Fans of tightly focused "old-school" hack & slash RPG's as well as anyone looking for a hefty challenge should absolutely stick inXile's upcoming PS3/Xbox 360 game on their to-do lists. At a recent Bethesda press event, I got to sit down with a final build of the game and was very impressed at the level of challenge in the game (and the presentation's not bad either). While inXile has noted previously that Hunted's cover-based gameplay is inspired by Epic's Gears of War series, the fantasy trappings and two tough yet likable leads should appeal to both male and female gamers alike. I got a taste of both the single player and co-op story modes (with a fellow editor) and yes, you should click on down to read the real deal on what's going to be a bit of a sleeper hit this June.
First and foremost, the game looks spectacular right from the opening credits as a camera sweeps in and around a lush but ruined environment as the driving score sets the mood. The opening tutorial has Caddoc, a tattooed, axe-wielding mercenary and E'lara, his female elf archer counterpart progress through control and combat basics as they engage some over-sized carrion-eating bugs and shortly afterward, some pretty angry (and well-armed) skeletons. Combat is simple, visceral and satisfying, but this isn't a game where bum-rushing every enemy and hacking away is your quickest means to victory. In fact, try to play this game like God of War and your character of choice will be sliced up on a roll with medieval mustard sliding down some demon's throat.
Sure, Caddoc can take a few more hits than E'lara, but the encounters in the game focus quite heavily on you using cover to gain an advantage. With enemy magic users and archers taking shots from their own cover spots, you'll soon see that playing pop 'n shoot for a bit to whittle down the opposition works quite well. Both characters can use spells to some extent, but in the opening sequence, magic was limited to a nicely done section where the pair falls into a pitch black pit filled with more pissed off skeletons. A lightning spell along with a lot of weapon swinging made short work of the pack and a bit of exploration through the darkened area coughed up some gold as well as a few more enemies.
In terms of a few elements expected of the genre by some RPG fans, I noticed the nice sense of "realism" the game is going for right away that might throw a few folks off until they get used to them. One obvious example is there's no standard inventory system here. You're limited to what you can carry on each character: two weapons (and a shield for Caddoc) whatever spells you purchase and only a handful of potions. Health and magic power don't automatically regenerate, meaning you need to conserve those healing potions until needed and hope a few dead enemies cough up what you need.
The game also takes a page from shooters, as expired enemies' weapons can be picked up and swapped for yours if you so desire. Of course, those nasty old skeletons only have nasty old swords and shields (which makes sense), but you can feel free to trade if you want to make things harder. In addition, there are weapons racks that when bashed, drop gear specific to which character does the smashing. Bladed weapons for Caddoc and usually bows for E'lara (not ones to wear in her hair, mind you) or the occasional sword. By the way, while Caddoc will be the go-to guy for those who want the beef, E'lara isn't a total slouch with a blade, especially if you manage to score an enchanted one...
After about 20 or so minutes with the single player mode, it was time to jump into the System Link powered (yes!) co-op play and it's here where you'll need a reliable teammate (and a good sturdy game controller that works perfectly). I was really pleased to see the dev team have the Link feature in the game, as it allows folks who live in areas without broadband access to fully enjoy the adventure. The section of the game we were dropped into was one where a village was under siege by catapults and a horde of undead archers and sword-toting skeletons. Before the fun began, each player got to purchase spells or spell upgrades and assign them to the D-Pad. Choosing wisely is key, as you can't change your loadout in-game. There were also a few weapons racks and crates to bash for gear or gold before the main event took place.
Once things got underway, it was clear that the earlier tutorial was more like a spring breeze. This stage was a full on heat wave of charging enemies, arrows flying and despite the nicely sized map, little room for error. After taking down a few undead archers and a wave of undead shortly afterward, entering the main gates to the city became a bit of a challenge thanks to the ballista perch in one well-placed spot. heading straight to the obvious cover spot was a terrible idea, as it was in range of the ballista plus a few skeletons that rushed in from behind as a mean little surprise. It took a few attempts to tackle, as one or the other of use kept getting killed either by some backstabbing bony bum or by a few too many arrows to the head and body.
In co-op, you can throw healing potions at your buddy for a quick pick-me-up, but if they get downed, there's only a small window of opportunity to revive them before you fail the mission. After getting killed off a few too many times, we worked out a new strategy which was basically a mix of Caddoc zig-zagging like hell toward the ballista and E'lara distracting enemies by killing them quickly while both players kept an eye on healing each other when needed. Surprisingly, this worked amazingly well and soon, it was over and done and off to collect a hefty reward from the rich fat guy in the tower we'd just saved.
Of course, we didn't get the loot, as it was revealed that Mr. Wealthyrobes had a daughter that went missing and he just so happened to need two nearby adventurers who just saved his bacon to go look for her in the dungeon that just so happened to be below his tower. Don't you HATE it when that happens? This led to a bit of exploration and combat along with some neat puzzle-solving that involved reading tablets and lighting a series of torches with E'lara's arrows. While there's no mapping system, by clicking in the analog stick, you get a glowing light trail that points you in the direction you need to head. There was also a nice little surprise or three lurking in that dungeon, but I'd rather not spill any more beans about it here.
As far as the presentation goes, it's quite solid visually and aurally. Other than the desire for more destructible objects and the ability to more fully explore some of those gorgeous (but linear) outdoor environments, the game gets a thumbs up for the graphics. As for the stuff I just noted, well... I guess that's what sequels are for. I did notice some textures dropping in slightly late during a few cinemas, but I don't knock games for this at all as it's an all too common occurrence these days. The music and sound effects are quite excellent, particularly if you've got a good pair of headphones or speakers.
I didn't mention the game's story here, as it was only briefly hinted at and I want to spend a lot more time with the game so I can see how it all plays out. I only got to see a great post-tutorial cinema with the shapely (and evil), Seraphine (voiced by Lucy Lawless) requesting Caddoc and E'lara's assistance in exchange for power as well as mentioning some evil demon that needs to be stopped (par for the course in many a role-playing adventure). Nevertheless, the dialog is well-written and often humorous without breaking the fourth wall or poking fun at the genre (a note for for those of you who out there who didn't appreciate inXile's PS2/Xbox/PC update of The Bard's Tale from a few years back). So far, Caddoc and E'lara come off as pretty well-rounded characters, but I'd like to see where the plot takes them in terms of back story and/or any relationship they might have outside of the mercenary lifestyle.
Finally, some less-informed message board denizens have wondered why Bethsoft is dropping two RPG's into the market this year, but as Hunted isn't the same type of gameplay experience the massive open-world epic The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim will be, for me, there's room at the inn for both. That's not to say this isn't in the same class, folks. Hunted is a well-crafted, tightly focused chase & chop that's got instant appeal for gamers who love more action oriented experiences without a ton of hoofing it around looking for stuff to do. Overall, as a huge fan of these types of games, I'm more than thrilled at how the game has turned out and come June 1, 2011, it'll be your chance to hop into the world of Hunted: The Demon's Forge and hack your own path through what's looking like a pretty cool game.