Currently scheduled for release in mid-November, Beowulf is a combat-oriented fantasy adventure game in which you'll assume the titular role of a legendary Geatish warrior. The game is based on the upcoming Paramount movie of the same name, which is in turn based on an ancient and lengthy poem. We recently had an opportunity to play through a four-level demo version of Beowulf on the Xbox 360. Although our experience was short-lived, it bodes well for the finished game.
The first level that we got to play through is the first level of the game proper, and it serves as an interactive tutorial. Playing as Beowulf, you're challenged to a race of sorts by a rival. Along the way, you'll learn how to climb walls and shimmy along ledges, and you'll also learn that Beowulf can slide down steep inclines without losing his footing. The race portion of the tutorial ends on a beach inhabited by giant crabs, and although nobody appears to be keeping score, you'll be attempting to outdo your rival as the pair of you set about killing them.
Beowulf's combat is visceral and satisfying from the moment you land your first punch. The controls are uncomplicated enough that you'll feel comfortable with them right away, but you certainly won't be able to just mindlessly mash buttons once you come up against something more dangerous than crabs--for example, the three huge sea serpents that show up toward the end of the first level. Your battle with them not only calls upon all of the skills that you've learned previously but also a brand-new one: carnal fury.
Activating carnal fury sends Beowulf into a blind rage for a period of time. The screen takes on a deep red hue, there's some motion blurring and, most importantly, your attacks are much more powerful. They're powerful enough, in fact, that you can punch a huge sea serpent in the face and cause its head to crash down onto the rocks next to you. After that, you have the opportunity to climb up onto said monster's head and take it down God of War-style by hitting the correct buttons as they flash up on the screen. Incidentally, these button-sequence actions aren't reserved for large, boss-type enemies in Beowulf; you'll be presented with a similar scenario every time you grab an enemy (or a part of an enemy).
Your offensive commands during combat are mapped to three buttons: grab, light attack, and heavy attack. Light and heavy attacks can be strung together to perform some devastating and very satisfying combos, but the grab move is the most interesting of the three because it's invariably followed by an opportunity to perform up to four different moves. For example, there are moments when you can successfully grab an enemy that is roughly the same size as you by initiating the maneuver and then mashing the correct button when instructed to do so. At that point, your options might include throwing the enemy, crushing the enemy (it's brutal), or stealing its weapon. The options vary somewhat according to the opponent that you're grappling with, but we can report from experience that grab moves get the job done regardless of the enemy's size. More on our troll-butchering exploits later.
The second level, titled King's Road, saw Beowulf and a number of his allies landing on the shore of a landmass purportedly inhabited by another of the game's huge monsters. Unfortunately, the portion of the level available in our demo ended before we could confirm or deny that possibility, but not before we'd had a chance to learn about Beowulf's heroism system and to put it to good use against numerous enemy crabs and barbarians. Heroism is represented onscreen as a blue energy bar of sorts that fills up anytime you perform a particularly devastating combo or do something deemed heroic. One example that did the trick occurred when we picked up a large rock and used it to crush a giant crab. As your heroism gauge fills up, you and your Thane colleagues will become increasingly powerful and start to emit a blue glow. The heroism gauge doubles as your life bar, so the best way to stay alive is basically to kill others as spectacularly as possible. In addition to the significant bonuses that heroism affords you and yours in combat, it gives you the power to unleash the "Viking storm" special attack on multiple enemies. Heroism also makes your followers more adept at performing simple tasks for you, such as moving heavy stone doors. Tasks appear in the game quite frequently, and as your followers attempt to complete them for you, you'll have the option to speed up the process by completing a relatively simple rhythm-style minigame known as Thanes' Song.
Next up in our demo was a level taken from Beowulf's ninth episode, which we believe is almost halfway through the game. You've been separated from your men at the start of the level, and must make your way to a blood-filled sacrificial pit where they're fighting for their lives. The only way to get there is on a long, crumbling staircase that runs along the edges of cliffs and such, and along the way you'll come up against skeleton warriors whose shields make them tricky to hit with conventional melee attacks. However, the aforementioned grab moves work just fine, and there's plenty of fun to be had in tossing the enemies off the staircase to their deaths using the throw command. When you reach the pit, you'll find that the situation is pretty dire; your men are being attacked from all sides by undead-looking enemies and need to close large doors to stop more of the enemies from pouring in. The enemies will do their best to hamper those efforts, and things definitely take a turn for the worse when a large troll shows up. The troll is too big for you to grab in the same way as the other enemies, but if you time it right, it's possible to grab one of its arms and then climb up it onto its head. Once atop the troll, your options will include the usual stuff to deal damage, as well as an opportunity to steal the huge axe that it wields. There are very few weapons available in the pit, so that was definitely the course of action from which we enjoyed the most success.
The last level included in the demo was taken from near the end of the game, and it featured a boss battle of sorts against the rival that we were racing against in the tutorial. There are numerous waves of enemies to get through en route to said encounter, and although it might be possible to simply bypass a lot of them and leave your followers to deal with the situation, there's a lot to be said for looking after those guys. Every follower that you keep alive makes your health gauge a little longer. Small icons above your health gauge represent the followers in play, and if any of them start flashing red, that's your cue to go and help them out. To a casual observer, the boss battle at the end of the level would look like little more than a one-on-one fight between two muscular guys, but it's more involved than that because only heroic combos and grab moves have any effect on Beowulf's rival. Any other moves you attempt to hit him with are a waste of time.
We look forward to bringing you more information on Beowulf as soon as it becomes available. In the meantime, be sure to check out our new screenshots and movies of the game in action.