Plus XP

The Next Level In Gaming

Contributed by CJ

PREPARE TO DIE

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1.45am wake-up for a 3.35am bus. Plenty of time. Except, my PC had gone bonkers and – not for the first time, but for the first time in the longest time – was showing the wrong time. At 3.30am the news spiked beyond radio music and I was mortified. Computer clock said 3.11. Bus leaves at 3.35.

I ran at what seemed like The Flash speeds, although somewhat more human, pathetic and carrying a massive bag, ice blue converse slapping on the pavement below, a growing chorus of slow applause mocking me as those footsteps echoed off adjacent brickwork as I pushed on.

When I arrived at the bus station the National Express was pulling out. I willed it towards me, hoping that through some kind of Jedi mind trick, I might pull it towards the roadway in front of me. Yet, sadly, it turned the other cheek and grumbled off into the distance.

Defeated, I swore, and zombie-slumped my way back home, fingertip poking at my phone to see when the next bus was due, and at which price I could snare it for. I’d managed to get a return to London for £16 previously, but in the here-and-now that next single journey would cost me £25.

I got through the door, chucked my coat and bag into a corner, and called National Express. After waiting an age to get through – which seemed strange given that it was knocking on for 4am – I then pleaded my case. Falling on deaf ears, the best the gent on the other end of the phone would offer was £2 off. £23. A big ask financially, particularly a week or so before pay day, but .. Dark Souls. Dark Souls II.

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At 5.25am I boarded the next coach, knowing I now had a rush on my hands. The previous journey afforded me loads of time to plan my route beyond arriving at Victoria Station, yet this newly improvised soirée left me with a mere 40 minutes in comparison.

I don’t know London particularly well, and the last time I explored it was in the sneakers of a much younger man. In the studio with a Kerrang loved band, a mate and I kipping in his car on Hampstead Heath, to then be unceremoniously turfed off by the Police a few mornings in with them thinking we were IRA. His car, an old Talbot Horizon, blew up on the motorway on the way back; its smouldering wreckage left at the service station, we bought Mr Kipling Apple & Custard Tarts, a big bottle of pop and hitched our way back up north on an Apollo Cola lorry. Good times.

The 5.25am bus was vile. My seat was about half way down, but the stench coming from the toilet box was dire. Factor in the heating notched up to ‘fire that ends the world’ and a distinct lack of actual air coming in from anywhere, and that debut hour or so was testing in the extreme. Thankfully I was shattered by this point, and found solace in music and sleep. When I awoke there was about an hour left to go, and, as my eyelids fluttered into blur-o-vision, the towering architecture of London opened its arms. I beamed.

Buildings and shops alien to me unfolded into streets with names I vaguely knew, statues and parks I’d heard of but never explored. It felt as though I was moving through my own imagination. This level of the surreal, the strange, being so far out of my comfort zone – heck even traversing the dangers of getting to this point seemed almost serendipitous. It was as if I was only now noticing the wry smile all of this was giving me. Considering the nature of my reason for being here, was this the game of the game? That I had to earn the day.

SOULSY

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Dark Souls is my favourite game ever, with it and it’s spiritual predecessor Demon’s Souls sitting top of the pile of decades of titles played.

The positions between those two may interchange given any particular day, but they changed my life, the way that I think about games, of how I assess and obsess about games.

Hence the excitement for this journey, to be this close to the sequel. Just under an hour to go, with many trials and trepidations to getting there still ahead of me.

YOU! [*points*] TUBE!

My history with the games zoetrope flickered between each blink as I left Victoria Bus Station and headed into the mysteries of the tube, heart now drawing a line between scared, the unknown and sheer excitement.

Moving through sardine strangers, I fumbled for my phone to find which colour was mine for the applicable line. I walked lost amongst people as animals, shepherded through corridors, filtered into vessels and flung mercilessly across the landscape. I was one of them. Onboard. Counted off each … individual .. station. I knew I was almost there. Hammersmith.

I emerged beyond the tube and into a shopping centre, wherein a nice bloke furnished me with future direction, leading me to a curving road beyond on old church, an Undead Parish.

The weather at the point was dancing its most unapologetic chaos apocalyptic, as torrents of wind and rain smashed against my travelled frame. Looking back I can only smile at the unadulterated melee of it, but at the time I struggled to hold on to the hood of my Parker and walk forwards. Through this monastic vision I asked another NPC if they new where my destination was, to be informed with a murmuring shrug that they didn’t.

