Pixel Hunter: The Demon's Forge (Of War)

When I picked up Alice: Madness Returns, I was generally well disposed towards the title. I had enjoyed the previous game, so I expected to enjoy it.

With Dead Space 2, I was a bit more leery. I had skipped the first installment due to lack of interest, and picked up the game only on the suggestion of a friend. It took me a while to warm to the title, due in part to some severe reservations I have about its very traditional design (monster closets) and ways in which some encounters are deliberately unfair and limit the player's options in ways that most of the game's encounters don't.

Hunted: The Demon's Forge took me until the end of the first playthrough to really appreciate what it was trying to do, and even so, parts of the game are very rough. Like the previous two games mentioned, it's built on the Unreal engine by Epic Software; but unlike the previous two titles, it displays a slavish mimicry of Epic's own flagship Unreal engine franchise, Gears of War, that makes it difficult to perceive and enjoy some of the title's unique features. In the end, a game that I found flawed and frustrating in many parts completely ambushed me with a moral choice gameplay element that had been expected in Bioshock, but was so poorly implemented as to be pointless, here, polished to a shine that is present nowhere else in the game.Warning: Spoilers Ahead!

Reinventing the Gear

I've suggested in the past that some developers might be better off not trying to reinvent the wheel and build all their own technology, but focus on content as a way of reducing ever-increasing development cycle. Fifteen years ago even a small studio could put out a title a year and perhaps a new franchise every 3-5 years; now it seems even the most modest titles take 2-3 years of development, not to mention teams of hundreds. I wondered if Bungie could put out Halo games faster than once every three years if technology wasn't a moving target-- if they stuck with a single engine for a console generation or longer, or used someone else's engine. I wondered if Valve might have managed to give us Episode 3 already under similar conditions.

Hunted: Demon's Forge it seems was made just to mock this idea. There are many ways in which it feels as if the developers of this title didn't come up with a design for a game, and then look around for an engine to license to build it on, but instead looked at Gears of War, licensed the Unreal engine, and then figured out how to change things in order to make it seem like a different game. Hunted plays like a Gears of War clone with a medieval skin a lot of the time. Sure, there's a magic system added, and the focus shifts a bit from Gears, which is built almost entirely around missile combat with melee in there for a change of pace, to Hunted, in which one of the two playable characters specializes in melee. Still, there are many environments, situations, plot devices and even emotional character moments that seem cribbed directly from Gears.

Hunted is basically a third-person shooter with a cooperative play focus. While Gears is centered around Marcus Fenix, with the added possibility to tag along as his faithful sidekick Dom in coop mode, Hunted is built around the idea of coop; two players can play splitscreen (which is pretty horrible) or on Xbox Live or over a LAN. When playing single player, you choose one character and the computer controls the other, but there are numerous points throughout each stage where you can swap characters, and special achievements granted for defeating boss enemies with one or the other.

The male human, Caddoc, focuses on melee combat, and the last living female Elf, E'lara, specializes in bows. Each, though, carries one weapon of each type, although weapons are unique to each character-- Caddoc has a crossbow that E'lara can't use, and Caddoc can't use any of the same bows E'lara does. Same goes for the swords. Basically, at a few points throughout the campaign the designers will throw you an upgrade to your non-specialist weapon. Upgrades to primary weapons are more plentiful, and they are distributed through randomly-seeded weapon racks. When a player breaks a rack, they're guaranteed a drop of a weapon their character can use (and that the other character cannot)-- although it's not guaranteed to be any better than what you're already carrying.

An RPG Without the R

The game might look like an RPG, even a streamlined, combat-focused RPG like what Mass Effect 2 eventually became, but it's really just a shooter with a medieval fantasy fetish; there are no dialogue trees, no inventory, no character interactions save a few cutscenes, as well as some collectible audiologs in the form of interactions with the ghosts of dead characters.

Like Gears, Hunted uses the Cover and Roadie Run features, and chest-high walls abound. As in Gears, these two often conflict directly with each other, as walls you intended to run around or by attract you magnetically as you end up taking cover where you didn't intend to, or vaulting over a wall you intended to take cover behind. Parts of Hunted's levels seem like they've not really been tuned for using these features; I seem to recall having far more camera issues while roadie running in this game than I ever had in Gears.

