First look: Hunted The Demon's Forge
In late February, Bethesda invited us to the first official presentation of the latest game by Brian Fargo, Hunted: The Demon's Forge. Curious by nature and rather eager to see what it was all about, we went to the Parisian hotel where the event took place. Summary and interviews inside.
For the youngest amongst you, the name Brian Fargo certainly does not ring much of a bell. Yet, for all the players whose first stirrings in the video game world began at the golden age of computers such as the Apple II, the madeleine of Proust should not be long to get out of its box. At a time when the simplest pixels were sufficient to stimulate the imagination of thousands of players, The Bard’s Tale made many teenagers embrace Fargo's favourite universe: Heroic Fantasy. It is therefore hardly surprising that Hunted: The Demon's Forge should choose such a rich backdrop, although as you will see, Fargo has decided to forsake his first love and move away from the traditional role-playing game towards a more action-oriented genre.
Lord of the Gears
Clearly taking a page out of Gears of War, sharing engines for starters, but also in deciding to make Hunted a game where cooperation is central to the gameplay, the game still aims at bringing a bit of revival to the genre. Indeed, here, each of the playable characters (Caddoc and Elara) propose radically different gameplay. Caddoc, for example, will be a good choice for those who are fond of fighting in melee combat and of close contact with smelly and sweaty orcs. Adept of the sword and other weapons of short range, it remains possible to use magic spells to enhance his attacks, by combining them to its equipment. Meanwhile, Elara, will be much more effective in ambush, away from the fray, and her bow or crossbow will allow her to offer good support to Caddoc. Magic spells can also be combined with arrows, which allows you to freeze up an opponent for the convenience of the second player, who will just have to break the ice to finish the job, and that's just one example. We'll also be able to cast a spell on our teammate to give him a momentary power that he doesn't normally have access to. Finally, in the grand tradition of games in the third person view, it will obviously be possible to take cover and keep safe from enemy archers.
But the offensive support will not be the only way to back up your teammate since you will have to be careful to always carry enough health viles to revive him/her when needed. These are available in limited quantity, so you have to properly manage your inventory in order to avoid being caught short in the middle of a fight. There is indeed no similar system to most games of the genre where the player can bring his/her partner back to life as many times as necessary. Moreover, unlike games like Gears of War or Army of Two, where you must be close to your partner to heal him/her, here you can do it from a distance, as long as your teammate is in sight obviously. A very good idea because it encourages both players to occupy different strategic zones on the battlefield, instead of forcing them to stay side by side. The game's environments are designed with this in mind and therefore offers quite large areas, even outdoors at times, which is a nice change from the more typical dungeons you will also go through. Rest assured that inXile has not forgotten to add spooky and more claustrophobic areas, but still, the game will take advantage of the size of its environments.
Another good idea is the possibility to switch between characters at each of the checkpoints in the game. Whether you decide to play alone or with a friend, the operation is both fast and simple, and allows a pleasant change in the very course of the adventure, without having to return to the main menu. Any player may also join you online when you reach a checkpoint, at least if you've decided to allow it in your game. As a little anecdote, you should know that the person that works on the matchmaking system gathered a lot of information on... dating sites! The search engine is therefore based on it, in order to ensure that each player will find a suitable match and to prevent that radically different players find themselves engaged in the same game. The story doesn't tell if the person in charge of the matchmaking system found his soul mate during his research...
As mentioned earlier, Hunted runs on the now famous Unreal - Epic - Engine 3, an engine that has been used, sometimes well, sometimes with less success in the past few years. Will inXile's game enter the myth or will it end up like many second-class titles? Well, for now, the graphics seem quite promising, with beautiful lighting effects and highly-detailed and nicely textured environments that also have the luxury of being quite large. They are also sometimes interactive, with walls that disintegrate under the fire from some monsters (forcing you to find another cover) or huge stone columns that can be used to bring down the scenery (although for the latter example, it's more of a scripted event that is triggered by hammering the A button).
The animations of the enemies are not left out, especially when they are victims of the precision of Elara's arrows. However, for now, Caddoc's animation is still a bit too stiff, his melee combos lacking a bit of smoothness. That being said, some finishing moves are already very classy. E'lera is a lot more at ease when using her bow and arrows with what we could call a powerful grace.
