When Matt Findley says "we're bringing dungeon crawling back" I can't help but picture the inXile co-founder and president wearing a waistcoat with the shirt sleeves rolled up. Then, in my mind, he starts Moonwalking to a fat beat... while demoing Hunted: The Demon's Forge to a room full of hung-over game journalists... with an Xbox 360 pad in his hands.
But this is the games industry, and, generally, the word "sexy" doesn't apply. Game creators don't have names like Justin Timberlake, can't dance like Michael Jackson and aren't, generally, fit (is Cliff Bleszinski fit?).
Instead, game creators tend to look like middle-aged Dungeons & Dragons fans, tend to have names like Matt Findley and tend to work for companies called something like inXile Entertainment. And make games with silly titles, like Hunted: The Demon's Forge.
So, when Matt Findley says "we're bringing dungeon crawling back" there's absolutely no chance of some impossibly attractive woman popping out on stage to lick his face.
In any case, to say Hunted is bringing dungeon crawling back only tells half the story. It's a dungeon crawler in the sense that there are dark, dank dungeons to explore, but really it's a third-person two-player co-op cover-based action game.
"I can remember design meetings back in the mid-Nineties at Interplay when we were making a game called Stonekeep," Matt recalls.
"It was this beautiful rendered dungeon crawl type product. We were looking at the game thinking, man, some day the technology is going to exist that is going to allow us to do this in real time 3D. And we're going to have flying cars and it's going to be great!
"We were waiting for the technology to catch up with the dream. We started messing around with the Unreal Engine 3 a few years ago and we realised the technology had completely caught up to us. It was time to try to realise the dream and bring the genre back."
This is the crux of what you need to know about Hunted: it's old school in a very modern way. If the phrase "dungeon crawler" gives you the fear, fear not, because Hunted's reality is more Gears of War than Diablo.
Extending the comparison with Epic's sci-fi epic, Hunted's Marcus and Dom are E'lara and Caddoc, two mercenaries on the hunt for gold. E'lara, a scantily clad ranger, fires arrows from a bow. Caddoc is a huge, burley sword master who, unlike E'lara, likes to get up close and personal with his enemies, parrying their attacks with a shield and slicing and dicing with a giant blade.
E'lara and Caddoc look as stereotypically heroic fantasy as they sound. E'lara might have been spat out by that computer from Weird Science, and Caddoc's broad shoulders might have been carved from the same stone used to fashion He-Man. But to criticise Hunted's generic design is to criticise gaming; a medium spammed to within an inch of its life with dwarves and elves and magic spells and demons and orcs and blazing torches.
The combat is based on three styles - ranged, melee and magic - but E'lara and Caddoc play very differently. E'lara, who glides across the battlefield as if walking down a catwalk, hides behind cover, popping out every now and again to fire off arrows at skeletons and demons and orcs. Sometimes, when enemies go down but not out, you have the option to do a context sensitive execution move. In E'lara's case, the camera follows her arrow as it zips across the air into the unlucky enemy's flesh. Or bones, if they're a skeleton.
Caddoc, on the other hand, moves his planet-sized frame with a Hercules-like gravitas. His attack style combines sword swipes with shield bashes; he's a tank in the most traditional fantasy sense. And unlike E'lara, Caddoc's execution moves are all about being up in his enemies' faces. One sees him rip a skeleton's arm off and knock its head clean off with it. Nice.
While you'll get a very different experience from each character, both share an aptitude for magic. E'lara, for example, can create a halo of lightning energy around Caddoc, called Battle Charge, which buffs him for a short period of time. If enough points are spent in the appropriate skill, Caddoc can use elemental weapons. The game fuses tried and trusted role-playing mechanics - weapon upgrading and skill trees - with more fluid action combat, which, hopefully, will please both camps.
Caddoc and E'lara banter quite a bit, commenting on sights and sounds and smells and, after a fight's over, one another's performance. Imagine Uncharted 2, but more serious, and gravely, and fantasy. Caddoc's the cautious one. E'lara seems to get off on the bloodshed. During scraps, both offer advice - thinly veiled audio clues for the player to hopefully pick up on. In one arena-style fight, Caddoc suggests E'lara climbs to higher ground to rain down arrow death on lots of horrible skeletons. Later, Caddoc tells E'lara to shoot ropes to bring down a drawbridge, allowing the pair to climb to safety. There are lots of skeletons - lots and lots - and they come thick and fast, hissing and screaming and clawing and swarming in a zombie-like fashion
From what we've seen, Hunted's combat could use a bit more pizazz. It looks perfectly enjoyable, but something's lacking - a wow factor, a killer attack, some kind of spectacular spell or brutal barrage of bloody death that will make the game more exciting than it currently looks. This is what it needs to be successful, to be essential.
Matt, however, will no doubt point to the game's sense of exploration and discovery and puzzle solving as evidence of its uniqueness. Indeed this is what his demonstration is designed to showcase: The old-school puzzle solving and optional off the beaten path dungeon crawling that, if the player's up to the challenge, will reap lovely rewards. "We want everyone to stop and look around and think a little bit. We've been dumbing games down for 20 years. We're trying to come up with better ways to make them smart again."
In the flesh, Hunted's exploration calms the game's frenetic pace down considerably, adding a layer of suspense and tension for those who seek it out. Out in the open, it's a pretty game, with lots of green shrubbery, grey ruins and fantastical beams of magic. But it is at its best deep down in the dark, where the lighting has a chance to shine and the Unreal Engine 3 shows its quality. It is here, deep within Hunted's virtual bowel, that we are most impressed. Dungeon exploration is tense - the hiss of horrible skeletons breaks the silence at almost every turn. There's a moment when the game goes deathly quiet. E'lara whispers to Caddoc: "Shh. Don't move." Then bang! A horrible scorpion spider monster thing bursts out of the wall and eats Caddoc alive. You feel under threat, which is good, because you are, always, under threat.
Central to the side quests is an ancient artefact called the Deathstone. Using it to interact with dead bodies fills in gaps in the plot and provides clues to finding secret items hidden throughout the world. One of these is a magic axe, annoyingly displayed on a platform just out of reach. "Now we just have to figure out how to get there," Caddoc observes. To do it, E'lara needs to light her arrows on fire, then light braziers in the order hinted at in the Deathstone's riddle. Another puzzle, which involves clearing a passage filled with water deep down in a creepy dungeon, is designed for Caddoc and E'lara to combine their special abilities. As E'lara uses fire arrows to light braziers, Caddoc pushes huge objects (a special skill of his), revealing levers and other puzzley video game things that need to be pushed and pulled to progress. "Whenever you encounter a lever in a dungeon, you always have to throw it," Matt says. Truer words were never spoken.
After Hunted's initial reveal, the specialist game press labelled it Gears of Warcraft and Spears of Gore. Matt accepts the comparison with a smile. "We thought that was pretty funny," he says, laughing. "We took that as a compliment. We think comparisons to Gears of War are great. Those are great products. But we designed this demo specifically to try to show what thirty minutes of actual gameplay would be as far as pacing, level of exploration and action.
"We really believe that what we have is something that's significantly deeper than most of the modern action game genre. We certainly consider ourselves in the foundation of an action cover combat game, but we like this level of wonder and exploration and secrets and all this extra content that's off the critical path that if you're clever enough to figure out how to get to it, you can find it."
Hunted: The Demon's Forge is due out on the Xbox 360, PS3 and PC early next year.