inXile Entertainment's Maxx Kaufman and Matt Findlay used to play a lot of tabletop roleplaying games and text adventures in their youth... but in their minds' eye, they envisioned a high-octane fantasy adventure that focused on visceral action and eyepopping vistas. Now they've got the chance to make it happen, courtesy of Bethesda and more than a little obvious inspiration from a few other intellectual properties out there. After enjoying their Eurogamer presentation and getting some hands-on time on the show floor, here are my impressions of Hunted: The Demon's Forge.
Hunted is being crafted with three key concepts in mind: cooperative play, cover-based action and reimagining the fantasy genre. Whilst there are plenty of third person shooters and dark fantasy brawlers out there, inXile are planning on merging the two genres and adding one of the most impressive cooperative modes we're heard about in a long time (at least on paper). Players have the choice of two mercenary characters: the burly Caddoc and the scantily-clad elf Elara. As you'd expect, Caddoc excels at shredding and bludgeoning foes to death with melee weapons while Elara specialises in ranged attacks. Well, she is an Elf after all- and some cliches never change.
The two mercenaries are directed to the town of Dyfed by a mysterious spirit who informs them that there'll be plenty of work to do and money to be made. Upon arrival, however, they discover the village in ruins and the abducted by hideous ghouls. Delving into the shadowy bowels beneath Dyfed, the action soon descends into tight corridors and spacious arenas that are strewn with plenty of cover to hide behind. As the sniper, Elara plays much like any standard third person shooter protagonist; needing to avoid close-range engagements and shooting targets of opportunity from cover. As a beefy fighter, however, Carroc can afford to break cover and brutalise foes at short range.
So far so standard. In fact, the action is jarringly reminiscent of Gears of War both in terms of basic mechanics and visual flair, with a selction of SWAT turns and cover rolls to call upon. The left trigger aims. X and Y deal with light and heavy attacks. You know the drill. Don't get too complacent though, because the theme of cooperation goes far deeper than most games we've seen before.
Carroc and Elara can revive each other long range and take advantage of different enemy vulnerabilities. Some enemies are impervious to arrows, for example. However, each character has a large number of upgradeable skills that persist between playthroughs and can be used both offline and online. For example, Carroc can trigger an a radial levitation ability that causes nearby enemies to become easy targets for his companion. Elara, on the other hand, can freeze foes with icy arrows for Carroc to shatter at leisure. These skills deploy a handy audio prompt when used, bringing the opportunity to the other player's attention. We can also opt to switch characters at each checkpoint in singleplayer or online, meaning that we can experience a different point of view as well as ensuring that the action doesn't become stale.
Battle magic is also an interesting new feature. Both mercenaries can draw upon fire and lightning projectiles, but can also power up their ally with a “Battle Charge.” This makes them temporarily invulnerable and beefs up their weapons with elemental effects, proving extremely handy in a pinch. The maps and encounters are also geared towards cooperation, including a standoff with a powerful mounted weapon that can only be accessed by severing a drawbridge rope with Elara's arrows.
Exploration and rewards are also going to play a key role in the experience. Rather than offering fully linear progression, Hunted will be chock full of secret rooms, shortcuts and multiple paths that will reward players who are willing to venture off of the beaten track. Freeing abducted villagers will yield information about hidden traps and doors, hopefully providing a massive amount of replayability.
inXile will be attempting to “push the envelope” in terms of graphical output, though this unfortunately means that splitscreen cooperative action will be all but impossible. However, the singleplayer can be joined at any time by friends or random players by permission, with the option of porting your own characters over into the game and taking any upgrades and weapons back into their own game afterwards. The AI will apparently offer an intelligent companion for singleplayer forays, and will offer advice and intelligent skill use in combat. However, the banter between the two is currently nauseating... and we hope that the characters gain some real personality rather than hilariously hammy cutouts. As Carroc says less than a minute into the demo: “I've got a bad feeling about this.”
With at least the best part of a year until release, it's too early to make a judgement call on this one. Hunted: The Demon's Forge is shaping up to deliver an impressive cooperative experience, though I personally feel that inXile have their work cut out in terms of making the overall experience stand out from the crowd. Dark fantasy and cover-based action seem like perfect bedfellows on paper, but early cries of "derivative" and "Gears of Warcraft" will need to be silenced by some more genuine innovation. There's plenty of potential here- and plenty of time to make good on their promises.