Earth is wiped out and there are plenty of hostile aliens on your escape spaceship (which is stacked full of explosives). The ship’s AI sounds eerily cold and it doesn’t seem like you can trust every member of your crew. There are more pleasant circumstances to start a new game in but not so in Space Siege (SS). You’re playing Seth Walker, the only hope for humanity or what’s left of it. Oh, the responsibility…
SS’s genre is that of the action roleplaying kind, hack ‘n slash, less respectably called the Diablo-clone. Only now the setting is futuristic space. Story and multiple choices will play an important role too according to Gas Powered Games and Sega. Is Space Siege able to halt the drought of good PC games in 2008? Hmm, let’s say this review will tell you why SS makes this year slightly more unremarkable for action RPG’s in general.
As far as intro cinematics go, the one of SS does a good job of telling the background and pumping you up to get started, for a few seconds there you might even say it resembles some kind of siege in space…
Storywise you won’t get off the spaceship, called the Armstrong (though you will get ‘out’ at some point). Oh-oh, only a spaceship to fight on? Well, why not? With some imagination this could work, as plenty of other games have proven, but as you advance through all the decks, storage rooms, shuttle bays, lodgings, engine rooms and the bridge it’s clear that the Armstrong’s environments rarely remain interesting to keep looking at (doesn’t count for the pics in this review but I got the right to make things a bit more appealing for my readers). That is despite the metallic halls looking suitably slick and an occasional attempt to leave the overall greyness behind. If discovering new locations isn’t what motivates the player to keep on going forward then it must be the story or the gameplay. Unfortunately both have their flaws.
Cyborg Seth with sidekick HR-V, robots in arms, brothers for life. Or was it brothers in arms, robots for life? It’s the same in the end, like much of the game itself.
Case in point: the story decision-making isn’t as broad as the hype made everyone believe, about an hour before the final showdown you get a choice prompt and the game also checks if you installed a certain amount of cybernetic parts. During play the survivors on the spaceship remind you why you should or should not install the cybernetic implants you encounter but they’re making a bigger fuss about it than it actually is. Don’t lose sleep if you missed an ending because only the in-game end cutscene changes slightly and the CGI outro remains the same except for the narration. What is being told certainly doesn’t sound like a real closure of the story which becomes all the more aggravating as you’ll pick up multiple hints pointing out to possible ventures beyond the Armstrong.
Most importantly though is that you shouldn’t be replaying the whole game to have a real different experience in terms of the storyline, just harken back to that one defining choice late in the game and you can experience another flavour of the last part. Just a flavour indeed since calling it an entirely different finale would be exaggerating things as only some trivial last few tasks get turned around and your motivation changes. As if you would care about the latter anyway, the plot and characters are standard fare. There are some audio recordings of dead crew members spread around the spaceship which you can listen to but overall these fail to immerse you into the cruel fate these dead people have met at hands of the Kerak aliens and other foes. Whatever in-game or CGI cutscenes are presented throughout the game, they only manage to purvey a real cinematic sense for mere seconds. The boss death cutscenes will even make you jealous as you’d love to be able to execute such spectacular finishing moves yourself.
Next to that, your quest to save the Armstrong from all cliché threats imaginable is incredibly short, even for an action RPG. After little more than nine hours(!) of searching every inch of the ship for something more exciting than boxes with scraps in them I saw one of the end sequences.
Big spaceships need lots of computers, preferably ready to be blown up by saviours of humanity passing by. Sometimes less can be more but that doesn’t really count here as the main Space Siege experience never gets more exciting than what you’ve seen in most other hack ‘n slash games, ‘dramatic storyline’ or not. I had hoped for a sudden big change of setting (other spaceships, alien planets, the Saturn defense platform, destroyed earth) which could have spiced up the game. Now it feels like you’ve only played one Act.
To some extent Space Siege’s focus does sink through like how it constantly keeps the flow going. Everything is very straightforward, backtracking of the irritating kind doesn’t occur often and you’re given tasks on-the-fly.
