Very few developers have the confidence to create games according to the auteur model: where the creative director of a development studio has such a clear vision of what a game should be like they can enforce this vision upon their game through force of will and personality alone, and then communicate this vision to the public. Gas Powered Games' CEO, Chris Taylor, is one of these people. When sitting down and talking with him, it's hard not be in awe of his passion for video games and his enthusiasm for making them in ways that have not been tried before. Supreme Commander was his reinvention of the RTS genre, and is generally acknowledged as a triumph. Space Siege is a revisit to the RPG genre Gas Powered Games first experimented with when making the Dungeon Siege series. As the name suggests, Space Siege is a sci-fi re-imagination of concepts first tested in the Dungeon Siege games, but this time the results are rather mixed.
One of the hallmarks of a game authored by Chris Taylor is that rather than conforming to genre stereotypes, the game will subvert or innovate along the theme. Space Siege confounds the traditional RPG stereotype in that you do not accumulate experience or levels. Character customization is limited to picking skills in two branching skill trees (Combat or Engineering) in a manner similar to the Talent sets in World of Warcraft. Skill points are awarded at set points in the game's narrative, and other common RPG tropes, such as loot hoarding and inventory management are dispensed with entirely. New weapons, like skill points, are provided at set points in the narrative, and upgrade parts can be accumulated throughout the game, which can be used to bolster your weapons, armour and create support weapons such as grenades and drones, using the workbenches provided at the frequent Aid Stations (which also serve as save checkpoints). Other traditional RPG niceties, such as non-linearity and being able to choose dialogue responses, are likewise non-existent, giving the feeling that the game plays more like a third-person action game than an RPG. In fact, when it comes to being able to make choices that affect the outcome of the narrative, you are really only given one choice of any substance at all, within the final hour of the game. Even then, in terms of the actions you need to carry out between that choice and the finale, there is very little substantive difference in what you do, which is rather disappointing.
But I'm getting ahead of myself here... One of the more interesting things about the game is the initial premise. Space Siege is set in the 23rd Century, and humanity is on the verge of extinction after a careless colony ship inadvertently desecrated a holy world of the Kerak - the crab-like alien villains of the piece. These chitinous, shell-dwelling evil-doers have wiped out Earth with a vast armada and have landed an assault pod on the one human ship that was able to escape the blockade. It is left up to your character, Seth Walker (a soldier and robotics specialist) to defend the ship and repel the invasion. So far so ordinary, you might think. Well, here comes the twist: in order to do so, you're given the option to lop off hunks of your flesh and replace them with cybernetic parts, sacrificing your humanity for combat power - the notion being how far will you go? Is it worth turning yourself into a machine to save what remains of the Human Race? It's a fascinating question, and one you reflect on as you install new limbs and your humanity level drops.
Unfortunately, as you play through the game, the philosophical weight of the question is rendered utterly irrelevant, since the premise is only notionally explored. One power on each of the Combat and Engineering skill trees requires a humanity level of 90% or more (restricting the cybernetic parts you can install if you want to use these abilities) but far more of the powers and skills require you to install certain parts (such as a cybernetic spine or brain) and the cyborg weapons require you to have installed cybernetic arms and legs, meaning that the advantages of installing all the cybernetic parts you find far outweigh any disadvantages. Your humanity level also has absolutely no impact on the outcome of the narrative, and is only clumsily referred to by non-player characters in the dialogue.
'...the voice work is laboured; the script is clichéd and clunky; and characterization is paper-thin for an RPG...'
If that weren't disappointing enough, there is worse to come when it comes to the general standard of the game design. For example, the user interface is rather ugly and far more intrusive than it needs to be, and while the graphics are solid (if uninspiring), even if the levels themselves have their moments of grandeur, there is a rather high level of asset reuse (the transit terminals, aid stations and computer rooms are particularly overused), giving the game a cut-and-paste feel, despite the physical layout of the levels varying considerably. The one big flaw in the level design that most grated with the sci-fi setting, however, was the way that the ship was littered with high-explosive crates, hazardous materials tanks and pressure canisters. Did no-one tell the level designers that deep space vacuums and spaceships packed to the rafters with explosives don't mix very well? I've heard of suspension of disbelief, but this is ridiculous. It's bad enough that explosive barrels are a gaming cliché that dates back to Doom, but a scenic lounge on a spaceship littered with pressure canisters scattered all over the floor, ready to fly through the windows should they catch a stray shot... if the Human Race is really that stupid in the 23rd Century, it deserves to be wiped out by the Kerak. This example is symptomatic of the game's general lack of polish; the voice work is laboured; the script is clichéd and clunky; and characterization is paper-thin for an RPG, none more so than for HR-V, your robotic sidekick. You spend almost the entirety of the game with him and don't get so much as a peep or bleep out of him.
That's not to say that the game doesn't do some things well, however. There are a few cool touches, not least the Jade Empire-style Loot Hoover (I don't think that's the official term), which sucks any uncollected health packs or upgrade parts within range into your inventory at the touch of a key, saving you the trouble of wandering around to collect them all. The combat is dynamic and visceral, and it's nice to see your weapons fire stripping armour away from your target, giving your weapons a real sense of power and impact. The upgrade system, while simplistic, is well-balanced and implemented, preventing your character from becoming too powerful too quickly, plus the pace and length of the story is nicely judged - neither too short, nor obviously padded. The campaign may also be played in multiplayer co-op mode, presumably to provide extra longevity, since the game has a very gentle learning curve and won't pose too many problems in single-player, even for novice gamers. In fact, the game is astonishingly easy to sit down with and play, mainly due to the control set: almost everything you need to do to complete the game may be done via the mouse. Movement, combat and menu access is all mouse-driven, and you can even manipulate the camera using the mouse wheel and screen edge scrolling. Personally though, I would have preferred a Knights of Old Republic-style control set up with character movement bound to the keyboard, plus a more intuitive method of dodging fire, since Space Siege invariably has you dodge by leaping towards the enemy - not something I'd call tactically sound, by any means.
Overall, Space Siege is a game with a catalogue of both major and minor flaws, sloppy, derivative or rushed design, which is uncharacteristic of a developer with this pedigree. Whether you judge it as an RPG or as a third-person action game, Space Siege fails to pass muster, yet despite all the flaws, the game is hard to utterly condemn. Despite what it may say on the box, Space Siege is not an RPG truly worthy of the designation, since it takes the traditional RPG form and pares it to the bone, but there is something oddly reassuring about the game. It's passably entertaining. It's diverting, in the "leave your brain at the door" kind of way that you get from watching CGI-laden Hollywood blockbusters. Space Siege isn't what I'd call a bad game, but you can't really call it good, either. Some games are destined to set the bar of excellence and redefine what we've come to expect from the best in the genre. Space Siege instead seems destined to set the bar of what constitutes average. I expected a lot better, and when Chris Taylor looks back at some of the design choices that were made during the making of this game, I'm sure he'll rue them as an opportunity lost.