Parts of Gears' design seem to be incorporated and then glossed over, even when their inclusion would seem inappropriate. Gears sometimes has fixed gun emplacements, like machine guns and mortars. So Hunted puts in ballistae, catapults, and something called a Forest Flechette gun-- which is a facepalm-inducing machinegun that fires arrows.

All these similarities are cosmetic, though, as are many of the underground environments that aren't dungeons or sewers. A lot of Gears is underground, as well, among structures and fortifications belonging to the Locust that have a vaguely medieval feel, despite the game taking place presumably in the future and on an alien planet. A good deal of Hunted's underground environments, especially in the latter stages of the game, look and feel so similar that they might have been a palette swap.

Look At All That Juice... I Mean, Sleg

The similarities start to feel much more than skin deep, though, when a mysterious glowing liquid turns out to be a major plot element. Like Imulsion in Gears, which is the energy source used and fought over by the human factions on Sera in Gears of War, as well as the source of the more evil, more powerful, glowing Lambent locust engaging in an civil war against their less colorful cousins, Hunted has Sleg: a glowing, silvery liquid that's a sort of cross between Soylent Green (which the game makes a note of with a chapter title) and Imulsion. It's also the source of one of the game's only interesting surprises, which I'll get to later.

The game starts with Caddoc's dream, in which a pale and mysterious woman named Seraphine offers him power and riches beyond his... well, beyond his wildest dreams. Of course, she immediately shows up in real life with that offer, if Caddoc and his companion E'lara will move on to the city of Dyfed and talk with its mayor about some recent trouble. She claims to be an apparition of the mayor's daughter, recently kidnapped, and offers power and riches in return for rescue. Needless to say, nothing Seraphine says is completely accurate, and this scene sets up a game-long catfight between E'lara and Seraphine.

Eventually we discover the background of the world, by using a powerful artifact given to the pair by Seraphine-- the Death Stone. It has two primary uses; getting dead bodies to reveal their backstories, and subjugating dragons. This latter use is integral to the world's backstory, where subjugated dragons were one side of an ever-escalating arms race between two rival city-states: Dyfed and Kala Moor. The eventual counter to it was Sleg: a magical potion, created by mass sacrifice of human victims to the Demon's Forge, that gives those who consume it terrifying power, at the price of becoming a horrible monster.

The Demon's In The Details

Hunted's characters are drawn with what might charitably be called broad strokes. E'lara, the sole surviving Elf in the world, has a chip on her shoulder about human racism, a healthy hatred of the Minotaurs (which, in Hunted, look more like upright walking rhinos) who killed all of her kin, a fear of heights and a love of destruction, especially explosions. Caddoc is cautious and mercenary, seeking spoils and victory with the least amount of danger and effort. Oh, and he hates insects and spiders.

The game's cutscenes rightly place more emphasis on banter between Caddoc and E'lara, especially prompted by interactions with Seraphine, than on the unnecessarily convoluted backstory. Still, problems crop up when characters' actions are inconsistent with their background. E'lara's suspicion of Seraphine conflicts with her impulsive nature, although I suppose the designers intended her jealous and territorial attitude towards Caddoc to override this. Nevertheless, the pair's "acceptance" of Seraphine's initial offer is initiated by her impulsive action, despite her apparent misgivings.

The game bothers to give E'lara a backstory, with her race slaughtered by the Minotaur, so that she can pledge revenge against them when they finally show up in the game. Hunted seems to have no idea, though, how to introduce new enemies into the game world. Our first enemies are the humanoid Wargar: soldiers and townsfolk of Dyfed and surrounding areas, addicted to Sleg and mutated almost beyond recognition. Some are so mutated they have altered appearance and magical abilities (teleportation, fireballs). A few spiders and creepy crawly enemies are inserted, basically as ambient wildlife, to provide a bit of variety and give Caddoc a scare. As the pair trails the column of Wargar, with their human prisoners from Dyfed in tow, towards some unknown destination, it eventually turns out that the Wargar are turning over slaves to the Minotaur in return for Sleg. This prompts an immediate vow on the part of E'lara to avenge her fallen race, and to fight even more furiously against the Wargar and the Minotaur. This makes even less sense when we see that for some reason, the appearance of Caddoc and E'lara on the scene where slaves are being turned over by the Wargar to the Minotaur in exchange for Sleg, leads to a wholesale slaughter of Wargar by Minotaur, as if the Wargar were being blamed for being followed, or somehow betraying the Minotaur to the player.

