While both versions of Blood Omen 2 have basically been in simultaneous development, we've seen significantly less of the Xbox incarnation than its PlayStation 2 counterpart. We recently had a chance to spend some time with a fully playable version of Kain's Xbox excursion, though. While it's essentially the same game, everything looks a whole lot cleaner and runs a good deal more smoothly than what we've seen of the PS2 version. We've yet to come across any Xbox-exclusive art or features, but we're hoping that some will be added. That said, the gameplay seems to adhere to a number of 3D adventure conventions. The game is very combat-heavy, though, which makes it feel pretty compelling. The aesthetics of the game's combat system are especially vivid, and this certainly helps it--as you hack and gore your way through the clouded, dismal city of Meridian, you'll find plenty of opportunities to make use of Kain's bestial prowess, and you'll enjoy leaving a bloodbath in your wake quite a bit.
For those who are unfamiliar with the series, Blood Omen 2 is the continuation of the narrative of the original Legacy of Kain game, which was released for the PlayStation in 1996. The second game in the series appeared in 1998, in the form of Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver, which took place quite further down the series' timeline and featured Raziel as its primary protagonist. This is where the game's lineage begins to get a little messy--the sequel to Soul Reaver came before Blood Omen 2, so, if you're counting, this would make Blood Omen 2 the fourth Legacy of Kain game. But as Eidos has dropped the Legacy of Kain series moniker, you'll not have to waste headspace on such complex calculations.
So the story that Blood Omen 2 continues is that of Kain's original Blood Omen's exploits, and it takes place some 400 years after the events of the original. If the opening cinema is any indication (and we seriously suspect that Crystal Dynamics is keeping the whole story under wraps), Kain's efforts in the intervening centuries were fairly successful, yet somewhat abbreviated. After choosing the "dark path" at the end of the original Blood Omen, Kain went on to assemble a modest army of vampires, one that he used to wreak havoc upon the human world. The decisive battle of his dark campaign took place at the gates of Meridian, a city ruled by a grim group of vampire-hunting knights named the Sarafan. Though his legion was indeed mighty, Kain himself fell at the hands of the Sarafan lord, who then took possession of his magical blade, the Soul Reaver. This is where our insight into the story ends--after the cutscene depicting these events is over, we're thrown abruptly into the game. We do know from previous info released by Crystal Dynamics, however, that Kain was magically revived by a group of vampires called The Cabal, one of whom leads us through the slums of Meridian--where the game's first chapter is set--an engages us in a lengthy tutorial.
The tutorial guides you through all the intricacies of vampirism, from feeding and quietly gliding to the grisly nuances of combat. It encompasses a good portion of the slum area, each section of which is used to teach you about one specific set of game mechanics. When taught to feed, for instance, you're taken into the machinery-ridden bowels of a largish building, where you'll find a street thug chained to the wall. Your tutor, Umah (a cool-natured female vampire of markedly Eidos-esque proportions), then directs you to deprive him of his lifeblood. As you approach him to do so, he'll yelp and plead, until you mercilessly do the deed. All the other game mechanics are illustrated in this manner, and the system not only helps you learn about the gameplay mechanics, but it also helps set the context for the game's story. Small bits of narrative info are tossed around the instructional sequences, and by the time it's over, you'll be a lot closer to mastering the game's mechanics and understanding the nature of its story's players.
When you look at it from a mechanical standpoint, Blood Omen 2 is shaping up to be nicely complex. Though its essential action--namely, exploring reasonably sized environments seeking to activate various locks and switches--is fairly straightforward, the various elements that accompany it are what make the gameplay exciting. Combat is where this is most immediately felt. You'll have access to a whole mess of weapons, and they all differ pretty radically in terms of the things you can do with them. Specifically, the weapons--which range from Kain's bare claws to the blades, axes, and cudgels he ends up wielding--all have distinct attack sequences associated with them. The grab moves that Kain can perform are similarly influenced by the weapon he wields. For example, when armed with a sword, Kain will force-feed enemies its pommel, and when using an ax, he'll quite seriously hack at their crotch areas. His stealth kills work the same way--he'll smack someone's head off when using a club, but he'll disembowel that enemy when using a long sword.
The attacks look quite cool, to be sure, but for the most part, we get the feeling that the differences between them are basically aesthetic--one-hit kills work the same way with every weapon, and the grab attacks all seem to do identical damage across the board. Granted, the weapons have genuinely different properties in actual hand-to-hand combat--some allow you attack faster, while others have longer reaches, and the like--but everything seems to revolve around three-hit combos, grabs, and strategic stealth kills. Overall, though, the different visual treats native to each weapon do much to add color to the battles you'll engage in. The combat system itself feels pretty engaging in its own right, which helps quite a bit in this regard.
