In my opinion - and let's leave all those arguments about the poor PC port out of this - Dark Souls is the greatest game ever made. Precise and deep combat systems, an astounding lore woven throughout its tonally perfect dark fantasy world, and a sense of 3D architecture nothing else even comes close to. With all of that said, I wasn't whooping at the announcement of Dark Souls II. Call it what you will – a Gollum-like protectionism over My Precious, a sense that nothing could ever quite match up to that original, or something worse - but the truth is I was anxious at the idea of a sequel. Nevertheless, when the opportunity arose to get hands-on, I braved the bleak halls find out for myself. And, for my sins, I found out.
You'll want to read on for that stuff, terrible soul-searching, and to find out how many times I died.
The area of Dark Souls II on show at the Eurogamer Expo has been in the public eye for a little while, and has been expertly crafted to provide almost zero clues about the wider world outside of its confines. There are few clues about the story and setting, though the trailers strongly suggest this is a prequel and in some way involves the Goddess Velka (a peripheral figure in Dark Souls) as well as having many more dragons. I asked about the PC version's release, and “soon after” the console games was the tight-lipped reply.
What the demo does show are the enormous under-the-hood changes to Dark Souls II's combat system, most of which are probably to do with the sequel's full-blooded embrace of multiplayer. The original's online had a singularly unusual structure that made it always a fleeting occurrence; a summoned warrior to help with a boss, or someone invading your world for an adrenalin-soaked battle to the death lasting minutes.
The original had nine Covenants that, in theory, were supposed to feed into this – in practice, only three were dependable and the others were a mix of temperamental and useless. The important final point is that, despite the difficulty of arranging matches and the often ruinous lag, Dark Souls gave birth to an online PvP community that is still thriving – though, it has to be said, almost entirely on consoles rather than PC (thank you and good riddance, Games for Windows Live).
It is important to understand this aspect of Dark Souls because Dark Souls II's biggest objective seems to be doing it again – but right. Covenants and PvP have been given much more attention this time around, and the promise is of a multiplayer experience that you don't have to tortuously wrestle into shape. This leads us onto the combat system on show in the Dark Souls II demo, and by far the most noticeable aspect of it is a slowed-down pace married to an overhaul of the parry system.
Parries are the core element of combat in the Souls series; they're both what let you get through a tough defense, and turn outright aggression back on itself. They worked beautifully in Dark Souls' singleplayer because they were instantaneous, split-second in both judgement and execution. You saw the attack coming in, parried the second before it hit, and boom – success. In Dark Souls II the wind-up on your attacks feels considerably longer, the same goes for most enemy attacks, and in-keeping with this the timing of parries has been altered considerably. It's no longer enough to have reflexes – you have to judge the attack, allow for your parry's startup animation, and combine the two.
In one sense this is simply a question of re-learning your timings – something that it wasn't possible for me to do very well over the course of a demo, but will come easily enough once the game's out. The underlying question though is why make this change to such a great combat system? The answer is in Dark Souls PvP or, to be more precise, the parts of it that never really worked. To call parrying in Dark Souls PvP a hit-and-miss affair is being too kind. It doesn't work. You can parry in PvP, but the latency in the game's networking system means you can only do it reliably through prediction – learning katana swing timings, for example, and gambling that an unskilled opponent will spam the attack key.
By making attack wind-ups larger, and parrying less of a twitch skill, From Software has created a way in which parries can become a core part of skill-based PvP combat rather than a high-risk roulette. And that's not all. Another change is to the hitboxes on backstabs which, in the first game, were enormous – being slightly behind someone's arm was basically enough, which was eminently exploitable online and could even be combined with dodging for some true bullshit in the form of the 'roll BS' tactic. In Dark Souls II the backstab hitboxes have been enormously reduced, so that you have to be basically facing between an opponent's shoulderblades when hitting attack. The fact that there are now bespoke animations for each weapon's backstab, and they all look amazing, is merely the icing on the cake.