This really doesn't make any sense on any level. If the elimination of E'lara's race really affected her so deeply, why hasn't she been seeking revenge all of her life, instead of being a mercenary? Why would bartering slaves to the Minotaur increase her resolve against the Wargar at all? Does she wander into towns and torch shops that sell goods to Minotaur? Hunted eventually involves all of its varied enemies by use of this trading slaves for Sleg mechanic-- and it turns out to be just resource management anyway, since the slaves are just being turned into Sleg anyway. Apparently the Sleg-to-slave exchange rate is pretty high, too, since Sleg is only ever handed out in large jugs, carried by two people, while slaves are marched to and fro in the hundreds, and at one point, the quota of slaves the Wargar must capture in order to receive Sleg is doubled. We don't see any Minotaur that appear mutated by Sleg, and the Minotaurs themselves appear neither to make nor use the stuff. That's reserved for the eventual Big Bad, named Annuvin, who is using the Sleg to make himself more powerful, and is the real target of Seraphine. How Annuvin is paying the Minotaur when it seems the all he receives are slaves to turn into Sleg is unclear.

Scared Speechless

Even Caddoc's one personality quirk, his fear of spiders, ends up being misused in a scene that I think is trying to ape a vaguely similar scene in Gears of War 2. In that game, while underground fighting the Locust, Fenix and his companions are swallowed hole by a giant worm. They eventually have to make their way through the worm's innards, destroy some of its hearts, and then cut their way out of its dying carcass. Emerging from the dying worm's corpse in a shower of guts, with one character remarking on how odd it is to be choking on somebody else's blood for a change, Fenix is reduced to speechlessness when trying to relay the situation to his girlfriend and command contact, Anya. It's actually a nice little moment, as are most of the points where Gears' characters betray something beyond monolithic machismo. None of the Gears are the quiet, courteous and professional types like Halo's Master Chief. They're crude, blustery, testosterone-addled brutes. Every once in awhile, though, they show (or try to show) something more nuanced than that. Early in Gears 1, recognized by a fellow soldier after being broken out of prison, Fenix gives us a hint that being the hero isn't all it is cracked up to be. In the scene above, the game lets Fenix, and the player, step back from how over the top the worm set-piece is by having Fenix be unable to describe it. It's a nice touch. Gears doesn't always give you much to go on emotionally, and when it tries to deliver-- with the story of Dom and his wife in Gears 2-- I think mostly it fails. The worm moment, though, worked.

In Hunted, Caddoc the arachnophobe eventually has an underground showdown with a giant spider. After it is defeated, Caddoc berates E'lara, saying they will never speak of this again. I somehow got the sense, given this encounter's placement in the game, given the few details we have about Caddoc's character, and the way Caddoc reacts, that the developers were going for a similar emotional note here, almost like they were trying to align the trajectory of their characters along the same emotional route as Marcus and Dom in Gears 2. The problem is that it just doesn't work. Caddoc may be conservative and fear spiders, but it just doesn't come across as emotionally authentic when, just after having defeated the largest spider anyone has ever seen, Caddoc isn't relieved or joyful, but still so fearful that he wants to prevent himself from ever reliving this moment. It just hasn't been set up the way that the long journey through the guts of the worm prepared us for Fenix being unable to assign words to his odd and grisly experience. It's not enough just to say "this guy is afraid of spiders" and then have him fight one. If anything, we'd think that defeating the biggest spider one would ever hope to see would cure you of any such fear-- at least, fear of small spiders. But it doesn't, and there's no explanation why not.

