Hunted's pitch is simple: it's Gears of Warcraft. A dark fantasy world with an over-abundance of three-foot-high walls has been invaded by nasty looking pseudo-orcs. The village shown in this early alpha version is empty, its villagers snatched by the invading menace. Two characters – beefcake warrior Caddoc, and lightly dressed elf E'lara – are on hand to send the orcs back to whatever icky hole they crawled from. On first sight, it's a foreheadslapping revelation: proper, meaty combat with third-person action, in fantasy setting.
It's tough keeping a secret in this industry. The porous nature of the internet and the huge pool of staff at work on one title means that details typically shrug the net of secrecy. So how inXile – baby of Interplay's founder and ex-CEO Brian Fargo – managed to slip a game like Hunted: The Demon's Forge through two years of solid development without any sniff of a reveal is a mystery.
“It really has been great to hear people say 'I'm surprised no one else has done this before'”, says Fargo. He's relieved to finally let people in to see Hunted, and honest about the game's recent influences. But he's also keen to stress how using another game's action shorthand aids the player in their immersion: “For sure, you can't ignore the Gears of War reference – there are millions of players familiar with that system that can pick it up and be comfortable with it in seconds.” Cover is paramount to the ranged side of the game, providing chunky, Unreal Enginepowered masonry and brickwork to duck behind as flaming bolts fly towards the screen, and a staging post from which to line up your own shots.
Both heroes are playable, designed to be played in tandem with a friend via online co-op. While they share a control system, they're unique in their strengths. Caddoc, standing around seven foot tall and with axes seemingly emanating from every orifice, is good at knitting. No, wait, not knitting! Melee combat. That's it. His elfin buddy, as well as possessing breasts of +3 later-life back pain, is more of an archer, loosing arrows from her bow with a speed and accuracy that only comes from wearing entirely no clothes.
It's the close-quarters fights that provide separation from direct comparisons with the game's peers. Fargo states: “When we started the project, the risk factor we identified was melee. Action games like GoW don't really do melee, so we focused on that first, and it feels good.” It looks good, too. Caddoc's cleaver thunks against clammy enemy skin, digging deep grooves into flesh and spraying the deep red contents of veins and arteries all over the screen. Messy. In the demo I was shown, Caddoc spent the early game as the point-man, dashing into conflicts to restrict the direct danger to the less well-armoured E'lara, while she wheeled around him, flicking arrows into the unprotected backs and necks of those foes distracted by an axe blade in their leg.
But E'lara is no weed in toe-to-toe combat. Overlapping abilities would be the name of the game, were it not Hunted: The Demon's Forge, and both characters have access to ranged and close-quarters weaponry. E'lara gets a wicked looking dagger, while the big man wields a clunky crossbow when fighting from distance – both of which add a level of nuance to their abilities.
A ranged fighter and a barbarian-esque warrior – what's missing? “We did have a third class, a wizard. But we were taking on so many things. You're best off doing fewer things right, so we ended up carrying on without that third character.” Instead, both E'lara and Caddoc are parttime magicians, replete with mini-tech tree to let them upgrade their wizarding abilities. Aim at a baddie with a standard fireball and they'll burst into flames; target your ally instead and you'll give them a buff. I was shown an example of this boost, E'lara re-focusing her lightning-chucking magic attack on Caddoc, bathing him in wooshy blue light and imbuing his already-humongous axe arm with even more smiting power.
Fargo repeats a mantra throughout both the game's demonstration and our interview: “Co-op at a distance.” At one point, Caddoc goes down, swamped by baddies as E'lara climbs to an upper battlement. Switching to a silver vial of liquid, she pulls her arm back, chucking the magic juice onto her friend's crawling form. Immediately, he's back up, E'lara's arrows whizzing into the throats of the enemies he can't reach with his tempered steel. Elated snatch-and-grab moments like these are what drives Hunted, and despite the game's recent touchstones, Fargo notes that ancient games have driven its evolution: “When I was playing Wizardry, I had to find my way out. I'd kick in one more door because I'm greedy, then get ambushed. I'd be taking hits to my back, running away, before finally I bust out of the top – I would jump up and dance around the room.”