Microsoft Game Studios has teamed up with Gas Powered Games once again to produce what looks to be a stellar sequel to 2002's critically acclaimed Dungeon Siege. Over three years in the making, Dungeon Siege II: Plains of Tears follows in the footsteps of the original in delivering immersive game play and an intricate storyline. Thankfully for gamers, there are also a load of new features and improvements that will make navigating the rich environment an absolute pleasure. Although the beta build I had an opportunity to test out only had the first six hours or so, the little taste I got left me hungering for the final release.

Like its predecessor, Dungeon Siege II takes place in the strange and mythical world of Aranna. The story tells of an ancient war between two godlike beings, Zaramoth and Azunai, which culminated in an epic battle on the Plain of Tears. At the height of the conflict, Zaramoth brought his giant sword down upon the shield of Azunai, creating a giant fissure in the earth that swallowed the souls of both armies. A thousand years later, a powerful man by the name of Valdis ventured into the mountains and, with the guidance of unearthly visions, discovered the sword of Zaramoth. Corrupted by its power, Valdis now leads a mighty invasion force in search of a mysterious object said to hold supernatural abilities. Cue the music.

The full release of Dungeon Siege II will include around 40-60 hours of single player gameplay plus a multiplayer network campaign mode. Unfortunately, the multiplayer is not yet implemented in the beta version so I was limited to the single player campaign. The first thing players must do before even lifting their sword is create a new hero. There are four main races to choose from - Elves, Dryads, Half-Giants, and Humans - each with their own natural talents and weaknesses. Gender, hair style and colour, and facial appearance are also customizable. I chose to incarnate myself as an elf because, well, they were just so darn cool in Lord of the Rings. In any case, once the hero is created the real fun commences.

Right off the bat, I noticed one of the better aspects of Dungeon Siege II is its highly intuitive user interface. Everything to do with a particular character has been consolidated into a character panel that sits in the upper left-hand corner of the screen. From there players can add or drop weapons and other items, equip spells in their spell book, and choose which skills they would like to develop. Skill specialization is a key aspect of the game in which players get to choose a stream of combat expertise for their character: melee weapons, ranged weapons, nature magic and (my personal favourite) combat magic. An added side benefit is the choice of several special powers available as the character gains experience. When timed wisely, these things can really pack a punch in the thick of battle.

Game progress is driven by a series of primary and secondary quests. Primary quests must be completed in order to move through the game while secondary quests are optional. When players accept a new quest, an update is added to their character's journal and a yellow directional arrow appears in the navigational compass pointing in the direction of their next objective. Apart from monitoring the status of particular quest tasks, the journal also provides a detailed map of the area as well as a valuable handbook containing information on all aspects of game play. As an added bonus, there is also a handy reference chart of all Aranna's "Bestiary" (monsters and such) in case you ever get confused over who is who.

Since the earliest text-based RPGs, combat has always been considered an integral element of gameplay. Dungeon Siege II doesn't disappoint in this department. Players have a multitude of different weapons and armour to choose from when doing battle. As well, characters graduate to bigger and better weapons and magic spells according to their chosen specialty. The basic combat sequence itself is pretty simple. Players choose a formation for their party to take (useful in situations where you want everyone to attack one powerful enemy), equip their weapon of choice, and right-click the baddies they wish to attack. From there, it's really a matter of strategy and timing. As heroes receive damage their health bar in the character panel shrinks. This is when it becomes crucial to have your characters drink health and mana potions found in little vials throughout the game to top up their physical and magical strength.

More often than not (at least in my case), a character will fall unconscious from damage inflicted by enemies. Other unaffected party members will continue to fight on while the injured character heals and eventually regains consciousness. However, if all the characters are knocked unconscious then the battle is declared a defeat. Players then have the choice of respawning at their last save point, usually with their inventory intact. The best course of action at this point is to simply go back to the site of battle and try again. Alternatively, some areas will have teleporters that will beam you closer to your last position, saving you a lot of walking time.

In terms of graphics, this game is quite visually appealing. The environments are lush and beautifully designed with evident care put into small details like falling leaves and swaying trees. Detail level on the characters and enemies is pretty impressive, even when zoomed in. As well, it's clear that Microsoft has exploited its own DirectX 9 platform to the fullest. Flowing water, for instance, looks ultra-realistic as do the particle effects. Shadows and lighting are also some of the best I have seen in an RPG.

Another important achievement to note is the new in-game cinematics engine. In the past, real-time rendered cinematics generally looked pretty crummy since gamers came to expect a movie type quality from transition sequences. Armed with today's advanced technology, however, the developers have managed to seamlessly integrate impressive cinematic sequences using just in-game graphics. The difference this makes in improving flow and continuity is much greater than I would have expected.

Granted the game is still in its beta phase, the sound is really nothing to write home about. The orchestral soundtrack is pretty standard sounding, as are the other environmental sound effects. Where it gets interesting (and somewhat amusing) is with the voiceovers. Microsoft and Gas Powered Games made sure to note in the document accompanying this beta that voiceovers are not finalized and spoken lines will sometimes differ from text written in dialogues. However, they didn't make mention of the fact that they likely rounded up a bunch of people during lunch hour at headquarters in Redmond, sat them in a sound booth, and told them to recite a bunch of phrases. The bottom line is that the voices don't at all match the characters a lot of the time - even in terms of gender. Considering this is a beta, though, I'm willing to excuse this little blemish. One other minor critique about the dialogue is that it has the tendency to pop up at the most inopportune times. On more than one occasion I was in the midst of battling a horde of monsters only to be interrupted by a dialogue box in which my companion informed me of something entirely useless. Needless to say, my untimely death was quick to follow.

On the whole, Dungeon Siege II looks to be a valuable addition to the RPG genre. While it hasn't outright revolutionized the genre, the sequel is far better than the original in most respects. It also isn't hard to tell that a lot of thought has gone into refining and tweaking the interface and game play elements. The one feature that will likely cause this game to outshine most other titles of its kind is the sheer length of gameplay the final promises to deliver. Even if one were to play a solid eight hours a day, the thing will still take over a week to complete. And that's at the easiest setting.