While it’s all smooth you keep feeling the need to bring up your objectives screen or the map, things which maybe should have been displayed automatically in-game. Especially with the map it’s annoying to bring up a seperate screen everytime as some corridors look so alike. The vertical buildup of the levels also aren’t properly displayed on the map, something which old 3D first-person shooters and RPG’s didn’t have a problem with. Even with those minor quirks taken into account you’re sweeping fast through the Armstrong’s interior and exterior.
One thing I was excited about is how there is no party in SS compared to the Dungeon Siege series (or Throne of Darkness). For an action RPG those three or four extra pairs of hands always felt like they shouldn’t be there. They made the whole experience feel more like a simplistic RTS instead of true hack ‘n slashing where you wield your weapon yourself with every mouseclick without having to worry about how other party members with poor AI are doing in the middle of a busy fight.
So what Space Siege implements, only a single and completely optional robotic companion called HR-V which you can tweak and give some basic commands, is definitely more of a step into the right direction. He’s not the best henchmen you could wish for though as this highly advanced, futuristic warrior doesn’t have any voice of his own and thus no charisma at all. He can save your ass and has some useful abilities (unfortunately tied to Seth’s energy bar and the F1-F9 keys…) but it’s very quiet in the endless rooms and hallways of the Armstrong this way. A missed chance to let the player hear something else between the too familiar sounding American voices of the rest of the cast.
As anyone who tried out the demo will know, manoeuvring around isn’t easy to get into. You have to left-click with your mouse to make Seth move while attacks are executed by right-clicking on enemies. This doesn’t feel handy when you have played plenty of other games of the same genre doing okay with assigning both of these actions to one mouse button, while keeping any possible wrong order at bay by implementing the Hold Ground action through the Shift key. In SS, the latter command is only really useful for shooting at the scenery (which is part of the gameplay, more on that later). The camera keeps following your character but SS doesn’t have an isometric perspective either, you have to press the middle mouse button (or the A and D keys) to rotate it so you can see what you want. You can also zoom in but your view remains very limited.
Vertical shooting at work. Shooting foes below you is easy and fun enough, trying to shoot at baddies on an upper level is a mess because of the limiting camera view.
So, it’s all a bit of a mess at first if you’re coming from other hack ‘n slashers and there are also other small irritations like when your mouse doesn’t always seem to be able to point at the exact location you want to shoot (which makes you aim for the roof or at other scenery parts that don’t get obscured).
Though these controls will slip into your mind eventually there is another issue that pops up when you’re thrown into your first battle (which happens right at the very start). You can’t move while shooting, there is no strafing, only a dodge rolling move to quickly get out of the way of incoming projectiles is available.
For a game like Space Siege which is almost solely focused on ranged combat (there is only one close combat weapon) and big guns, and which effectivily mimicks a lot of shooter concepts, this is an odd choice. Even worse when you notice your enemies are able to shoot while moving, sigh. So, it puts a certain limit to the ongoing action and that’s a shame since when you get a bit further in the game the combat options don’t feel that bad.
Deploying sentries, laying mine boobytraps, ‘TAB’-switching your weapons, activating your five seconds invulnerability shield, making an ‘E’-dodge to avoid incoming energy bolts… this could be somewhat fun if you took the time to get used to handling the initially awkward controls. I said ‘could’ because combat is only as good as the weapons you’re using and the enemies you need to overcome. First of all, the rather modest amount of extra abilities really is necessary to compensate for the not too diversified weapons. It’s basically the standard shooter setup (railgun, rifle, double handguns, rocket launcher, chaingun, etc.) with that difference that the actual feel doesn’t stand out and that spending collectable upgrade parts on weapon statistics never becomes addictive.
Your guns and energy blade always look the same, even if they are ‘maxed out’ and the damage/speed improvements feel way too marginal. Ironically it’s your companion HR-V who claims the exclusive right to use the more exciting looking toys of destruction as the flamethrower and the spreading napalm gun.
As for the receiving end of your laser/bullet spewing weaponry there is a slightly varied crop of foes including (mini-)aliens, (assassin) cyborgs, (mini-)robots, turrets and certain mixes. They come in variations like big/small, explosive, electrifying, Armored, Veteran, Elite and other naming conventions or colouring, nothing we haven’t seen in other games though. A nice (graphical) touch on the Kerak warriors is that you can shoot off their armour. Surprising is that the enemies are always positioned at the same spots if you’re desperate to play the game a second time.
