"Co-op is in its infancy," says Matt Findley, the exuberant president of InXile Entertainment. I'd be inclined to agree with him. When we enlist the help of a friend to play a game, what do they bring to the table other than extra firepower? Brains and merry banter, perhaps, but this doesn't affect the core gameplay in any fundamental way. Findley isn't claiming that Hunted: The Demon's Forge is the evolution of co-operative play, but he's confident it's a step in the right direction. Designed with two players in mind from the word go, much like Army of Two, Hunted isn't the kind of game you're going to want to pass up playing with a pal (although I've been assured it's just as entertaining for Billy-no-mates, too). It's also the first cover-based shooter to be set in a 'proper' fantasy universe (sorry Quantum Theory, you don't count), which has given the game its hilarious nickname, Gears of Warcraft.
Thankfully, there's not a space marine in sight. While the burly Caddoc looks like a Middle Earth interpretation of Andre Agassi, the elven E'Lara appears to have just wandered out of a kinky bondage session. They're an interesting pair, and while you might expect Caddoc - with his shaved head and sculpted muscles - to be the more dominant of the duo, it's actually E'Lara who seems to wear the trousers (not that she actually wears any, the saucy minx). She's more bloodthirsty than her sword-wielding partner too, with good looks that belie her passion for battle.
Co-op might be the big attraction here, but I still had to complete a short tutorial on my lonesome before I was able to partner up with the chap sat opposite me (some German dude). The opening level follows the wandering mercenaries as they search for the Fountain of Elisha, as directed by a mysterious woman in Caddoc's dreams. E'Lara likes to give Caddoc a hard time for his crazy visions, but she tags along for the ride regardless.
It's the elf and her bow that you get to take control of first, and it isn't long before some fodder for your arrows emerge from the undergrowth; spider-like beasties known as Arachlings. Pressing A to snap to cover, I fired off a few fantastical missiles as my AI comrade charged head first into battle. With arms like logs, Caddoc is far more lethal in close quarters than his elven counterpart, but obviously not as proficient at range. It was therefore my job to hang back and contribute to the fray from afar, picking my targets wisely to ensure Caddoc only had to deal with one opponent at a time. While it didn't matter too much in these introductory battles, playing to the strengths of your character becomes increasingly important as you progress through the game.
The cover mechanic is reassuringly familiar, but this is where similarities to Gears of War and its ensemble of clones end. Hunted is a co-op dungeon crawler at heart, with a bevy of spells, potions and more weapons than you can shake a goblin at. Considering how poorly the genre has been represented over the last few years, this will be music to the ears of crawler fans. With this and Diablo III on the way at some point soon, this may be the kindle required to spark a revival.
No sooner have you acquainted yourself with ranged combat than the game swaps your bow and arrow for a sword and bulging pair of biceps. The character-switching orbs that make this possible are available during co-op play too, meaning if you ever get bored of one character there's always the option to swap to the other - provided your buddy doesn't mind. The remainder of the tutorial has you fending off hordes of skeletons in a more traditional hack-n-slash manner, becoming the usual affair of mashing X to string together a combo. With the basics of combat and a vague sense of the story squirreled away in my mind, I skipped to halfway through the first chapter for a proper look at the co-op side of things.
My partner was quick to bagsy Caddoc, which worked well as I found the bow and arrow to offer a slightly more interesting experience than the sword anyway. The majority of the mission took place in a dank network of caves, which we had been ordered to scour for a missing person; the daughter of a wealthy quest-giver. It was here I got my first sense of how puzzles had been designed with two players in mind. As E'Lara, it was my job to carry a special blue flame on the tip of my arrow, which had to be delivered to certain areas around the cave in order to progress. If I changed weapon or was knocked down in combat, this flame would be extinguished. It was therefore up to my partner, my muscley sword-wielding saviour, to escort me to the relevant locations around the cave and make sure this didn't happen.
Everything you do in the game - every puzzle, battle and boss fight - has been designed to involve both players. I needed Caddoc (and the German guy pressing his buttons) just as much as he needed me, and the game punished me for ignoring this. At times I got bored of my partner's frequent dilly-dallying, and rushed off to deliver the flame on my own. This was a decision I'd quickly regret, as skeleton warriors jumped out the gloom, and - being unable to switch to my sword - I was unable to adequately defend myself. Being kicked back to an old checkpoint due to my recklessness earned me disapproving glances from across the room.
While co-op functionality is tightly wrapped around the game's core mechanics, I didn't feel like Hunted offered anything particularly interesting in terms of its minute-to-minute gameplay. It felt generic, not just in its tired approach to combat, but also its portrayal of a fantasy setting. I only saw an hour or so, however, and like all good dungeon crawlers, the best stuff is likely to be nestled away in the latter hours of the game. With a decent investment of time, it's likely my opinion on the game could change, especially when I factor split-screen play with a certain friend of mine into the equation. Decent co-op experiences are thin on the ground, and while my time with Hunted failed to fill me with enthusiasm, I'm looking forward to seeing what else the game has to offer.
Hunted: The Demon's Forge is due for release on Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC on June 3.