An RPG that doesn’t feature female characters designed by a sexually frustrated 14 year-old boy…oh wait.
Touted for the longest while as a ‘Gears of Swords’ by dint of it’s Gears-style cover mechanic and it’s emphasis on cooperative combat over character development, Bethesda’s action hack’n’slash RPG, Hunted: The Demon’s Forge, has little time for ponderous stat menus or especially intricate skill trees. This is an unfussy ARPG – all ‘swords and boards’, to quote the game itself – a physical, brutal fantasy adventure beat-’em-up for the Gears generation. Developed by inXile Entertainment, Hunted attempts to bring together traditional fantasy RPG tropes with more modern gaming innovations and play mechanics. It’s an interesting experiment and one that largely succeeds.
Hunted’s unfolding tale of two seasoned, cynical mercenaries out to make themselves a fortune as blades for hire in the violent, brooding Tolkienesque world of Kala Moor springs few, if any, narrative surprises. E’lara is a master Elven huntress, highly skilled with a bow and ranged combat. She also appears to have been designed by a sexually frustrated fourteen year-old boy. Her companion, the man-mountain Caddoc, is a human tank of a warrior who’s preferred fighting style is more ‘axe-to-the-face’ than considered strategy. Both our main protagonists can switch between melee or ranged combat at will and both have equal access to the games’ spell tree – so much so that they share exactly the same spells, which is a pity as there was real scope here to introduce some variety between the types of enhancements and spells available to each. Selectable as playable characters throughout the game at signposted locations, the player is left to decide which of the two they would rather inhabit; the game very rarely forces the choice, so it is possible to complete the game almost entirely without ever switching.
Voice acting and characterisation is pleasantly entertaining. Caddoc and E’lara are a likeable pair; like an old married couple they playfully taunt and tease each other, but the player understands immediately that these two have a shared history together, many prior experiences which are occasionally referenced in conversation. As they journey through their world adventuring (and slaying) they constantly exchange pertinent observations and humorous asides, but – refreshingly – they don’t resort to bad language and despite E’lara’s blatantly sexualised appearance (she is barely contained by her revealing ‘armour’, after all) the game is somehow all but free of crudity and innuendo.
The combat in Hunted works well. E’lara and Caddoc are a team – Caddoc usually rushing in to knock heads together while E’lara hangs back, ideally from behind cover, to pick off targets from distance. Trusting one’s fate to an AI buddy can often be a fraught business and sadly the AI in Hunted can occasionally – and often inexplicably – get itself rooted to the spot or stuck behind some piece of scenery. It won’t break the game but it can be frustrating. Enemy AI appears to be functional, if not especially bright. The Orc-like Wargar will snipe with arrows from afar, while grunts and armoured warrior types come in close for some fisticuffs. There are a pleasing variety of enemy types – some rely mostly on magic while others, like the slow-moving Minotaurs, get by on sheer bulk (and watch out for their nasty charge). Hunted’s cover mechanic, roadie run and all, is ripped straight out of the Gears of War developer manual – and frankly that’s no bad thing. If it works well and if it serves the game’s purpose it’s a sound design choice. It really can be fun, playing as E’lara, to take up position to the rear of the action, ducking in and out of cover, sniping away as Caddoc hammers the Wargar hordes up front. Boss encounters are brief and rarely present any serious challenge.
Whilst the story, such as it is, never threatens to overwhelm the action, Hunted does go so far as to introduce welcome elements such as corpses that will, in spirit form, reveal snippets of their own tragic backstory, thus affording the player some context for their actions and for the events unfolding around them. This ‘Lore’ is then accessed via a menu option, along with individual character bios, stats and a bestiary. More importantly – and with serious implications for the way the game finally plays out – a substance known as ‘sleg’ is introduced part way through the tale. This vile liquid can imbue anyone who drinks it with truly superhuman powers for a limited time – but it comes with a very heavy cost. The game makes no effort to influence or explain any of this to the player. Suffice to say that whatever the player decides, the consequences of their relationship with ‘sleg’ will resonate far into the endgame.
Hunted was designed in Unreal3. It is sadly not the very best example of what the now ubiquitous game engine is capable of. There is no denying there are graphical irritations – from quirky animations, stuttering movement and uneven lighting, to poor shadowing and a disappointing lack of anti aliasing. It’s also a fact that the PC version of this multi-format game runs only in DX9. inXile claim this is because they wanted to ‘maintain parity’ between each of the three development platforms (360 and PS3 being the other two), but to many PC gamers this explanation is cold comfort and smacks of penny-pinching and ‘consolification’. Still, with a multi-core CPU and a beefy graphics card behind it, Hunted will mostly manage to acquit itself fairly well in DX9. One can only imagine how much more impressive this game might have looked in full DX11. Alas. The developer made a point, at least, of including the very highest resolution textures for this PC version of the game. Hunted also comes with built-in support for the 360 controller as an alternative to keyboard and mouse for those who prefer to play their games that way. A nice touch.
Special mention should go to the game’s art direction. Anyone at all impressed with the ‘Mines of Moria’ section in Peter Jackson’s Fellowship of the Ring will adore the many multilevelled cavernous, subterranean dungeons inXile’s talented level designers have cooked up. They really are marvels to behold and effortlessly immerse the player in surroundings clearly inspired by Weta Digital’s unforgettable set designs for LotR. The game’s locations are all consistently fun to explore – and while Hunted, a rigidly linear experience, cannot make any sensible claim to offer true player freedom, there are countless occasions where a slower, more curious player will find themselves rewarded with gold, new weapons and crystals for poking about in the darkest of corners, or for taking a detour down a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it concealed entrance. It’s even possible to pass by entire sub-levels if you are in too much of a hurry, so a slower, more considered approach to clearing every inch of every map is definitely advised. The temptation is to run’n’gun your way through every map. Don’t do it.
Kudos must also be given to inXile for the inclusion of Crucible, a bespoke level-editor outside of the main game which facilitates the building of modular custom maps assembled from many of the game’s more memorable locations. Whilst many PC gamers will bemoan the absence of the ‘proper’ UnrealEd level design software, Crucible makes a fair attempt to provide the game with some measure of longevity. Pre-made ‘arenas’ are strung together in any combination and populated with player-specified load-outs (enemy types, weapon sets, locations, perks and pick-ups, etc). These custom maps can be very lengthy or as simple as just one arena, and all can be saved to disk and/or uploaded to share with other Hunted players. Gold earned during the Story Mode is used to unlock ever-more features within Crucible, further expanding the choice of options available to map-makers (as well as providing yet more loot-collecting incentive in the main game). All custom maps built in Crucible can be played cooperatively online as well as offline against and with AI.
What Hunted might lack in depth and complexity it more than makes up for with it’s addictive, physical gameplay. inXile’s ambition is writ large and this statement of intent resonates throughout the game’s many stunning vistas and irresistible dungeons. That Hunted is stymied by numerous pratfalls and minor technical and creative glitches is a pity, but none of these manage to break the game, nor do they prevent the player from enjoying what is, in the end, a hugely engaging romp through a beautifully-realised, dark and deadly world of monsters and magic.