Third-person action game Hunted: The Demon's Forge sees developer inXile Entertainment, the LA-based studio behind 2005's The Bard's Tale, combine its love for three elements - dark fantasy, cover-based action and co-operative multiplayer. In essence, the game is Gears Of War meets the fantasy genre, uniting fast-paced, modern action with old school, dungeon-crawl puzzle solving. Hunted, published by Bethesda Softworks, also has a heavy focus on co-operative gameplay, with two players able to take on the mantle of fantasy world mercenaries, Caddoc and E'lara, on a quest featuring monsters, magic and very skimpy outfits. Digital Spy had some hands on time with Hunted: The Demon's Forge to see if two's company, or three's a crowd.
At a demo session in London, we played the opening prologue of the game, acting as a scene-setter and tutorial section. The opening title sequence sweeps across the vast fantasy kingdom, as a variety of curious looking people busy about their daily lives. The sequence, backed by a rather resounding score, ends in a cave as the player assumes control of the grumpy Caddoc - voiced by Graham McTavish, who will soon appear as Dwalin in Peter Jackson's forthcoming movie adaptation of The Hobbit. The voice of a distant temptress urges Caddoc to walk deeper into the cave, brushing aside the massive spider webs with his flaming torch. Eventually, he is confronted by a busty temptress called Serafin - played by Xena: Warrior Princess star Lucy Lawless - before a massive demon rears up, spitting fire and brimstone. But wait, what a surprise - it was all a dream and Caddoc actually wakes up next to a campfire with E'lara, the beautiful elf who is his constant - if not always overly harmonious - companion.
Continuing the prologue section, the player then takes control of E'lara, who is less powerful than Caddoc and can wield only lighter weapons, but is in contrast nimbler and better with the bow. Controls are standard third-person fair - moving around is handled with the control sticks, while interaction at key points is done with the B button. The right trigger handles the bow (Caddoc has a crossbow) and there are buttons for heavy and light attacks with a variety of weapons. Clicking down on the left stick lights a breadcrumb trail to show where to go next if you get stuck, similarly to the Fable series. Combat is pretty satisfying, hacking away at little crab weevils or reanimated skeletons with swords or axes feels solid and satisfying. Using the bow is also well handled, with shots feeling accurate and punchy.
It's abundantly clear that the inXile team has played a lot of modern shooters, as there are roots to many other games in Hunted, most notably the Gears of War series. The cover system is almost directly lifted from Epic's all conquering shooter, including options to snap into cover and then vault over low objects. There are also clear links to shooters in the targeting system and the game rather runs the risk of mish-mashing these modern action elements with the fantasy genre. However, the mix actually rather works, with the introduction of tried and tested gameplay features making sense, especially with the heavy focus on co-op. Combining heavy blows from Caddoc with distance attacks from E'lara feels satisfying, while there are also plenty of sequences in which the two players must work together to beat a variety of environmental puzzle. Other co-op features are available too; such as being able to throw health vials to teammates to give a boost during frantic combat.
There are nuances to mastering each character's combat abilities and switching between the heavy hitting Caddoc and the faster E'lara adds much needed variety. Weapons can also be constantly exchanged, either by smashing weapon racks or looting fallen enemies. Special weapons that have extra abilities become available periodically throughout the campaign. For example, the spirit of a dead villager told the duo that he had lost his axe close by. The players then had to work together to light a pyre with a burning arrow, triggering a secret bridge which enabled Caddoc to get across and retrieve the axe. Using the axe was pleasingly brutal, with the ability to freeze enemies and then shatter them into tiny pieces.
Moving further into the prologue triggers another meeting with Serafin, who acts as a sort of guide character during the campaign, albeit one that should not be totally trusted. The temptress also opens up the magic and upgrade system, enabling the duo to access a range of different powers. After the meeting, Caddoc and E'lara fell down into a cave, as a horde of skeletons stormed in, giving ample opportunity to try out the new powers. Using a magic called Dragon's Breath, Caddoc was able to make light work of the bony beasts with a BioShock-style electricity blast. The magic system is certainly not overly original, but it's pretty satisfying to use and hopefully there will be a wide range of powers to try out. Serafin acts a merchant for buying upgrades to magic and abilities, which are managed using a light RPG screen, similar to the God Of War series. inXile said that all weapons can be upgraded, while the look of Caddoc and E'lara can also be changed, in case players are not overly keen on the fetish scene.
The graphics in Hunted's cinematic cut scenes are certainly impressive, being beautifully rendered and presented, but the levels are less impressive, having a slightly plastic texture that maybe needs a few more layers of polish. The character models are good, though, and the range of enemies and environments appears strong. inXile has just announced that the co-op system will support local split-screen, as well as online, which is a strong addition. Co-operative gameplay seems to work very similarly to last year's surprise hit Lara Croft And The Guardian of Light. We tried out some reasonably satisfying light environmental puzzles in the early stages, but hopefully these will become much more complex as the game progresses.
Hunted: The Demon's Forge will be released on June 1 in North America and June 3 in the UK on Xbox 360, PS3 and PC.