"The developers were able to maintain that awesome sense of exploration and dread that keeps players on their toes."
Two hours isn't enough time for Dark Souls. It just isn't. Many will agree that you don't find your rhythm in one of these games until you're quite a few hours in, and even then you're still just fighting your way through a world that wants nothing more than to see you bent and broken under its oppressive atmosphere and sense of dread. Below you'll find my initial impressions on the first phase of this Beta, and I'll go into more depth when the network trial opens back up at the end of October.
The big question on everyone's mind is clearly, "Did they screw up Dark Souls?" The short answer is "no," but there are enough changes to give a great deal of excitement and some slight trepidation to this fan. After selecting a character class (I was able to choose between a wealth of melee options and a couple of spellcasters) I spawned into the world next to my faithful bonfire. That familiar sense of gloom quickly crept back into my spine as I got my bearings and realized I was in a massive forest-like environment at dusk. The game nudged me to an ominous looking cave and I had to enter without a torch to guide my way in the incredibly low light (I recommend turning the brightness up when you get the chance to play, because this mother is DARK!). It also seems like the developers are pushing for more interaction between the player and the environment. In one room, you can destroy some boards that are blocking light from illuminating the room, and we've all seen the demos where the player can light a torch and carry it around.
Right away, I can tell that the developers of Dark Souls II get what made the previous game so appealing and riveting; they were able to maintain that awesome sense of exploration and dread that keeps players on their toes. Enemies wait in ambush while you explore the world and carefully march over to that glowing trinket on the ground. Archers pepper you with arrows from the shadows when you think all is clear, and the first large enemy you face can easily kill in one or two hits. The soul of Dark Souls seems to have made the transition in directors, which was probably everyone's biggest worry after DSII was first announced.
What has changed significantly is the sense of movement and weight added to the player's actions. Where Demon's and Dark Souls felt like you were gliding around the environment, DSII makes you really feel each and every step of your character. You feel a really "sticky" relationship with the ground, and I can't really tell if this is a good or bad thing. Again, two hours isn't enough time to truly master a video game, but I was initially put off by the more methodical movement. I was able to figure things out, though, and found myself cutting through enemies without blaming the controls for my missteps. More surprising was the fact that moving backwards while targeting an enemy is significantly slower than before, leading to an untimely death when my new friend, Mr. Sickles, made short work of my general buffoonery. This change forced me to focus on rolling instead of my tried-and-true backpedal, and I must say that the rolling system feels far more responsive and useful than before. Many previews mentioned that rolling requires far better timing than before to completely avoid an attack, but I felt the exact opposite. Perhaps it's just personal taste, but it's worth mentioning.
I was able to level up a bit following some pretty gnarly encounters and felt that sense of "home" when I returned to my bonfire. The typical stats are all still there for leveling (strength, dexterity, attunement, etc.), but most surprising was the addition of a stat for speed. I'm sure Dark Souls enthusiasts will tear this stat apart with graphs and data analysis, because it could end up being a monumental change to how we play DSII. The game says that this stat will increase overall movement speed, blocking speed, and basic recovery, making it easily my top choice for leveling when I first start playing in March. I’m a bit wary about its usefulness, however, as many will attest to the complete uselessness of the resistance stat in DSI.
The biggest change I was looking forward to is the reimplementation of dedicated servers for the online experience. Dark Souls suffered from the peer-to-peer system, leaving many to hopelessly attempt connections over and over again. With around 5,000 beta testers on (supposedly) one server, there were certainly a lot of summon signs on the ground. I was able to recruit a few buddies to the mix when things got hairy, but it's hard to properly gauge this feature until the full release. It certainly seems like a move in a positive direction, at least.
Those helpers came in handy when I came upon the first of two(?) bosses for the demo. The fact that partners are limited by time in the sequel meant we were constantly pushing forward to get to our goal. The first boss is more a small army, and the second required a bit of trickery to get the hang of. I was a bit surprised at how easy these encounters were, but I'm sure things will get harder (hopefully not cheaper) by March.
