Pity we reviewers who had to struggle through Dark Souls II alone. While the game offers a substantial challenge regardless, there's no denying Dark Souls II's multiplayer modes can shift the scales in your favor. An optional boss I tried to defeat roughly 30 times during my single-player, pre-release efforts fell minutes after Namco-Bandai switched on their server and allowed me to pull a few helpful friends into battle. And placing your sign on the ground whenever you reach a new area allows you to scope it out with the help of another player, all while preventing the loss of precious souls and humanity upon death.
Unsurprisingly, Dark Souls II's central server doesn't seem prepared for the endless influx of players, but aside from a few minor issues that should clear up over time, From Software is definitely making good on the promises wrecked by the original Dark Souls' compromised peer-to-peer multiplayer modes.
My review of Dark Souls II was ostensibly a review of the single-player experience, which can be your way of playing the game if you choose to opt out of the online features -- or if you can't find any other compelling reasons to renew your Xbox Live Gold subscription. That said, if you're wondering whether or not the addition of multiplayer mechanics alters my review score: It doesn't. Though it's often much easier to knock over some of the trickier bosses with the help of two co-op partners, the fact that the session ends with the host's death means the difference between success and failure can often come down to a single mis-timed block or roll.
Thankfully -- and you can chalk a lot of this up to us sitting right in the middle of DSII's release window -- connecting to multiplayer sessions comes a lot easier than it does in the original Dark Souls. In fact, it happens so fast that it's almost comical. Drop your summon sign on the ground, and it's unlikely that more than ten seconds will pass before you're pulled into another person's game. And when you're human, it's important to summon other players into your game the second you see their signs materialize in the words, because odds are someone else will grab them first. Summoning is still a bit wonky, mind you; whether or not someone has been summoned into your game successfully is often ambiguous until they warp into your world 30 seconds later, and matches often end inexplicably. Still, it's far better than my experience with the original Dark Souls, where I kept my 3DS nearby to absorb the boredom of waiting between 10-15 minutes to connect with another human being.
From introduced covenants in Dark Souls as a way to make the online features of Demon's Souls a little more organized, but this idea ended up being severely undercut thanks to the move to peer-to-peer networking. Heck, some covenants, like the Gravelord Servant, which functioned to punish other players in New Game Plus mode, barely functioned. While getting the most out of each Covenant would require multiple playthroughs, the ones I managed to experiment with proved much more effective than their Dark Souls equivalents. The Bell Keepers Covenant, for instance, automatically warps you from your current location to fend off human invaders within a certain location -- so long as you keep that Covenant's ring equipped. Since Dark Souls II is seeing a huge volume of players in these early weeks, joining the Bell Keepers inevitably means you'll be pulled into a PVP match whenever possible, which could be highly annoying or incredibly rewarding, depending on your experience with fighting human opponents. I avoided PVP in the last two games, but played at least an hour of matches in the Bell Keepers Covenant -- mostly because I was typically paired with another phantom against a hapless human.
One strange absence, most likely due to the strain on Dark Souls II's server: After 20 hours of play with online functionality enabled, my game has only been invaded twice. And while I definitely appreciate how this has made progress a little easier, the distinct lack of invaders has made a handful of Covenants useless and entirely removed the need for last-second strategizing when a malevolent player comes to your world, looking to steal your souls. If this sounds a little too hostile, Dark Souls II offers a Covenant in which other players enter your game to defeat invaders (and a corresponding Covenant where you take on the role of these invader-busters), but as of this writing, these PVP protection features are essentially irrelevant. My guess is that a very small percentage of players actually invade games, and with so many Dark Souls II sessions happening right now, seeing a red phantom materialize in your world is far less likely to occur.
Just as the single-player components for Dark Souls II can't be explored with a single playthrough, neither can the multiplayer options. And while I probably won't get around to exploring every way I can either help or hurt my fellow Dark Souls II players, it's nice to know these options exist and actually work this time around. Of course, this all relies on Namco-Bandai keeping the server alive, and as we've seen in the past, games like Dark Souls rarely get five years of online support before the plug is pulled. With any luck, From Software's kind masters will take after Atlus and leave the server active indefinitely -- Demon's Souls is still active roughly two years after the company changed its mind. With the flexibility of Dark Souls II's multiplayer options, the game deserves nothing less.