by Marty Demarest

Role-playing games are usually about losing yourself in another persona, another world, entirely. They drop you into characters that are open-ended -- they gain experience, knowledge and power, but it's up to you, the player, to decide what they do with those things. The games present you with detailed worlds that change around the characters, forcing you to react, and allowing your reactions to have repercussions in the game's environment. And when they work, they're the proverbial "escape from reality."

The downside to the genre is that, quite often, it involves learning elaborate rules and devoting excessive amounts of time to the development of your character. Consequently, role-playing games have had a mixed history on the computer; even when they work, they're designed more with the dedicated fan in mind than the growing audience of more casual gamers.

Fortunately, Microsoft's Dungeon Siege fills a much-needed niche, delivering a pick-up-and-play product that will impress relaxed role-players, while still offering regular fans some substance. Don't know what to do at the game's beginning when the monsters first attack? Pick up that pitchfork. Before long, players' natural tendencies will have determined what skills their characters acquire, and gradually, almost unconsciously, they start to become an experienced archer, fighter or magician.

The story of the game is pretty standard. Some evil force has invaded the kingdom. People are scared. A hero is needed. But Dungeon Siege isn't about the story line; it's about quick, intuitive action and adventure -- which it delivers. There is really only one way to play through the game, but while you're sticking to the path, you'll have an awfully good time.

And the effortless immersion into the game's world is helped by fantastic graphics, which create dark forests that swarm with butterflies and rocky fields that are vast and haunting. Terrain rises and falls, and just as in real battles, the side that controls the greatest altitude has the advantage.

So while it might not offer the depth or immersion of some of the other role-playing games on the market, Dungeon Siege remains an instinctive, active game: the perfect way to entertain yourself when you're in the mood to slay some skeletons. And you won't have to memorize anything more complicated than how to click your mouse.

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