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Dark Souls 2: a great communal gaming experience

Rage against the designers all you like, every death in From Software's dark RPG series boils down to "you just made a prat of yourself". Is it any wonder Phil Owen found Dark Souls 2 makes a great party game?

Whenever I played Dark Souls or Demon's Souls, I did it alone, in the dark, and for like 20 minutes at a time. But that's not how it should be done, and that became very clear to me at Namco Bandai's pre-E3 press event, where they put out a bunch of stations with a new Dark Souls 2 demo running on them, and let us have at it.

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The demo itself is wonderful, even for a guy like me who struggled immensely from the get-go because I was out of practice. But after a couple dumb deaths against standard skeleton enemies I was able to make some progress, and I reached the first of three highlights of the level we were shown. I was forced to do battle with what looked like a giant metal turtle standing upright and swinging a big hammer. My shield was useless against that hammer, because one blow would wipe out my stamina, and so I dodged and rolled and got behind him and banged on his shell. He was a slow dude, and so it wasn't hard to maneuver behind him.

And then this turtle guy, being a total bastard, fell backwards hard right on me, killing me in one hit. I yelled some bad words, and laughter erupted from behind me. Much to my chagrin, other members of the press had been watching me play, and they found my death-by-turtle-shell to be quite entertaining. And so I laughed, too, realizing that a game this evil and punishing, it turns out, is not so totally upsetting when other people are in the room.

Folks were passing around the controller as they died. Four of the kneeling statues came to life and began attacking. Words like “f**k” and “s**t” and “oh god,” etc. echoed around the room as the player absolutely got his ass kicked. We all got a good laugh out of it.

I gave it another go to little success, and then passed the controller to another journalist. I joined the crowd in spectating. This guy, a far more practiced veteran of the series than I am, quickly made it to the turtle guy and took him down using the big, two-handed sword. It turns out he's not so hard to kill if you're quick on the dodge rolls and don't stand behind him for too long. Once you understand his gimmick, it's simply a matter of patience and not being super aggressive, which is obviously something most fans of the series have figured out by now.

After grinding through some more standard enemies, our hero encounters a bridge lined with kneeling statues and a frightening-looking wizard at the end. Whoever was in control at that point – folks were passing around the controller as they died – stormed across the bridge toward the wizard, only to discover that four of the kneeling statues came to life and began attacking him. Words like “f**k” and “s**t” and “oh god,” etc. echoed around the room as the player absolutely got his ass kicked. We all got a good laugh out of it.

By this point there was a crowd of seven, including myself, hovering over one demo station. We had all tried the game, and were taking turns after watching each other fail to complete the really-rather-short demo. But we learned from seeing others play. But Dark Souls 2 is not easily conquered, even after you've figured out what tactics are best for your class.

One player, for example, rushed the bridge and smashed two of the living statues with his big sword and then retreated, fighting off the other two while dodging backwards. He still didn't beat them, though another player tried the same thing and did succeed. Charging toward the wizard on the other side of the bridge, then, caused the world to sort of warp, making it appear as if the bridge itself was tilting to the right while the wizard cast spells at the player. The wizard wasn't really too tough, though.

And then, finally was the mirror knight, which was, as you might have guess, is a knight with mirrored armor and a mirror for a shield that spawns standard enemies. No one at this preview event was able to defeat this guy. No one!

One of the product managers for the game told me that they learned a big lesson from their E3 demo for the original Dark Souls, which had been beaten by a lot of the folks who tried it. Yeah.

I'm sure there were folks there who found themselves frustrated by the experience, but those of us who had gathered around one station grasped the communal nature of this single-player experience. Yes, there were many an exasperated curse yelled out – although maybe that was just me – but there was far more laughter as we simply enjoyed watching each other screw up, and I know that when I took the controller the presence of other people watching certainly eased the pain of failure.

The lesson here? Dark Souls 2, somehow, could be THE pass-around-the-controller party experience of 2014. Sure, there are gonna be folks who take this game very seriously, and more power to them. But if Namco wants to turn Dark Souls into a AAA-level franchise by attracting folks who aren't so hardcore, as they have indicated they do, they need only emphasize that watching your friends be slaughtered by unforgiving AI is an absolutely hilarious thing.

Dark Souls 2 is due on PC, PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 in March 2014.

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