stations you will encounter occasionally are manufacturies and cybernetic install centers. The former serves solely to recreate and patch up HR-V, while the latter allows you to use newly found implants.
Ooh! I said critical hit! It makes it sound almost like a RPG for a minute there! Don't get all excited - this is perhaps the one time you will feel like you're really playing a RPG rather than a generic action game.
And Kent, from now one STOP PLAYING WITH YOURSELF
One of the big draws of action-RPG's is the multiplayer component. Co-op games with friends have kept many action-RPG's alive and thriving for years, so it is assumed that any new entry to the genre will have solid multiplayer content. And Space Siege doesn't disappoint in that regard: the game offers a set of co-op missions that will allow up to four players to work together online. The missions are distinct from the main single player game, which is a nice touch in that it allows you to get a look at some fresh territory. The overall co-op campaign is decently long and has a solid amount of objectives and difficult enemies to keep you busy for a while.
So what is the problem? Well, to begin with there is little variety in the areas, and they all look pretty much the same as the single player game. Not only that, but every single flaw from the single player game carries over to multiplayer - lack of tactics, linear flow, and so on. The closest thing to strategy is figuring out who will die first. But now, instead of looking for a manufactury to recreate HR-V you are stuck knowing that your dead companion simply respawns at another checkpoint, meaning that they are likely in another section of the map. If you have four people you could easily end up playing four single-player missions as folks get more spread out...or standing around waiting for everyone to regroup after each frenzied battle.
But the biggest problem with multiplayer is that everyone starts out with everything. You get enough skill points to completely fill out an entire half of the skill tree, and access to every weapon. So all you really have to do is choose which weapon to specialize in and collect enough upgrade parts to level up the weapon. There are various fun ways to launch into a game - but this isn't one of them. It completely removes the long-term initiative to keep playing. It isn't like you can hope to discover some awesome weapon by completing a major mission, or get a hidden skill by completing a quest without anyone in the party dying: what you see is what you get, and that is all you'll ever get. And that leaves multiplayer as perhaps less inspiring than single player - at least in the main campaign you get the motivation of working to see new weapons and new skills as you work through the game.
That pretty much decimates any chance for significant replayability: the single player game is a choice of either human or cybernetics, but it is simple enough to play part way through as a human and then do a split-save and work through both trees separately as I did. There is so little that really matters in terms of differences that you will be unlikely to finish both games at the same time. And since multiplayer offers only a single attraction - playing a decent set of missions with friends - it is good for only a single run before becoming tiresome.
Dear Diary ...
Managing expectations is always a hard thing for a game developer. You are bound to be judged against other games in the genre and other games you have created. But there is definitely room for setting expectations - though generally is goes in the wrong direction as in the cases of Fable and Two Worlds. To an extent Gas Powered Games did this with Space Siege - they were clear on the limited role-playing and how everything was going to be 'streamlined'. But at the same time they were releasing video 'dev diaries' all over the place. Just a note on these: it is amazing to me how these have grown from the .plan files on the 'finger protocol' through the 90's to the written articles on game sites to the video entries we see now. But what amazes me isn't positive - with each step these 'inside looks' have become more polished, produced, and 'public relations'. The old .plan files would be quick looks into what was going on from the perspective of an individual developer; the articles would be written by a developer, but likely vetter through marketing before being published; and the video diaries look like watching 'extras' on a DVD. Watching a current dev diary feels very much like being sold on the game - but it comes from the developers, giving it an odd feeling of authenticity.
How this applies to Space Siege is that each of the dev diaries really pushed the ideas of Seth Walker having a 'humanity crisis', that you will struggle throughout the game with how to approach this conflict. They imply that your interactions with others will help shape your decisions by guiding you and helping you choose which side to align yourself with. They say outright that you may find that choices you make will have repercussions hours later in the game. But none of that really happens in the game - the human / cyber choices are trite and the impact of others are nothing more than superficial shouting in your headset. But those dev diaries set the tone for what they believe the game should represent, and how we should interpret what is going on. And the threshold they set is pretty high. As you progress and you can swap out your spine and chest and the folks back at Medical Center Delta are having a 'Point / Counterpoint' argument in your head you are supposed to be having an emotional moment like in Bioshock. But it never happens.
At the same time there is much to be learned that could help you realize that this is not the RPG you're looking for. The developers talk about how multiple characters were just 'too hard for many players to invest themselves' in the Dungeon Siege games, and that focusing on a single, pre-defined character allows players to get more engaged. How it allows them to hang a narrative around this character that varies only in the reactions of various other characters to the one pre-defined Seth Walker. Having a predefined character worked very well for games like the Gothic series and The Witcher, but Space Siege lacks a compelling enough narrative and framework to make it happen. Also, you don't care about the other character, and by reflection you really don't care about Seth. I place the blame for that largely on the fact that the role-playing options are so shallow that you never 'become' Seth, but there have been plenty of action games that have compelling heroes so the blame gets shared by a failure to make a solid and engaging story and character set.
Space Siege isn't a terrible game...but it might as well be. I promised to compare the game to similar games such as Alien Shooter Vengeance and Shadowgrounds: Survivor, but I am not sure to what extent that even matters at this point. Suffice it to say that Space Siege is inferior to those games in every way - including as a RPG. That seems really strange, especially since those games bill themselves as action games, with Shadowgrounds: Survivor mentioning that it added some RPG-lite features to provide added depth. Space Siege pretends to be a RPG, yet it is incredibly lacking in features that would allow players to feel in control over the growth and development of a character. There are really no choices that are permanent, as you can undo any effects of your cyber-tendencies, and even the 'multiple endings' are really just different entry points to the same place.
None of it would matter if the game was just loads of fun to play like Alien Shooter Vengeance. In that game, it would have been a blast if you played it in a language you didn't understand, so the RPG-lite features and story were just icing on the bloody cake. But Space Siege never puts you in 'that place', where you are very powerful but still in a constant struggle for your life. Sure there is a horde of enemies around every corner, but the pacing and lousy control scheme and lack of tactics make it a dreary affair. You kill them, pick up the upgrade parts, move on, kill more, move on, kill more, and so on until you decide you've had enough for that gaming session.
- Cool physics
- Effect of skills immediately noticeable
- Decent concept for a story.
- Lack of polish
- Inferior to similar budget titles
- Limited multiplayer
- Little replayability
- 'Big choice' falls flat