The mechanics of Blood Omen 2's combat system revolve around the Xbox's trigger buttons. Pressing the right trigger will cause Kain to unsheathe his weapon and get into his combat stance. When in that stance, you'll constantly face your opponent, and the left stick will allow you to circle-strafe him or her. You attack your opponents with your weapon by pressing the X button, which, when hit the right amount of times, executes a three-hit combo. You block attacks, further, using the left trigger. You can set precisely how this will work in the game's options menu--either it will block every frontal attack directed at you if you simply hold it down, or it will make you enter a block command for each individual blow. Regardless of how the mechanic is set, though, each blow you block will add a notch to your "rage meter," which, when full enough, allows you to use Kain's combat-related "dark gifts."
Before we discuss the dark gifts, though, the game's "lore" system merits description. Basically, every time you kill an enemy, you'll be able to drink the blood from its body and consume a bit of its metaphysical life force, which is called "lore" by the vampires in the game. A lore meter rests next to your life bar on the game's interface, and it gradually fills as you defeat enemies and sap them of their vitals. Once it's full, Kain "levels up," as it were, which basically makes his life bar longer and empties his lore meter. The other way to acquire lore is by seeking out a certain type of box that contains it in fairly large quantities. These "ancient vampire relics" are scattered throughout the game's world, but each one can only be used once.
By comparison, your dark gifts are earned arbitrarily. You basically earn one from each boss you defeat, in a very Legacy of Kain-like manner. You start the game with two--one, called fury, which allows you to unleash a superpowerful blow on your opponents, and another, mist, which allows you to traverse the mist-covered areas of the gameworld unseen. You'll be able to perform the latter whenever you come across the right type of thick, high fog on the ground, and doing so allows you to perform your stealth kills. Charm is another dark gift, and you earn later on in the game. It grants you the ability to "possess" commoners and have them do your bidding--which consists, usually, of unlocking stuff for you and accessing areas that would prove fatal to a vampire. Leap is yet another dark gift, and it allows you to cover enormous distances with your jumps. When you want to perform one, you move a ghostly cursor to your target and are automatically whisked in to it, with a dynamic accompanying cutscene. Each power has very specific applications, as you've probably concluded, which lends Blood Omen the sort of pacing we've come to associate with console adventure games--that is, you gain access to more areas as you accumulate the abilities needed to physically reach them.
Populating the game's world are a whole bunch of different types of creatures, both human and non-human, and they all do a decent job of feeling more lifelike than the average video game inhabitant. There are no health power-ups in Blood Omen 2, aside from the ones that walk on two legs and greet you in the street. The chilling reality is that Kain is a creature of darkness, and he has to feed on the human herds in order to stay alive. This means that anyone you encounter on the street, or beyond, is fair game. Townspeople certainly won't attack you, but, as in the first game, you can neutralize them and use them to replenish your health. And given the various methods at your disposal, you don't necessarily have to do it gracefully. Do it, at any rate, in the presence of other townspeople, and you'll likely draw some screams from the crowd. If you do anything vaguely supernatural, in fact, the crowd will freak out as is suitable, and this includes simply jumping or baring your claws. If you draw your sword on a villager, he or she will cower. Keep it drawn and advance upon the person, and he or she will begin to plead. It's quite a cool effect, when you see it in action--NPCs will often interact with each other, right down to having conversations with one another or rambling on to themselves, as you pass. And sometimes, if you aren't careful about who you engage in combat and where you do so, you'll find that blows will often travel in more than two directions, a fact that you can use to your advantage.
Your enemies range from common thugs and deadly thieves to Sarafan knights and all kinds of infernal demons. Each enemy will have different weapons, attack patterns, and behavioral properties, and some are a whole lot tougher than others. Thieves, for example, have a propensity to bolt when they're nearly defeated, and they're quite slippery if you turn your back on them. When healthy, though, they'll bombard you with a flurry of flame-lit crossbow bolts when you're at a distance, and they'll draw their swift daggers when you're close. Sarafan knights, on the other hand, will relentlessly pursue you and maul at you with their heavy weapons, and their attacks are often punctuated by unblockable supers. Boss battles are entirely unique ordeals, on the other hand--they're often quite grandiose, and they frequently feature a number of segments.
A good deal of what draws people to the Legacy of Kain series, in fact, are its grandiose presentations. These games tell big stories, whose events span millennia and whose implications are often downright cosmic. This is certainly helped by a history of highly polished visuals, something that, at this point, the Xbox version looks like it could use some of. While it's true that everything moves very briskly, and there is seldom, if ever, a stutter in the frame rate, all the PS2 version's textures still seem to be in place. And since things look quite a bit clearer overall, the limitations of some of these textures are pretty apparent. Hopefully, Crystal Dynamics plans to address this issue, as it would be sad to see what's shaping up to be very sharp game held down by subpar visuals.
The game is due out late next month, so there's enough time for some last-minute polishing. We'll keep you posted on its progress in any event, so keep your eyes here for further updates and the full review.