They Wish They Could Quit You

For all of its rough edges, though, there are things in the game to like. Because it's built around coop and both characters are protagonists in their own right-- each gives a little monologue at the start of each level where they begin as the active character-- you never get the sense that you're playing the "support character" as you do when you're playing Gears as Dom. On the other hand, sometimes in combat you will get that sense, depending on what kind of gameplay is going on and what character you've chosen.

The AI controlled character just isn't up to the task sometimes, and some encounters will be harder depending on which character you choose. Depending on how you choose to play, you may find yourself wondering aloud what the support AI is trying to do, and it's easy to see how it may be difficult for the developers to determine how much, or how little, support to give to the player. Too much, and encounters might end before the player knows what's happening. Too little, and it feels like you're on an escort mission gone wrong.

Also as in Gears, you'll have the ability to revive a fallen compatriot in combat. Unlike in Gears, though, it's mandatory. In Gears you could lose your whole squad, but you never got bumped back to a checkpoint unless your own character also fell and there was no one able to revive you. There was also no limit on the number of times that Dom or another squadmate could revive you. If your squadmates fell, you could risk running out to revive them in order to have more support, or just finish the fight yourself, because winning a battle would revive all squadmates.

In Hunted, the player is bumped back to a checkpoint any time either character "bleeds out"-- that is, falls and is not revived. Each character has a maximum of three vials they carry that can revive a partner, and unlike in Gears, this can be done remotely if the active character has at least one vial. One button combo while facing a downed character will lob a vial at them. If you don't have any vials, but they do, they'll vocalize that, and you can run to them and revive them with their own vial. No vials left? Well, start breaking containers frantically and you might find one, but if you don't do it in time, the game resets to the last checkpoint.

Help Me Help You

The AI character, it seems, can absorb a lot more damage than the player's own character, which really helps, because a lot of the time it's difficult to understand what the AI thinks it is doing. The simple difference in playing styles: Caddoc better at melee, E'lara better with ranged weapons-- would seem to determine the best playing style in most situations. Most threat groups are mixed, which means that E'lara should prioritize ranged enemies, and Caddoc should stop melee enemies from reaching E'lara. If there are no melee enemies, Caddoc can run out and flank the ranged ones, taking them out more quickly than E'lara could do from far away, leaving her able to plink away at her heart's content. When mobbed by melee enemies, E'lara should try and back away if possible, while Caddoc perhaps uses a magic ability that freezes enemies for her to shoot at.

A lot of the time, though, this doesn't work out. When playing as Caddoc, sometimes E'lara will cleverly find some high ground to snipe from. It's just as likely, though, that she'll hang back not doing anything. Both characters, when under AI control, sometimes just get stuck and stop reacting to anything. In ordinary fights this is annoying, but in puzzles or boss fights that require active participation from both characters, it can be lethal.

Pixel Hunter: The Burnination

Caddoc has the ability to push over movable columns and walls, while E'lara can use flaming arrows to trigger magical braziers. When playing as one character, you're supposed to be able to use a button press in crucial areas to alert the other player that they have to perform an action. It doesn't always work, though. Sometimes the prompt doesn't appear, and sometimes the character won't react when it does. Arrow puzzles are usually two step, which makes playing as Caddoc doubly frustrating, as you have to lead E'lara to a source of flame to light an arrow-- and only certain flames count-- and then to the thing she should fire the arrow at. Lit braziers at waist height can usually be used. Sometimes other objects on fire can be used, but sometimes not, and braziers at head height or higher can never be used, even though they would clearly be within reach of E'lara's arrow. The only exceptions to this are certain puzzles that require firing an unlit arrow through a flame to hit a target.

When the arrow puzzles aren't annoying you by simply restricting your access to flame, which either appears abundantly but simply can't be used to light an arrow for some arbitrary reason, or by requiring a special magical flame, then it's hiding the target from you, either by placing it in darkness, or by making it indistinguishable from the background, turning Hunted into a $60, AAA console version of a flash-based pixel-hunting game.

