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Hunted: The Demon's Forge: "We've been thinking about making this game for over 20 years"

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What happens when you splice Gears of War with a dungeon-crawler and then dress it up in classic swords 'n' skulls magical fantasy? You get Hunted: The Demon's Forge, also affectionately known as Gears of Warcraft. We play through a full level with president Matt Finlay, president of developer inXile, who tells us why he's been waiting 20 years to make this game.

“We've always wanted to update the dungeon crawl,” begins Finlay. “If you think about its origins as tabletop Dungeons & Dragons, that was a co-op experience – you and your buddies versus the Dungeon Master. We wanted to create that experience, but set it in a way that's much more recognisable to a wider audience. I love action games – you can do them in outer space, you can do them in World War II, you can kill zombies – but the genre I care about the most just wasn't represented.”

We played through a near-finished level about four chapters into the game, backed up by an AI companion, and then Matt jumped in to help us through the co-op demo that was premiered back at QuakeCon. It's worth saying that Hunted is built for co-op; there's no difference between the single-player and multiplayer campaign levels, and the AI is designed to be smart enough to compensate.

"Uncompromisingly violent"

It's also worth saying that Hunted is pretty uncompromisingly violent. It's fantasy, sure, but Hunted can be as gruesome as Gears.

“We have a love of modern action games, cover-based action games, and we love the fantasy genre, so what we're trying to do is bring those two behemoth things together,” begins Finlay. “If you've played any action game in the last five years, you already understand our controls.”

Sure enough, it plays like a cover-based shooter – snapping into cover behind a tomb, we can blast skeletons from afar with magic or projectiles, or head in with the X button and a improbably large sword to remove skeletal limbs from bodies.

The two characters – Caddoc, the tank, and E'lara, the elven female with the Obligatory Fantasy Apostrophe in her name – really are two entirely different kettles of fish. Caddoc is much stronger with melee, whereas E'lara's tendency is to find high cover and pepper enemies with enchanted arrows. Their different abilities are such that you really have to work together in combat, backing each other up and knowing when to let the other character take the lead.

Battle-charging is a big part of this enforced teamwork – if you hold down the magic casting button, you'll imbue your companion with extra strength. The AI seems to be very good at knowing when to do this. When we're in danger of being overwhelmed by a minotaur, our AI E'lara charges up our weapon with a fire spell. She also seems to know exactly where to go, pointing us in the right direction when we get lost in a graveyard searching for the one remaining enemy.

“I want the singleplayer game to feel like you're playing a co-op game,” says Matt. “We're making the AI smart, and also making them true to their personalities – her tendency is to try and take high cover, and his is to run out into the middle of the room and smash things with a sword.” If you stick a lot of upgrade crystals into particular abilities, he adds, the AI will know that those are the ones you'll want it to use, and adapts its combat behaviour accordingly.

"Action action action"

Hunted isn't just about the combat. This is a game descended from dungeon-crawlers, as Finlay explains, so it's supposed to be a world worth exploring. “A lot of the time, this game is action action action, but I keep talking about exploration and our love of old-school dungeon crawls. Once you've killed all the creatures in an area, we want to try and reward you for taking the time to look around.

“We have a lot of the concepts of those older games that we love – the exploration, the magic, the creepy mouths giving you riddles that you have to solve to open secret doors and find magic weapons. We want to have the spirit and the soul of the old-school dungeon crawl, but really have a visceral, swords and magic based action game as well.”

Hunted's aesthetic speaks volumes for the developer's love of the fantasy genre. There are musty cave walls whose rock formations morph into an ancient-looking face, giving you a puzzle to solve in order to open a secret door to a magical weapon. There are luminescent forests glowing with some obscure magic. There are passageways so dark that E'lara has to hold a flaming arrow aloft so that you can see.

Finlay feels the time is finally right for a fantasy action game; until now, the technology just wasn't there. “We've been thinking about making this game for over 20 years,” he says. “We started InXile in about 2002, Brian Fargo and myself, and before that I worked with Brian at Interplay for about 13 years. Throughout all the games we made at Interplay, Dragon Wars, Stonekeep, there was this love for the old-school dungeon crawl. We always wanted to reinvent the dungeon crawl, so the idea here was, how do we take some old-school elements of the dungeon crawl and weave them into a modern cover-based action game?”

Hunted was a little ropey when we played it – some puzzles didn't work, enemy behaviour could often descend into random slashing at inanimate objects and we fell through the scenery once or twice – but this is very early code, and the more important things like the co-operative dynamic and the look and feel of the world and its characters are already firmly in place.

Hunted is due out Q1 2011. There's a few new bits of concept art below.

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