The first Incredible Adventures Of Van Helsing arrived on PC just 11 months ago. Whilst it didn’t exactly revolutionise the ARPG genre, it was a mighty fun and satisfying little romp with strong influences from Torchlight and the Diablo series overlaid with a pleasing and pretty polished gothic/steampunk aesthetic. It was a fun - if occasionally frustrating - way to spend 15 hours, and for this reason I was keen to try out the closed beta for the second game in Neocore’s monster-slaying series.
The closed beta of The Adventures of Van Helsing is rather a brief affair. Running somewhere between an hour and two, you find yourself as the titular hero and sarky ghost-chum Katarina helping to defend an area of Borgovia from General Harker, who is an associate of the Big Bad Guy you beat in Van Helsing Mark I...
It was a short and rather limited experience - placeholder names, were still very much holding their places, and only one fairly large level is open to you - and yet it gave me a fair amount of hope for the future of the final retail build. Most of the mechanics and many of the new additions announced by Neocore are already in place in the beta. Many complained in the first Van Helsing game that the tower defence elements towards the end of the game felt rather tacked on and too late in the day. The beta build asks you to defend and area from the off, introducing you to influences of tower defence from the word go, but this time it feels rather more ARPG at its core. Yes, you're running about motivating the troops at every barricade, trying to help them fend off more nasties, but it's really about clicking rapidly on those nasties until they die. The beta is too short to really discover whether your motivating skills or leadership decisions actually impact the defence of the area, or whether really it's all just about your mad gun/spell/tech skills.
The abilities, mana and healing-based magic and special skills are fairly standard ARPG fare as per Van Helsing the first, but the foes attacking you provide enough differentiation to keep combat fresh. Whilst the continually arriving rent-a-zombies that crash onto the map with startling regularity get a little tiresome (they are laughably one-shottable), the waves of other monsters headed your way provide a good slice of variety. There are slow and tank-like giants and swordsmen that can take you out alarmingly fast without adequate micro, nippy, irritating “ornothopters” which hit you at range, quickly and by the dozen, forcing you to use timestopping or freezing abilities. There is powerful infantry that encourages attacking from cover, and shielded, armoured forces that need to be flanked before they can be taken down efficiently.
One of the major criticisms of the first iteration of The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing was the fact that, probably thanks to the relatively limited budget of NeoCore, you could only play as one class. It wasn’t too horribly contrived, since the whole “Van Helsing protagonist” bent provided the ideal excuse to create a single class based on the whole Abraham Van Helsing gun-slinging demon-hunter mythos, but it was a little forced, and had its limitations. One of the outcomes of the single class system in the first game was that the ability trees ended up a little haphazard, with players able to chaotically form their play style using abilities rather than a class system. Since the general design and UI of Van Helsing (both the first and latest offerings) is so brazenly comparable to games like Torchlight and Diablo, this slightly chaotic progression system compared a little unfavourably.
It’s something that has been worked on for Van Helsing II, and now, if you choose not to import your character from the first Van Helsing game (which you can, and with surprising ease), the level 30 Van Helsing you create in the beta has a choice of three classes - the melee-focused Hunter class similar to the first game, the magic-centric Thaumaturge and the tech-wielding Arcane Mechanic - and the beta shows you two possible customised builds within each of this class. There are gun-wielding and swordsman variations on the hunter class, two very different-looking spellcasters and "Bombadier" and "Contraptionist" variants of the Arcane Mechanic. It is difficult to tell in the confines of a two hour beta how well these classes are distinguished in terms of skill trees and suchlike, but the variation on show seems to suggest real improvements from the first game in this area.
Whilst the class system appears to have streamlined abilities to a limited extent, the UI is still bordering on the cluttered side. With so many tweaks clearly arriving between this closed build and the final game, it is difficult to say how many of these will be rectified, but there is a lot of unnecessary dross right now. Your level objectives - both achieved and upcoming - line the right hand side of your screen in a giant yellow list which you are currently unable to hide, meaning a good part of your map is partially obscured; an irritation from the first Van Helsing game that has not been addressed. The mini-map is also fairly unfathomable, not helped by the fact that the beta level was swamped with both allies and enemies that obscured the paths with a myriad of green and red dots and made it a bit of a task working out where the hell you were at any one time.
Unfortunately, I didn’t get to try out the Chimaera, the new summonable beast that NeoCore has added as a feature for Van Helsing II, which is a shame. The summoning is available for all classes, we've been told, but whether its uses and abilities are affected by the class you choose for Van Helsing the Younger remains to be seen. The beta build available to play for me still had a fair amount of limitations; I could not, for instance, try out the multiplayer, which allegedly has some major improvements since the first game. We’ll have to hope it does; multiplayer was one of the weaknesses of last year’s Van Helsing, with a number of bugs and issues plaguing the release.
As you might have expected if you played the first Van Helsing, if you’re coming for great writing and storytelling, this probably isn’t the game for you. The writing itself is as dire as the first game, with wooden script, fairly regular grammatical errors in the text, and the kind of “witty jokes” more likely to induce a groan than a laugh. I personally felt the voice acting verged into “so bad it’s good” territory, a kind of giant game of “guess that accent”, with characters frequently seeming inexplicably chirpy when surrounded by dead comrades, whilst stereotyped “evil” “heroic” and “comedy foreign” tickboxes are filled by other cast members.
I actually rather enjoyed the mediocrity of the script in the first game, it reminded me of the early days of voice acting in games, where every moment the characters weren’t making you squirm and cringe was a moment wasted, and occasionally one of the script's numerous (and often tenuous) jokes did merit a chuckle. If you're looking for Pulitzer Prize winning stuff in a game's writing, however, don't expect to find it here. It's a haphazard affair that somehow manages to be almost quaint and charming.
There are some promising improvements to The Incredible Adventures Of Van Helsing II that makes me rather hyped to play the final release build when it arrives. The hack n slash combat might not be startlingly original, but fights feel varied, solid and satisfying, with a sufficient skill requirement to necessitate good micro and stop it descending into a tedious click-fest. The well thought out integration of tower defence elements in the beta level adds a tactical bent to the combat that is a promising indication of what is to come. The team over at Neocore looks like it has taken some of the most prevalent criticisms about the gameplay of the first game to heart, and if the final build reflects the promise of the beta, The Incredible Adventures Of Van Helsing could be, if not incredible, then a very solid addition to the ARPG genre.
The Incredible Adventures Of Van Helsing II is coming to PC on 17th April 2014.