It's not that long since we last (and first) saw Hunted: The Demon's Forge. When we were introduced to the game then, studio founder Brian Fargo announced his intention to revive the classic fantasy dungeon crawl; his colleagues Matt Findley and Maxx Kaufman showed us the muscular third-person action game, designed around two-player co-op, that they were marrying it with.
But we didn't see the union of the two, not quite. The demo showed off the co-op interplay between melee warrior Caddoc and elven ranger Elara; the simple character advancement in which new skills are bought for crystals; the way the two characters can use magic offensively or to "battle charge" each other with magical buffs; and the intense combat with its familiar cover system and shields that are destroyed with use. Mostly, it showed us a linear, breathless charge from set-piece to set-piece. Hunted's simple but unusual combination of two gaming staples - the dark fantasy milieu and the cinematic action game - grabbed the easy headlines.
The roots Fargo had been so keen to point out were obscured, although it was easy enough to take the game's credentials as a dungeon crawl on trust, given the Interplay veterans standing in the room. But Findley and Kaufman are back with a new demo intended to correct any possible misconceptions. They do so simply and cleverly, by showing us half an hour of live co-op gameplay during which they make little actual progress through the game's storyline.
Exploration, distraction, sub-questing, riddles and loot. Here on the screen are the aspects of Hunted we didn't really see last time, the parts of its make-up it doesn't share with the Uncharteds and Gears it superficially appears to ape. Every good dungeon crawl has to feature rewarding excursions off the beaten path, and Hunted is no different.
It is less dingy than most, however. When Elara and Caddoc make their way past a satanic altar with its regulation corpse-pile, it's set by a picturesque waterfall. For the first half of the demo, they're exploring ruins in the open air, crumbling sandstone exposed to the elements and overrun with vegetation, tropical birdsong echoing around.
The sunshine doesn't last, but that's only because Elara inadvisably touches a green crystal skull on a pedestal that might as well be labelled "press here for punishment of greed, hubris and impetuosity". The skies darken and glower, the earth shakes, pillars crumble and the pair find themselves in a tight, interesting combination of combat set-piece and puzzle.
Two giant gargoyles high on either side of a clearing are summoning skeletal warriors. The skeletons are fairly easily dispatched, but they keep coming, and a tougher armoured variant starts hammering our heroes from an inaccessible ballista. Caddoc gives Elara a "battle charge" of lightning magic, enhancing her shots enough to take care of the bombardier; he then needs to keep the skeletons off her back while she shoots ropes to bring down a walkway that grants access to the ballista, which can then be used to destroy the gargoyles and stem the undead flood.
Kaufman and Findley talk a little to co-ordinate the scrap - Caddoc needs to be revived from death at one point, which can be done by lobbing a potion from range according to inXile's "co-op at a distance" mantra. But Caddoc and Elara are quite chatty too, with vocal cues ("Elara, shoot the ropes to bring down that walkway!") clearly directing the adventurers to the next stage of the fight.
It turns out this isn't an over-zealous, puzzle-ruining help system; the exclamations are actually triggered by one player spotting something in the environment and using a look command. It's a neat, disbelief-suspending communication tool. When the fight is done, a little banter between the leads lets you know who performed best.
At a checkpoint, Kaufman and Findley switch characters - this is also where you can buy new abilities for them - and it's time to leave the narrative path behind. Using the legendary Deathstone to speak to corpses reveals story details, hints and optional quests, and one dead soldier spinning a riddle about the final resting place of a king and his "axe of magic". (Part of inXile's revival of the dungeon crawl is a cheery and quite lovable embrace of fantasy cliché.)
They wander off to find the tomb, with vocal cues, triggered by the fact they listened to the Deathstone, again used as hints as they get warmer. Although the riddle itself is slightly obtuse, it's nice to see a modern action game ask its players to solve a linguistic challenge, and the reward, a hefty cleaver for Caddoc to use, is well worth the head-scratching.
They smash through some more skeletons as they move on. Caddoc shows off his brutal shield dash and Elara lights her arrows in a flaming brazier - these are among the special skills each can learn in their primary combat role. They can carry multiple primary weapons, but even their secondaries - Caddoc's bow and Elara's blade - can be upgraded.
Barely are the two back on the narrative treadmill than they fall into a pit and discover a candle-lit chamber. Only if you examine a vial here will you discover that a statue can be pushed aside, revealing an entire mini-dungeon less attentive players will sail past.
It's dank and very dark, Elara using her fire-arrows to light the way. Combat is brief and rare, with careful exploration revealing a multi-stage puzzle involving water levels, statues, levers, bridges and another riddle; it's almost Zelda-esque. There's more loot at the end of it, but a monster smashes through the wall at ends the demo before it can be claimed.
"We want everyone to stop and look around and think a little bit," says Findley. "We've been dumbing games down for 20 years, we're trying to smarten them up." On this evidence, Hunted is hardly a towering intellectual challenge, but we know what he means. Whether in the meandering, riddling side-quests or the trunk-road set-piece that starts the demo, this is a game where there is always more than meets the eye, rather than, as is so often the case, less.
It's fairly simple stuff, but it's also impressive on several levels: the smoothness with which players are led off the garden path, the amount of stuff there is to find when they do, the level of care and polish invested in content many players will never see, and above all the pacing - the way quiet, deliberate exploration, intense battles, more isolated combat and puzzle-solving are all folded into each other. inXile now has until the first quarter of next year to polish it further, too.
But the most striking thing about Hunted remains that no-one has really done it before. It's an obvious concept played straight, and you feel like you must have played it before, like it's just the latest entry in a well-worn genre or long-lived series. But you haven't, and it isn't. Then again, perhaps that long-lost-friend familiarity is exactly what Fargo wanted to kindle by bringing the dungeon crawl back - and with this demo, inXile has made that plain as day.
Hunted: The Demon's Forge will be released for PC, Xbox 360 and PS3 in the first quarter (January to March) of 2011.