If you’ve been playing videogames for any significant amount of time, the chances are good that you’ve made your way through a few dungeon crawlers in your day. There are certain miserable truths we just have to accept in life. Cake makes us fat. Going to the beach curses us with life-long sandsock. And if we want to play a cover shooter, we’d better enjoy the company of chest-bumping knuckle-heads or grizzled sociopaths on all-steroid diets.
But while seaside cake-scoffing will always remain an obesity-baiting, granular mess, the latter problem is soon to be rectified thanks to a radical new direction from Bethesda. The Oblivion creator is all set to bring us fantasy actioner Hunted: The Demon’s Forge, a Gears of War-style co-op shooter developed by InXile Entertainment.
The game eschews tired old space marines for vibrant medieval fantasy and an interesting pair of freely switchable, asymmetrically-playing characters. But it’s not only shaking things up in terms of characters and setting. The slick-looking co-operative extravaganza looks dead set on freshening up the genre from every angle of attack it can find. And here’s how it’s going about it.
Busty Elves > Grumpy Marines
Let’s face it, if you’re going to be looking at a character’s rear for eight-to-twelve hours, it might as well be an interesting one. And it might as well be attached to a personality with more to say for itself than ‘Grrr’ and occasionally ‘F*ck’. Hunted’s two complimenting protagonists seem to have a genuinely fun and contrasting personality dynamic. Buxom female Elf E’lara plays against type by being the impulsive, gung-ho aggressive one, while hulking barbarian Caddoc follows her reluctantly with a face-palming air of ‘Why me?’
Above: Despite being an archer, E’lara can get stuck in with the best of them
The game proudly displays all of the genre tropes of the cover shooter – waist-high walls, skirmish arenas and branching flank routes are all present and correct – but it’s very much out with the armoured sulk-mongers and assault rifles and in with the Tolkienesque fantasy and arrows.
It’s amazing how radically this simple change of setting overhauls the whole feel of the increasingly stale genre. With fantastical excess replacing world-weary grit, there’s a lightness and charm to Hunted that sets it well apart from its genre siblings, despite the gratuitous carnage on show. Its world feels genuinely fresh on a whole bunch of levels. And speaking of that contrasting character dynamic…
It’s a cover shooter without the cowering
There’s a certain irony to cover shooter heroes. Increasingly ripped, aggressive, planet-crushing death-bastards who spend most of their day hiding behind trees and boxes like bullied kids at lunchtime. Not so in Hunted. In protagonists E’lara and Caddoc you’ve got two radically different character classes who between them are more than capable of taking the fight right up to their enemies’ faces.
Above: Caddoc is hard to start with, but with magic buffs he’s devastating
E’lara is all about ranged bow attacks. Caddoc is all about kicking in faces and slicing off important bits of anatomy. On a basic level, Caddoc can run out to engage the hellspawn gits face-to-face with a variety of brutal short-range melee combos, while E’lara covers him with a volley of pointy airborne death, but there looks to be a great deal of tactical depth to be had as the combat gets more complex. And don’t think this asymmetric pairing means that you’ll lose out on half of the gameplay in single-player mode. Smartly, Hunted allows you to switch characters at the touch of a button at every checkpoint you reach.
It’s a fantasy game without the grind
Fantasy setting + character progression = days spent killing chickens to level up beyond the state of absolute weakling, right? Not here. Hunted features character customisation and weapon upgrades, but you’re certainly not going to have to any lose sleep in order to progress. Hunted’s equivalent of levelling up happens as a result of tracking down and collecting special hidden crystals along your quest. Cash these in and you’ll be able to upgrade your magic abilities via a skill tree, tailoring your offensive, defensive and character augmentation spells as you see fit.
Despite the loose RPG trappings, weapons will accrue in the vein of a more traditional shooter rather than taking the Borderlands route of haemorrhaging loot piles. New death tools for each character will appear every couple of hours in order to make them feel significant, and presumably to compliment the game’s progressive set-pieces.
It blows co-op tactics wide open, literally
You know what it’s like. You and your wing-man are gracefully slaughtering your way through a street full of grunts with the balletic tactical ease of Chow Yun Fat channelling Napoleon, when suddenly your partner goes down in the thick of the fray. Cue an abrupt end to your apocalyptic flanking bid as you drop what you’re doing, backtrack to your fallen comrade and stumble through a cloud of bullets in order to pick him up. Then he has to do the same for you as you’re trying to retreat. Ball-ache.
Above: Finding the grunts hard to hit? Use a levitation spell before firing
Hunted aims to remedy that whole irritating fiasco by implementing a long-range approach to co-op. The most obvious upshot of this is that you’ll be able to revive fallen partners from a huge distance away as long as you’re within line of sight. Just toss a regen potion like a grenade (from what we saw they lock on automatically if you’ve got a clear shot) and they’ll be straight back up again without you having to break the flow of whatever you were up to.
And that’s going to be a very important innovation, given the way that battles in Hunted play out. The major skirmishes that we witnessed all took place over arenas much bigger and more open than most of what you’ll find in the likes of Gears of War, with architecture and scale tailored around the two characters’ contrasting abilities. Ground-cover, open brawling areas, staircases and multiple levels of verticality can gel over a single arena to open up a boatload of tactical options.
It’s much more than a shooter
All of this adds up to a game that takes the cover-shooter model and runs it in every direction it possibly can, with the marriage of melee and shooting birthing all kinds of possibilities. Both characters can hit the enemy with a pincer melee attack, E’lara’s weaker blade providing support at the back while Caddoc wades in at the front. Or Caddoc can step out swinging while E’lara softens up the oncoming horde with arrow fire from behind cover. Or she can throw in an elemental magic buff to increase his hacking power on the fly.
Above: If all else fails, get up close and kick their faces off
But most exciting of all is the way in which the team looks to be able to split up completely in order to work on different sets of bad guys in different parts of the environment according to the suitability of their skills. Thanks to the long-range healing system there’s no need to stay close to your partner when a distant target takes your fancy, and should either character get jumped by something they can’t handle, there’s still a way out.
If, for instance, Caddoc comes up against some well-armoured uber-grunts, E’lara can swiftly make with the long-distance headshots to pull him out of trouble. And if she in turn gets mobbed by short-range melee baddos and can’t flee to a shootable distance, Caddoc can throw in one of the aforementioned magic buffs to temporarily up her comparatively weedy hand-to-hand abilities until he can wade over and make a rescue with his mighty blade o’ justice.
Some monsters will require the combined skills of both characters to take down, and it’s sometimes even possible to perform co-operative God of War-style QTEs in order to finish of particularly tricky enemies, either directly or by using the environment (ie. having the option to knock a huge statue down on top of them).
By blending shooting with proper, combo-driven melee like this, and doing so much to facilitate player freedom outside of traditional teamwork, Hunted’s developers genuinely seem to have created a smooth and elegant evolution of co-op action, and it’s one that we really can’t wait to get our hands on. Watch this space for more just as soon as we have.