When playing as E'lara, Caddoc has a tendency to rush ahead, far out of sight, fighting unknown enemies, while E'lara can get pushed into a corner by multiple fast-attacking enemies with unbreakable combos. Plenty of levels are large enough that if E'lara falls, Caddoc will either be unable to navigate his way back successfully, or at least unable to do it in time, and even if E'lara has a full complement of revivification potions, and is conscious, she apparently can't self-administer (neither can Caddoc). When playing as Caddoc, you'll often be out in the open, receiving fire from multiple distant enemies with powerful, explosive missile weapons, while E'lara either does nothing or chooses to fire at the slow-moving melee targets that are currently no threat either to you or her.

Don't Just Do Something, Stand There

The last straw is the final boss battle, where E'lara needs to use arrows to damage a target so that it can become vulnerable, and that gives Caddoc an opportunity to push over one of four objects that will kill the boss. Caddoc cannot do melee damage to the boss himself, and his best crossbow still is slower and does much less damage than just about any decent bow E'lara might have. Each moment of vulnerability is limited, and the process of pushing over a column is interrupted by being attacked by any melee enemy. To make things worse, the boss runs three attack sequences of his own, one of which cannot be blocked, only avoided, and one that can be blocked by being in cover (although not by a shield block) but scores a knockdown and 2/3 of your health if you're not in cover. He'll often chain those, and the amount of time between his first warning that he's doing that attack is so short that it's possible to be out of range of cover-- leading to all sorts of frustrating moments as you try to roadie run into cover and end up vaulting over a wall and dying instead.

On my second playthrough I attempted this final battle as Caddoc, and for whatever reason, E'lara refused to target the boss at all during the sequence. She preferred instead to attack the skeletons the boss spawned, although even those she struggled with, in some cases getting cornered by them, and in other cases, being unable to keep them off of Caddoc while he attempted to knock over a column. Being interrupted twice generally means losing the opportunity, and having to go back to damaging the boss either with magic or the crossbow to earn another chance. Even on the same difficulty level, beating this boss as Caddoc was much harder than doing so as E'lara, because AI Caddoc did a much better job of handling the skeletons than AI E'lara did with damaging the boss. The only thing that made the first boss encounter go slowly was that it was not at all obvious to a player-controlled E'lara what Caddoc needed to do with the columns, and thus the importance of keeping the skeletons off him in order to push them down. You really don't get that idea until he's pushed over the first one, and that can take a long time if E'lara is focused on trying to deal damage to the boss rather than on the skeletons.

Get Behind Me, Ma'am

I'll make one last note of how Hunted's unique design created a specific point of frustration for me, and then I'll describe the surprise the game gave me at the end of my first playthrough that caused me to launch immediately into my second.

Hunted has, sprinkled among its levels, various small side quests and mini-missions. Nothing as extensive as you'd get with an RPG, but just some optional areas that usually lead to extra weapons and loot. In particular, there's a quest that involves raiding each of the tombs of three brothers to retrieve three keys that will open their father's tomb, where the real loot is-- the best non-magical weapons in the game, a sword and a bow. Even if you spend most of a playthrough with one character or the other, it's natural to want to maximize the effectiveness of your AI companion by making sure they have the best equipment. The AI often misses available resources, and about as often as it smashes a weapon rack you wanted for yourself, it’d walk through an area leaving behind resources it could have used (health potions, manna potions, arrows). It pays to use the glowing purple obelisks that appear in safe areas to switch back and forth between the two characters to make sure they are well-supplied and have the best available equipment. The area around the father's tomb also contains such an obelisk.

Now, before I describe the problem this particular tomb caused me, I need to explain a bit of how Hunted handles its weapons. There are essentially two types, magical and non-magical, and varying grades of quality, the names and colors of which will be vaguely familiar to those playing World of Warcraft or any other game that has mimicked their style. Nonmagical melee weapons have only two damage stats: basic damage and "fury damage", and then a rate at which they gain Fury. Fury is a special ability Caddoc has, and the weapons that use it are available only to him. As he lands blows, he fills up a Fury attack bar that can be used for a strong attack; the amount of damage a weapon does during a strong attack can be many times its base attack value, and a weapon can fill the Fury bar at one of three rates: fast, medium, or slow. The best weapons have a high base damage, an even higher Fury damage, and fill the fury meter Fast. Sometimes you'll have to trade off one aspect to get another; a weapon may have higher damage values, but fill the Fury bar more slowly.

