It's a hard life being an orc. Not only do you have the social grace of a leper with Tourette Syndrome, but you're seemingly the enemy of every living being alive.
One minute you're standing by your lonesome, enjoying a freshly carved slice of elf, when all of a sudden, an unseen force inexplicably springs out of nowhere, lands a dagger in your throat, and then watches in glee as you wriggle frantically on the floor in a pool of strangely-coloured blood. How nice.
That happens a lot in Forgotten Realms: Demon Stone, the latest action-RPG from Stormfront Studios, the developer behind EA's LOTR: The Two Towers. So, if you're wondering what the developer did after that Tolkien-based adventure, here's what...
Realising that it's got a good thing going with the whole fantasy lark, it snazzed up the Two Towers engine, hooked up with cult novelist R.A. Salvatore, churned out more fantastical madness of warring orcs, bagged a licensing deal with the D&D's Forgotten Realms franchise, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Sound like your thing? Not put off by mysterious lands with ridiculously unpronounceable names? Good, because so far, we seriously reckon this game is better than The Two Towers. And that's a reasonable endorsement if ever there was one.
Two's company, three's an evil-bashing crowd
It doesn't matter if you like stealth, action or just standing there blasting magic with a silly, girly stick. Demon Stone lets you do all three. In this fantasy quest, you command a motley bunch of three distinctively different heroes, each with their own special skills and weaknesses.
On the one hand, you've got the human fighter. He's a pretty tough customer when it comes to melee combat, wading into large crowds of D&D-exclusive races (heard of a Yuan-Ti snakeman?) and removing vast chunks of flesh with a mighty swing of his sword. Lennox Lewis? Vin Diesel? Nadia from Big Brother? None of them would last five seconds grappling with this muscled chump.
For your long-range fighting, you'll want to switch to the sorcerer dude. He might not last especially long in the middle of a ten-man skirmish, but keep your distance, and he'll down dozens of aggressors by blasting all manner of bolts and orbs from his magical staff. Great fun to play as if you prefer third-person shooting games over button-bashing smack-'em-ups.
However, our pick of the bunch for us is little miss sarcastic herself, the elfish rogue. She's got a tongue sharper than a drawing pin, and the assassination skills to match. Leaping acrobatically over jagged scenery and dodging violent blows is her craft. Plus, if you hide her amongst the shadows, she'll gain temporary invisibility, enabling you to creep up to unsuspecting numbskulls and kill them with a single slash to the throat. She's a cold-hearted lady, this one.
"Right, who wants a fight?"
The first four levels of the game are dramatic. It opens with a spectacular battle scene involving two armies of orcs and a few captive elves in trailer cages. Bludgeon a few meatballs with the warrior bloke and you'll end up rescuing the rogue.
Learn the art of stealth and assassination, and you'll then hook up with the sorcerer. This long-haired Aragon look-a-like's immediate duty is to stay out of harm's way, using his magical to clear the path ahead of oncoming nasties. Very clever.
Complete all that, and freedom to control whatever character you want, when, where and how is granted (occasional individual character sections, aside). Even some of the fighting is optional too, the only incentive being that it rewards your team with extra experience points, thus enabling an eventual stocking up of flashy attack combos.
Scaredy coward equals having no good moves. Big, heroic type equals being flashier than Spider-Man and Batman put together.
The level of detail during the opening scene is, quite simply, incredible. Want to know what it feels like to stand smack in the middle of a bloody battle with armed monstrosities raging either side of you? This makes a hearty attempt at a demonstration.
There are streams of arrows whizzing by your head, catapults being released and most spectacular, of all, large dragons swooping from the sky. In terms of atmosphere and scale, Demon Stone is pretty impressive and a definite visual jump (on the PS2 especially) over The Two Towers. And that's saying something.
Subsequent levels lead you into darkened caves and a peaceful village and these are equally picturesque (or dark?), with new foes, epic battles and rip-roaring action. The great thing is that each scenario requires different tactics too, and depending on your preferred gaming style, switching between characters at will becomes common practice.
In addition, even the surrounding environments can become an ally -strategically forcing attackers off the edge of cliffs is a possibility, or herding them into large, roasting fires is another. If at any point you're in trouble, a press of a button will instruct your two comrades to rush to your aid, which can be pretty useful when things get uncomfortable.
Much of the fighting here isn't solely about learning combos and ramming down on those attack buttons, there's a considerable degree of tactics and variety creeping into play, which makes Demon Stone reasonably fresh and rewarding when compared to many similarly-minded adventures.
Time to get stoned...
If you haven't already guessed, we really enjoyed our time with Demon Stone. The combat handles well, even if it's not spectacularly original, with a similar interface to The Two Towers. There is a reasonably-sized RPG element too, which basically invites you to build up a vast library of attack combos. Special team magic can be unleashed, plus the few boss encounters we witnessed offered far more scope for variety than your usual end-of-level guardian.
But above all else, it was gorgeous to look at, with solid, well-paced cut-scenes that actually added to, rather than detracted from, the main action (clearly the influence of having a novelist onboard).
Well worth investigating this one, even without the inclusion of any multiplayer, which is a bit of a crying shame. Alas, you can't have it all. Look out for it in mid-to-late September on PS2 and Xbox.
Forgotten Realms: Demon Stone movie (PS2, Xbox)