Ominous organ music strikes up and a vast velvet curtain draws back to reveal the nave of a medieval Hamburg church swathed in dry ice. Statues of undead warriors in gnarled, grimy armour loiter in the mist, a sharp lunge away from racks of spears and longswords. If it weren’t for the gigantic banner overhead reading ‘DARK SOULS III’, we’d be forgiven for thinking we’d wandered through a time portal to some fantasy dark age, yet the 30-odd international games writers wander down the aisle unfazed. They’ve been transported into so many video games by now they’d barely bat an eyelid if some be-stubbled treasure hunting beefcake abseiled through the window, took out a couple of uzi-toting KGB agents, dusted himself off and introduced himself as The Actual Nathan Drake.
Such are the monumental sales of triple-A gaming titles today that they come with the promotion budgets to rival Hollywood blockbusters, and with no real-life stars to drum up press froth, the games industry naturally turns to attempts to place reviewers and taste-makers inside the games themselves. Having an out-of-work extra doing high-kicks dressed as Lara Croft won’t cut it anymore. For Dark Souls III, the latest instalment of the notoriously hardcore swords’n’sorcery slash-em-up set in a world of ruined castles and cathedrals so extravagant and overbuilt that Elton John might consider them slightly over-the-top, Europe’s gaming elite are flown en masse to Hamburg to play the game in a spooky church lit with flaming cauldrons. For Rainbow Six Seige they were sequestered in a Shoreditch bunker, given a lecture by an SAS officer and training on a real-life shooting range and played the game while balaclava’d operatives with Kalashnikovs patrolled the aisles. The makers of need For Speed: Most Wanted flew the press to Germany to drive porches; the PRs for Call Of Duty Black Ops hired helicopters to take US reviewers to a luxury spa hotel in California to play the game for three days.
It’s all budget-fulfilling window dressing of course – the game you’re plugging should be immersive enough once you’re actually playing that you forget all of the extraneous frivolities. And that can certainly be said of Dark Souls III, although whether your immersion is one of pleasure or frustration is a moot point. From 2011’s original game, the selling point of the franchise was its toughness – hardened gamers bored with having their hands held through titles that increased gradually in difficulty without ever getting properly challenging were suddenly dropped into a gruesome fantasy realm where every minor ghoul, skeletal knight and undead archer came armed to the rotting teeth and capable of taking your head off inside a swipe or two. Everything killed you, and quickly, and such was the tricksy, sprawling nature of the maps that you often found yourself hacking your way painstakingly down one route for hours, only to find it’s a dead end and you have to hack your way agonisingly back again.
The casual gamer quickly grew frustrated at having to constantly replay each and every sequence, working out weak spots for every single enemy as they battled through the same chunk of the game over and over again, inching towards the next checkpoint. But diehards found the challenge and exhilaration of finally beating seemingly unbeatable bosses a deeply rewarding thrill, and the franchise became the serious gamer’s Everest of choice.
So two sequels on we found ourselves introduced, via a beautifully desolate if somewhat baffling opening sequence, to a host of new bosses that will torment our waking nightmares for the next hundred hours or so. Lords of Cinder that look like gigantic hell worms, faceless knights the size of bridges and enormous trees with hands, the ultimate targets of our ‘unkindled’ hero, whom we choose to play as a Pyromancer, a rugged survivor capable of chucking fire about. Not that that’s much use faced with DSIII’s legion of skeletal badasses, demon dogs and weak-looking undead types who suddenly turn into massive devil snakes if you get too close, like someone’s poured several gallons of Coca Cola onto Mento The Ghoul.
Step outside the safety of the game’s central temple-cum-home base where you can upgrade weapons with zombie shopkeepers and sells your souls – the in-game currency collected from killed enemies – for character upgrades in the expanded RPG system, and you face death by a million cuts in cruel crypts full of loitering stealth spectres and nasties with pikes that can skewer you before you get a single swipe in. The opening sequences of DSIII are unremitting, unforgiving slogs along parapets of undead settlements that ultimately lead nowhere, and full of evil programmer’s tricks; finally make it past the fire-breathing wyvern sat on top of the castle on your 45th attempt and, in the very next room, an inviting treasure chest will grow teeth and eat you when you try to open it.
At our four hour preview, this writer threw in the towel when faced with a seemingly immortal armoured wrecking ball of a guard, not even a boss. So ask yourself – when a game blurb suggests you’ll be facing “insurmountable odds”, are you the hardy type to devote yourself to months of pain and frustration to overcome them? If so, either join the marines or try DSIII, because when they say “insurmountable” they darn near mean it. If they really wanted to put us inside this game for real, they’d have barricaded us in and unleashed the tigers.