This could have made sense if many of these fights were memorable but they aren’t. A large part of your adversaries just run towards you and start hacking away with their energy blades, claws or they’ll use a flamethrower, some of them can even stun you (from a distance before they make a sprint attack, I call it the irresistible gaze). The ranged attackers prove to be more of a threat (since you can’t move while shooting even if you constantly want to); most rockets, beams and grenades do come in relatively slowly but the sneakiest bastards also use some of your own techniques like setting up temporary turrets. Also present and annoying (in a good, challenging way) are the unavoidable mini-factories producing small, nasty robots ready to put a stun, poison or a bomb on you.
Other “smart moves” you’ll witness are some ranged killers making a habit of passing by you to say hello or to get stung by your energy blade. The close combat Kerak have the habit of trying to heal themselves when it’s too late but most weird were the tanks which periodically activate their own invulnerability shields. Why weird? Well, they are unable to shoot or move while doing so. What’s the point or the challenge for the player in that?
Making things (a tiny bit) harder for yourself is possible but since there’s no difficulty setting for the singleplayer it’s about making the choice to go all cyborg or not that will affect how easy your journey through the Armstrong ship will become. Getting a full metal jacket is easy, playing a true half-man, half-robot is normal and all flesh is hard then? In a generalised way you could call it like that but even without any cybernetic parts it’s remain a walk-in-the-park to complete your quest to save humanity. In a way it’s also less fun if you remain ‘too human’ since you won’t have access to certain skills plus two powerful weapons and the cyborg outfitt simply looks way cooler.
The only time you might need to reload a savegame is when you encounter one of the rare bosses (almost straight imports from Quake 4 you might say), typically present in a seperate area you can’t escape from and where you can’t save your character. These and some other storyscripted confrontations are the only “do or die” moments. It would have been nice if SS did pay attention to what most Diablo-likes do with their difficulty settings: provide a normal mode and once that is completed offer a much heavier setting with more challenging foes, improved loot, etcera. It has given these kind of games a lengthy life for the people who really want to sink their teeth into them. In Space Siege, there is barely a reason to get deep into things.
Frankly, this also counts for the features you typically associate with action RPG’s. Levels, loot, lots of randomisation, don’t expect any of these here. All around the ship you just collect one of the ten fixed weapons, grenades/sentries/other small tools, medkits and most importantly general parts with the latter offering you the opportunity to improve your own stats, weapons and HR-V’s stats. It’s possible to buy extra grenades, drones and turrets with these parts as well. Buying and upgrading doesn’t happen in ‘town’ but in the omnipresent aid stations scattered around the spaceship which is a great way of keeping dull moments to a minimum.
Skill points are rewarded when you reach a milestone in the storyline but the skill tree is quite limited. As said before, these skills and abilities are great to lighten up the otherwise average gun combat but you never get the sense that you can choose a certain path. It doesn’t help that plenty of skills just add 2 to 5% to a certain damage type and that you can only put five skill points tops into them. Seth feels more like the jack-of-all-trades instead of an engineer, close-combat specialist, gunner, power ranger or whatever sci-fi equivalent of traditional roles you can imagine.
GPG has taken their own approach on old traditions and that isn’t something that should be discouraged by default but as you can guess, in this manner it doesn’t really become as addictive as the old way of collecting gorgeous loot and equipping that loot which gave an instant visual gratification. Opening boxes in those far corners and anonymous reaches of the Armstrong and shooting at every goddamn locker, computer, box or stash is only fun for a few minutes but you’re encouraged to do it because all that garbage you get out of it can improve your character in the long run. Seth has about three different armour outfits (green, blue and white) which are changed when you upgrade your armour value and there is also the special space suit. HR-V gets some extra green brown pads when his armour statistics get upped and weapon graphics remain the same the whole time. Visual variation? Miserable.
Simplifying the itemhunt portion and the gameplay while trying to speed up the experience at the same time means that some kind of (better) alternative has to be put in place and that didn’t happen here.
At least GPG got one thing right, picking up everything only requires pressing the Z-key after which all parts get sucked towards you, very handy indeed. Once you get a rocket launcher it’s also easier to “distill” these parts because of the all-destroying splash damage but it’s far from ideal.