Thankfully it was the next building beyond – a massive bullet of a thing shot into the ground – and somehow I’d made it near-as-damn-it on time!

YOU REVIVED!

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A push through the fog gate and into warmth. Sign in at the main desk, gestured towards a posh elevator – all bright lights and loud ‘dings’ – heralding a whoosh into the sky, Anor Londo levels of bright lights, Edwin from Namco. Nice man, friendly smile, firm handshake.

A room beyond, tables full of PS3s, monitors and headphones. Massive banners with Dark Souls 2 artwork, dominated by the massive raised statue of the Knight Faraam. Factor in a table full of biscuits, coffee and something called ‘tea’.

I poured a syrupy black cup of the Devil’s finest, drew a long sip, and settled in. Bit my lip. Shivered a little. Pressed ‘start’. The familiar crash of reality shattering.

FOR THIS IS YOUR FATE. THE FATE OF THE CURSED.

Dark Souls 2’s opening sequence, previously scissored and pseudo-seen in recent trailers, unfolded within its full, voluptuous form – and I fell into the beckoning vortex below.

Cracked sky and a jagged moon, the ghosts of whispering winds confuse the very air that surrounds, waist high grass tickling at my ravaged, rag-wrapped form. Dark Souls 2 had begun.

As those playing the game at surrounding desks ran on, I moved slowly, senses devouring every nuance, as I cautiously set about exploring this exciting new land; footsteps laboured as if I was actually there, breathing constricted by both the ominous and magnificent in equal measure.

An instantaneous delight was how much easier it was to walk in this build of Dark Souls 2, to walk properly – in a Souls way. The Beta test had me trotting into a run with the merest push on the Dualshock’s sticks – and that increased pace wasn’t something I was crackers about. I’m the sort that likes to revel in the quieter moments, fear them, attune to the darkness almost, to then find the confidence to slowly move in it.

A little way beyond exists a first link to lore.  Resonating with a shiver of import, here lay a first link back to characters past. Double kick drum heartbeat cannoning in my chest, I was asked if I remembered who I was; essentially a fabulous lead in to selecting character type, starting classes and sculpting a fizzog for the new game.

The individual classes had similarities to those seen in the Beta test, but will throw a few folks a bit of loop as to which way their new choice might sway. Starting builds are in no way flush with the same level of grandiose as the Beta either. For example the Eastern Knight [I think it was called] had the same long rug like cloak, but not the helm, nor the extravagant armour as the Beta test had offered up. This time I chose ‘Warrior’, a lad clad in fetching swaths of crimson cloth and armed with a broadsword. No shield, mind, just a decent sized sliver of steel to thwack things with.

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A curving staircase lead outside, revealing a slim, jagged path which beckoned towards blistering sunlight – and one of the most beautiful sights I’ve ever seen. I don’t just mean in an ‘oh that’s nice’ kind of way, but that I got very emotional from simply being there. Brilliant skies, waves lapping at the shore. Many characters to introduce yourself to and secrets to uncover. Yet my connection was more than that.

If I may be so honest, and perhaps a bit bleak, I struggle with depression at times. Sometimes of pure sadness, those odd moments touching upon far darker. I’ve learned to understand it, know it in my attempt to control it, acknowledging my place within the drown, remembering the times I’ve swam for air, the motions to get me there, and each important step beyond.

Many times in Demon’s and Dark I’d blur out the real world, those feelings and become one with Boletaria and Lordran. I guess those human lessons learned of controlling self and sadness pour into such dark fantasy well, and likewise successes  filter on back into the everyday.

Medula unveiled as glistening tranquillity, wonderment, peace. Those skylines, that sea, the beautiful weather kissed Corwall-esque landscape absolutely scintillating. Perfect even. My immediate response was ‘when I fall’.

Medula sang within the noir like a North Star, and it’s in retrospect I wonder if I might come to this place in moments of sadness and broken purely to stare out into blue skies, over waves, and find myself just being here.

It was at this point in Dark Souls 2 that I cried. My eyes filled up, God knows I bit down hard on my lip. I entered Medula’s nexus understanding this was my safe place within the game, yet the collision of emotions beyond that surprised me, as well as binding me to strongly to it.

As the game unfolds, I’ll be interested to see how closely life and the world through the tv frame mesh. A little aside, however trivial you might think it, but an important colour to the experience and one I hope you don’t mind me sharing.

NPC’S AND THE WORLD BEYOND.

