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Hands On: Hunted - The Demon's Forge

Bethesda's is a crown with many likely jewels at present - Brink, Rage, Prey 2 and of course Skyrim are all mightily impressive prospects in their own distinctive rights at present. And then there's Hunted, whose gleam is a little harder to discern right now. A welcome break from the post-apocalypses which dominate Bethesda's shooter range, in broadest terms it's Diablo making the beast with two backs with Gears of War. An appealing concept - hackery and slashery up close and personal, with a strong co-op emphasis. My kind of thing, nominally.

I've played the game twice now, and had it demoed to me a few more times on top of that. Based on this, I must admit it's not currently a game I'm particularly anticipating, but it's important to note that I've only seen sequences out of context and thus my observations on the interplay between its two characters, the hulking man-brute Caddock and the (ugh) sassy Elven archer E'lara, may well be moot. From what I've seen it's all painfully knowing but occasionally unintentionally hilarious innuendo and hollow kill-celebrations uttered in forced-sounding accents, but in the full flow of plot and with more sense of exactly what this blood-frenzied pair's relationship is, it might well be more convincing. If not, I fully expect to be playing with subtitles on and sounds off.

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As an action game, it's found mechanics that work even if the efficacy of the structure and characterisation is TBC. Each character has two skill trees, one focusing on simply improving combat aptitude and enabling new perks and powers in that regard, and another more dedicated to supporting magic. The meat of the game is in going crazy with a sword or bow (Caddock appears best suited to the former and E'lara the latter, but either can do either), but zap-blasts and monster-delaying whirlwinds and fireballs and all sorts spare it from entirelybeing an empty button-masher.

It appears to mostly be about the button-mashing, however. It's a game which tends towards chucking waves of enemies at you, making for a strangely modular experience that involves lurking within bleached-looking, arena-like areas until the enemies dry up, then continuing on to the next area to do it all over again. Action is all, killing vast numbers of skeletons and assorted other fantasy meanies is all. There's even a turret section at one point.

As a capsule experience, it's an entertaining one - the tangibility of an FPS attached to an RPG-lite. It's meaty and intense, and isn't afraid of throwing apparently overwhelming odds at you yet ensuring you can overwhelm them. As a prolonged experience, the elements I've played simply feel relentless, however. More monsters, and more, and more, and more. Perhaps I'm too used to exploring fantasy worlds at my leisure, but the breakneck, no rest pace of this didn't enthral me. I personally didn't spot or feel anything that gave me a sense of accomplishment from surviving one of its hordes, and I kept on hoping something more enthralling was around the next corner. In the full game, that probably does happen - outside of some faintly infuriating teleporting, turret-dropping mini bosses, I've yet to run into anything like a set piece.

As a co-op piece, I'm not sure how I feel about it. The presence of another player certainly helps offset the dogged churn of the wave-based fights, but so far it seemed more like two guys doing their own thing on the same screen than working together. The critical exception is the use of healing potions; Hunted uses the buddy revive system that's so common these days, but restricted by however many healing potions you're carrying.

If your chum goes down and you're out of magic juice, you can't help until you've found one. Or maybe you've only one heal left and settle on a tactical decision that it's better spent getting you through your current entanglement. The line between selfishness and strategy in terms of resource-sharing in co-op is forever fine, and hopefully Hunted can make something of that.

There's loot, too. Of course there's loot. Swords and shields and bows, that kind of thing. The RPG element of the game is tiny compared to the monster-bashing element, but it's very much there and it doesn't seem afraid of positively draping its items with stats. It isn't anything like as thick and fast in that regard as Diablo, but in other senses it's definitely pursuing that approach, albeit from a behind-the-shoulder perspective. To be honest, I'm surprised more publishers/developers aren't frantically trying to realise something Diablo-esque before the main event itself arrives (most likely next year) - there's a clear appetite for That Kind Of Thing. That in itself may see Hunted pick up more attention than it perhaps otherwise would. I hope it makes more sense as a whole than as occasional dive-ins, I really do.

Also in there is the Crucible, a level design tool. This is a modular tool rather than a full creation tool, involving the selecting of arena shapes, types and contents. In a way it casts a lot of light on the main game itself, being based as it is on the choosing of enemy waves which must be defeated to progress to the next room. Whether it can offer additional variety that isn't present in the core game remains to be seen, but you can certainly rack the difficulty all the way to stupid o'clock if you want to give yourself a hard time for kicks. Or you can just hack away at yet more dark rooms full of respawning monsters. That too. Additional stuff - primarily foes - is unlocked for use here by collecting coins in the main game, so in theory it's an evolving and growing experience if you want it to be.

So, we'll see. Hunted may be lacking that immediate 'ooh! Wanna!' that the rest of the Bethesda portfolio seems to radiate, but I'm hoping it suddenly makes sense when embarked on as a co-op adventure with a chum who also doesn't want to take it entirely seriously. Killing skeletons with blade and spell is an easy route to party time, after all.

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