Review: Hunted: The Demon's Forge
What does it take for a game to stick in a player's memory? For RPGs, it could be the writing of story and characters. For an action game, it might be the flexibility of movement and fluidity of combat. For a shooter, the graphics could be the centerpiece. For Hunted: The Demon Forge, it's none of the above. Perhaps that's why every time I exit the game, I remember little of what I just played through, and the only feeling that does remain is a compulsion to uninstall it.
The first thing one must come to grips with regarding Hunted is that it is an extremely shallow experience. I honestly can't remember the last time I played a game that demanded so little thought. I have literally never skipped, or been tempted to skip, a single line of dialogue in any game I've ever played. This one almost broke me. You are essentially just dropped into a generic fantasy world with skeletons and goblins, given no goal other than "treasure" and pointed in a direction. Your team is composed of a bald generic warrior named Caddoc and a "hot" generic elf named Elara. They have the most endearing relationship, one of constant teasing and an ongoing kill counting competition. Why does that sound familiar? Oh right, Legolas and Gimli had the exact same relationship in Lord of the Rings. I guess if you can't create your own original characters, the next best thing is to plagiarize from your betters. There's also some sort of demon girl that serves to say "Yeah, keep moving along the singularly linear path that's been constructed for you." Needless to say, no one is playing this game for the writing.
Combat is what everyone unfortunate enough to buy this game will be playing for. Where to begin? Well, first off, the concept of a warrior/archer combo team sounds great on paper. But there's one gigantic design problem to overcome: when Caddoc moves to engage enemies in melee, Elara has to sit and wait for a clear shot around her partner's hulking frame. Eventually, the idea of double-teaming enemies is necessarily dropped altogether and the divide and conquer tactic is cemented into place. But this flies in the face of the much-touted "Co-op perfected" tagline that the game has adopted, as you may as well play the single-player if you wanted to take on bad guys by yourself.
Diving deeper into each character, Caddoc is your typical melee fighter with the standard light attack, heavy attack and block. Every time he kills an enemy he builds up his rage meter until finally he can unleash a more devastating heavy swing. He also gets three upgradable melee skills which amount to a charge attack, a buff, and another heavy swing. Elara plays very similarly to Shepard from Mass Effect, a ranged archer that grabs the ubiquitous waist-high cover points scattered around and fires potshots at approaching enemies. Her upgrades boil down to different arrows: explosive, ice and anti-armor. In addition, both characters have access to three spells which can either be used to attack or buff their partner.
What's remarkable, in a game where literally nothing stands out as unique or bold, is how bland and stiff the combat is. Moving and sprinting feels very confined and clumsy, as does the cover system. It's all "adequate" but when one considers games like Assassin's Creed or Just Cause 2, games that give such amazing fluidity of control, there's just no excuse for such creaky movement.
Speaking of creaky, what is with these modern games releasing with such poor graphics engines lately? Last year it was Alpha Protocol, now we have Hunted, a game that looks like it would be been pretty in 2003. The textures and color are all very dark, muddy and bland, which while it can be argued was a stylistic choice, nevertheless serves to throw a wet blanket over the visuals. The lighting is sometimes done well (using torches and lit arrows in super-dark caves is mildly immersive) but on the whole, in 2003 fashion, most areas seem lit by a sort of universal light source, making whole environments feel flat and "pasted on".
Which is just as well because what little exploration there is in Hunted amounts to a 3D version of the old "hunt for the pixel" mechanic from 1990's adventure games. That is, the player must constantly be checking to see if this bit of ground or stairway or ramp is, in fact, traversable or just another invisible wall. Even when you find the special treasure troves, the enchanted weapons in the game are limited use and quickly become just as boring as the normal crap you were using. Combined with the dearth of armor upgrades, there's very little reason to venture off the beaten path in the first place.
To add even more "fun" to the exploration, sometimes you can actually get permanently stuck on ledges and ramps; these are level design bugs that actually punish you for trying to explore the ugly environments. And of course, in “glorious” console fashion, there is no manual save function and, as usual, the autosave checkpoints are way too far apart. So getting stuck on terrain means you lose a good fifteen to twenty minutes of gameplay.
As referenced above, the tagline "Co-op perfected" has been plastered all over the internet advertising and it seems to be another example of console game developers setting the bar very low. PC gaming has had a storied tradition of exceptional co-op gaming for decades now, going all the way back to the original Doom and continuing in an almost unbroken pattern to this very day. To put it simply, PC gamers are co-op aficionados and have been for a very long time. This game, while perhaps reaching the high water mark on consoles, where gamers have learned to accept horribly implemented or (more frequently) non-existent co-op gameplay, fails to touch even the low end of engaging co-op when compared to other PC games. Some design decisions even go so far as to hamper fluid joint playing such as the requirement of accessing arbitrarily placed "switching crystals" to change characters with your friend (the same constraint is also applied to skill distribution only allowing you to level up at specially designated "level up vortices"). Is the tedious combat more fun with a friend? Yes, of course, but that's a universal truth of all co-op gaming. Fable 3 is also more fun co-op but at least you don't see that mess of a game making ridiculous "Co-op perfected" claims. If anything, like a lot of games, this one is simply "Co-op leisurely thrown in for the hell of it". The sad truth of the matter is that Two Worlds 2's co-op multiplayer is much more fun than this, and that feature was hardly even advertised during its launch.
Finally, the Crucible was a feature that initially sounded exciting but ultimately proved to be just as hollow as the rest of the game. As you progress through the story mode, you gain building block components used to create custom dungeons; things such as new enemies, different equipment load-outs, microcosms of the different story environments and even some special rules like "no main weapons allowed". You then use those features to chain together a series of arena rooms in which to do battle. What at first seems like a very creative and easy to use dungeon toolset quickly shows itself to be nothing more than fancy menu for customizing the same sort of mindless arena battles that plague the story missions. Most players will tool around with it for an hour and then forget it, which itself is a microcosm of the whole Hunted experience.
If I were ever put on trial in some zany dystopic future and forced to defend to my preference for PC games, Hunted would be exhibits A through Z. From start to finish, it's tailor-made for the player that doesn't want anything but a button mashing frenzy. If it were any more arcade-y, it would make me type in my initials after playing so I could post my high score. This game is, in every conceivable way, a budget console title that no one should even consider paying more than $10 for. And even then, buyer beware.