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Why the new Gauntlet is wise to keep things simple

Four's company.

Valkyrie... is about to diet. Enforced dieting. Starvation, you might call it, and it's sort of Valkyrie's fault. Early on in the dungeon, the monsters came slowly and the food was everywhere. Valkyrie gorged. But then things got tougher, her health took a battering, and she was always a second or five too slow to get to the turkey legs whenever the opportunity presented itself.

A dungeon crawler tuned for the chaos of four players battling against ridiculous odds and occasionally - accidentally, hopefully - battling against each other, Gauntlet doesn't sound too hard to get right. It's so simple, isn't it? But, much like the matter of getting to those turkey legs before they've all been eaten up, that simplicity is deceptive. Sequels to the 1985 original have struggled to improve upon it, and some have often missed the mark completely.

The new Gauntlet has a better than average chance of success, however. It's the first release from Warner Bros' new Vault initiative, which sees its arcade classics - which are generally Midway's arcade classics - reworked as snappy little digitally distributed games, yours for keeps for a small fee. Gauntlet comes with Arrowhead Game Studios as developer, which feels like a distinct advantage. That's the Arrowhead who made Magicka, the dial-a-spell dungeon crawler that offers the kind of hectic multiplayer chaos that fans of Gauntlet will already be familiar with.

It was Magicka that got Arrowhead the deal, in fact. "It came from one of those weird meeting things that happens at games conferences," says art director Rob Tatnell. "Our CEO and one of the designers were there, and Warner Bros said, 'Hey, we really enjoyed Magicka. Let's have a chat.' They told us they had these old IPs that we might want to look at. We went through the list and some of them might have been kind of fun, and then they said, 'Oh, we also have this other game. You might have heard of it. Gauntlet?' The guys just looked at each other and there was this moment: Aww, don't lose your cool amongst all these suits! It just grew from that."

The secret to resurrecting a classic, as far as Arrowhead tells it, is to understand what made it a classic in the first place. That underlying simplicity isn't an invitation to build complexity - it's the sole reason the whole thing works. Beneath the chunky 3D artwork, this is Gauntlet as a 1980s school kid might have recognised it, then: choose your hero, vacuum up loot, and whack as many meanies as you can while you work from one room to the next.

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The heroes are the classics. There's Elf and Wizard for ranged combat and Valkyrie and Warrior for melee; each comes with its own duo of basic attacks and a special that really lays on the damage. The Valkyrie can chuck its shield about, Captain America-style, while the Warrior can spin around, blade whirling, like a sparking Roomba of death. The Wizard's a lot more technical than the others - you piece your spells together using a three-button system that feels like a simplified version of Magicka's approach - but all heroes tend to compliment each other, and the game's balanced so that you can fight the horde by yourself if you haven't got three friends, online or on the couch, to back you up.

It's astonishing to play the new Gauntlet and see how wordlessly a team learns to operate together, sending out a few treasure collectors while others shoot from a distance. Beyond that, keys and locks and spawners return. There are never enough keys for all the locks, making for tricky choices, and there's always someone who forgets to head straight for the spawner and lets the room fill with monsters. Sorry about that.

All of this is great, and it's nice to see that Arrowhead's still really working to nail the details - the argument du jour revolves around how friendly fire should work, with the current solution suggesting it should only be turned on for Relics, equippable weapons that you pick up in the dungeons. As far as I'm concerned, though, the thing that makes Gauntlet such an exciting prospect now is the thing that made it such an exciting prospect back in the 1980s: Arrowhead has nailed the skeletal crunch of combat - that magical moment at which blade meets baddie and you feel amazing. This is the heart of Gauntlet. Good to have it back again.

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