Combat and controls: Getting a feel for Dark Souls 2

Developer FromSoftware opened the network floodgates November 10th and allowed North American PS3 users into the Dark Souls 2 network test (Beta). I was among the many thousand online (from 2 to 5 a.m., if you can believe it—seriously, who chose that timeslot?), and was able to get cozy with the game’s controls and mechanics. With hundreds of hours of Dark Souls and Demon’s Souls playtime in my logbook, I can confidently say that Dark Souls 2 plays like a proper Souls game. Still, something is … off.

Dark Souls 2

Yes, something is definitely up here.

Quell your anxiety; the game is not off in a bad way. It’s not uncomfortable. However, the fact remains that I and other beta players I spoke with noticed a change, a nuance prominent enough to throw even the most seasoned Souls veterans off their game but not so blatant as to put eyebrows to the ceiling.

It was a troubling investigation, to be sure. Save for a remapped jump command now found on L3 (which is leaps and bounds above the antiquated “hold this then tap this” input of the original Dark Souls), Dark Souls 2’s control scheme is functionally identical to its predecessors. Granted, combat and its elements have seen a number of fundamental changes aside from this: magic can be replenished with consumables; healing is now split between traditional Estus which heal instantly and Lifegems which are used more slowly and regenerate health equally slowly; dual-wielding is officially a thing thanks to added equipment slots and each weapon retaining a proper move set in either hand; and new weapons, armor, spells, and player skills and properties are falling off the cart.

Dark Souls 2

I hope you like numbers.

However, these are obvious adjustments, and therefore clearly not the culprit. No, these changes are easy to adjust to and quickly prove themselves to be vast improvements. There was still something behind the curtain. Luckily, my search was not fruitless, and I eventually stumbled onto a revelation that will stir the heart of any Souls fan.

Dark Souls has gotten harder.

Of course, improved weapon and magic variety would invariably expand the intricacy of combat, but I’m driving at something more fundamental. Combat in Dark Souls 2 (based on what we’ve seen thus far) is tighter than any Souls before it. Characters (that’s you) and enemies move and react faster, and more realistically. Evasion has seen a revamp as well; rolling no longer triggers a moment of immunity, but instead simply moves your character. In other words, if an enemy attacks with a broad horizontal sweep and you roll laterally, you will get hit, whereas in Dark Souls a well-timed roll in any direction all but guarantees you’ll walk away unscathed. Similarly, attack, block and evasion animations are more fluid, and even the game’s lock-on and camera systems have been refined to keep better track of all things combat.

Dark Souls 2

These are not things you want to lose track of.

The game’s lock-on system is particularly noteworthy given how it interacts with the updated weapon physics. Great- and Ultra-class weapons now dish out a considerably stronger knockback effect, and even basic blades require greater physical investment on the part of the player. You’re more likely to create openings with each attack, which demands greater strategy from the player. As a result, locking on to enemies, while as useful as ever, requires greater care.

While using a Greataxe, for example, the first hit could easily send a humanoid (or any comparable enemy) staggering backward, requiring the player to reposition or adjust their angle of attack before following with subsequent strikes. The same applies to the ever nimble longsword: its patented quick swipes will have you striking air if you spam attacks like the good old days of Darkroot Garden.

Dark Souls 2

Close, but not quite. It's a forest, I'll give you that.

At the same time, the stun effect of larger weapons can be used to effectively lock enemies in place. At one point I lured a large enemy (that was reminiscent of the Ogres from Blighttown) into a narrow corridor, and then battered on him with the surprisingly conical lunges of my Greatsword. I was able to take advantage of my opponent’s limited attack radius and sluggishness, exploit the knockback and range of my weapon, and utilize the restrictive environment to offset my relatively low stamina—all because of a simple but deeply planted combat change.

The overarching success here is that the above situation was just one way of dealing with that enemy type. While Dark Souls has been narrowed to a World of Warcraft—esque meta, combat in Dark Souls 2 is dynamic and open to individual strategy. As of now, there is no go-to solution for a given situation; it’s a new world with new challenges, and every option is viable. We’ve yet to even dent the game’s armor, but it’s safe to say that the period surrounding Dark Souls 2’s impending February 2014 launch will be filled with refreshing experimentation. And dying. Horrible, horrible dying.