Dragon's Dogma Preview: Of Inhuman Bondage

Capcom's ambitious role-player makes slavery its key selling point.

Stop me if you've heard this one before. A terrible dragon has returned to a blighted kingdom, leaving its citizens superstitious and frightened. To challenge this resurrected threat comes just one person - you, as it happens - destined from birth to battle the monster.

You may be called the Arisen rather than Dragonborn, and you may be defying one dragon rather than many, but you sense it's still going to be hard for some players to see past the surface similarities with Bethesda's all-conquering Skyrim when the time comes for Capcom to sell their vast openworld adventure on the merits of its story.

This is a tricky time for a third-person RPG to stand out. Not only does the brutal spectre of Dark Souls still hover over the genre, setting a gruelling standard in player expectation, but any new entry must also fight for attention against the likes of Kingdoms of Amalur, The Witcher 2 and Risen 2. Luckily for Capcom, Dragon's Dogma has a secret weapon: porn.

Sorry, pawns. (I solemnly promise that's the last time I'll resort to an easy porn/pawn gag.)

Pawns, you see, are Dragon's Dogma's way of handling party members, and also a way of suggesting online co-op play without letting other people intrude on your single-player experience.

As the Arisen, you have a unique ability to summon and command pawns from their mysterious netherworld. These poor creatures, also called Myrmidons in an almost-accurate nod to Greek myth, may look and sound human, but they have no animus of their own. Left to their own devices, we're told, they'd simply stand in one place and die. They must be commanded and told what to do. They are, in other words, NPCs.

Except Capcom has something more interesting in mind for these AI drones. During the game you'll have just one pawn who is bound to you. This is your sidekick, essentially, and you'll have full control over their appearance, their class type, their weapons and skills. You can sit them down for a chat and field questions that will determine their behaviour in combat.

The shoulder buttons allow you to hop between combat skills quickly and easily.

Despite being told how passive these creatures are, once you're out in the world it's surprising how proactive they can be, and it's this thirst for knowledge that makes the pawns a potentially revolutionary feature.

Your pawn will seek out objects of interest, and collect any gold or items it finds. They'll grab weakened enemies, holding them still while you attack, or else come to your aid when you're struggling. More intriguingly, your pawn will also work out the best tactics for fighting the various creatures that stand in your way, and pay attention to what needs to be done to complete specific quests.

The payoff for this is an AI companion that plays almost like a real person. There's a species of lizard warrior that inhabits the waterside areas of the map. They're tough, until you work out their weakness. Chances are, it'll be your pawn that works it out first, calling out to tell you that attacking the tail significantly reduces the creature's poise and armour.

That's clever enough, but Dragon's Dogma uses online features to make it particularly noteworthy. As well as your main pawn, you're able to hire up to two others, making up the obligatory RPG party of four. These additional pawns are summoned from the ether, and can either be drawn from the game's existing selection of thousands, or borrowed from other players.

Yes, you can share your pawn, hiring them out in exchange for gold. Every time you rest at an inn, everything your pawn has gained is uploaded to the game's server. Every new skill and, crucially, every new piece of information. So you can take advantage of the experience of another player, with their pawn giving you quest hints and combat tactics learned through actual gameplay, while others benefit from your discoveries.

In the game's limbo-style auction house, you can search for pawns by various criteria, and even bookmark ones that catch your eye if you can't afford their services just yet. You can even use Facebook to market your pawn, or to put out a request to the community.

It's not quite as ingenious as the asynchronous co-op features of Dark Souls, and the Facebook stuff breaks the fourth wall a little, but it's still incredibly promising. It's also slightly creepy, as the pawns are depicted as no different to normal humans. This makes the slavery aspect a tad problematic - the game's blood and death setting being somewhat less jovial than the friendly bondage of Pokemon, for example - but it seems that the larger story will at least address the moral questions raised by treating living creatures as resources, and may even make them a key part of your journey.

The gameworld has been built using Capcom's MT Framework engine, as seen in Lost Planet 2 and Resident Evil 5.

That's not to say Dragon's Dogma is going to be a slouch in other areas. Combat is fast and fluid, benefiting from a nicely balanced control map that allows you to swap between different skillsets in an instant. Play as a strider, the game's thief/rogue class, and you can switch from speedy dagger attacks to bow and arrow and back again with a few button presses. There's an echo of Fable's boundary-free skill-swapping combat here, and it makes battles feel much more dynamic and improvisational.

That flexibility is essential, as while Dragon's Dogma doesn't have the punishing difficulty of Dark Souls, it shares a similar fondness for bloodying your nose should you try to get ahead of yourself, tackling quests and areas beyond your capabilities. A little more ambient information about when you're straying past those boundaries might be useful - I spent a long time smashing my face against one story quest before learning I was a good ten levels away from being up to the task - but for those who prefer a gritty climb rather than the smoothly greased ascent of Skyrim, it should provide a solid challenge.

Dragon's Dogma likely won't be the prettiest RPG of the year, and its stark functional menus betray its Japanese roots, but as more games begin to bump up against the boundaries of accepted genre design, it'll be the ones with the best ideas that stand out. On that score Dragon's Dogma should definitely have a head start when it launches next month.

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