I've been excited about Hunted: The Demon's Forge ever since I first saw the game on this very website last year. When I found out about the split screen co-op, I was thrilled. Imagine my surprise when I got a review copy of the game the same day as the retail release. Uh-oh. There's only one real reason to avoid an early screening for a game. I bet you can figure it out. The delay may have been due to the holiday, but I suddenly had a bad feeling about this. I popped the disc into my 360 and was immediately underwhelmed by the graphics. The character models of Caddoc and E'lara looked dated and lacked polish. They weren't ugly, but something was off. And I'm not talking about the fact that these "fantasy" characters both looked as if they had just walked out of a Hot Topic. My couch co-op partner noticed it, too.
I chose "Start Adventure" from the menu screen and expected to have a chance to select a Single Player, Xbox LIVE, or Split Screen Co-Op session. Instead, I was greeted with a very nice looking, but lengthy cut scene, followed by an excruciatingly long tutorial that was not co-op-able. The tutorial was 27 minutes in length, and that's excluding the cut scenes. I played it twice, just so I could time the fiasco. It's even more tedious if your co-op partner is sitting on the couch next to you, rapidly losing interest. What's worse than playing a game tutorial? That's right, watching someone play a game tutorial. The only way to skip it was to use the Xbox LIVE menu to drop out and then select "Continue." If you do that, you miss out on a 15 point Achievement, and we can't have that now, can we? After the tutorial the game finally asked me if I wanted to continue in single player, start an Xbox LIVE match, or play split screen (console only). Obviously, we opted for the couch co-op. This is what happened:
So sad. So very, very, sad.
Apparently, the game developers over at InXile have something against using all of that wonderful, expensive screen. This isn't the first game to have a problem like this, so I won't dwell on it for too long. I just want you to know that I couldn't find a way to change it. I even went into the display menu for the Xbox 360 itself and tried to change the aspect ratio, thereby cheating the system into a vertical split, like you can in Borderlands. It was a no-go. Even if you're rocking a 55 inch display, you'll have to sit pretty close to the screen if you want to see what's going on. And if you're playing as E'Lara, you'll want to see what you're shooting at. I should note here that if you play split screen, both of the characters belong to the first player. All of their stats and gear are saved to that player's game.
"But I don't care about split screen;all my friends are digital. I just want to know about the game play!" I hear you, friendly online gamer. Hunted has been called "Spears of War," drawing comparisons to the Gears of War franchise for its third-person perspective, co-op mode, cover system, roadie run, and executions of downed opponents. Sorry, folks, this game doesn't have that kind of polish. The co-op is entirely competent, sure, but the actual game mechanics fall short in many areas. The cover system leaves a lot to be desired, running is an un-steerable mess, and execution animations are repetitive and bring the flow of battle to a jarring halt. The story is weak, bordering on non-existent, espcially early on. Caddoc and E'lara's main motivation seems to be money. But in the end, isn't everybody's?
But wait! It gets better! Seriously. It does.
It may seem like I'm tearing Hunted apart, but if you already peeked at the score before reading this, (I know you did, cheater!) you know this game must not be all bad. And it's not. Some parts are actually quite good. Caddoc and E'lara each play differently. Learning to coordinate successful attacks using their strengths and weaknesses can be very rewarding. You'll start off the game using either Caddoc's brawny melee attacks or E'lara's dexterous bow attacks. Both characters are capable of switching fighting styles in a pinch, but I wouldn't advise it.
As the game progresses you'll begin to unlock magic. Your spells come in two flavors, Weapon Magic, which is unique to each character, and Battle Magic, which both characters can access. Using this magic you can really start dishing out damage to the many variations of Orcs Wargar you'll face. E'lara can clear the battlefield with things like explosive or freezing arrows. Caddoc can go into a rage mode or levitate enemies, making foes helpless targets for E'lara's bow attacks. Eventually you'll figure out how to link spells and supply your partner with a Battle Charge, which acts as an attack and defense buff.
Once Caddoc smashed the vodka luge, the party was pretty much over.
With all this talk of spells and buffs, you may be curious about the role-playing elements. They're there, the same way they're present in God of War. That's "God," not "Gears." If you've ever powered up Kratos through one of his adventures, you get the idea. There are six spells for each character, and you upgrade them with collected crystals. You can only do this at a checkpoint. Other stats, like your damage and defense, automatically increase as you kill enemies or find other collectibles. The whole "Abilities" and "Talents" system is incredibly shallow for an RPG, but perfect for an action game.
