Dark Souls 2 Hands-On Preview

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At the Mad Catz Unveiled event last month we got a chance to try out Dark Souls 2 – the latest in the hard-as-nails fantasy action-RPG from Namco Bandai. We died an awful lot, but the Namco rep assured us that was normal.

Beginning in a ruined and overgrown stone room the first thing to strike us was the increased visual fidelity. The character still seems to ‘pop’ a little bit in contrast to the environment but that gives the title its trademark dreamlike style, with its constant cycle of death, rebirth and learning the games quickly become surreal and nightmarish. Lighting effects have been worked on extensively and this is used to great effect throughout the demo, with torches providing much needed illumination in pitch black rooms – a rarity for many games.

The challenge is also present – with the exit from that initial room in the demo being not the obvious route (up the stairs, which are blocked off). Dark Souls 2 doesn’t hold your hand, much like the other titles didn’t either. There’s no tutorial on how to defeat each new type of enemy, there’s seemingly no waypoint to let you know where to go. You’re alone in this world so the frustrations are yours to deal with, but then so is the glory once you accomplish something.

Escaping down a ladder (don’t just run off the edge or you’ll lose half your health within seconds) you’re left in a large room with a cavernous fiery pit in the centre, and stone paths and bridges skirting the edge. Corpses return to life as you draw near, attack you with spears with slow-clumsy movements. We had a choice of four classes in the demo, picking the warrior we were given a shield with which to defend against this kind of lunge. Combat feels more refined than in Demon or Dark Souls, with the lock on system not trivialising the fighting but at least avoiding embarrassing situations where your blows go in completely the wrong direction. If you get behind an enemy we were told there were special backstab animations but we never managed to pull that off.

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Fighting through the zombie hordes without too much trouble (although the lack of a pause can be troubling when you’re holding a conversation at the same time) our first foray into a pitch black corridor was absolutely terrifying. Originally we hadn’t realised you could light a torch just before the entrance, so went in with the light of our amulet just about illuminating a foot or two in front of us. This glimmer caught upon the armour of a new enemy who appeared to be an ogre in shining steal. Far from slow and ponderous, he was charging around with a huge two-handed club, forcing us to leap and roll out of the way. A few attempts to take him on all ended in failure, so with the rep’s help we pushed through via the noble strategy of running like hell.

Within that dark corridor there’s an archer with irritatingly good night-vision and then once you’re through to the other side, more enemies teleport in through a haze of red mist; potentially massacring you in a quick flurry if you don’t keep moving. Once we’d mastered our cowardly way of dealing with those we were treated to one of the new features of the game – the teleporting bonfires.

To save some frustrations (and time) in the series, you can now use bonfires as teleports, warping between them to access new areas. In the demo, it warps you to a huge stone cathedral-esque building, with a room covered in (mostly) unlit candles. Each of these candles is a memory of a fallen hero, and when someone has died in that section, a new candle is lit. We were the first players that evening, and we already had three candles lit that the rep helpfully pointed out with glee. The idea of this game being more accessible is a myth, he states proudly. It’s less frustrating possibly, but the challenge remains full intact. This is a hardcore game still, but with some mechanics streamlined where they were ponderous rather than difficult.

Moving into the next room, a spectacular row of pairs of stone soldiers flanked the single path, with a wizard throwing blue fireballs at us from the other end. As we sprinted through, focusing on dodging the fire, some of the stone statues broke into life with glowing red eyes and alarming speed. Under the rep’s guidance, we pushed past the wizard and entered the mist veil at the end of the room.

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This takes you to the final room of the demo, a boss fight against the mirror knight. Bringing back memories of the N64 Zelda reveal – the mirror knight is huge and glad in reflective armour, with a giant mirror for a shield that can spawn new enemies, and a sword that can extended its reach through the use of lightning. We didn’t last long, even though we took him on three or four times. He’s surprisingly slow, pausing often before each attack, but when the attack comes you have a split-second to react or most of your health bar will be gone.

After our time with the demo, I’m convinced Dark Souls 2 is a game we’ll pick up at launch and then be terrible at. Much of it is still frustrating, items can take al ong time to use, it seems impossible or difficult to cancel out of animations so often you’re left helpless due to a poor decision a few milliseconds before the enemy began their tell, but that’s part of learning the game. While it might seem unforgiving, it’s not unfair, and player skill will win out over grinding or over-reliance on in-game tips. This is a game to learn and to revel in the joy of overcoming obstacles. Call of Duty and other action games could learn a lot from what they’re doing with this one.

The public can play Dark Souls 2 ahead of release at Eurogamer Expo this weekend in Earl’s Court London – the game will be released in March 2014 on PS3, Xbox 360 and PC

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