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Preview: The Grinder

It only took me a few minutes into my E3 appointment with High Voltage Software -- a company I am admittedly not too familiar with -- to understand the inspirations behind the PS3 and 360 versions of the studio's upcoming project, The Grinder. I didn't pay too much attention to the game when it was announced as a first-person shooter for the Wii. Imagine my surprise when I learned that, on the other two platforms, it's actually a current-gen iteration of one of my favorite games from the generation past -- one I spent countless nights during my high school career playing with three friends, occasionally from start to finish in a single, rapturous sitting.

"You know what game this really reminds me of," I stated to the game's on-hand developers. "Hunter: The Reckoning."

"Yeah," one of them replied, "we made that game."

"Oh? Awesome."

Folks who are familiar with Hunter will feel instantly familiar with The Grinder's gameplay formula. Up to four players choose between four unique characters, and fight through hordes of hideous monsters in a top-down, hack and slash fashion. Each character is equipped with their own strengths and weaknesses, as well as their own unorthodox manner of dressing themselves. (For real, sir? A leather vest and a leather hat? That's your style?)

In The Grinder, the aforementioned hordes are composed of horribly mutated subterranean monsters, which were unleashed as a result of a local mining company's overzealous digging. A mysterious organization known as Book hires a bounty hunter, a shaman, an assassin and an engineer to help quell their numbers and investigate the dark source from whence these monsters sprung. This scenario is presented in a Grindhouse fashion, with foul-mouthed dialogue, over-the-top gore and the frequent appearance of film scratches.

Though Hunter incorporated a handful of RPG elements, The Grinder will add a much wider range of character progression features into the game. Characters will level up, earn bonuses to their ever-important stats, and move up the ranks of a branching skill tree. That experience can either be dropped by enemies, earned from completing quests or obtained by smashing up "Storm Crystal" deposits which appear in each level. Of course, you can only grab those if you're teammates don't get to them first.

Players can spend money on purchasing and upgrading a shared pool of weapons, which come in two distinct flavors: Human weapons, which have infinite ammo and average power, and Storm weapons, which drain from your mana pool but do far more damage. (And, generally, just look cooler. I found the Laser Shotgun and Stake Gun were well worth the investment.)

Players can also customize their equipment, which include sets of armor and magical talismans, the latter of which give you the ability to temporarily transform into various, extremely powerful monsters. These customization options offer a welcome amount of depth to a typically shallow genre, but are implemented in a fairly streamlined way. In other words, there won't be too much menu navigation to break up all of the shooting you'll be doing.

Combat is just as frantic as it was in Hunter -- perhaps even more so thanks to the combo system, which incentivizes hasty monster dispatching with bonus multipliers for earned experience. Other bonuses are rewarded by killing enemies using environmental hazards, like that strip of buzzsaws spinning on that nearby wall, or that titular grinder embedded in the floor.

One neat feature that mixes up The Grinder's tried-and-true dungeon diving is the random appearance of The Slasher, an eerie, Nemesis-esque adversary who leaps from the shadows, and pins down one of your party members. To free your companion -- or, in order for them to free you -- you'll have to participate in a multiplayer quick-time-event. If your allies successfully hit the correct sequence of buttons quickly enough, the incapacitated player is freed. If they don't, said player is freed from this mortal coil.

The demo I played was peppered with neat little features like these. Combined with some neat RPG elements blended into the familiar Hunter gameplay I (and, hopefully you) know and love, the 360 and PS3 versions of The Grinder looks like the type of game I could really sink my teeth into over the course of a few long nights spent with my old evil-smiting crew.

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