Did I mention collectibles? Hunted: The Demon's Forge has tons of them. Crystals increase your magic, Death Stones add to your Lore, and Dragon Tears increase your co-op skills, like Battle Charge and Spell Link. You can rescue captured prisoners for some additional back story. Your constantly picking up something. Even the gold you pick up is used to unlock items in the game's map editor, the Crucible.
You will find weapons, shields, and armor on the battlefield. Each has attack or defense, possible magical properties, and a unique name. Most times you just pick the one with the bigger number and continue on to the next enemy. Later, you'll be able to carry two different versions of your main weapon (Caddoc gets two melee weapons, E'lara gets two bows.) Click a thumbstick to switch between the two. That's pretty much the extent of your inventory management.
"There can be only one!" Best. Documentary. Ever.
Playing Hunted online is a blast. One player controls E'lara, the other Caddoc. No, you can't have two half-naked elves running around. Each player takes their spoils back with them to their game at the end of the session. Since there is no XP, this comes in the form of weapons, kill counts, and collectibles. Most "Talents" and "Abilitie"s are unlocked according to combined kill counts. For example: If you partner with someone as Caddoc, your own version of E'lara will be powered-up as well.
Another example: A fellow Co-Optimus editor joined me for a game. He was just starting out, but he was able to collect some high quality gear from my game, since I was further than him in the campaign. Since the characters don't have "levels" or "level restrictions" in the traditional RPG sense, he was able to start his own campaign armed to the teeth. The game even allowed him to choose from the levels that we completed in co-op, despite him not actually getting there in his campaign.
When hosting or joining a game, you are placed in "Negotiations." In this screen you can choose the level, difficulty, and character you'd like to play. You can see the other player's choices here as well. You have access to any level, as long as one player has been there before. There are six chapters, and these have six sub-chapters each. As I was playing I noticed each sub-chapter took about twenty to thirty minutes to complete, and you end up with a twelve to sixteen hour game by the time it's over.
Now Caddoc wishes he learned how to use that sissy bow and arrow.
If you're thinking of playing Hunted as a single player game, don't. There are better options with less frustrations out there. It's totally feasible, but the game's shortcomings begin to glare when you're left alone with it. The game feels claustrophobic, even in open areas. Invisible walls constantly bar your way. You finally realize that the game is just a series of paths into simple arenas where waves of enemies await. Defeat them, move on to the next arena. Plenty of games do this, but Hunted doesn't hide the fact very well. This becomes all the more apparent in the game's Crucible map editor, where users literally connect arenas together so that two people can combat wave after wave of enemy. You can share your creations online. This is a neat little addition, and something you don't see too often on console games. I just don't think Hunted has the depth to keep gamers interested.
You can switch between Caddoc and E'lara at checkpoints. (You can do this in co-op mode as well, if you and your partner so choose.) The game uses several tricks which make you stick with your character choice once you've entered the next area. These little tricks include dozens of lift-able co-op doors, a la Army of Two, or co-op balance beams, or co-op narrow passages. What do I mean by co-op balance beams or co-op narrow passages? I mean the game literally gives you a co-op prompt before you can walk over the beam or through the passage. You need your partner there to progess. After you watch a canned cut scene where your two characters shakily navigate a beam, or squeeze through a crack in a wall, you can't go back to switch characters or power up your magic. You must trudge ahead to the next checkpoint or reload the current one, losing all unsaved progress. The friendly AI is competent, but you'll be enraged when you change characters only to realize that you're digital partner hasn't picked up any potions. The AI will also occasionally loot weapons racks, which keeps their own gear upgraded, but sometimes you may have wanted the goods for yourself.
Hunted: The Demon's Forge is a solid online co-op title. When everything is working right, it's a very entertaining game with solid length and replayability. Caddoc and E'lara can be funny, but they begin to hit a nerve after a while. It's a very accessible action game with only a shadow of role playing elements. The gameplay may get a little repetitive for some gamers, but if you like a hack and slash grind, there's plenty of it here. Split screen is hard to handle, unless you want get up close and personal with your display. Single player gamers can find better offerings elsewhere.