You know that moment you often get in a good dungeon crawler, when you've reached the lair of the final boss, and you've learnt all the tactics and mastered the rhythm of the game's combat, but you haven't got quite the right gear to take him on just yet? You've got the smarts, but you haven't got the armour. You've got the intelligence, but you're still slightly lacking in terms of technology. And you know that moment it's generally the very next moment when you decide to try and take the boss on anyway? That's how I see Obsidian Entertainment: a clever team with great ideas, often struggling against the budget, the timeframe, or the engine.
Check out the rap sheet. As stand-ins for BioWare, the studio offered glimpses of a truly great game with KOTOR 2, but had to rush the final act. Inspired by the choice and consequence of Mass Effect when it came to the ambitious spy RPG Alpha Protocol, it created an adventure that charmed even if it didn't always convince. As for New Vegas, look between the crashes and the bugs, and you'll probably like what you see. And now? Now the team is partnered with Square Enix for the latest instalment in the Dungeon Siege series. Can a loot-heavy hackandslash become the title that finally demonstrates Obsidian's full potential?
Who knows, eh? It's certainly looking like a decent game, though. For one thing, Dungeon Siege III's driven by the team's own technology this time, with the all-new Onyx engine doing a very reasonable job of crafting shadowy caves with water trickling down the walls and sun-dappled forests where fireflies litter the afternoon air. Sword swings send out glitzy little flashes of light, crows erupt from trees when you pass, and while character models may not be over-burdened with charisma, the animation has a nice flourish and weight to it during combat, and the game manages to shove a decent number of enemies and particle effects on the screen at once without falling over when things get hectic.
Alongside the engine, Obsidian's also picking its battles fairly smartly, backing away from a punishing comparison to the likes of Diablo III with a camera that's pulled in and tipped forward slightly more or less so depending on which of three viewpoints you choose. Nobody's going to mistake this for the Gears of War over-the-shoulder look, but it frames the action in a way that makes it feel more like a fast-paced brawler than an all-out number cruncher.
A recent trip through a side-quest riddled village and boss encounter suggests it's going to be a very decent number cruncher, too, however. Every one of the game's fights seems to result in a nice showering of loot to pick through, and the menus make equipping new kit and discarding the old stuff a very simple business. Comparisons show up via bright green and red arrows on the inventory screen, giving you a handful of attributes to keep in mind while making each decision, and 10 minutes into the game you can already expect to have a few workable swords to choose between, each with their own benefits.
Then there's the character stuff. Playing as a Guardian class gives you three stances to juggle one-handed or two-handed attacks, alongside defence and levelling up sees you unlocking a new attribute think of it as a special move for each in turn. While the choice of specials initially seems rather limited, compared to the gaudy standards of something like Torchlight, each attribute can be tailored with proficiency points as you level further, flipping your one-handed Shield Pummel from a knockback to a stun or even offensive move, for example, or allowing you to turn the brutal two-handed Blade Dash from a disco-effect freight train into a laser-targeted precision blast that really rips the health points out of specific foes.
Specials require you to charge your Will meter by pulling off normal attacks and it's wise to switch between one- and two-handed swings even in standard combat, as the slower, heavier option will strike multiple enemies at once while talent points complete the picture by adding persistent character perks such as increased damage during criticals.
You'll have plenty of opportunities to put your tricked-out dungeon-runner through his or her paces, too, as across the spread of the meaty central campaign and its numerous side-quests, there seem to be a lot of bandits, sorcerers and other monsters to chew into. In the half-hour chunk of game I'm shown, pursuing the main narrative leads to a decent rumble deep within a subterranean witch's lair (the boss confrontation is of the teleporting-and-ranged-attack variety, which is not as much of a pain with the melee-only Warrior as you might expect) while a village's worth of optional missions, many of which lead to mini-bosses of their own, offer plenty of extra-curricular head bashing.
A nasty lakeside excursion sees you hacking an unpleasant fish man to pieces, for example, while elsewhere there's a bandit with a lot of friends for you to contend with. Bosses of all shapes and sizes often come with auras attached (a red circle damages anyone within it, a blue means they're pumping up their cronies, and a purple means they're from early 1970's northern California and can't wait to read you your Tarot) providing a touch of strategy to proceedings, while almost all fights dump you into a mix of different baddies, some standing back and picking at you with muskets, while others come forward and try to nut you more directly.
Throw in an optional breadcrumb trail it's turned off as standard, but should be useful for when you're returning to the game again after a few days off and a Mass Effect-style dialogue wheel that allows you to skip through any lengthy conversation options and get straight to the next bit of looting, and you've got a laudably direct action RPG. While Obsidian's yet to reveal the full range of playable classes, and co-op and multiplayer remains under wraps, what's been shown so far is confident, likable, and engaging. Fingers crossed, then.