Co-op fantasy monster-masher Hunted: The Demon's Forge lands this summer, yet I bet your knowledge of it is still fuzzy and disorganised. Maybe you've read our preview with inExile founder Brian Fargo talking about how the game is "bringing the classic dungeon crawl back". Perhaps you've heard the community chatter that dubs the game "Gears of Warcraft". Maybe you've looked at a picture of it and thought: breasts! And who could blame you? If I were Brian Fargo, I'd have called the game Bones 'n Breasts, in a classy nod to 1988 classic Ghouls 'n Ghosts.
While Hunted definitely carries the tone of an old-school fantasy romp, and it certainly does resemble Gears of War in its camera, scale and cover system, my point is that I bet you don't even know the plot of Hunted, or quite what it's like to play. Last week Bethesda invited Eurogamer to play the opening of the game, plus a much later level with some upgraded characters, so I can finally report that Hunted's plot is every bit as cheesy, dramatic and eager-to-please as you might have hoped.
Hunted's first level sees protagonists Caddoc the human and E'lara the elf, who resemble ALL THAT IS MAN and ALL THAT IS LADY respectively, hiking through the wilderness on a quest to locate an ancient ruin. After a brief encounter with some chitinous creatures the size of wheelie bins designed to teach you the basics of using your crossbow or bow and the game's cover system, the pair find what they were looking for: a massive fountain of opaque blue water, which will fill more than enough mana potions for their "client". Following the example of the best fantasy heroes, it's revealed that Caddoc and E'lara are in this for the money.
It's here that the rickety rollercoaster of Hunted's plot begins its downward acceleration. Right next to the fountain is a mammoth stone door, covered in ominous engravings. E'lara, by far the more suicidal of the two, suggests they see what's behind it. World-weary Caddoc comments sarcastically about the wisdom of opening doors covered in scary faces, but they open it anyway.
It's on the other side of it, at the top of a breathtakingly beautiful gorge wreathed in waterfalls and thick foliage, that the scene is set. A portal opens and out steps a woman with pupil-less eyes, skin the colour of poisoned milk and an outfit that leaves one thing to the imagination: how she got into it. Introducing herself as Seraphim (and voiced by Lucy Lawless), the lady requests that Caddoc picks up a small, dark stone on the pedestal next to her, referring to it as a "Death Stone".
Understandably, Caddoc has some doubts about the whole situation. Professional mentalcake E'lara does not, however, and snatches the thing up, thereby attracting the ire of some kind of terrible demon, empurpling the entire valley and sparking the sky into a broiling tub of lightning. It's from here that the game's action would appear to stem from, with cities abruptly finding themselves besieged by whole armies of nasty creatures.
Or perhaps the whole death stone thing turns out to just be a side-plot. It's that kind of game.
It's also the kind of game where you could happily get by without knowing precisely what's going on, and of greater importance is whether the sword that just came cartwheeling out of the weapon rack you just smashed is better than the sword you're carrying. Or, to put it another way, it's the kind of game where you remove weapons from perfectly functional weapon racks by smashing them.
On the subject of Hunted's easy-going design, both Caddoc and E'lara can swap between melee weapons, their ranged weapon and magical combat at the touch of a button, though this doesn't feel immediately tactical as much as it does entertaining. While Caddoc specialises in melee combat and E'lara bow is much faster than Caddoc's crossbow, the two of you can go scything into a mass of enemies with whatever close-combat weapons you have equipped, one of you could provide long-range fire support for the other, or the person playing Caddoc could use magic to Battle Charge E'lara, causing her arrows to blow up enemies like fleshy grenades.
Once you consider that each of the characters can be upgraded with nine very different magical abilities (which can in turn be upgraded further), you get combat with more of an emphasis on reacting than playing by any hard and fast rules. Half-way through my time with Hunted my co-op partner and I had developed a tactic of our own: placing my upgraded Sigil of Pain on the ground, goading a load of enemies onto it, and then keeping them there with our sword and mace like riot officers enforcing the world's smallest kettle.
But where Hunted's combat seemed happy to keep things simple, its environment was a little trickier, with secrets, puzzles, traps and even side-quests. This peaked with a trip through a stereotypical fantasy sewer, containing as it did barely any water and architecture that included (but was not limited to) an eight-foot tall stone face that spoke in riddles, poison arrow traps and a haunted crypt.
With the exception of one very brief ambush by a giant spider, it was this entirely optional crypt that proved the highlight of our session when its guardian showed up - an eight-foot tall animated skeleton who demanded something resembling teamwork. He caused such crippling melee damage that more than once we had to use our limited number of revive potions, which work in an excellently heroic way - you simply throw them at your downed ally, allowing them to break nearby in a flash of blue light.
All told, Hunted's looking like a fun dungeon crawler after all, and we still know barely anything about the "Crucible" mode where you'll be spending all your gold looted during the campaign. All inXile is saying at the moment is that it'll be a "Map generator". Randomly generated dungeons, with build parameters unlocked by your cash? Or random dungeons of varying difficulty, with your gold used to buy equipment? A full-on map editor? We'll have to wait and see.