Version tested: PC
I removed my brain because I was bored. I replaced my entire head with lump of glowing metal because there was nothing else to do. My legs are now pistons because it was the only decision I felt I had to make. My chest is a mass of steel and circuitry because surgically removing my torso seemed like more fun than walking down another corridor.
Much has been made of the moral dilemma at the heart of Space Siege, a sorta-sequel to the Dungeon Siege action-RPGs. It's a similar concept to BioShock's ethical quandary, but instead of murdering little girls in order to gain more instant power, here you're swapping parts of your body for cybernetic upgrades, and losing your humanity whenever you do so.
Or not: you can refuse the upgrades and thus stay in touch with your sensitive side. Trouble is that, as an extension of Gas Powered Game's ongoing philosophy of streamlining RPG memes, there are almost no other decisions to make in the game. Levelling up happens at pre-ordained plot points, new powers and weapons are similarly handed out at prescribed locations and all loot is composited into generic 'upgrade components'. You do get to distribute skill points across an array of stat boosts, but it's rare that you'll notice any significant variance from doing so.
So, when you're presented with a new cybernetic upgrade, of course you're going to install it, as it's the only thing that'll change your character's appearance, the only thing that feels like you're actually deciding something for yourself. My humanity be damned: big robot legs are the only thing still holding my interest. As it is, the effects of my cyber-decisions are relatively minimal, its meaningful effects topping out at denying me access to two skills and altering the voice-over in the ending cinematic. Oh, the sleep I'll lose wondering what the other voice-over is (clue - none). The one really significant choice in the game is unrelated to whether or not I've stuck a computer into my head, and is hilariously presented as a giant YES/NO box. Without spoiling the ahahahah plot, the question is essentially "are you evil, yes/no?" As easy to change the nature of a man as that, huh?
I'm loathe to stumble into the old 'what is an RPG?' quicksand here, but Space Siege is very much part of a recent trend wherein RPGs try very hard to pretend they're not RPGs. Like Mass Effect, Too Human and Fallout 3, a lot of the mechanics and statistics are deprioritised in favour of real-time combat. There's nothing necessarily wrong with that, but, as with Mass Effect's combat system, this struggles to find a comfortable middle-ground between RPG and action game, and I find myself wishing it had stuck to just one or the other.
It's toppish-down, Alien Breed-like shooting (with a spot of melee), but forgoes the conventional WASD-and-mouse controls in favour of click-to-move. WASD instead rotates the camera, and it takes a long time to adapt to this. It's an infuriating, counter-intuitive system - combat that feels made for strafing and running, but instead you end up stood stock still during most fights, because using the mouse to both move and shoot at the same time is cumbersome and fiddly. If Space Siege gave up its pretence of being an RPG and fully embraced action controls, it'd likely be a fun old time along the lines of Shadowgrounds (an excellent, Aliens-inspired indie top-down shooter). Instead, its central activity - the shooting of aliens, robots and cyborgs in droves - is a chore. Thank god it's easy, and thank another god it's short.
There's a bewildering lack of polish throughout, to the point that it's impossible to see any of Chris Taylor's usual hallmarks here. It feels like a low-budget, first-time developer game, not the latest from a respected old-hand of PC gaming. From the total lack of environmental variety, to all the pointless backtracking to previously-visited, empty locations you then immediately have to leave again, to the way there's not enough interface space/hotkeys to access all your skills, it's a cheerless, characterless mess.
It's like a hobo convincing himself he's a businessman purely because he found a knackered briefcase in a skip and stole a suit from a charity shop. It's certainly got all the appropriate trappings of a decent Diablolike, but apparently very little idea of how to implement them properly. To put it another way, it's certainly got all the appropriate trappings of a decent Robotronlike, but apparently very little idea of how to implement them properly.
Progression is a straight A-B run, with almost every significant pick-up highlighted on the map and placed en route anyway, so there's nothing in terms of side-quests or secrets. You can improve your various weapons' damage, speed and crit chance individually, but it's fairly academic as you'll switch to and stick with the next new one you find anyway.
Similarly, your robot companion HR-V is a fixed constant. You can choose whether to spend your looted gold (let's drop all pretence of 'upgrade components') on improving your own or his abilities, but there's such a surfeit of currency that you'll inevitably do both anyway. Control over him is minimal, and his AI all but brain-dead, so all he really needs do is follow and shoot. He's not even a fun robot. Doesn't make cute electro-burbles, doesn't threaten to exterminate all the meat-bags, doesn't transform into anything. He's just a boring, silent orange oblong who follows you around.
Yet it's one of those games I didn't find myself hating as such. There's a fundamental compulsion to keep going, keep upgrading, keep killing, and it's difficult to ascertain whether I'm actually enjoying that journey or if I'm simply obsessed with the destination. There's very little strategy to the combat - it really is an easy play - but on the other hand it's a reasonable path of mindless destruction, and that can muster two days of not unpleasant time-killing. One of the more exaggerated but common criticisms of the Dungeon Siege games is that they become glorified screensavers after a while, and that's not the case here - you're very much hands-on at all times, even if the game is making 90 per cent of the decisions for you.
It is, however, a genuine failure, perhaps even a spectacular one. It could do serious damage to Taylor and Gas Powered Game's once-golden reputation, and I pray it's just a one-off blip. With the Supreme Commander games apparently alienating as many players as they charmed, I suspect much hinges on the upcoming, self-published Demigod.
Space Siege's timing is fascinating, however - releasing just prior to Too Human on Xbox 360, it's hard not to draw comparisons, not least because TH's original plot dealt with very similar subject matter (its title is pretty meaningless since the story switched to Thor-in-space). And also because anyone who thinks TH is a disaster really should play this (and, if it isn't too impolitic to do so, I'd include Eurogamer's TH reviewer amongst those people). While riddled with design disasters, Too Human seems like an action-RPG holy grail by comparison to this startling mess. Better yet, play Shadowgrounds: Survivor instead of the both of 'em.
5 / 10