The same is generally true of bows; except in place of the rate at which they build up to a strong attack, they have a straightforward rate of fire: fast, medium, slow. Again, you are generally given a choice between a bow that has heavy damage, but fires slowly, and a bow that does less damage, but fires quickly.

Uh Oh, It's Magic

The fly in the ointment comes with magical weapons. Magical melee weapons don't have two damage figures, they have four: base damage, base magical damage, fury damage, and magical fury damage. Magical weapons have a number of uses, and for that number of attacks, they do the higher magical damage, before losing their magical power and dropping down to the base damage figures. The same goes for magical bows; they have high magical damage and then a lower ordinary damage, after all the magical charges have been used.

The problem is that it seems as if a lot of the weapons offered by weapon racks seem like an attempt to fool the player-- and even when they don't fool the player, they can fool the AI! You'll constantly be offered versions of whatever current weapon you're carrying as primary, only with degraded stats, so you'll have to be careful that you don't pick up something that's inferior just because they have the same name. Then, you'll have to be careful about picking up a weapon that seems to be of higher grade, and does magical damage, but has actually worse base stats than what you're currently carrying. This will happen a lot-- and while the player may choose to use the best magical weapon available, and change weapons often-- or stick with the best base nonmagical damage, and upgrade less often-- the magical damage numbers will ALWAYS fool the AI characters. If a weapon's magical damage is higher than the base damage done by the current weapon, the AI character will drop that weapon-- even if the magical weapon has a relatively small number of charges, and that weapon's base damage is worse than the dropped weapon. In some cases, much worse!

This is exactly the problem with the best two weapons in the game-- the Crystal Sword, for Caddoc, and the Crystal Bow, for E'lara. They are high quality weapons with great stats, but they are nonmagical, and there are magical bows and swords that can, for a short time, do more damage-- but then, when the charges are exhausted, become ordinary, if not downright inferior weapons.

During my second playthrough, as Caddoc, I cleared the father's tomb and recovered the two weapons. I made sure to change characters to make sure that E'lara also picked up the Crystal Bow. All seemed fine for awhile. Although she would prefer to use her other bow, a magical bow, when it ran out of charges she switched to the crystal bow. But later, in the game's final chapter, she raided a weapon rack, found a magical bow, not unlike dozens strewn throughout the game-- and dropped the crystal bow in order to pick it up because it had a higher magical damage figure than the crystal bow's base damage figure. I was mortified. The problem is that there was no available obelisk in this area, and also like Gears, Hunted moves players from area to area through one-way bottlenecks. There was no character-change obelisk between me and the one-way door where I entered the area, and once I went through the next one-way door, there'd be no way to go back and retrieve the crystal bow. I cursed E'lara's fickle heart and her magical bow fetish with every fiber of my spider-hating being.

The Sisters Sleg

Given all of these flaws and rough edges, why did I immediately make use of the New Game+ feature to start over, switching from E'lara to Caddoc? Well, for one, there are separate achievements for each boss battle depending on which character you use to beat them. That alone, though, wouldn't be enough.

What got me was how the game ended-- because I wanted to see what other endings were possible.

