Dark Souls 2. Played it. Got killed. No big deal. Alright. I'll try to keep this post from getting ridiculously long, but no promises. Once I get going on the Souls games I kind of... well, let's see what happens. While I didn't have time to reflect upon the nuances of any of the ornate carvings that adorned my surroundings and whatever godforsaken lore they might allude to, I can tell you I noticed plenty of changes during my brief time with From Software's baby.
Spoiler alert: There will be minor spoilers. Hell, there might be big spoilers. No one really knows what they're looking at in a Souls game until a second, third, or fourth playthrough, anyway. I'm just going to relay my experience and share a few things the Namco Bandai reps shared with me, which wasn't much. They wouldn't even tell me when the demo took place in the game. I remember the original Dark Souls demo at E3 2011 began at the Altar of Sunlight and ended with the Bell Gargoyles boss battle, so I'm assuming the areas covered in the demo happen early in the game as well, despite the heavily inflated damage numbers.
I'll set the real world scene for you: The Namco Bandai meeting room had three Dark Souls 2 stations set up side by side by side, giving the whole thing an arcade vibe. Media types and not-so media types were three and four deep at each display. Everyone who was playing knew a small crowd was watching over their shoulder. So not only are you trying to play Dark Souls 2, but you know someone behind you had next.
Are you really going to kite every grunt? You gonna go baller and whip out that big two-handed sword? How's magic working out for you? Well, you're dead. Next.
I'm thinking these things as I wait my turn. Everyone's thinking the same thing as they wait theirs. I can feel it. This is a Souls interaction I've never experienced before, and will probably never experience again. It was like a bizarrely sympathetic -yet at the same time vindictive- couch co-op experience. I'm sorry you died, man, but now I know where the Turtle Knight is. Everyone was watching for clues, hints, and enemy techniques. And everyone was dying. Everyone.
Dude is going full shield. Never go full shield. Or maybe always go full shield. I don't know. They changed stuff.
After watching a few players succumb to the demo, it was my turn. There were four preset characters which I was told existed only for the purpose of the demo. There was a bread-and-butter warrior, a hefty temple knight, a sorcerer, and a dual-wielding swordsman. Ever-so-slightly important people like me rarely have to wait in lines at E3, and I sure as hell didn't stand around to play as Joe-sword-and-board, a fat-rolling tank, or a glass cannon. I took the swordsman, because that's how I roll; fast, pointy, and squishy. The gentleman running the demo mentioned something to me, but the blood was already pumping in my ears as I slid on the headset. Yeah, yeah, stance, whatever. Time to parry my way to victory, suckas.
First and foremost: It wasn't like Dark Souls, or even an extension of the game. It was much more difficult.
Dark Souls 2 has a new game engine, which means new rules for combat. Stop freaking out! The basic controls are still the same, unintuitive nonsense we've taught ourselves to love. The game is beautiful. It feels fresh and familiar all at once, but there are new game mechanics at work here which I feel specifically target veteran players.
Are you an expert at PvE in Dark Souls? I bet you backstab a lot. That's great. Good for you. Maybe you upped your game and perfected your parry? A nice technique to ward against novice invaders and certain bosses, sure. But what if I took away a few precious frames of invincibility? What if I took them all? Because that's what From Software has done in Dark Souls 2. Those security blankets, those crutches, those safety nets, are all gone. If you backstab against a pair of enemies you'll pay for it. If you parry in a mob you are dead. You have no power here.
And of course, by "you," I really mean "me."
I rolled around with my dual-wielding swordsman, having heard that dual-wielding would actually be a viable option this time around. I know you can dual-wield in the other games, but it kind of sucks. I really wish I had listened to the guy who tried to explain stances to me. If I had I would have heard that the swordsman has a "Look-at-me-I'm-a-dual-wielding-badass!" stance and a "I-have-no-idea-what-to-do-with-my-left-hand" stance. There was a two handed-stance in there as well, and I chose to fumble between all three of them.
Feeling the heat of a dozen mental screams of "n00b" at my back, I ditched my dual-wielding hopes and produced a small buckler. If you've played Dark Souls, you know the buckler's sole purpose is to mock you. I soldiered on. Keep in mind, I haven't even encountered an enemy yet and I already feel defeated. Stupid sexy dual-wielding swordsman.
I did take the time to notice that the game is animated beautifully. It's been designed to run on each system from the ground up, so the PC version won't be a muddy mess at launch and the Xbox 360 version shouldn't have frame rate issues. I was playing on a PS3 build and it looked incredible. We saw the PC demo later and Mike remarked that it was even better, but I couldn't really tell the difference. I'll take his word for it. Animations have been motion captured, so each character moves much more smoothly, especially when compared to the halting combat of previous titles.
