Platforms: PC | PS3 (tested) | Xbox 360
Lords of Shadow 2 opens with a rather epic tutorial level that, as you'll know if you've read Brendan's EGX preview, sees Dracula at the height of his power defending his castle from an angelic siege. Beset upon all sides by celestial forces, he takes the fight to the Golden Paladin and climbs up the heavenly golem attempting to smash his home to bits in order to dish out some serious punishment.
From then on, though, the Belmont family endure a rather rough few centuries.
To cut a long story short (and to avoid spoiling the delights of a Patrick Stewart-narrated family history), we rejoin Gabriel Belmont several hundred years later after he's been killed and resurrected a few times. An old man, barely in command of even a sliver of his former powers, his castle has mostly crumbled away, and a city built atop its ruins. Zobek informs Gabriel that Satan is preparing for a a massive invasion, and that his minions have been sent to Earth to get things moving along and to pave the way for his return. Gabriel -- essential a barely animated corpse wrapped in an opulent red curtain -- is frankly in no state to do anything.
A spot of murder and a bit of bloody feasting later, though, and he at least looks the part.
With a city now sat atop the ruins of Dracula's castle, Satan's minions are able to hide in plain sight, and Zobek sends Gabriel off to investigate Bioquimek, a pharmaceutical front for some otherworldly activities. What follows is a little bit of MGS-esque stealth as Gabriel sneaks into the facility, using cover to his advantage and avoiding detection from the Golgothan Guards that are much larger and (at this stage, at least) much more powerful than he is. Dracula still has a few tricks up his sleeve, mind, and two of them come in particularly handy. First is the ability to transform into a rat whilst lurking in the shadows. As a rodent, Gabriel is able to sneak past enemies, access ventilation systems through tiny grates, and generally reach places that he wouldn't be able to as a human being. Of course, there are perils to being a rat. Guards will attempt to squash you, live wires can shock you until you explode, and fire will hurt. Thankfully, Gabriel can just possess another rat, though the number is limited to ten or so rats each time.
Possession is a key aspect as well, and given enough of a window, Gabriel can also possess Golgothans to open doors and access other areas. I found it to be a little inaccurate, though, and there were several occasions early on when I'd be hammering the right button stood right behind a Guard, only for him to turn round after a few seconds and kick the stuffing out of me. Taking some cues from Batman, Dracula can use other creatures of the night to distract enemies and waylay foes if outnumbered and Bat Swarms can be very useful early on to distract Guards from their patrol paths
Much has been made of the "open world" aspect coming to Lords of Shadow 2, and truth be told we didn't really see an enormous amount of it, but there is a clear emphasis on expansive scale with this game. The fixed camera is gone, replaced with 360 degree freedom -- a necessity given the vast spaces and open hubs that Gabriel will come across, though it occasionally locks into place for the odd dramatic cutscene. MercurySteam have made the interactive elements of these -- prepare for quick-time events -- completely optional, and you can switch the QTEs off completely in the game menu if you so desire. The ability to scurry about like a rat does make for more branching paths, and there are plenty of reasons for retracing your steps as progression earns you greater powers and abilities that allow you to break new ground and unlock previously inaccessible areas.
The detail and the art design is fantastic. We were playing on PS3, and even after shoving as much shiny next-gen goodness in my face as possible over the last month, CLOS 2 still managed to dazzle. Dracula will be able to move between reality and the Astral plane of his former glory via portals unlocked with the help of a mysterious child, and so you'll gradually unlock more and more of his castle. There are collectibles, of course, letters and notes left behind by fallen knights and long-dead enemies that fill in narrative gaps nicely, and Boxes of Pain that yield Life and Spirit Gems, five of each boosting Gabriel's health and mana bars respectively.
Gabriel fights with his Blood Whip -- a nice vampiric twist that allows players who rattled through the original game with the Combat Cross to feel right at home -- and there are some typical RPG elements underpinning everything that allow for plenty of progression and combo unlocks. The more you use a combo, the quicker you'll "master" the relevant weapon, letting you dish out more damage. The Parry is a fiddly thing to pull off, though the combos you can unleash after a successful Parry are immensely satisfying, but truth be told I found myself rolling about and delighting in evasion more often than not. It's the only letdown to an otherwise splendid and impressively fluid combat system.