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I exhausted every last piece of dialogue from each of the people I met in Medula. What became immediately apparent was the level of accessibility, as mused upon – and feared – amidst the pages of the Edge interview way back in January 2012. The equivalent of the Firelink Shrine’s Crestfallen Warrior will, if questioned thoroughly, introduce new players to many of the mechanics of the game through his dialogue, even guiding them into a helpful covenant as his verbosity continues. It’s a really nice touch, completely unobtrusive to the experienced player, yet manna for those who are  a little lost, lest wish to glean greater experience for world about to engross them.

If such nuance had been prevalent in Dark Souls, intimating the minutia of humanity for example, I think it would have worked with equal subtlety, yet giving more people a far greater idea of the sort of cloaked mechanics the game kept hidden.

A nice evolution very well executed. Well played, Dark Souls 2.

So, yep, explore as much of Medula as you can. And take nothing for granted. Oink.

FOREST OF THE GIANTS.

Forest Of The Giants earliest glimpses have been shared in various preview videos these past few weeks, yet being there still imparted more than a few surprises.

Initially I just had that single sword chosen at the start of the game, hadn’t found a shield, hadn’t bought a shield, so went in grasping the blade with both hands. Oh yeah, if you’re going one handed with a shield and press L1, you do a hearty, lean-in-with the shoulder punch! Not sure if that was in the Beta, or even if you could do it in the first Dark Souls, but I thought it was cool nonetheless.

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This is where the game starts to make you aware of more than one enemy at once, instilling the instinct to draw the attention of one villain at a time, all whilst attuning to the combat system.

Obviously those with experience of previous Souls games will sync with this easily, yet it’s a great way of throwing new players off-balance, whilst simultaneously giving them buoyancy with both battle system and multiple enemies.

Immediately a ranged enemy is introduced, conditioning the use of scenery as cover, not to mention the possible results that a well timed burst of adrenalin and bravery can achieve. This is also the point where the game screams in with a sense of paranoia, that some of those which wish you ill may be hiding, ready to pounce when your back is turned and attention busy elsewhere. Suddenly backgrounds aren’t scanned over and taken lightly, but devoured.

That such a tutorial is handled so instantly, so instinctively, without hand-holding or throwing up flags is a wonderful piece of design, a momentum Dark Souls 2 continues to play with as Forest Of The Giants continues to unfold.

A ladder climb and there’s more enemies than ever, all on the ground, all fully aware of where you are with a thirst for blood. Another bow based beast ranges harm from on a far flung ledge, with the tempting cake of something big, burly and bandaged slumped like a forgotten teddy bear against a tree.

Here lies a someone you don’t have to engage, but oh-my the temptation if you’ve bested the previous hoard. His attack patterns are much harder hitting, a different variety than other enemies, far more snide and calculated. Sometimes three swings, others one, occasionally a moment of stillness to lull you in closer before a massive thrusting attack smashes forth.

He’s a tough fight, one which electrifies panic, yet within such a dichotomy of scared meets excited, always a feeling of the achievable, that ‘I can do this’, but it will take absolute precision and skill to do so.

A moment such as this distils a little of what makes the Souls games so special for so many. The impossible meets the maybe meets the GET IN; mainlining that rush thereafter and throwing it into further progress, else re-thinking the aspects of attack and of how you might approach the battle differently.

Mummified laddo back there doesn’t respawn when he dies, but he does leave you with a rather fabulous sword. Chances are you’re underpowered to wield it effectively, but it’s here the game gives you a subtle nudge into the mechanics of levelling up.

It was here I decided to take the Souls I’d earned, jumped back to my Nexus and with a plan to buff myself up enough to wield it. Through previous exploration I knew where to lavish a portion of those souls against a decent shield, and suddenly my classic Souls mode of attack was back. No more lulling bad lads into committing to a lunge, trying to avoid it, then twatting back in full force – I was now meeting that first swing of theirs with a hearty slab of iron and wood, pausing for their stagger, then giving it my all with my brand new sword, which turned out to be far better than I gave it credit for. Further elation, supplementary static crackle in my tummy, fuel lit for greater cravings to crack on and challenge the caution of the previously unknown.

I soon made my way back to where I’d left previously, meting out justice at far greater speed. I knew the terrain now, those Souls were mine.

Forest Of The Giants grows out into quite the castle, with echoes of Dark Souls Undead Burg an Oolacile, as well as the introduction to Boletaria in level 1-1 of Demon’s Souls. The hushed introduction to mechanics continues, with ladders now leading to platforms, floors, imbued with cascading, creeping noises fogging hidden assailants.

