You've got to feel sorry for new IP: we bleat for it all the time, then Capcom whips the covers off its first-ever open world game, a titan-slaying adventure of breathtaking scope. And then people say "Monster Hunter meets Demon's Souls, innit."
The comparisons aren't without basis: many games - Monster Hunter, Oblivion, Demon's Souls, and Shadow of the Colossus - are influences here. But Dragon's Dogma is no patchwork, and casting it as a simple blend of what's gone before doesn't illuminate a game that plays differently from any of them.
On offer in this latest hands-on is a dungeon section from near the game's beginning, and a Griffin boss fight, each played with a different class - the warrior for the former (sword and shield) and the strider for the latter (bow and daggers). You play a character called Arisen – urgh – trying to hunt down the dragon who's bound to his heart: this eponymous sod gives Arisen instructions throughout the game, hence the title, but at this point you're just chasing it down.
The setting is a castle filled with goblins, harpies and various other nasties, but before any of that there's a shrine that can be used to summon 'Pawns' - teammates with a twist. Three AI-controlled Pawns follow you around, and though they have moments of idiocy there are far more where their teamwork is helpful and smart. With Arisen a warrior class, the game auto-selected a mage, warrior and strider to battle alongside.
The mage Pawn was constantly healing the party, and applying the appropriate buffs and debuffs to weapons and armour (all of which are represented visually) mid-battle. The second warrior, meanwhile, made himself useful by constantly taunting larger enemies, leaving Arisen free to do the damage. Left on autopilot the Pawns work well, and you can issue general commands to control their aggression: at the moment they're basically an automatic assist, but the depth of combat Dragon's Dogma aspires to suggests there's much more to come.
Including multiplayer, perhaps, though there's no firm news on co-operative play. But the Pawns have an interesting role to play online - each is persistent, and can be levelled up and equipped. Specific Pawns 'owned' by you can be summoned into another player's game, and adventure with that player - and they'll learn from what they see on their travels.
This means a player might take them somewhere hidden or new: and the next time you play with that Pawn and near the same spot, they'll remember and tell you about it, warning of traps and leading you to secrets the other player found. The Pawn will also level up while playing in the other game, and return to you with a share of the loot - which is surely the most lip-licking prospect.
Combat is built around weak and heavy attacks, which can be modified with the right trigger, and Arisen's grab move. The Monster Hunter comparison is shallow: Dragon's Dogma's fights are quicker affairs, much more chaotic, and the cannon fodder enemies are a bigger deal here. In Monster Hunter the smaller monsters are irrelevant scenery the vast majority of the time: here Arisen's band moves from fight to fight, barrelling into hefty groups of goblins that at least put up a resistance before the inevitable.
The grab can be used to toss pots and exploding barrels (yes, really) at packs of goblins, or in the thick of things you can hold an enemy while a buddy slashes away. But by far its most exciting application comes with the bigger monsters - which Arisen can grab onto and climb around. And for 'bigger,' best read 'gigantic'.
The focal points of Dragon's Dogma are these boss creatures. The trailers released so far have crammed in a dizzying number, from a town-dwarfing hydra to the scarlet dragon of the title. There's a glimpse of the latter at the start of our demo - a hulking, crouched mass in a cavern that, on approach, shatters the silence with an earth-rending scream and incinerates a spot too close for comfort. It's just a tease, but the muscular grace and sheer bulk of this beast makes Rathalos look like a terrier.
In this demo the boss enemy is a Chimera, and though it's ten times the size of Arisen it's a small enemy after the size of that dragon. The Chimera has the head of a goat, the head of a lion, and a serpent's head for a tail, each with a different attack – and it's all climbable. The developers feign innocence when asked about the obvious Shadow of the Colossus comparison, but it isn't a surprise they've lifted such a great idea from Team Ico's masterpiece: but what is surprising is that no-one's done it this well before. Whatever else there is to say about SotC, it makes killing things - the heat of the moment, the blade plunging into flesh - feel amazing, and the biggest part of that is the clambering you had to do to get there.
Dragon's Dogma's system is, in these early stages at least, more back-and-forth than sustained clinging - circling the Chimera, it's all about waiting for the instant to jump in, grab hold, stab like a madman as it thrashes around, and then get away fast. A second part of the demo showcased a fight against a Griffin (already dispatched by Wesley) where grabbing would see it take flight, a much more dangerous game and reminiscent of one of SotC's very finest battles.
The animations here are the best in Dragon's Dogma, the creature's lithe and snarling form writhing to get an angle to strike at you, while Arisen clutches grimly at its hide and balances for the next strike. Though there's a stamina metre in play, it drains and refills at a faster rate than that of SotC, encouraging you to find quick purchase and attack rather than fine-tuning a position.
As in Monster Hunter, these larger beasts have limbs and armour that can be broken off or damaged, enraging the creature but narrowing their potency. In the case of the Chimera its snake-headed tail, which poisons on hit, is a bit of a bore so - clinging grimly to its furry bumhole - I severed it. The thing went nuts but, after weathering that storm by bravely running away, the offense it had left was much poorer. Its mane could also be 'shattered', which noticeably increased the number values ticking up after each blow (and lopping off the goat's head locked its magic).
Numbers: Dragon's Dogma has a few. Every time you hit an enemy, a numerical damage value pops out of their body and floats upwards for a second or two. In this dank and serious environment it's a very gamey touch, but a great tool for a player – it instantly communicates what your equipment and spell changes are doing in battle (the magic types in particular are polarised dramatically), and in the case of the larger fights lets you quickly work out where best to concentrate fire.
It's a reminder that, for all the swordplay and monster wrestling, Dragon's Dogma is an RPG - and an open world one at that. Judging by the menu screens, both in-game and at the point where Pawns were summoned, there's a bevvy of loot waiting to be dropped, and a brief glance of branching skilltrees suggests the currently three classes will have plenty of ways to diverge even further.
There are bits of the game that don't look great: the characters too often seem to float on surfaces, especially on inclines, and at the moment everything clips through everything. Dragon's Dogma also has camera problems: it's not terrible, but it's far too prone to flicking sideways randomly during battles. This is especially true when using the lock-on in tight spaces, but such rough edges will surely be smoothed away by the time of a 2012 release. Or to put it a less kind way, if they're not then Dragon's Dogma will be stillborn.
For a while, I wouldn't read A Song of Ice and Fire because the books looked a bit like The Lord of the Rings, and I've always found those a potent sleeping draught. Never judge a book by its cover. Dragon's Dogma looks a bit like Monster Hunter and Demon's Souls and all those other games - but it doesn't play like them. How its combination of giant boss fights and open-world adventuring work together remains to be seen, but it deserves to be thought of as more than a casserole. With at least a year till release, what Capcom's largest-ever development team are building on these solid foundations is a mouth-watering prospect. "Never laugh at dragons," said Tolkien, and he could have added 'lest ye get burned.'