Seraphine warns you early on about the dangers of Sleg-- but also suggests that it could be a powerful weapon of last resort, but not without consequences. Several of the game's loading screens also hint vaguely at this. Throughout the game you'll be locked into arena battles that have, usually at their center, a fountain of Sleg. You may not even notice it there, even if the characters point it out, especially if you've been tuning their inane banter out. A player character, however, can press the action button at the sleg fountain to drink, and instantly become an unkillable whirlwind dealing massive damage. The effects last until the end of the encounter, and are also available right up until the encounter ends. In the first such battle in my first playthrough, as E'lara, I failed to even notice the sleg fountain as an option. Later, though, I drank it almost by accident while trying to change weapons in an arena area, and I was stunned to see the result. At difficulty levels above the default, these encounters are harrowing and endless as wave after wave of enemies attack you from all sides. There's often cover, but nothing that shields you from all directions, so you'll always be taking fire from somewhere, and there's no way to escape until the encounter ends-- even if that means hemming the player in with some lame invisible barriers like knee-deep water and shoulder-high grass, which the game often does. Drinking the sleg, though, turns the encounter into a glorious, danger-free free-for-all, where you just get to go to town on a huge number of otherwise helpless and hapless enemies. Whether these encounters are like miniboss encounters that will use up every scrap of health and manna you can muster, as well as every revival potion you can put your hands on, or whether it's like a reward sequence where you get an infinite ammo power weapon and just get to annihilate everything in sight is entirely up to the player: and that choice remains open to you until the very last second. If you don't care about any potential consequences, you can just drink the sleg at the very start and mow through everything in your path. Or, you can decide not to touch the stuff, and scrounge for every last health potion and every last arrow to stem the seemingly endless tide of enemies. Or, near death and with no potions left, you can turn to the sleg fountain as the last resort to kill off the last few enemies and avoid restarting the entire battle.

After first using the sleg on my first playthrough, I saw no reason not to continue. The resources I consumed in that battle I could conserve for other encounters, where no sleg was available. I thought of the sleg as a reward from the designers: a sequence where, If I so wished, I could either demonstrate my superior competence by eschewing an obvious "win button", or I could just hit the Smart Bomb and destroy everything on the screen.

What I was not prepared for was the consequences at the end. With the final enemy defeated, Seraphine returns at the end of the game to reveal her true plan: not just to unseat the sleg-slurping power mad Annuvin, her former lover who betrayed her, but to set up a final battle royale between Caddoc and E'lara, with the winner to assume Annuvin's vacated place (although presumably second to Seraphine herself-- that part's not really clear).

Then, just as Caddoc was insisting that there's no way the pair would turn on one another, E'lara-- the character I had played for most of the game, and the only one who had ever consumed the sleg-- revealed glowing silvery eyes and stabbed Caddoc in the back. It was awesome, and completely unexpected. I had sort of been dreading another boss battle (I hate boss battles) either against Seraphine or between the two playable characters, and this resolution was a delicious twist that not only lent weight, retroactively, to all the chances you have in the game to drink the sleg, but resolved the three-way conflict between Caddoc, E'lara and Seraphine without following up one boss battle with another. What's more, the game awarded an achievement for finishing a game in which "one player drinks the Sleg"-- which indicated to me that there were perhaps as many as four distinct endings: one in which nobody ever drinks sleg, one in which both players drank sleg, and two more, one where Caddoc drinks but E'lara doesn't, and the one I've just received, where E'lara drank and then betrays Caddoc. Perhaps, when both players drink, there's a threshold-- whichever drinks more betrays the other. Or perhaps that does trigger a battle between players, which would be especially interesting in a coop game over LAN or XBL where both are controlled by humans.

That simple trick added depth to the kind of moral choice mechanics that were supposed to be so important in games like Bioshock, but ultimately failed to live up to their billing. Where Bioshock's moral choice mechanic fails utterly, Hunted's succeeds brilliantly.

In Bioshock, each play area is host to a small number of miniboss Big Daddy characters, each of whom escort a Little Sister. Little Sisters are all host to sea slugs, which are the only known source of ADAM, the resource over which all the forces in Rapture are fighting, and the resource you need to upgrade your character's plasmid abilities.

