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I am lucky enough to have attended three E3s. At each one, a different game in the Demon's Souls/Dark Souls lineup has been announced. I have dutifully tried each one, completely failed at the controls and moved on.
But as the games have earned a larger fanbase, it has become harder for me to just put these games in (quite literally) the too-hard basket. At E3 this year, looking at the amazing graphics and yes-it's-even-harder gameplay for Dark Souls 2, I finally made the decision to suck it up and play Dark Souls. It is without doubt the most frustrating game I’ve ever played, but I’m transfixed, and return after every ragequit. I will finish the game, just so I can play the sequel.
In the Namco Bandai booth off the show-floor at this year’s E3, From Software had a playable build of Dark Souls 2 running, and were giving a presentation on their plans for the upcoming title. Their chief aim? To make the game more accessible, whilst retaining all their hardcore fans.
How do you make a rock hard game like Dark Souls 'more accessible', without also making it 'easy'? One way From Software has done this has been to add 'persistent bonfire warping' - the ability to warp between any bonfire, not just key areas. This should remove the hard slog between previously cleared, now repopulated areas.
What about those die-hard fans? From Software will keep them interested by making the game harder for the advanced player. By shortening the invincibility frames in rolls and parries and increasing the length of the backstab animation, those frame counting hardcore players with all the YouTube videos I turn to for help will still find new challenges. As a new player, I do a lot more circle strafing than parrying, so this change shouldn’t necessarily affect newbies.
But From Software don’t want the game any easier for new players. Even this new, wider audience has some painful lessons waiting. For instance: Enemies can now play dead. This sounded and looked a lot like the Necromorphs in Dead Space, but was certainly effective. These enemies aren’t targetable, don’t move and don’t attack; that is, until you hit them or unthinkingly walk straight past. If you aren't on your toes, more deaths can be expected.
From Software has also been working on the AI in the game. They describe their aims as wanting to bring the PVP experience from Dark Souls 1 (something I am seriously dreading, incidentally) to Dark Souls 2. They claim the Artificial Intelligence in Dark Souls was "too predictable", and could be read and anticipated. In Dark Souls 2 the AI will react to your behaviour, and take advantage of your mistakes. Need an Estus Flask? Better be in a really safe place. Turn your back? Expect to die.
A new true dual wielding character class has been added - the Dual Swordsman. They are able to attack with both weapons one at a time or simultaneously, but with a sacrifice to their defense. They were careful to add, however, that classes won't work the same in Dark Souls 2. In Dark Souls 1, there were 12 classes. Here, there are some very basic frameworks, and from there your character will grow based on how you play the game.
The changes haven't been all cruel, however. A new 'Life Gem' has been added. These will heal players over time. They aren't intended to be used during combat, but instead we were told they will be "quick little pick-me-ups" in between fights. This will allow players to save Estus Flasks, and perhaps return to bonfires a little less. (Which sounds to me a little like code for: So you die and lose thousands of souls miles from the nearest bonfire).
The demo we saw also incorporated the now infamous Mirror Knight. When I saw the it, the QA analyst showing the game had beaten him only once in two days, and no journalists had beaten him at all. They were offering all kinds of prizes, but to no avail.
The Mirror Knight as we saw him was terrifying. He moved smoothly - thanks to new motion capture animations being used in Dark Souls 2 for the first time - and very quickly. And true to their descriptions of the new AI, as soon as the player tried to heal, the Mirror Knight changed his behaviour and charged straight for him.
The conceit of the Mirror Knight is a clever one: having a second knight break through the mirrored shield of the first. Even more terrifying is how this will work in the final game. The knight that breaks through the mirror won't be AI controlled, he will be another player, invading your world.
We pushed for more details: How many times would this occur in the game? How would it work? What other ideas did they have for multiplayer? The developers just smiled and refused to answer.
Like so much else in the Souls games, they want us to find out the hard way. Clearly, Dark Souls 2 is much improved - it’s got stunning graphics, smooth animations and lots of little fixes to exploits and bugs from the first two games. It also has improved AI and as many changes as possible to make the experience even harder. As for the PvP changes? Well, I imagine we’ll see for ourselves through a mirrored shield some time next year.
I design games and enjoy thinking about how they work. Shorter opinionated blatherings can be found on my twitter.