The art direction is true to what we are entitled to expect from the genre, the monsters and environments are particularly well-done. At some point, we even got to see a giant in the background. We don't know yet if he will eventually cross our path, but it sure made the game's world even livelier. On the other hand, the two heroes still lack a little originality, especially Caddoc, who is basically a muscular tattooed warrior with a shaved head. Overall then, the game's technical aspects look quite promising, even more as it gives life to a very convincing adult world.
With characters gifted with strong personalities, a story centered on the notion of sacrifice and addiction, and a cooperation mode that will hopefully prove to be effective, this first contact with Hunted has left us quite optimistic about its potential. While we will have to wait to see if the two types of gameplay will be equally interesting, simply the fact that the game will offer an adventure that can be shared with a friend could make a big difference for many players. It stills remains to be seen if our positive impressions will be confirmed once the controller in hand, but until then, fans of Heroic Fantasy should definitely keep an eye on Hunted: The Demon's Forge.
Now I will leave you with our two interviews of the team behind Hunted: the Demon's Forge so you can learn a bit more about the origins of the game.
Matthew Findley, President, inXile entertainment.
Michael “Maxx” kaufman, Creative director, inXile entertainment.
How difficult was it to launch a new IP in times where publishers usually get cold feet when the game is not a sequel in a big franchise?
Matthew Findley: Because the concept is such a high and simple concept, it actually did not take more than 5 minutes to convince Bethesda of the potential of Hunted. To set a modern action game in a dark fantasy and deep universe was a risk they were willing to take. As a matter of fact, mixing action and fantasy seemed like such a natural thing. The genre is after all responsible for the existence of video games, I mean, Fantasy has been around since the dawn of history. The action games are at their peak rate now, you have them set in space, in World War 2, but there was this whole, a whole we are trying to fill with Hunted.
Will the game will be only action oriented or will there be some RPG elements?
Matthew Findley: The RPG elements are very light, and as invisible to the player as possible. There are still such elements though, like the skill trees, the ability to pick up different swords, axes or bows. There is also gold to be collected, which unlocks other things as well.
When did it become clear that Hunted would have to be a coop game?
Matthew Findley: Well, originally the Dungeons & Dragons pen and paper games were already coop when you think of it. You would play with your friends and wonder what to do after opening the next door etc. So it just seemed like a natural thing. We looked at the other coop games and some really good things have been done so far, but to us, it felt too claustrophobic. All the coop activities you could do, you could only do if you were staying next to your partner, which is why we came up with the idea of coop at distance. We really want to encourage and reward the players for being apart and all the spells and skills are designed with that in mind. In some areas, there’s some elevated platforms where the archer can get up on to give his partner some support. If the players choose to stay side by side, then they can do so. There is no forced split areas per se either.
Michael “Maxx” kaufman: Some of the top-down games were so fun playing with a friend that we definitely wanted to bring some of that experience into Hunted.
Could you tell us more about the “drop in / drop out” feature?
Matthew Findley: In Hunted, anyone can jump in and either bring one of their characters into my game or leave their characters at home and come in and play one of mine. While they’re moving through the various dungeons, if they come in to play with my character, when we go to see the spirit woman Seraphine to spend the crystals and get the skills and spells, I’m going to get to make the decisions because they are my characters.
When you leave and go back to your own game, you get to take the crystals that you found with you. When you go back to your own single player game, you can either throw them away and not use them, if you’re a purist and you just want to find your own crystals in your own game. Or if you want to get advantage, you can simply spend those crystals.
The other element is that, being able to switch from one character to another at each checkpoint is all the more relevant here as the 2 characters are very different from one another. They both have their strengths and weaknesses and different abilities. They each have all 3 skills but Caddoc is for example a lot weaker with the crossbow because he’s a melee character while Elara is the other way around. In magic, they are equal, they have different magic spells but they are equally powerful.
We have been shown the PC version of the game and I’m sure console players will be worried to know if their version will run just as smoothly. What can you tell them?
Matthew Findley: The game has really been designed to be cross platform the entire way. Actually we have been a little shaky on the PC version because the Xbox 360 build seems to run consistently smoother. Except for the little itches you saw here and there during the presentation, I must say, I can’t tell the difference between the PC version and the console version.
Michael “Maxx” kaufman: It’s just been a priority in production, and I find the consoles have a better consistent framerate because you can control what the hardware is. My preferred experience would be on console to be honest.
It is true that playing on a PC can get tricky when things seem to work fine one day and the next it’s all messed up and you can’t figure out why.
Matthew Findley: That’s exactly how these meetings are going (laughs).