The UI has definitely been cleaned up, allowing you to access gear and equipment far quicker than before. You can now equip three items for each of your hands, allowing for more flexibility and personal touch, while the ability to scroll through items and see what the next item is cuts down on some of the panic you'll feel when a dragon is charging straight at you and you're trying to heal. While you still have access to estus flasks and have to remain still while using them, they're supplemented by life gems that allow you to slowly heal while moving around and avoiding further damage. Enemies dropped these gems with regularity, allowing me to maintain a full health bar almost the whole time I was playing. I'm wondering if this will change for the final release…
And that's really all I can say about a short Beta test; things will most assuredly change. What I got to see shows a developer on the road to greatness, but there are always pitfalls along the way. The framerate continues to be an issue for From Software, as DSII runs butter-smooth one minute and then rocky the next (mostly with online buddies thrown into the mix). It's not nearly as bad as Blighttown, thank God, but it does give me pause when I consider buying the game on a console. The best news I can give is that the rhythm and atmosphere of the previous games seems intact, and I was nervous in the best possible way. Mr. Sickles left a lasting impression on me, especially when his twin brother showed up! We have a ways to go before release, but I'm certainly intrigued and excited as hell to return to this land and die all over again.
"Despite being in an early state of development, the improved graphics engine was on full display."
The original Dark Souls is one of my all-time favorite games, and it was with thoughts of sun-praising and giant chests laying in wait that I entered Namco Bandai's secret domain to both see and play the latest in the punishing-yet-fair series. After a walkthrough of some of the game's key points, I got to sink my teeth into some hands-on time.
While the demo offered a selection of four specialized character classes — the templar, the warrior, the sorcerer, and the dual-wielder — we were told that the final game will actually do away with the class selection system at the outset of the adventure. Instead, the game will survey you for your play style preferences and set you up as a character with skills in recommended areas. The representative was quick to inform us that while the selection process is different, customization via increasing stats through soul levels will remain the same as in the original.
Jumping into the game itself, I was struck by the fluidity of character motion. While the controls are nearly identical to the first title, it is clear that the motion capture and the efforts of the team to improve the feel of movement in the game have paid off. While my hands-on time was with the PlayStation 3 version, the Namco representative demoing the game was showing off the PC version, which looked gorgeous. Despite being in an early state of development, the improved graphics engine was on full display. Fantastic lighting, fabric effects on armor, and animations were all top-notch, and the signature look of the series was absolutely intact. One section late in the demo took place in a dark castle foyer as rain pounded down and lightning crashed outside. Droplets of water dripped off of the windows, and flashes of lightning cast gorgeous shadows all over the room. Not moments later, a boss battle with the aptly-named Mirror Knight also made a compelling argument for the visuals. Atop a castle turret, the knight hurled lightning bolts and shaved huge chunks off the hero's health bar with his massive sword. As the rain fell, droplets hit and bounced off of the player's armor, as well as refracting and reflecting on the knight's glistening steel carapace. In short, the PC version of the game looked stunning.
The PlayStation 3 version, despite being slightly downgraded in terms of lighting and other effects, still looks great. The game still has a rather rough frame rate on console, but this could simply be due to the early stage of development. While the representative couldn't confirm system specs or if the game would be capped at 30 frames per second, the PC demo was certainly running at a smooth 60.
As I plumbed the castle depths, I ran headfirst into improved enemy AI, something we were told has been another focal point for the development team. Basic grunt-like foes attacked in groups of two or three and were especially aggressive about attacking in unison rather than taking turns. Coming off of my time with the original, I found that this necessitated a complete change in my tactics when facing a single or multiple foes, and absolutely kept me on my toes. Mechanically, the game truly does feel like a more limber version of its predecessor, and I found myself parrying, backstabbing, and fancy-footworking my way around foes as nimbly as ever.
As a surprise, during the Mirror Knight boss fight, an AI invaded the gameworld and began attacking the player. We were told that while this particular assailant was AI-controlled, the full game could (read: will) feature other players invading and attacking during
boss battles. Needless to say, between the sword swipes, lightning storms, and foreign interloper, the demonstrator was quickly smitten down.
The representative also threw a few other interesting tidbits our way. Unlike the first game, Dark Souls II will feature persistent bonfire warping, with every single bonfire being connected to the network. The developers felt that the backtracking required in the original artificially lengthened the game, so they opted make the network more accessible and consistent. Rather than the two slots for weapons/shields on D-pad left and right, players now have access to three, and it is also possible to scroll through arrow types without visiting the menu. Pyromancy has been folded back into sorcery, as well, and the team is experimenting with more creative item implementation, such as miracle talismans which double as shields.
My time was Dark Souls II was not nearly enough, but it gave me a great taste of the game. It seems as though Namco Bandai is making good on their promise to maintain the challenge that the series is known for while purging much of the cruft and tightening up every aspect of the game. While it's still early to say for sure that it's a guaranteed winner, I'll most definitely be keeping a close eye on this one, scheduled tentatively for release in March 2014.