These changes demonstrate how seriously Dark Souls II is taking multiplayer beyond it being simply a marketing bulletpoint – in short, and as much as I love Dark Souls, this stuff had to happen. In fact it's a little strange to be talking so much about multiplayer based on a singleplayer demo, particularly involving a series that has always been focused on delivering a singleplayer experience where multiplayer is merely extra spice. But PvE's had a shakeup too.
A brief digression: people often discuss Dark Souls in terms of its difficulty and, while I understand why, it's an aspect of the game that is less important than this would suggest. But Dark Souls II seems to be even more difficult. It's not than any individual enemy is especially difficult to defeat, but that in this brief slice of play they tend to be positioned in such a manner that you can't avoid aggroing multiple opponents at once. This is never good.
My first life ended fast. I climbed down a ladder, turned right, and hit a dead end. I took this opportunity to admire the wall textures, which really are superb, then nearly jumped out of my seat as two previously-unnoticed soldiers attacked from behind and stunlocked my poor warrior. You Died. Well, at least that was familiar.
Second time, I went down and immediately turned left, shield raised like a good Souls noob. Sure enough both of the soldiers are triggered by your landing, so you can't avoid a 2 vs 1 battle here unless you take out the first quickly. Two-handing my longsword, which has a similar moveset to Dark Souls, did the trick, and I switched to a thwomping greatsword to finish off the second.
Collecting my thoughts, I used the new lifecrystal – which recharges your health slowly, as opposed to the big one-off restoration that a chug of Estus still provides. While I was waiting, I decided to strip off and noticed something very interesting; roll speed is no longer tied to armour weight. I was naked and rolling at the same speed as I was in armour. This is a major change from Dark Souls and, one would hazard a guess, again a PvP-focused change.
Going onwards gave me the opportunity to acquire a fiery torch, another new mechanic that also serves to show off the gorgeous new lighting effects, and get into a fight that was again frankly unfair – two soldiers, a fat lad with a mace, and some dick firing arrows from way up the back. After a few heroic seconds of this, I unthinkingly switched the torch out for a shield and made everything dark again, which didn't seem to affect the enemies' eyesight all that much, and got unceremoniously crushed in a corner.
Aware my time was running low, life three was all about running through this gauntlet and didn't go so well – though I did get further with life four. On that occasion I got past the enemies and hit the blessed outdoors. There were a few soldiers, sure, and a couple of archers, but I swanned about like Bertie Big Bollocks and smashed them out of their socks. Don't these guys know who I am? This was starting to get comfortable.
Unfortunately I hadn't quite credited FromSoft as being FromSoft. Those enemies I'd ran by in the darkness? They now spawned ahead of me as black phantom versions, which as any Souls veteran will know means they're much nastier, and the tubby chap unceremoniously bashed me off the cliff. Fifth life? I killed myself by rolling off a bridge. DARK SOULS.
It's worth mentioning that, despite the lack of lore clues scattered about this demo setting, the overall vibe I got from Dark Souls II's world was as much Demon's Souls as Dark Souls – the black phantom enemies in particular were such a cool part of the former, and largely forgotten about in the sequel. One might hope for more psychologically screwy locales, too – Dark Souls had plenty of grim and sad places, but places like Demon's Souls' Tower of Latria or Valley of Defilement are especially piquant.
Dark Souls II is a strange game to preview. The way I put it to Jim was, if you're vaguely interested in the Souls games it looks like more of the same – but if you're obsessed with the Souls games, and that's me for sure, then it feels like everything's changed. The tiniest thing, like a slower Estus-chugging animation, feels like a major tonal shift; and in thinking that, you wonder if you're a crazy man.
Does this feel as nice as Dark Souls? Because of that slower pace to combat and the other reasons above, frankly no. But that's because it's unfamiliar, a small demo area, and I've put hundreds of hours into Dark Souls; by rights I should be in the loony bin when it comes to this series. If I'm wrong, great. And if I'm right? Well then, by my lights Dark Souls II will only be the third-best game of all time.
A terrible fate, indeed.
Dark Souls II is due for release on PC after it comes out on consolebox. Boo!