Developer: Neocore Games
I can't wait for Van Helsing's next adventure.
Neocore Games came out swinging with a fantastic idea: a massive loot-grinding RPG delivered in three episodes, each lasting 12-15 hours apiece with save file compatibility. We therefore get an enormous slab of gunslinging, swordswinging, swashbuckling and teh phattest of lewtz delivered on our terms, allowing us to test the waters for £11.99 apiece and buy the whole thing for the same price as Diablo III's expansion pack. The first episode was solid, versatile, challenging and off-kilter; a real rip-roaring adventure that didn't take itself too seriously yet was deadly serious about its gameplay.
Now the legendary monster hunter finds himself defending a city under siege by the villainous General Harker, who throws an army of steampunk horrors at the grim defenders. It's time to don the floppy hat, grab our ghostly companion and unleash our inner Van Helsing... with a little more strategy this time around.
The lengthy beta level is set throughout a grimy industrial district, with desperate squads of militia holding the line against a battalion of cyborg soldiers. Massive magical aberrations stream into the city via access bridges and deploy via magical portal missiles (a nice touch that works perfectly in canon), meaning that Van Helsing and the aristocratic Katarina - who's still on arch and sarcastic form - have to scurry to the defence. Hulking flamethrower-equipped goons slowly advance in menacing fashion, lightning-fast blade wielders charge the lines and huge commanders deploy tesla barriers to control heroes in place, leaving us easy targets. As such, we'll bring swords, insane gun skills and elemental damage to the fight and eradicate our monstrous opposition. It's all part of the job.
Combat is as entertaining and versatile as ever, handling much like Diablo but with much more in the way of moment-to-moment decision making. All abilities can be modified with powerful extra abilities fuelled by a Rage gauge, such as extra damage, DoT, AoE, slowdown and other debuffs, encouraging players to think tactically about their skills and respec to make the most out of their personal playstyle. Guns and swords can still be switched between on the fly, while bitty and disparate clusters of keyboard commands have been consolidated into the single line of number keys, making for a much more intuitive experience.
I'd also forgotten how much I love Katarina. She's the most useful NPC in any RPG, ever! Not only can she hold loot like Torchlight II's pet, but she's also got her own skill trees, equipment, boasts loads of useful passive buffs and features extraordinarily customisable AI. If you want her to ranged DPS, she'll DPS. Need a tank? Kat has your back. Want someone to pull the tougher mobs or home in on the weakest critters? Just tell her and she'll do it. I don't usually endorse plagiarism, but I'd like all RPG developers to straight-up copy Katarina from now on.
However, Van Helsing 2 plans on adding a new tactical layer to the proceedings this time around, inspired by the effective yet sidelined tower defence mechanics from the original. Neocore's demo level allows you to manually command various pockets of resistance, charging them with particular roles or helping them out with limited deployable turrets; then dash about the place in an attempt to hold the line. This will be a major part of the experience over the next 12 hours, and by the looks of things, a fairly compelling one that'll set it apart in the genre.
As the second game in a trilogy, Van Helsing 2 lets you transfer any of your save files over with no mess or fuss; doubling the level cap from 30 to 60 and adding an enormous number of new skills to the trees (effectively they've doubled in size). My gunslinging ranged DPS build, who thrives on bleeding enemy mana to power ridiculous Scattershot blasts and damage resistance debuffs, quickly found himself challenged yet capable of handling the stern new odds, though melee builds will have to spec carefully to survive the huge amounts of magical flamethrower damage and tough new hordes.
However, we also have the opportunity to start afresh and dabble in the new new classes that were only available as DLC. The Thaumaturge magician blasts out, while my personal favourite -- The Arcane Mechanic -- uses close-ranged magical projectors, Ghostbusters-inspired proton packs, mines and mechanical minions to keep the foes at bay. Using them should add some serious replay value.
I do have a few concerns about the writing, though, or more specifically the humour. The first game was hammy but effective thanks to the great banter between Van Helsing and Katarina, yet occasionally sailed very close to the wind in terms of lazy and unfunny references. It hit more often than it missed, but Van Helsing 2 already has a limp Saving Private Ryan gag and even a painfully passée Skyrim quote. You know the one. There's a world of difference between a reference and an actual joke: something that Neocore would do well to keep in mind. References should be kept hidden, as easter eggs, to avoid making an irrevocable turn into full-on parody territory.
Still, dialogue can be clicked through at your pace, and it's hardly going to be any worse than Diablo III's hilariously awful storyline.
The Incredible Adventures Of Van Helsing 2 is slated for May 22nd, which gives you the perfect time to jump into the original and see how it has improved over the last few months. Neocore have been busy addressing fan feedback and concerns from us hacks; adding a huge amount of endgame content, two new ways to experience the campaign, a functional Paragon-esque infinite levelling system and more. All features that will hopefully be in Van Helsing 2 as standard.
Speaking of features, the single beta level still leaves plenty of questions unanswered. A new Chimera pet can be summoned into combat or sent away to scavenge for resources. Items can be fragmented and rebuilt or turned into magical runes. The tower defence sections have received an overhaul and will be available as optional missions. How long will it be? Will the difficulty spikes be as vicious this time around? What will the endgame content be like?
Frankly, we can't wait to find out!