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Monday, June 06, 2011

Hunted: The Demon's Forge

Hunted: The Demon's Forge is the very definition of a mixed bag. It's been described as a fantasy setting version of Gears, though Army of Two is probably a better analogy in the fact that the game is deeply rooted in co-op play, even when you're just in the single player mode.

It's difficult to know where to start with a title like Hunted, since it is such a tangled knot of good and bad. I suppose we could begin with the average stuff, which isn't much. It uses the Unreal 3 engine to good, though not great, effect. The character design and world setting is fairly cookie cutter fantasy stuff, with the story being told through a combination of unlocked movies and stories told by the deceased via the in-game deathstone. There's a very heavy use of buddy gates to insure that you and your partner stay together and the loot mechanics are designed as such that there's never a question to splitting things up.

On the good front, Hunted offers up some tight combat mechanics, including melee - which isn't the easiest thing to do with an FPS based engine ike Unreal. Sniping with either the crossbow or bow is entertaining as well, and when you start combining the fights with magic, there is some truly great fun to be had. Having one player lift enemies up, and then the other freeze them - it's very gratifying to watch them shatter. There's actual strategy and teamwork to be had here, and working together feels the way a coop game should feel.

However, if the core of this game is based on solid mechanics - the entirety of that core is constantly challenged by flaws, bugs and quirks which kick the game in the knees and quite often in the head. These start from the very first moment the post-tutorial game kicks off, with a serious disconnect between the player and basics of the game and the level of difficulty the game starts out with. Be ready to get killed repeatedly for a while, especially at any level above Casual, before truly getting the hang of using cover, utilizing magic, being decent at melee, sniping head shots, etc. There seems to be an assumption, design wise, that the tutorial level should properly prepare players for the game - and it simply is not the case.

The difficulty level is often quite brutal, even on Casual mode. This is especially true early on when the characters aren't leveled up enough to hold multiple potions to revive and heal as needed. Most of the enemies can cut health away quite quickly, and so having to manage that single health potion gets annoying and hoping your partner still has the ability to revive you can be an early indicator that all the combat fun may be coming to a quick end.

Worse, however, is Hunted's completely inane concept of checkpoints. Checkpoints are reserved only for the start of major portions of the map and so a sudden ambush can send you and your partner back about a half hour or so of gameplay. Worse is that real save points are even more reserved, and there's no clear indication as to which is which - meaning that knowing when it's safe to quit a session is utter guesswork. Secret/side portions of the map are sometimes not counted as their own checkpoint, which means you can find yourself repeating large portions of the game.

And speaking of the map, I had originally thought to give the game some props for level design in general, but any good there is tossed out around the midgame where you will find yourself enveloped in complete darkness frequently - no matter what gamma setting you might chose. This happens so often that I have to wonder if inXile was afraid how their dungeon was appearing and so simply decided to just make it completely black in places. You can use flaming arrows and/or certain spells as a light source - but this feels like an accidental effect and not an intentional design choice.

Gameplay bugs crop up more frequently than one would like. At one point, we had explored an area where you need to collect runes only to find the game had forgotten to actually place the runes. Another spot had us stuck completely on the map and hence requiring another annoying long checkpoint restart.

Perhaps in a culmination of the above, we're currently stuck on a boss scene where we have to run frantically across a dimly lit area and apparently any misstep will cause us to be squashed and we have to try again.

Truth is, we're such coop nuts that we've actually been enjoying our time with Hunted despite many of the flaws, but it is at best a very close call. I can't safely recommend the game in the current state, though I would love to see either a patch or DLC perhaps be able to overcome the problems.

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