Finally, I approached the first enemy, who looked similar to other grunts in the dark fantasy genre; grayish brown, desiccated, lightly armed and armored. He telegraphed his first strike, as I knew he would. I parried him easily, but I didn't get that telltale whunk which signified a successful parry. I jammed on R1 as he slid to the ground and swung my sword over his head, missing him. I was confused, but still delighted he went down so easily. Was I some sort of parry master? Did I kill him with my superb shield work? Did he get scared and give up? Nope. He was just knocked down as a result of the parry. He was already trying to get to his feet when I hit R2 and my character delivered a devastating downward thrust, ending my foe's little adventure. That's when his buddy showed up and nearly took my head off. The invincibility window of a successful parry had been closed in my face. Game on.
I'll spare you the gory details, but let's just say I was doing incredibly well right up until I died. The damn Turtle Knight fell on me. If you're not familiar with them, don't worry. You will be. I wasn't even attempting a backstab. I was simply trying to get the hell out of the way. Unlike some people, I gave up my spot after one death. It was time to move on to the actual meeting.
This is how I pictured myself dual-weilding. I was wrong.
Not only did we get some hands-on time with Dark Souls 2 at E3, we also sat down for a nice presentation from Namco Bandai's Brian Hong and Matt Warner. They explained some of the subtle differences we may or not have noticed in our hands-on time with the demo.
First of all, Brian and Matt were all over the "accessibility" line from Tomohiro Shibuya, the new director of Dark Souls 2. They used words like "misunderstanding," or "mistranslated" but they could have simply pointed to the players dying en masse at the controls outside and snarled "We got your accessibility, right here." My own experience with the game squashed the idea of an easy or dumbed-down Souls experience. Brian also mentioned the awkward tagline "Go Beyond Death" is out, which is a wise decision. Might I suggest "Dark Souls 2: Now You're F***ed." No? Fine.
I learned secretive From Software provided Namco Bandai with a build of the game and not much else. When I asked Matt and Brain a few questions it was evident most of their information came from what they themselves had pieced together from the demo, or at least that's all they were willing to talk about. We couldn't even access an inventory screen. There were four preset classes, which is NOT how the full game will play out. For the first time ever players will be allowed to allocate points to their stats from the beginning of the game, creating their own class from scratch.
Matt took the controls and started working the demo. I asked him to play as the dual-wielding swordman and he obliged. I felt a little better when he died only a little ways beyond where I had met my fate. He took it in stride and shifted to the more well-rounded sword and shield character and ran through the demo. He literally ran through it. He exploited one of Dark Souls biggest flaws, which is the fact that you can run right by many of the enemies if you know where you're going. Looks like that hasn't changed.
He quickly showed us a short cut, black phantoms, a devious trap, and of course, a bonfire. Players will be able to fast travel between these checkpoints as they light each one from the beginning of the game, rather than unlocking the feature mid way through. This is a nice addition, as it should cut down on the back and forth of Dark Souls without making the game any easier.
If the lightning's not coming from you, you're probably already dead.
He eventually made it to the Mirror Knight boss. Double spoiler alert: Here's a little something for Demon's Souls fans: The formidable Mirror Knight can summon a phantom from his mirror shield. It's pretty badass. Oh, and that phantom may be controlled by another player. It's like the Old Monk fight from Demon's Souls, if the the Old Monk was a twelve-foot tall suit of living armor who spit lightning and crapped black phantoms. Yes, you'll be fighting them both at the same time. For the love of god, bring a friend. Then kill the Mirror Knight and take his shield. 'Tis the Dark Souls way.
I finally popped the co-op question, and while they were eager to let us know host players could now be invaded by one, two, or three enemies, they said the co-op would remain unchanged. No lobbies, no friends lists, no easy access to a co-op partner. Bummer. We'll have to play the game and see what, if any, changes have impacted co-op.
Covenants will also be back, but Matt and Brian offered no more details. There was a blank spot on the HUD which looked ripe for a covenant icon. I have a feeling that the two on two and three on one invasions might be connected to certain covenants, like the Gravelord from Dark Souls, but that's just speculation on my part.
Since From has negated some of the benefits of backstabbing and parries, I hope they eliminate dead angles, lag backstabs, and the invincibility frames from all evasive moves. That ought to throw a wrench in PvP. Oh, and you can get the drop damage bonus from jumping down stairs now, so there's that. I can't wait to see what else has changed.
Dark Souls 2 will support three player online co-op with a chance of PvP. It will launch on the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and PC in March of 2014.