Bethesda’s undoubtedly one of the best developers in the industry; however, as a publisher, it’s had its fair share of ups and down. Last year’s Wet and Rogue Warrior illustrate both extremes quite well. Earlier this year at GDC, when Bethesda unveiled the clumsily titled Hunted: The Demon’s Forge – a new co-op dungeon crawler from inXile Entertainment, Interplay-cofounder Brian Fargo’s new digs – we immediately wondered which side of that gulf it would live on. Would it be worthy of the Bethesda name on its packaging, alongside promising shooter Brink, surefire-hit Fallout: New Vegas, and id Software’s Rage? Fargo certainly thinks so.

In fact, Fargo is so sure about his new game, that he wasn’t afraid to recall the past glory of games like the original Bard’s Tale and Wizardry at a recent Bethesda press event, and Fargo had previously introduced the concept, saying “What you’re going to see here today is a reimagining of the dungeon crawler, the classic game that got me into this industry.” He continued, “It was the Might & Magic series, it was the Ultima series, Dungeon Master from FTL was a bit of a breakthrough product … that’s very much the experience I grew up with.” And as action games supplanted the dungeon crawlers, Fargo “felt like the core experience of that good ol’ dungeon crawl, getting lost in the dungeon, had sort of fallen away. And it hadn’t fallen away because the titles were doing bad. People forgot or something.”

While we don’t know if they forgot – Demon’s Souls, Torchlight, and Diablo 3 say hi! – Fargo’s “reimagining” certainly doesn’t look like what you imagine when you think dungeon crawl. “The gamer today has a different metaphor for engrossing themselves, which is more the action, Gears of War-type thing,” Fargo explains. “So what we need to do is take today’s experience and mix those two together but … we the take you someplace very different, and in the beginning we need to get your attention.” Read to to find out where your attention will be going, and to find out if inXile has been successful in grabbing our attention.

Sure enough, what first grabs your attention is just how similar to Gears of War this looks! To wit: It’s a third-person co-op game with a cover system running on Unreal Engine 3 … however, while Gears has two bulked-up space marine types, Hunted has E’lara, a skinny female archer (oh, she’s good at ranged combat!), and Caddoc, a bulked-up warrior type (melee away!). To be sure, this is no mistake: they want you to think “Gears of Warcraft” or “Spears of War” when you play this game. The controls are extremely Gears familiar: cover system, ranged and melee attacks, reviving downed comrades (albeit via magic vials this time around).

There is some new stuff coming to the table as well, like special co-op kill moves, a lot of magic (you can “charge up” your buddy via spells or use them on your own), and lots of loot in the form of new weapons, shields, and armor. Plus, tons of puzzles. InXile has built a large amount of off-path content by creating puzzles that you and your partner will have to figure out. In our guided demo, these ranged from lighting a series of braziers in the correct order to allow access to an enchanted axe, or draining a room of water to allow further progress. Keying these moments are magical “Deathstones,” which present the player with riddles they’ll need to solve.

Hunted is strictly a co-op game, and while you can play it by yourself or with a friend either locally (no splitscreen) or online, you’re going to rely on both characters to advance. Checkpoints will allow you to “body swap” with the other character, giving you a chance to change up gameplay on the fly. These checkpoints are also the drop-in points for joining up with another player. You’ll collect crystals which serve as your currency throughout the game, and one advantage to playing co-op with another player is that you both retain those crystals (split down the middle) for your own use when you’re back in your own game.

The story of Hunted is mostly told by way of witty batter between protagonists Caddoc and E’lara (think Nathan Drake and Chloe from Uncharted … on steroids), with buxom E’lara being the impulsive “touch everything” type, while the musclebound Caddoc is a lot more cautious. While both characters have ranged and melee attacks, you’ll quickly realize that E’lara is best when taking shots with her bow, while Caddoc excels at swinging sword, mace, or axe up close and personal. For instance, in one area Caddoc will fend off nearby enemies, while E’lara jumps into a massive, mounted siege weapon to fell some magical pillars.

You’ll also be constantly searching out new weapons in the form of loot: better bows for E’lara, and different melee weapons for Caddoc. You’ll also need to pick up enemy shield from time to time, as your own takes damage and will eventually disintegrate. Each character also has special abilities, like E’lara’s ability to fire lighted arrows, a skill that comes in handy when trying to navigate a pitch black dungeon. Both characters can heal themselves via magical vials, or toss one to a buddy when they’re down – they heal on contact. You can also use magic to buff your ally, allowing them to attack with more force for a brief time.

That’s the game in a nutshell, and during our brief demo the characters were in lush jungles, crumbling ruins, and dark underground dungeons. There were a few lip sync and frame rate moments, but the game release date is still TBA (it won’t be this year), so we expect those to be ironed out. What you’ll really be missing most in Hunted is different types of characters. This buddy system works in Gears of War because you’re both similarly outfitted soldiers, but when it comes to swords and sorcery, players are going to want their magic users, thieves, and other archetypes. Why not mix and match with other main characters? A sort of Gauntlet for the next generation?

Fargo himself admitted that they originally had a third character when this game was in early development, and already has his plans for a sequel, so maybe you’ll be joined by other compatriots some day. As it stands, Hunted is a story involving two characters trying to discover what ancient evil has come to their land. Of course, that process of discovery involves an awful lot of hacking, slashing, and yes, dungeon crawling, in the process. For now, Hunted: The Demon’s Forge certainly has our attention thanks to equal parts pedigree and polish. We’ll see if it can sustain our interest once we get to take the wheel ourselves later this year.

Release: TBA. Possibly 2011
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