After defeating the Big Daddy, the player can choose to either rescue or "harvest" (kill) the Little Sister. Harvesting reaps more ADAM than rescuing (but rescuing does not yield zero ADAM). Over the entire game's 21 little sisters, harvesting every sister gains 3360 units of ADAM, while rescuing every sister gives 3080 units; some of the ADAM for rescuing sisters comes in the form of gifts from the Dr. Tenenbaum character, who urges you to rescue the sisters. These gifts come less often than Little Sisters themselves do, so the ultimate effect isn't so much in the aggregate amount of ADAM received, but the rate at which it is received. Harvest the girls and you get a healthy dose of it as a reward every time you defeat a Big Daddy. Save the girls, and you'll have to defeat three while waiting for a gift from Tenenbaum. Ultimately, though, it makes little difference: by the latter stages of the game you'll have more available plasmid powers than you can equip anyway. ADAM is used for upgrades, unlike Eve, which directly powers plasmid abilities, so the impact is not analogous to depriving you of ammunition, it just slows your access to plasmid power upgrades-- and it doesn't affect your access to actual ammunition or weapon upgrades at all, as those are handled by the availability of cash and vending machines. So if you rely more on shooting skill and normal weapons, and less on plasmids, then the choice of whether to harvest or rescue the little girls is of almost no consequence at all.

The way that Bioshock handles the way these choices impact the ending also undermines the importance of the choices. Rescue all the girls, and you get the Good Ending where you're the hero and you adopt the girls. Harvest them all, and you're a monster. Anything in between and you're basically still a monster-- it's just that people are sad about it rather than angry.

The possibility for what is really only two endings, all good or all bad, simply doesn't reflect the complex moral calculus that could have gone into each of 21 separate harvest-or-rescue decisions, and the context of each of those decisions is undermined by the way each is presented. Because the decision is made after the Big Daddy is defeated, and not before, there is much less pressure on the player to harvest. Harvesting only affects upgrades, not health or ammunition, and deaths only lead to Vita Chamber reincarnation with no loss of progress. Ultimately all Bioshock is doing is asking the player the same question 21 times: do you want the good ending or the bad ending? For players who aren't dependent on plasmids for combat victories, or those who know from experience that the harvest-or-rescue dichotomy is a false one, it's merely a personal preference. Because the choice is always made after major combat, and never before or during, there's no pressure. Because the choice is made many times, and the result given on the basis of arbitrary thresholds without taking into account the circumstances, the whole process feels hollow. It doesn't matter that you choose to rescue a girl after having an easy time with a Big Daddy who was already wounded by other splicers. It doesn't matter if you choose to harvest a sister because you're low on ammunition and desperately need a plasmid upgrade in order to hold your own during combat. The game doesn't take that into account at all, and the total aggregate details over 21 separate choices are eventually lost, and transformed into a black and white result: either you saved all the girls, or you didn't; the distinction between the saved-none and saved-some endings is negligible.

That's a stark contrast to the moral quandaries posed by drinking the sleg in Hunted, especially for a coop game between two human players. The decision is made under extreme duress-- you have to make the call while you're actively in combat. If you decide not to drink, your partner might anyway! That means you'll be at risk from betrayal by them at the end of the game (as well as meaning you'll have a hard time keeping pace with their kill count in the encounter, as they'll be dealing massive damage and being immortal. A whole range of possible interactions open up, depending on how the players choose to handle the situation-- will they both ignore the sleg? Will they take turns? Will one betray the other, claiming to ignore the sleg, but then eventually choose to drink it? And regardless of what choice the players make at the start, as the encounter goes on and more and more powerful enemies appear, the situation may change. There are far fewer sleg fountain encounters in Hunted than there are Little Sisters in Bioshock, and because the decision to drink or not drink is made under pressure, both from attacking monsters and from potential competition from your coop partner, there's a lot more emotional impact when the payoff finally comes, and each individual decision matters more in the final outcome because the situations happened less often. You're more likely to remember that one battle where, although you intended not to drink, you finally succumbed to temptation because you were almost dead, out of potions, and didn't want to replay the battle over again-- and how that was the one choice that determined how the game finally ends.

It was strangely and oddly satisfying to see this moral choice concept executed so well in a game that otherwise seemed like such a rough-and-tumble copy of a better-known franchise, and I immediately wanted to dive in and play as the other character, make a different choice, and see the result. I was not disappointed; while Hunted makes many small stumbles elsewhere, these big choices stand out, and the way the ending applies the consequences is memorable and interesting in a way that Bioshock's supposed little sister dilemmas weren't.