The atmosphere doesn’t save this title; the previously mentioned “many varied locations” share the biggest blame but for a game which puts more focus on action it doesn’t help that the graphics aren’t anything more than barely decent. Character models are reasonably detailed (much better than the rectangular Dungeon Siege II shapes) and the effects are good, it’s all just not varied enough. There are some odd graphical errors too like when after a weird dodge move Seth keeps on hovering over the ground while he’s firing.
It’s cool that the engine often emphasises vertical shootouts but the camera limitations put a damper on that feature when you’re trying to shoot at opponents positioned on a higher platform than you. Physics do their glorious part for enemy death animations and scene explosions although you could say the latter are so overused it becomes somewhat of drag to kill foes that way. The sound effects are catchy, the epic music never seems to get enough time to express itself though.
Multiplayer supports LAN or internet play through GPGnet. To say it’s not exactly a big party there would be an understatement. Perhaps not necessarily due to the game’s modest qualities but because of the fact that this GPGnet execution is nowhere near as extensive as the GPGnet for Gas Powered Games’ RTS classic Supreme Commander.
Basic functions like chat and friends lists are available yes, but there are no achievements or custom avatars, no mod and map vaults, no statistics or ladders, there is simply put not the slightest hint that the Space Siege GPGnet execution wants to support a wide and demanding community. Oh, I forgot, you can create clans of course but there isn’t a player versus player option nor any tournament mode.
What can you do then in Space Siege multiplayer? Well, playing 15 “unique” missions on the Tachibana spaceship (clearly built by the same company as the Armstrong) with up to four friends or all by yourself (no HR-V here, he wasn’t human enough probably) and on three difficulty levels. While wearing special, randomly coloured space suits (which get some extra pads if you upgrade your armour stats). Quite a lot of skill points are handed over to your persistent character in the beginning as you can’t actually earn them during the missions.
At the same time you can also choose to install all the cybernetic parts you want (only the head will result in a visual change though if you want it in cybernetic style), there are no consequences anyway in multiplayer if you have lower humanity with the lack of an overarching plot and such. And from then on you’re set to go with a mini-command center acting as a central hub.
The multiplayer missions take up half an hour or less each and unfortunately they don’t make up for the lacklustre singleplayer as the level design is far from inventive and you won’t see much coherence either. They’re just meant as seperate “Blast through whatever you encounter” challenges. Short backtracking lulls are more common here than in the singleplayer story but from time to time respawns of tougher foes make up for that. When you finally do find someone on GPGnet to play alongside you it becomes obvious that the game becomes more pleasant and spectacular, especially on the higher difficulty levels. I didn’t find out how to check the health of my fellow cyborgs but it doesn’t matter anyway as dying just means players will be revived at an aid station closeby, like in the singleplayer.
So clearing room after room together can be enjoyable but don’t look for other thoughtful rewards as it’s still a case of collecting parts to progress your character and gear and that’s it. Playing through these missions alone is about as exciting as seeing some colonist at the end of a mission clapping in his hand or bowing when you’ve reached him/her. Very thrilling stuff, I know.
Space Siege tries to implement some unconventional ideas in order to leave the typical action RPG mold behind but the end result turns out to be below expectations. Developer GPG seemingly wanted to transfer the sci-fi FPS feeling to an action RPG but it’s a skewed effort because the control scheme, the graphics, the atmosphere, the enemy AI and other production values weren’t (completely) upgraded for this goal. SS did keep the fast, no-nonsense linear play from said shooters but also the bad points like a criminally short playlength and a mediocre storyline. At the same time the promise of choices and upgradeable gear led to believe there was still an influential RPG part present here but that got an underwhelming treatment as well with a minimum amount of available ‘moral’ paths which will mostly leave you cold and a lacking, immediate visual variety in terms of gear and statistic improvements. Even the skill setup isn’t as extensive as other action RPG’s and reasons for replaying the singleplayer game are negligible.
Let it be clear that despite these complaints there is still some fun to be had as Space Siege ain’t no slug like Harbinger for example. But if you look at the whole package then it surely ain’t at least the decent Diablo-in-space we’ve hoped for nor is it an excellent action game by itself either, and thus I can’t recommend SS at its current full price.