Forced: Co-operate or Die

Forced: Co-operate or Die

Beta Dwarf's Forced will, uh, force you to play well with others if you wants to survive this gladiatorial hell.

Nordic parents, you're doing it right.

Your kids aren't just flaxen-haired bombshells, they're also apparently terrific at making games. Honestly, I'm starting to lose track of the number of awesome student-projects-turned-commercial-releases that have emerged from the Scandinavian education system. And happily, BetaDwarf's Forced, a 'co-op arcade action RPG with puzzle and tactical elements' that first drew life in Denmark's Aalborg University, is maintaining that tradition.

While marketed as a 'Diablo meets Left 4 Dead' sort of deal, Forced doesn't quite operate the same way. To begin with, you're made to start naked of everything save a ratty loincloth. You don't even get hair. Or much to eat, judging from your character's spindly limbs. It's only after the rather cheesy introductory sequence and halfway into a distressingly thorough (We know what an ambush is. Honest.) tutorial that you'll be allowed to, with all the aplomb of a sped-up Sailor Senshi, pick up a weapon, armor and the right to start swinging both around.

An interesting thing to note here: character classes are fluid and tied to your armament. Tired of playing the Archer? Go grab that magmatic hammer on that pedestal over there. Boom. You're now lava (and significantly tankier). Switching between classes is a penalty-free act. Whatever skill points you've accrued carries over, making it a breeze to try out new tactics.

Which is useful, really, because certain arenas feel flat-out impossible, sometimes, especially if you're playing with a glass cannon on 400 ping. Moving on, Forced further diverges from traditional ARPGs by being completely empty of collectible loot and vast, open landscapes. Instead, it has small, self-contained arenas, each with their own set of win criteria and no loot whatsoever. Sorry, compulsive collector types.

The highlight of the entire game is probably an incandescent will o'wisp named Balfus. He's your questionably-labeled spirit mentor, the primary narrative instrument and a key component in many of the challenges. For reasons unknown, Balfus is also the only one capable of obliterating structures, triggering healing fountains, acquiring an explosive charge and so forth. Unfortunately, as is the case with most of these things, he's not very pro-active. It is your prerogative to maneuver him through the various arenas, a simple enough task in theory but a maddening responsibility when you're being swarmed.

And you will be swarmed. Forced is practically built of swarms. Enemies all but gush through open corridors and smoke-lined doorways, a tsunami of sharp edges and corrosive fluids hell-bent on total player destruction. Thankfully, this is also when Forced is at its best.

Picture this: there's an ominous generator in the middle of a ruins-studded arena. If left alone, the poisonous, purple gas that it emits will slowly saturate the area, making it eventually impossible to do anything but choke and die. Luckily, it's fairly easy to turn off the generator -- at least temporarily. Just have Balfus waft over it. But what may initially seem like a sedate game of catch will inevitably escalate. 'Crawlers', looking for all the world like Warcraft's ghouls, and guys with too-large swords will begin hammering at your party even as you scramble to kill off the requisite number of acid imps and keep the mists in check.

Because any single player can take control of Balfus at any given moment, it's almost surprisingly easy to accidentally find yourself setting off a perambulating bomb in your friend's face. A last-ditch effort to heal can catalyze defeat because Balfus wasn't there to shut off the mist maker and now, the area's filled with death. It sounds completely mad and, really, it is. But it's an ecstatic kind of frenzy centered around an unconventional idea: an action-RPG that demands actual team work. Where most ARPGs can't give a damn as to where you're pointed so long as you're hitting things, Force makes spatial awareness an absolute must and that added layer of complexity, minor as it may sound on paper, is a god-honest delight.

In its current state, Forced isn't quite a blue prize winner just yet. Inadequacies persist. The lack of game servers can make it impossible to play with international friends. 400 ping, I can assure you, hell written in binary. If a player in your group, even if they're not the one hosting, disconnects, everyone gets unceremoniously punted out. The interface still needs work and the dialogue, by and large, still makes me cringe. Not-quite-textured, controller-centric buttons in the menu? Weird. Really weird. A second and third coat of polish would definitely not go amiss here.

But I can totally see this as prime 'play when at home with good beer and great friends' material. Forced may not be immediately appealing to anyone looking for the next Torchlight but it's certainly a force of its own. Here's hoping the finished version will be even more stellar.

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