Always the bridesmaid... Poor old Obsidian Entertainment seems to be fated to ride the coat-tails of others in the North American RPG scene. Born from the ashes of the famous Black Isle Studios, it made its name as a capable understudy for BioWare on Knights of the Old Republic II and Neverwinter Nights 2 - and perhaps unfortunately, that name stuck.
With its Aliens RPG lost in space and rough diamond Alpha Protocol meeting a mixed reception, things don't seem likely to change for the Californian outfit. But after last week, you have to ask if that's such a sad fate after all - because Fallout: New Vegas, in which Obsidian stands in for Bethesda, and Dungeon Siege III were easily two of the best RPGs on show at E3 2010.
Gas Powered Games is the role-model in this case, with boss Chris Taylor overseeing this third instalment in his series of straight dungeon-crawlers, to be published by Square Enix - the Japanese giant's first Western RPG. But it shouldn't be mistaken for the cut-and-shut sequels, no matter how well-welded, Obsidian's done before. It's also in a different style to the studio's previous work.
Instead of simply plugging new content into an existing framework, Dungeon Siege III is being built from the groud up in Obsidian's own engine, brought to consoles for the first time, and gently remodelled as a pretty, punchy and immediate co-operative action-RPG in the classical style.
In other words, if you're one of the many who are disappointed that there are no plans for a console version of Diablo III - or impatient for the presumably distant release of Blizzard's game - then you should be paying very close attention.
If you're no fan of fantasy cliché, however, you might want to look away (unlikely as it is that you clicked on an article about a game called Dungeon Siege III in the first place). The game's setting and art style are pretty generic. A once-great land, the kingdom of Ehb, has fallen into fractious in-fighting, and it's up to you as a member of the disgraced 10th Legion to restore order and people's faith.
Naturally, you do this by taking quests from townsfolk and bashing up skeletons and giant spiders in misty forests and dank cellars. The placeholder quest in the E3 demo of the game is called Find the Source of Evil in the Crypt. "We're trying to distil RPGs down to the very essence," says Obsidian chief executive Feargus Urquhart with a wry chuckle.
The good news is that Dungeon Siege III is a very, very attractive kind of generic. We watch Lucas, the lead character for the Guardian class of melee fighters, getting stuck in to his skittering arachnoid foes (we don't know what hardware's being used for this demo, but it's being played on an Xbox 360 controller). While he fights on his own, the game's presented from a fairly tight top-down view, a well-judged halfway house between the isometric perspective of action-RPG convention and a standard third-person action-game camera.
You don't see a lot of the world, then, but what you do see is lush, colourful, solid and sumptuously lit. The air sparkles with dust motes and there's a lovely, shallow-focus depth-of-field effect which, combined with a fair amount of vertiginous verticality in the level designs, makes the most of the unusual viewing angle. It's richly atmospheric and makes the environs seem very inviting to explore.
Your window onto Dungeon Siege III's world is also left pleasantly uncluttered by a very simple, clean user interface, and we're promised that you'll never encounter a loading screen once. For a game that just has a 2011 release window at present, it looks very slick, with even menus and inventories having a bold design and finished sheen worthy of Blizzard itself.
The Guardian has a few special abilities available, but he's also switching between one-handed and two-handed stances - the first dealing heavy one-on-one damage with his enormous sword, the second enabling him to cope better with large groups of enemies. By the look of his portrait in the bottom left, he's expending a fast-recharging stamina resource to fight. The action is lightly tactical, quite fast and seems to have a tactile crunch to it.
He picks up a companion for his quest, a rather stern-looking female Archon mage who uses potent but slow-moving flame spells. This happens via a conversation tree (choices cutely represented by the branches of an actual tree in the interface); Obsidian is known, of course, for its storytelling depth and flexibility, and regards this as the principal element it's bringing to Dungeon Siege III and this normally much more linear and less chatty end of the RPG spectrum.
The Archon acts as a capable AI companion at first, but then a second player presses start and immediately jumps in to control her in co-op, the camera snapping up to a loftier, more isometric-style view to give them both room. Co-op is central to Dungeon Siege III and Obsidian tells us that the game is entirely designed around it - although online multiplayer isn't confirmed yet, and locally it's only possible to control a companion character rather than bring a character of your own into someone else's game.
"We want the game to be about multiplayer, and we want it to be as easy as possible," says lead designer Nathaniel Chapman, noting that his girlfriend would watch him play Mass Effect 2 to follow the story, and wanted to be able to jump in and take control of Tali. Intriguingly, Obsidian is working on multiplayer aspects to the conversation system, too. "Multiplayer and single-player are not two separate games. They're totally integrated. That was a very important point for us," he says.
All the game's enemies and spells or abilities have been designed with the tactical interdependence of the classes in mind, and there are even explicit combos that can be executed by two classes in tandem, using each other's strengths to expose enemy weaknesses by forcing them into certain states. The classes, we're told, are designed for uniqueness over flexibility and will be pretty carefully defined, although you'll naturally still have some choice over skills as you level up.
The Guardian and Archon take on a large skeletal boss who summons crowds of minions in what looks like a fun, relatively tough fight where spatial awareness and crowd management are key. One of them dies and is resurrected by the other; any class can do this by standing next to them and holding the left bumper uninterrupted for a few seconds, Obsidian name-checking Left 4 Dead as an influence on this particular co-op dynamic. At the end of the fight, and the demo, is the one thing you really want to see in an action-RPG: a huge chest full of shiny loot. Yum.
It's all admirably stripped-down and focused. It's also quite a long way from New Vegas and Alpha Protocol. "We've made really big, complicated RPGs," says Urquhart. "One of the other games that we're doing right now is 60,000 lines of dialogue... I don't want to say it's ponderous, that's the wrong word. But it's a different flavour. For Dungeon Siege, it's meant to be fun, with fun boss battles with lots of effects going on and all this crazy loot."
"Dungeon Siege is a fun, pick-up-and-play game and Obsidian makes deep, story-driven RPGs, and we really look at Dungeon Siege III as a hybrid of those two styles of game," adds Chapman. "You're still going to get a story, you're still going to get your companions and have dialogue with all of them - and you're still going to be playing an action-RPG."
There's a middle-ground to be found here: we ask if the game will go to the same extreme lengths as Alpha Protocol in the pursuit of Obsidian's mantra of "choice and consequence". "No, not at all," says Urquhart. "The idea is to have some very specific points in the story where you make these decisions, so you feel like it's your story and not just the story we're forcing down your throat. But we're still doing that," he jokes.
It's a balancing act, no doubt, but there's a considerable prize to be won. Blending fast-paced action gaming with the freedom, scale and intimate involvement in story of Western role-playing is just what's propelled Fallout and Mass Effect to such huge success in recent years.
Doing that in the trad fantasy context, with co-op as an additional hook, makes a lot of sense, and Obsidian strikes all the right notes in this E3 demo. Square Enix's choice looks canny indeed; perhaps this game could see the apprentice step out of its masters' shadows once and for all.
Dungeon Siege III will be released for PC, PS3 and Xbox 360 in 2011.