How long will it take to complete the game? What about the replay value?
Matthew Findley: I think it’s the same scale and scope as most of modern action games. But, because of the fact that playing through the game as Caddoc is a very different gameplay experience than playing through with Elara, there is much more replay value than in other games of the genre. Plus, with the level of exploration, to find all the secrets, all the secret doors, to talk to all the NPCs, to solve all the puzzles, will take a heck of a lot more time. It will really be up to the player.
Michael “Maxx” kaufman: There’s really a great story and background beside what you saw. In the beginning of the game, you get an ancient artefact, called the deathstone, allowing you to communicate with dead bodies. Your desire to solve this mystery is what drives what these spirits say to you. It is completely optional, the players that love to hear and try to figure out what’s going on in this mystery can get all 500 year background. It is really up to the player how long and how they want to utilize the world.
Thank you very much for your time.
Brian Fargo, CEO, inXile entertainment.
You have a long history in the fantasy genre, could you tell us more about it? Why is this category so important to you?
It is definitely a personal taste thing. I have read so many fantasy novels among which Tolkien obviously, that was always a world I loved. Then I got into computer games with Wizardry and The Bard’s Tale back in the mid eighties and I’ve always played this kind of game. I did Dragon Wars, which was an RPG, Stonekeep which was another RPG and then I ended up doing executive producer in the Baldur Gate’s series, which was top down. Actually my favorite series was Icewind Dale. It’s not that I’m obsessed with dungeons, but it is the exploration and romanticism that go with it. I just love the category and I feel it’s been a long time since we had a good old dungeon crawl back. The RPGs have just gone different places, not bad places, just different places. That’s what this is about. And if the game is more an action game than an RPG, it’s because that lends itself better to the experience.
So that means leaning toward an action game was really your choice and it was not something that was somehow decided by the market?
Well, there are two answers to that. One is that the category itself became action oriented, with for example games like Hexen, Heretic... It’s 2010 now, it’s not the nineties anymore and most of today’s players have never heard of Bard’s Tale before, and they look for a different kind of experience, gameplay-wise. There is this obvious comparison with Gears of War, but, we like the fact that you can pick up the controller, you understand the cover based system, you know how it works and we can get you playing the game in one minute. Then, we start to take you some place else.
Why did you go for the Unreal Engine 3? Did Gears of War influence your choice?
No, not at all. We were already familiar with the Unreal Engine even before Gears of War shipped. It was really more like we wanted to take the technology that could do exactly what we wanted to do. If you’re going to make a flight simulator, maybe Unreal is not so great you know. But for first person or third person forward through dungeons, it was perfect for what we wanted to do.
Will the game be very straight forward? Could you tell us more about the secret areas?
The game is straight forward from the perspective you can pick it up and go right away, but, once you get into it, there are multiple paths, there are puzzles and I think it would be very difficult to impossible to actually see the entire game first time through. There is going to be stuff that’s very subtle and hidden, secret doors, puzzles you won’t figure out the first time. I mean, you don’t have to all figure them out, which is the beauty of game design now. Back then, we could give you a puzzle and you didn’t finish it, you were stuck, dead in the water. You can’t do that today. We could sit and argue about whether it was a good idea or not, the bottom line is, you can’t do that now, so we treat puzzles differently.
Ok, so how do you treat puzzles now?
It works more like a kind of reward system. The thing is, 40% of the puzzles will be easy to figure out for all players, while another 40% will be more challenging. The 20% left will be a lot tougher to solve, very subtle, very clever, but if you succeed, you will get some cool stuff! So the puzzles will never stop progress, but you will be rewarded for solving the difficult ones. You just can’t use puzzles to stop progress so it means there will not even be medium puzzles that stops the player from progressing through the game.
Coming back to the coop gameplay aspect of the game, will regeneration be unlimited or will it depend on the number of potions you carry?
Most games are resource management, so giving infinite amount of everything ruins the gameplay. Regenerating is no different from being able to cast a lightning bolt, you can’t do it infinitely. You must hang on to it, use it in the appropriate places and always be looking for more. It’s part of a reward system too, I mean, when you find a vile, you’re like “Thank god, I needed one”. That tension of needing resources always has to be there.
One more question: will there be any creatures that the player will be able to ride?
Well you know, if there was, I shouldn’t tell you (laughs).
Fair enough, thanks very much.
We would like to thank Brian, Matthew and Michael for their time and kindness. And, vive les crepes!
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