It's not the end of the world! Not in Hunted: The Demon's Forge, anyway, which marks this game out as rather unusual. If there's a common theme among Bethesda Softworks titles it's apocalyptic events causing people to squabble over whatever's left. Whether it's Fallout: New Vegas (nukes), Rage (asteroid) or Brink (flood), it is the end of the world, and you have an interesting, usually rather violent role to play during the death throes.
Hunted doesn't have the same premise or profile as its popular cousins elsewhere in the Bethesda ranks. However, it's easy to see why this game shares the same publishing label: it's got the veteran development team raised by tabletop role-playing, it has the novel mechanics and a dark sense of humour, and it's also modest.
Bethesda videogames seem to like being videogames, and leave the fine-art rants to everyone else. Hunted, with its talking stone doors, burly one-liners and screeching demons, is very much in that vein.
Then again, given that the game begins with demons dragging the villagers of Dyfed underground while 200-foot ogres stalk across red skies of permanent twilight, characters communing with the souls of fallen citizens and angels doling out mission incentives, it probably is the end of the world after all.
At least you're facing it in good company. Hunted is a modern-day co-operative action game inspired by the classic dungeon crawlers of the eighties and nineties. "Gears of Warcraft," jokes inXile president Matt Findley, echoing internet banter since the game's announcement.
It sees mercenaries Caddoc (think Jason Statham with a sword) and Elara (a haughty female Legolas with virtually no clothes on) descending on the town of Dyfed at the behest of a shifty-looking apparition called Seraphine. Turns out the place is abandoned and at the mercy of demons, one of whom is seen ripping the heart out of the last surviving townsman. Caddoc and Elara chase the demon underground and off we go.
Each character has distinctive strengths and weaknesses. Caddoc is fierce in close quarters, with light and heavy sword attacks and a shield-charge. Elara is inch-perfect with her slightly aim-assisted bow, popping in and out of cover and dispatching anyone Caddoc isn't dealing with.
The need to co-operate, though, immediately goes beyond simple strength of numbers and revival duties, although they obviously exist as a baseline (a regen vial allows either party to resurrect a comrade from across the room, so no Gears of War-style revival chores). Each character can "battle charge" the other to buff them but if they charge each other then they form a sort of electrical tether, making short work of anyone swept up by it.
Co-op is also drawn out by specific enemies and level design. Berserkers won't stay down under Caddoc's blows alone, while others have shields that deflect his blows and need Elara's arrows to break their guard.
Rather like the first Gears of War the action seems to move between narrow rat-runs that let you gather your wits, explore a bit and chill out, and open, set-piece battle arenas. These are often strewn with natural cover, balconies and other vantage points that suit each character in different ways. It's all part of what game director Maxx Kaufman calls "this dance of their co-op differences".
It's gory and grown-up but it wouldn't work played straight (goblins, after all, lack pathos), so instead it's dry and world-weary. There are execution moves and the first time Elara does one with her bow it prompts Caddoc to complain, in his Stath-like cockney, "Did you need to put it in his eye?"
"Ehh," sighs Elara. "It got the job done. I was just being creative." Elara seems to get the best lines. See also, "If I didn't know better, I'd say that giant eye is giving away our position."
A lot of the humour stems from the imprisoned townspeople you encounter. One comes running out of a door and yells, "Take cover! They're coming!" before catching a flaming arrow in the back. He spends the rest of the scene running around screaming and burning while you mull over which shield to pick up.
Prisoners are a bit like loot in some cases - you can save them if you're observant and apparently this will have implications later in the game. At one stage in the demo Elara saves a man hanging by his wrists. He thanks her and complains that it's all so horrible, etc., at which point a giant spider smashes through the wall and drags him away again. Kaufman says that the fun thing about prisoners is that they often run off ahead and trigger traps. Silly prisoners!
There are other secrets and puzzles to discover, some of which will be quite tricky to solve. We've only seen easy ones so far but they're framed nicely. A giant stone head with a fiery eye stands to one side in a room and addresses you: "Stand before me and fill me with the fire of your courage - to light the path ahead." So you shoot it in the other eye and it crumbles apart to let you through.
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Devils may cry.
inXile's game director on forging all those demons.
E'lara lorra laughs.
Elsewhere a skull on a fireplace drawls something about becoming whole again so you go off and find his bones, then light an adjacent fireplace with a flaming arrow to open another door.
Hunted also looks great, with inXile well in command of Unreal Engine 3. id Software-owning Bethesda will probably feel a little weird signing those royalty cheques for Epic, but it's in service to a good cause. Characters are beefy and convincing and the world is detailed and polished already. It's very comfortable with long sight lines and spectacular views, the camera shifting to stare down past Elara into a ravine as she sidles along a ledge, and framing a massive ogre as it prowls in the distance.
Findley and Kaufman won't say if you get to square off against the ogre but we do see one boss fight against a demonic, harpy-like creature with Doc Ock tentacles and fireballs. It takes a battle charge from Elara to bring Caddoc in close, where he mashes buttons to wrestle the thing's head long enough for Elara to line up an arrow to the exposed neck. The head comes off, fire erupts from the stump and its corpse explodes and vanishes.
Hunted: The Demon's Forge is looking violent, deceptively thoughtful and witty. The world may not need another cover shooter, and may not realise it wants more dungeon crawlers, but it's hard to argue with what we're seeing.
"I read somewhere recently that co-op is a fad," says Matt Findley with a look of puzzlement. "We haven't even begun to make co-op games." Well, this looks like decent preparation.
Hunted: The Demon's Forge is due out for PC, PS3 and Xbox 360 in early 2011.