Many of these enemies now grip a fist around the handle of a shield just as you might, each with the intelligence not to lower it until the perfect opportunity to strike occurs. Decision paralysis – a fizz of bravery, perhaps cowardice – a lesson in reading your enemies to perfectly judge the split-second with which to end them.

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The various rooms and hallways spark the desire to fully investigate everywhere. Firstly to make sure nothing thirsty to gang up on you, plus the knowledge that something tasty, be that essence of life or a cool new weapon – one which just might make a difference – could be just around the corner. It was through such noseyings I found a favourite weapon from Demon’s Souls, one which took me through most of that game quite happily, located in a place I found purely from being tenacious.

From here expect quirky moments, further design, an extra vex to learn to read the difference that the Souls games bring. As a player well schooled in the previous titles I felt the lessons I’d learned nudged me ahead of the curve, but in other instances the game threw pure mischief my way and laughed at me. It was times such as these I could only cheer back because I really should have known better!

One particular stuff-up was hilarious at just how I initially survived completely and utterly against the odds, not once but twice, to then get absolutely battered into submission at the point I thought I’d gotten away with it. Another stretch of haphazard comedy seemingly brought naught more than a spectacular death, yet actually opened up a shortcut back to a bonfire as well! Interesting!

Elsewhere a moment of awe, a feeling of being way out of my depth, colliding with the sort of WTF gasp that both Souls games screamed upon the respective entrances of bridge grasping Dragon and Drake.

I also met Peter Serafinowicz.

It’s in retrospect that I realise that all of the above was the extra accessibility From Software had been striving for, but none of it felt heavy handed, and in the immediate it wasn’t apparent this was a learning curve at all. It’s an expert piece of design, one which thrilled the heck out of me at the time, and in the aftermath I’ve can only look upon with admiration.

BLACK ARMOUR PACK?

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It’s with bafflement I then look upon the addition of the Black Armour Pack included in the box for early purchasers – a smattering of weapons and shields beyond those attainable in the early part of the game.

Certainly there’s an argument that making the game even more accessible for new players could be an extra string to Dark Souls 2’s [great] bow, yet – it feels the lessons actually learned are not only important, but really well structured.

I can only speculate upon the actual measure of the weapons without seeing stats – and perhaps they will just be the equivalent of the point where I got the sword and shield after my encounter with the bandaged man – yet, everything feels so well designed anyway for new players, I fear their inclusion might be over-egging the pudding a bit.

Without the strive, the challenge, those instances where the impossible meets the achieved, the game could miss instilling its most glittering prize.

BLIGHT TOWN.

Continuing into a darker contrast, I’ll give mention of the aspects which didn’t come across as quite so sterling.

The frame rate isn’t exactly baby oil smooth, but nor does it fall away from absolute consistency either. No torn frames, no rapid decent into chuggy-chuggy, just – steady. If you’re familiar with the console Souls games I don’t think it will bother you. I’m just being picky.

Likewise, as much as most of the game looks really beautiful, there was a place in Forest Of The Giants where the scenery beyond the ramparts was a little too basic and sparse. Perhaps the idea wasn’t to draw the attention of the player beyond the immediate, but given the way other scenery in the game looked so damn gawpable, to see such blandness surprised me.

Other than those, seriously, that’s all I’ve got.

DO YOU WISH TO QUIT?

No. Dear God, no. NO. I came away from three hours with Dark Souls 2 having conceded a mere four deaths. One of those was pure stupidity on my part sellotaped to one of the standout moments in the playthrough. The other, more self daftness again, but a shortcut opened. I felt at home, in awe, entertained.

Moreover, I want more. The time I spent with Dark Souls 2 came a warning that I would have to stop if I made a certain amount of progress, presumably to avoid getting into spoiler territory. That said, I did notice a little something out to sea from Medula, a something I can only speculate upon, but that kernel still has my mind turn-turn-a-turning.

I’m a massive fan of the Souls games – and way, way excited for Dark Souls 2, but after spending this time venturing into the lands of Drangleic that yearning has absolutely skyrocketed.

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March 14th please. NOW.

- CJ

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Plus XP Contributors On February - 14 - 2014

One Response so far.

  1. Grakniir says:

    This is beautifully structured, and makes me all the more excited for DS II. 3 weeks….that’s all….

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