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Preview: Dragon's Dogma

10:00 AM on 04.12.2011 // Nick Chester

Capcom's not known for its open-world games. In fact, while popular with Western developers, the Japanese have tended to shy away from vast, explorable open-world adventures. In 2012, that changes with Dragon's Dogma.

With folks on the project who'd previously worked on titles like Resident Evil 4 and the Devil May Cry series, Capcom's hoping Dragon's Dogma will be its next big thing. With over three years of planning and well into two years of production, it may currently be Capcom's largest game in production.

It's close to year before the game's release, but Capcom gave us an early look and a hands on at its Captivate Miami event last week.

Dragon's Dogma (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360)
Publisher: Capcom
Developer: Capcom
Release date: Early 2012

While the development team was cagey on the particulars of the game's story, it was willing to spill some vague details. A dragon, the first seen in decades, appears in the game's world. As tends to happen when legendary beasts manifest, the world is thrown into chaos. While the dragon is seemingly arbitrarily wreaking havoc on the land, the game's protagonist is singled out. This hero's heart is ("quite literally," we were told) stolen by the dragon, and is used as bait to pull the player through the rest of the game's story.

Before setting on your journey, you'll have to make the usual choices for your hero, including looks, stats, and character class. There will be three available: a Strider, a Mage, and a Fighter. Right now, we only know the specifics of the Strider, as it was the character Capcom let us go hands on with in the demo. This particular class has two sets of weapon: a set of dagger-like swords for close quarter combat, as well as a bow and arrow for ranged attacks.

In this particular demo battle, we're faced with fighting one of the game's massive bosses, a gryphon. The battle begins with almost no context, and after a short tussle with what appeared to be goblins, the massive winged creature swoops in. That's when things get kind of hazy.

As you'd expect when battling a gryphon, things are a bit hectic. At least you've got friends who've got your back: the hero will fight alongside four computer-controlled party members which Capcom calls "Pawns." These "Pawns" ("hired" or selected by the player from various character met throughout the game) will act on their own accord if left to their own devices. Alternately, players can direct them using the controller's d-pad with basic commands like "Go," "Help," and "Come."

I let them do their own thing, and do their own thing they did. The AI dove right into battle with gryphon, repeatedly shouting updates on offensive strategies or howling pleas for help. On their own, they were doing just fine, so I instead focused on the game's action-combat controls, a mixture of face button mashing combos and a trigger pull that modified attacks for even more damage.

Dragon's Dogma also features a grab system that will let you grasp small enemies as well as larger creatures like the gryphon itself. In the instance of the latter, I was able to not only pick up and toss live enemies, but also the bodies of the fallen. The game's AI repeatedly shouted at me to use one of the bodies as bait for the gryphon (apparently they like to gnaw on rotting flesh), although the flying creature never fell for it.

Instead, I'd wait for it to swoop in for an attack and smash it repeatedly with my swords. Or, I'd aim my arrows at the flying beast and nail its wings until it came diving head first into the ground. The poor thing, writhing in pain, was completely open to attacks. Looking at it whimpering on the ground, I almost felt bad. But not bad enough to show mercy.

As it turns out, it wasn't ready to die -- as I approached, it spreads its wings, and began to take flight. I pressed the grab button frantically. In Dragon's Dogma, if you see it on an enemy, you can grab it. At least that's what they tell me. It proved true for the gryphon. I grabbed it's leg and it tried to fly away, attempting to shake me off. I used the analog stick to crawl onto the creatures back as it took flight, searching for a weak spot. I've played Shadow of the Colossus before, so I go for the head and begin stabbing; predictably, the gryphon hates getting poked in the skull with a blade.

This goes on for awhile, my pawns doing their best to bring the airborne critter down. After a long battle, we're triumphant, and the best tumbles to the ground. Victory. It's dead. I get a closer look, and it's… kind of cute. With no context, I'm a bit sad I had to kill the gryphon. What had it done to us? I mean, outside of trying to swoop down and tear our heads off?

I think I'll have an easier time trying to murder the ugly, vicious four-headed hydra. Capcom showed us the battle in a video, but didn't let us get our hands on. Like the gryphon battle, it's an action packed, big boss battle affair. The four-headed creature wraps itself around a wooden tower and squeezes, splintering it into a dozen or more pieces. The hero not only can climb the various heads of the hydra, but can also cut off its heads. (And why else would you climb a hydra, really?)

While the focus was on action for this first Dragon's Dogma reveal, Capcom was also quick to point out that the game world is big, open, and living. We were shown one of the game's largest cities. Capcom says these are large, functioning cities full of NPCs that lead their own lives (running shops, fruit stands, and more) on the in-game 24 hour cycle. At night it's nearly pitch black and it's always horrible night to have a curse. When the sun goes down, the player clips on a lantern to light the way and creatures, we're told, become even more powerful. 

The gryphon battle Capcom let us play was packed full of the action we were promised. But one issue I found was the fact there was simply too much happening. Maybe it was the constant barrage of hollering from the AI peanut gallery, or a cluttered HUD that distracted me from the action. Maybe it was both. Dragon's Dogma is a big project for Capcom, with three years of planning and some two years of production already dumped into it. But there's almost a year of development left to go, and it's evident a lot of that should be spent on tightening the nuts and bolts of the experience.

Dragon Dogma
's currently scheduled for an early 2012 release for PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. When asked about the possibility of a PC version, the developers laughed. (Seriously.)

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Nick Chester, Former Editor-in-Chief (2011)
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