Hunted: The Demon's Forge
Brian Fargo's inXile resurrects the dungeon crawler.
Brian Fargo. It sounds like the name of an Old West gold prospector. It's true that this veteran of the 1980s California development scene - founder of Interplay, and so publisher of the Fallout games - doesn't really look that part, preppy and trim in his Orange County casual-smart-casual. But he can't resist opening his unveiling of his studio's latest game by schooling us kids in a potted history of the great gaming gold rush.
Hunted: The Demon's Forge is the new game from inXile, the studio Fargo founded with other refugees from Interplay's sinking ship, in part to revisit its glory days - its first project was to remake his classic role-playing game, The Bard's Tale. Hunted is being published by current Fallout stewards Bethesda Softworks and is, in Fargo's words, "bringing the classic dungeon crawl back".
This genre, Fargo tells us, has its roots in Dungeons & Dragons and the earliest days of computer programming. He namechecks Lord British (doesn't even think to call him Richard Garriott), Wizadry (which he personally became addicted to in the early eighties), Bard's Tale, Ultima, Might & Magic and Dungeon Master. He sprints into the nineties and notes a trend towards action in Ultima Underworld, the first Elder Scrolls game, Hexen and Heretic.
It's all useful context, if only because the game Fargo and his colleagues Matt Findley (president) and Maxx Kaufman (game director) proceed to show us bears little surface resemblance to any of the above. It's a muscular third-person action game designed around two-player co-op play, with brutal melee combat, ranged shooting through a tight over-the-shoulder camera, a clean display, scripted set-pieces and a cover system. Apart from some fairly standard dark-fantasy trappings, it looks like a lot of games Fargo doesn't mention: Uncharted, Gears of War and Army of Two spring to mind.
It's not as much of a non sequitur as you might think. As Fargo's already said, the dungeon crawl - a genre he thinks of as distinct from the role-playing game, although the two often join hands - has been on a crawl of its own towards action gaming for its entire existence. And the action game is the current home of co-operative play, which, Findley expounds later, was part of the dungeon-delving experience in its earliest days, and a part inXile is keen to resurrect.
"The origins of the genre do come from D&D, and D&D was a co-op gameplay experience, right?" Findley argues. "It was me and my mates sitting on the couch, against the DM [Dungeon Master], and we were collectively deciding how we were going to go and do things. So it seems like a very natural fit for us."
It's absolutely the essence rather than the details of the old-school dungeon crawl that inXile is going for, however. Although there's a little light character progression invovled, you won't ever be concerned with stats or dice-rolls, and you won't be rolling your own spin on either of the heroes - curvaceous, bloodthirsty elf archer Elara or Caddoc, a calculating, scarred lump of muscle and testosterone behind a shield.
"I think if you spend the first 20 minutes of gameplay rolling up your character it's going to be a little hard to feel like an action game," says Findley. "And plus we really believe in character development and characters with strong personalities, so they almost had to be our characters to begin with."
The pair banter crudely in rough British accents in the placeholder voice-over as they enter the town of Dyfed, sent on a mission there by a mysterious spirit called Seraphine - which is about as much of the plot as inXile is prepared to reveal at the moment. The scene, rendered in the familiar moody sheen of the Unreal engine, is reminiscent of Dragon Age - a deserted medieval village under lowering skies, and a crazed grey-skinned orc ripping out some poor soul's heart. "That's no bloody good," observes Caddoc, sounding oddly like Bob Hoskins.