Opening a beast in the can with Van Helsing


Who better to base a video game on than the quintessential monster hunter, Abraham Van Helsing? His son, of course! The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing starts with a distress message from the isolated country of Borgova, home to the late Count Dracula. Young Van Helsing races off with his noteworthy companion Katarina, the vengeful spirit of a Borgovian noblewoman, who shifts into a monster herself to fight alongside you.

[singlepic id=12676 w=240 h=180 float=right]This is the first thing that Hungarian developer Neocore Games has done in setting themselves apart from other ARPGs – they’ve provided a secondary character that can be equipped to offset the weaknesses of Van Helsing. If you decide to be a magic-caster or  hunter, you can effectively equip Kat to be a fighter class to engage monsters in melee, though she will not be nearly as effective as Van Helsing. Conversely, you could go with melee combat for yourself and relegate Katarina to provide you with either ranged, melee or passive support (where she simply stays out of combat but provides you with protection bonuses). Any combination will work, though some are more effective than others.

There are several different areas of growth for Van Helsing and Katarina:

  • Ability points – effectively they’re your overall stats.

  • Skills – both passive and active, two skill trees offer different combat powers. Each combat skill can be upgraded to do more damage, as well as unlocking rage enhancements and passive bonuses.

  • Tricks and auras  – Generally no-cost buffs that take time to recharge. You can equip any two at one time.

  • Perks – Fame-based skills that add things like more storage, or permanent bonuses such as +40% damage on ranged combat when no one is close to you.

For a fee, almost all skills and ability points can be changed so you never are stuck with a bad build. The only selections you can’t change are your Perks which are generally universal in nature.

[singlepic id=12684 w=240 h=180 float=left]The next great thing about this indie title is that it hits the loot-button hard. Management of loot is pretty easy, and on-screen hints are never in the way but certainly help to keep track of which shortcuts can help you save time. Moreover, Katarina has one of the same abilities of your dog from the Torchlight series – she can be sent off back to town to sell the items she’s carrying (a far more plausible premise than a dog haggling for top dollar). Kat can also be instructed to pick up drops and even specify which types and minimum value. I did find, however, that there is a LOT of loot. So much in fact, that I sometimes didn’t care what she picked up, and would instruct her to simply sell everything. The on-screen inventory and comparisons did work well in letting me know what I wanted, almost to a fault. Since I could tell her not to pick up rare or epic items, I’d trust that all the loot sold was either blue (magical) or plain.

[singlepic id=12685 w=240 h=180 float=right]Combat is where the action is, while initially simple it can be daunting. Your main skills are shooting, casting, or swinging your sword. On top of that is a rage build-up from kills which can be set up with skill enhancements to increase damage, add explosions, steal health, etc. To round it off , the tricks and auras buff Van Helsing and company. Hitting R toggles between melee style combat and ranged combat, and each of those configurations allow two sets of attacks. There is also the combo move which basically allows you to allocate how you want to use rage points in combat, and then simply press space to enable the combo hit and press the LMB or RMB to execute. The rage system sounds complicated at first, but it becomes easy to master once you get used to it. The options menu also has an option to turn on auto-rage use, so it will simply use it whenever it can. There are some skills and perks that demand a full rage meter, so setting the automatic execution isn’t always optimal.

I’m going to be brief on the graphics and sound, and that’s not because they aren’t worth talking about – they’re very, very good. The dialogue is all voiced, is compelling, and at some moments very funny. Neocore really nailed the balance between the seriousness of the game, and providing some light-hearted banter that I quite enjoyed. The environments are lush and convincing – in fact if I were to complain about anything, it would be that the voices and level of detail likely contributed to the 16GB of space required..

[singlepic id=12792 w=240 h=180 float=left]The biggest detractor to The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing, however, rests squarely with multiplayer. First, the character you create in single-player is stuck there, so heed my warning and simply create a multiplayer character, which can be played in single player mode. The Online Character section should be default, and then simply call the Character section the Offline-only Character. Next, the character can be set up with any difficulty at the beginning, but I was unable to locate a way to play the game with the same character at a different level, other than joining someone elses game or creating yet another character from scratch.

And this is the biggest problem with Van Helsing – the online play brings so many quirks to the game that it can irritate to the point of distraction. I had moments where my character was killed, my party members were inexplicably unable to resurrect me, and paying the fee to resurrect myself resulted in my character being stuck on the ground. Using town portal and then teleporting back was the only way to get back in the action.

There are infrequent moments where a frozen monster never breaks down, basically staying frozen and dead on the screen indefinitely. These types of situations are not isolated, and I know Neocore Games is working on updates and patches, but it’s something you should be aware of going in.

So should the online bugs hold you back? At a paltry $14.99 this is a no-brainer. The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing is engaging, it’s cheap and more importantly, fun! It now includes scenario mode where you can revisit sections and grind levels if you so choose, which was notably absent from the initial release. Neocore Games should be commended for putting out such a high-quality experience where their story is equally outlandish, silly and serious – I’m personally looking forward to the recently announced sequel.

Born and raised in Winnipeg, Canada, at a young age I was forced to decide whether the harsh northern winters were going to claim my fingers, or to turn to the safer pursuits of indoor activities. Little did I know that a little game called Ninja Gaiden would bring my digits more pain than frostbite ever could. Starting with Vectrex and C64 games and moving forward through the era of electronic entertainment, I sampled as much as I could in the different platforms, and began my interest in PC gaming from wrestling with DOS memory management.

While console games were a part of my earliest gaming memories and I certainly had played on most platforms including 3D0, all things Nintendo, PS1 and the like, truly the PC was my domain until the Xbox. As an old PC gamer, I ever chased the cutting edge technology. Eye of the beholder with CGA 4 colors was my first step down the the path of blowing thousands of dollars on PC upgrades over two decades. Ultima 7, with the Guardian talking to me through my monitor, still haunts my dreams and keeps me ever hoping for a decent Ultima 8 and 9. From the 3DFX SLI VooDoo2s and Aureal to today's GPU driven DirectX games, the new and shiny pictures seem to keep me going. My PC gaming has slowed down with the market shift though, and although I have choice games that will ever be on PC, I have found myself in console gaming with a bit of portable gaming in my life.

Back around the turn of the millenium (and long before fatherhood), I had fired off an email offering to help Ron with a little-known site called ConsoleGold. Little did I know it would be be a part of my life to this day. While I've seen my fair share of shovelware (thanks Ron!), I manage to try and find the fun in most games. Leaning towards sandbox and action titles, I've grown to love games for their potential to reach art. Console agnostic and excited for the progress of tomorrow, I fancy the latest and greatest, but still enjoy the good old classics ... as long as they've been revamped from their 8bit graphic roots.

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