Dracula's cursed blood has a will of its own, and so it takes umbrage at the fact that Dracula is off indulging in acts of world-saving heroism(of sorts), animating parts of the castle and turning his minions against him. Hellish beasts, skeleton demons, shuffling zombies and ghouls, these are all par for the course. It's when the blood starts reanimating stone golems that things get a little dicey. This particular mini boss fight comes as Dracula retrieves his Void Sword, and sees our hero having to dodge unblockable attacks, and then attacking the blood-soaked parts of the golem's body. The Sword's power is replenished through successful combo hits and avoiding damage, and Gabriel can build this chain of awesomeness up to increase his Combat Focus, dishing out progressively more damage the longer he is able to remain unharmed and in action.
It's doesn't take too long for Gabriel to start to get a fair bit of his power back. The Void Sword replenishes health with successful hits so long as you have the charge to maintain its power. Later on, Gabriel unlocks the power to infuse the blade with a icy blast that proves handy for shimmying up waterfalls and freezing enemies in their tracks. After a few hours, we find ourselves back at Bioquimek where Zobek informs us that someone powerful is in the vicinity, one of Satan's generals perhaps. As it turns out, Bioquimek are manufacturing a gas capable of transforming humans into Satanic beasts, and the company's director is a reptilian monstrosity who has been kidnapping innocent people, experimenting upon them, and is planning on turning millions of folk into slavering devils. She is extremely fast, and keeps lobbing electrical bombs all over the place. Only the ice blast from the Void Sword can slow her down long enough to get some hits in. From there, we follow Gabriel into the lair of the Gorgons to retrieve his other important piece of weaponry: the Chaos Claws. Swapping between Light and Dark magic, as in the previous game, is gone. Now combat is predicated around using the right tools for the job and knowing when to switch out and swap around. It might be a little disappointing, particularly because it's clear that some enemies can only be defeated with particular weapons (only the Claws can break shields, for example), which is a bit of a cop-out, but hopefully MercurySteam provide a little more variety when it comes to enemy types. All can be remedied with interesting and diverse adversaries.
Lords of Shadow 2 is careful not to turn into a one-trick pony, though. There's plenty of platforming to be done, and indeed there were moments during my time with this preview built that reminded me of the likes of Assassin's Creed and the more recent Prince of Persia titles -- vast open spaces that begged to climbed, rooms with swinging chandeliers that required perfect timing for an exploratory jump. It's to the game's credit that sometimes you reach a new area and just sit back for a moment to drink the detail in and plot your path ahead. We were playing through the early chapters of the title and were told that things open up hugely the further in you get, and down in the lava-drenched caverns where the Gorgons lay, there were a few little puzzles to solves and floor tiles to move to break up the fighting.
My greatest frustration with the original Lords of Shadow was the nagging feeling of unfulfilled potential, of greatness being diluted by repetition and a combat system that, whilst capable, couldn't hold a candle to those made by the likes of Platinum or Capcom. Lords of Shadow had all of the pretensions of being epic, but it never quite realised its grandiose potential, instead becoming a button-mashing gallery of repetitive arena battles and waves of faceless grunts. But here, playing through the first five hours of the sequel, I began to feel that sense of the epic. Maybe it's the world-jumping -- the curiosity of the modern setting is really very intriguing and I hope it gets played with -- it could be that this more heroic story made me want to press onwards, even as the richly detailed world encouraged simply sinking into the aesthetics and ferreting out every nook and cranny. The exploration aspect of Castlevania was something fundamentally lacking in the previous game, but there were hints towards it during this extended hands-on time with the sequel that gave us hope. Whether that gets developed throughout the rest of the game, however, remains to be seen.
There's plenty of promise here, but also a number of questions to be answered that will only come out towards the end of the month when we're able to play this thing in its entirety. The question of just how open? still remains. Our demo ended with an enormously tense fight against a cursed and angry Medusa, but where was the idea of trotting about the rain-soaked Gothic city that had seemed central to the ideas underpinning the sequel when it first emerged? The only hint of that came all too briefly at the start as old, decrepit Dracula found a nearby soul to feast upon. We never got to turn into a bat and flutter over to Bioquimek or anything like that, all we got was a loading screen. The game might open up into an Arkham City-esque landscape, but not in the first five hours as things stand. Excitement, then, but tempered with caution.