Hunted preview: Co-opportunity knocks

Hunted: The Demon's Forge was plagued by a number of issues, both technical and fundamental, when Joystiq last saw it two months ago. At Bethesda's recent "BFG 2011" media event, developer inXile Entertainment brought a markedly improved build, if not a less generic game title.

"Feedback has been a large part of the process," David Clayman, associate brand manager for inXile, told me at the event. Gone is the shoddy blocking animation Joystiq encountered in the last build that registered a block no matter if your shield was facing an enemy or not. (inXile has since added an auto-targeting mechanic that turns your character to face the nearest attacking enemy as you begin blocking.) And fixed is the indicator that now more clearly and immediately alerts you to your partner being down and in need of a healing potion.
%Gallery-121458% One issue that forum-goers took up against the game -- especially considering that Hunted is, by nature, a co-op experience -- was its lack of a split-screen option. "It wasn't planned," Clayman admits, "but when we saw the outcry, you know ... it was so exciting to announce you can play couch co-op, which is so important to people." This sort of active response to both professional critics' and fan feedback should certainly generate some good will toward the project.

I'll almost certainly split a copy with one of my buddies.

Of course, Hunted's core gameplay remains unchanged and, despite its fantasy wrappings, it's a fairly routine cover-based "shooter" at heart. That one of the game's two protagonists, Caddoc, is balanced for melee combat and the other, E'lara, is a naturally ranged-attack elven character would seem to set the stage for some interesting dynamics, but it often boils down to hacking-and-slashing versus lining up headshots. It can be rewarding as a sort of mindless romp with a buddy (like any good dungeon crawler), but the basic gameplay also feels uninspired.

What does stand out is the interaction between the two characters. "That was a decision from the very beginning; that there was going to be this tension and interplay between these two characters," Clayman explains. This relationship is apparent not only in the voice-over bantering, but in the gameplay itself. Caddoc, for example, can cast a temporary lightning buff on E'lara's sword, which makes her just as effective as him at close range. Or, he can use his levitate power to raise a handful of enemies into the air as easy targets for E'lara's bow. She can also opt to freeze those enemies, so they shatter when dropped.

This type of truly combo-driven gameplay is a rarity in co-op shooters. We might see one character boost the other up and over a wall, but, in Hunted, every encounter is designed as a co-opportunity (in case you were wondering what the worst pun I could come up with was). "What you've seen before in games that have two similar characters is that you get instances where they say, 'I'll cover you',' but there's not that incentive." Clayman says. "When you have these spells that work together -- when you do these things -- you have a huge payoff."

Hunted has another promising novelty going for it, too -- "Crucible." This is the game's dungeon creator mode, in which players are presented with a large, empty grid on which to build a number of adjoining "arenas." The twist is that each arena is fully customizable, from the amount of enemies to the amount of gravity. Likewise, the enemies and players themselves can be tweaked by all manner of options.

Crucible acts as a sandbox in which to spend the gold you've looted and the secrets you've unlocked in the single-player campaign. It can be silly -- there's a "zero gravity" unlockable -- or downright hellish -- 100 waves of an enemy spawn in just one arena. Gear of War's "Horde" mode might be the inspiration, but Crucible isn't just another lazy knockoff. By allowing the players to create their own vastly customizable dungeon crawls, inXile has turned the creative power over to the players, who will undoubtedly create inconceivably difficult and hilarious arenas. (Check out more of Crucible's features in the video above.)

Hunted: The Demon's Forge is still fighting an uphill battle to distinguish itself from the countless generic cover-based shooters on the market, but it looks to bring some good and genuinely fun ideas to the worn-out genre. My main issue with the current build is another easy one to fix -- the checkpoints. In a few instances, my partner and I had to replay some pretty long and intense battles because we had died during a later one. This, coupled with the canned animation we had to watch all over, made the second time through a real drag. Hopefully, inXile is still taking note.

As it stands, I'm unsure if Hunted will be able to rise above its competition, but I'll almost certainly split a copy with one of my buddies, regardless.

Nationally acclaimed freelance writer Jonathan Deesing has been covering video games for dozens of weeks. His professional knowledge ranges from skiing to Peruvian history, and, of course, anything with buttons.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.