Hunted: The Demon’s Forge Review
I’ve spent a fair amount of time wondering why Hunted: The Demon’s Forge is called Hunted: The Demon’s Forge. I mean, the titular demon’s forge only turns up in the game’s closing act, and even then it’s meant purely as an analogy which you’ll miss if you’re not paying attention to the incidental dialogue.
As for the “hunted” part… well, our pair of protagonists (stoic, grumpy, and long-suffering warrior-type Caddoc, and elven psychopath E’lara) spend most of the game – when they’re not being snarky at each other – tracking a slave train. They’re not really “hunting” it, though, nor are they being hunted. They’re not even hunting the game’s villain, as they’re mercenaries hired to rescue a particular slave. I suppose “Tracking: An Analogy” doesn’t look quite so good on boxes, though. Doesn’t have quite the same amount of gravitas.
The reason I’ve been wondering this is because Hunted: The Demon’s Forge gives you plenty of time to space out and think about things. That’s not to say it’s dull – every time you fire it up, the first half-hour of play is an enjoyable rollercoaster as you wander brown ruins, green-brown forests, and more brown ruins, while shooting or hacking away at typical fantasy enemies. You have fun.
Then, somewhere along the way, the sheer repetition flicks a switch in your head and suddenly you’re playing on autopilot. Run forward. Shoot some Wargar. Shoot some more Wargar. Shoot some spiders. Duck behind cover. Shoot some more Wargar. Walk forward. Be snarky at Caddoc. Shoot some Wargar.
If you stop playing at this point and come back later, the next half-hour of play will once again be enjoyable. It’s weird.
The concept itself is also a little weird, admittedly. Hunted aims to combine Gears of War-esque cover shooting with hack-’n'-slash action, all in a dark fantasy world. Because these two gameplay elements are fairly disparate, we have two protagonists you can swap between at regular waypoints, whether in single-player or co-op.
E’lara is the ranged expert, ostensibly meant to sit behind cover and fire arrows at distant targets. Caddoc is the melee beast, designed to wade into combat and crack heads with swords, axes, clubs, and anything else that has a bit of weight and is made of metal. Neither are exclusively restricted to these particular styles – E’lara has a short sword and shield for close-range action, while Caddoc has a slow-firing crossbow for ranged targets – but each does far more damage with their intended weapons.
Their individual abilities tie into this, too. It’s most definitely asymmetrical co-op, with an emphasis on “co-op”: E’lara has arrows that can explode, freeze enemies, or shatter shields, while Caddoc can go into a berserker rage, charge at distant targets, and perform a point-blank area-of-effect “stun” which lifts enemies into the air. These abilities complement the other player nicely; Caddoc can shatter frozen enemies, while those floating in the air are fodder for E’lara’s arrows, with each getting a nice damage boost against afflicted enemies. Likewise, Caddoc can go toe-to-toe with shielded enemies while E’lara runs behind and shoots at them where they’re weak. Each player can also buff the other with spells to massively increase their damage.
This is the idea, anyway, although it doesn’t always work that well. To prevent too much reliance on each other (and, presumably, to prevent the game from getting too difficult when working with an incompetent ally) there are no obstacles that are particularly insurmountable by yourself, and indeed, the game’s arena-like nature (enemies tend to spawn all around you, so E’lara can’t just hide in the back) means that you’re often fending off different groups of enemies. Caddoc might take the left, while E’lara takes the right. This does not pose many problems, and quite frankly it’s one of the things that makes the game so repetitive. You don’t have to think or co-operate except in the toughest of encounters – you just need to keep firing or slashing, and maybe throw a buff or resurrection vial at the other player if they get overwhelmed. Indeed, the game becomes much easier for E’lara players once you realise that you really don’t need to take cover – circle-strafing and firing without bothering to use fine aim works marvellously.
Not that you need to take along another player. (In fact, you might not want to; while Xbox LIVE play works wonderfully, the split-screen option constricts the screen space so much it’s practically worthless.) If you decide to go it alone then the AI takes control of the other character, and despite a few quirks it copes admirably. I have seen it get stuck on scenery once or twice but it always appears next to you when you move onto the next area, and while it has a nasty habit of throwing buffs at the end of fights rather than at the beginning, it rarely dies and it’s most definitely not a liability. Top marks for that, and a fervent hope that Capcom takes notes next time we get a Lost Planet or Resident Evil.
Because it’s the done thing these days, there are also RPG elements. You pick up crystals along the way which can be traded in, either for buffs to your individual abilities or for spells. Reaching certain milestones (finding a certain number of secret areas or hidden items, or killing a certain number of enemies) also grants you extra powers, like more damage or the ability to carry more potions. There are all sorts of weapons to find, all of which have different properties – slow weapons are more powerful, of course (with E’lara’s slower bows acting like sniper rifles) while faster weapons allow Caddoc to interrupt attacks and E’lara to fire with a machine-gun rapidity.
Surprisingly for a game this linear (generally speaking, once you’ve entered a new room, you can’t backtrack at all) there are also side-quests. Even more shockingly, they’re mostly better than the main game. These don’t tend to be a case of “solve a puzzle, get a treasure”, but often involve entire side-dungeons with atmospheres, mini-bosses, “puzzles” (usually involving lighting torches) and stories all of their own. Again, I approve.
So, yes, Hunted has lots of wonderful elements… but none of them tie together particularly well, and the game seems so keen on being accessible to everyone that it never really does anything with them.
The side-quests are interesting, yes, but it’s all-too-easy to accidentally move past an area before finishing one, and the verve and style they show rarely crop on the main path – which I can only assume is so that people who want to cruise through without hardship can do so.
Then there’s the combat. E’lara’s bow doesn’t feel particularly powerful, and – when zoomed – its crosshair never seems to quite line up with where you actually hit, so you inevitably give up on headshots and fine aim, instead just opting to let the auto-aim handle things. Caddoc’s melee bashing is fine, but there’s nothing particularly special or surprising about it; don’t expect massive combos or varied attacks.
This isn’t aided by the uneven pacing, with each individual battle going on for far too long with far too many waves spawning (to the extent that I thought the game had bugged in one ludicrously extended battle.) You shoot, shoot, shoot, and bash, bash, bash… and then, inevitably, you just drift off and start thinking about something else while continuing to sail on through the game.
The graphics make this even more of a problem – they’re pretty, but the art-style isn’t particularly unique and even the forests seem to be tinted brown. We’ve seen it all before. Shoot, shoot, shoot. Bash, bash, bash. Think about what’s for tea.
There are also some definite negatives, mind you. The plot is cookie-cutter basic and our protagonists are so forehead-slapping stupid, particularly with regards to working out when people might be fibbing, that the box should come with a warning that you might inadvertently crack your own skull. The game falls apart a little at the end, too, with the last pair of acts featuring a load of invisible walls boxing you in.
But these aren’t big problems, and I actually feel bad for damning Hunted with faint praise. It’s categorically not a bad game, and there are some wonderful ideas on display. Did I mention that the leads are well voice-acted and have a genuine and enjoyable camaraderie? Did I mention that there’s a fairly comprehensive level editor, with new options unlocking as you collect gold in the main game? These are very good things, and both are distressingly rare in games.
If you’re after a stop-gap before Gears of War 3 comes out, this might well fit the bill. Take your time, root around for secrets, play sporadically, and chances are good that you’ll warm to the game. It’s just a shame that the wonderful ideas aren’t pushed nearly hard enough and that the game, as a result, feels overwhelmingly generic.