Elden Ring Closed Network Test hands-on preview – better than Dark Souls?
GameCentral gets early access to the Closed Network Test of Elden Ring and what may be From Software’s best game yet.
FromSoftware is now firmly established as one of the best video game developers in the world, but that doesn’t provide the easy ride you might imagine. Just as every new Mario or Zelda is considered a disappointment if it’s not instantly hailed as the best game ever, each new From title has an increasingly heavy weight of expectation placed upon it. However, having now played several hours of Elden Ring it seems their latest release exceeds even From’s high standards.
To be honest, fan expectations of Elden Ring have been rather vague up to this point, given the lack of concrete information. It was only with last week’s lengthy gameplay reveal that it was finally made plain how the game works, with the footage that was shown having been taken mostly from the upcoming Closed Network Test – which we have already played.
The public version of the Network Test, is due to run from Friday, November 12 until Monday, November 15, but unless you’ve registered already, and been accepted, you have no chance of joining now. Whether there’ll be an open test or beta hasn’t been announced yet but the game’s out in February so it’s not actually that long to wait. In theory. In practice it’s going to seem an eternity until we can return to the Lands Between…
Although the Network Test seems to be the majority of the first section of the game there’s no opening cut scene or plot explanation, so we’re no more the wiser as to what’s going on than you are. In true From fashion there are hints at the wider lore in conversations with other characters, and certain item descriptions, but the only one you can’t miss is when you’re bound to a ghostly ‘maiden’ whose collaboration is needed to level up.
For a simple explanation of what Elden Ring is in terms of gameplay all you need to do is imagine Dark Souls but open world. The new game has a very similar fantasy medieval setting, and a number of concepts are identical in all but name, as you play as a Tarnished rather than an undead Hollow, you collect runes instead of souls (to act as currency and to level up), and you activate states of graces instead of bonfires (to save and recharge health),
The basics of the third person combat are also very similar, to the point where you begin to wonder why the game wasn’t just called Dark Souls 4. And then you finish with the short tutorial area and step outside into the frankly astonishing open world area…
Other than From’s previous games, the other obvious point of comparison for Elden Ring is Zelda: Breath Of The World, but while the gameplay similarities do not run deep the scale and beauty of the landscape, and the intricate attention to detail, is certainly comparable.
From games are always a 50/50 split between the beautiful and the grotesque, and while many of the enemies certainly fit the latter description (a number of the larger ones seem to be fused together from multiple normal-sized humans, which we assume has some relevance to the overarching story) the open world is one of bucolic beauty, bathed in an eerie green light by giant, magical trees that dot the landscape and whose significance is currently a mystery.
Shattered stonework, from some great building, lies strewn across the land, with your eventual goal, Stormveil Castle, having strange, organic looking holes punched right through it. In short, the graphics are excellent, even though support for ray-tracing will have to come in a patch. Already though, the Network Test features a performance mode that prioritises frame rates up to 60fps and a graphics mode that does the same for resolutions up to 4K.
We opted for performance mode but although there were occasionally frame rate hiccups, Elden Ring, even in its unfinished state, still runs better than any From game ever has. A smooth frame rate and quick (but not instant) loading makes an enormous difference in a game in which you are constantly dying and the absence of such is the only thing that stopped us from awarding Bloodborne a 10/10 when it first came out.
When you start the Network Test you get a choice of five class types: Warrior, Enchanted Knight, Prophet, Champion, and Bloody Wolf. The test doesn’t offer any customisation options, other than being male or female, but there almost certainly will be some in the final game, as well as five other classes. We started playing as the Warrior, which was probably a good choice to start off with, even though we never found a staff or ring necessary to use magic. Although playing as the Enchanted Knight, it’s clear that magic also works very similarly to Dark Souls.
We imagine some will use that as a stick to beat the game with but in all honestly the similarities seem more significant on paper, and as we collect our thoughts for this preview. Actually playing the game everything felt much more unique, and certainly not just some lazy spin-off.
In any From game you’re constantly faced with the prospect that you could be instantly killed at any moment but that combined with an open world means that any amount of exploration becomes as nerve-wracking as a survival horror. And while you might worry that the game lacks the carefully crafted level design From is so well known for, there are still elements of that in Elden Ring, including surprising shortcuts that wind back on previous areas in unexpected ways.
In terms of difficulty, there are some obviously ineffectual zombie type characters near the start (that cower away from you, pathetically, if you kill one of the stronger ones) but there’s also a golden knight on horseback right outside the main entrance that is very obviously too much to handle. There’s nothing to tell you this specifically, but From’s peerless art design makes it very clear he’s someone to come back for later – not least when you’ve got a mount of your own.
Your magical not-a-horse is obtained an hour or so in and can be summoned from thin air at any time, except when in dungeons. While it’s obviously faster than walking you can access fast travel straight away, to any previous state of grace, so that’s not necessarily it’s primary use. Instead, your mount is essential for combat. This works exceptionally well, with our Warrior character leaning down low in the saddle to swipe with his scimitar at passing enemies or other mounted foes.
Assuming you can’t get in an attack from behind, we found the best tactic was to line up like an actual jousting match, creating a game of chicken where you wait till the last moment to get in the most powerful hit possible. You only get one chance with a powered-up attack, so there’s a huge amount of pressure every time you charge towards an enemy, and we can tell you that beating that golden knight (actually it was called a Tree Sentinel) was a real fist pumping moment. As was taking down a huge monster with its innards scooped out, which was almost impossible to beat on the ground but could be whittled away at when on horseback.
Other moments proved that Elden Ring has more of a stealth element than might be expected, and while it’s not Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, slowly taking out all the soldiers at an enemy camp, to be left only with an imposing mini-boss, felt very reminiscent of Metal Gear Solid. At other times though the game draws on From’s other work, with Stormveil Castle featuring a very obvious nod to the initial castle from Demon’s Souls.
The game is exactly as challenging as you’d expect but it never comes across as spiteful, as some previous From games can. Even getting poisoned or having a haemorrhage can be addressed with items or just shrugged off, especially as there’s a handy option to choose to distribute your health and focus (aka magic) potions however you want, to the point where you can even have four of one and zero of the other. Unusually, it’s also possible to refill them from defeating a complete group of enemies or from randomly appearing scarabs.
Elden Ring is also actively helpful in terms of cutting down backtracking across the map, as there are additional ‘Stakes of Marika’ markers that you can restart at if you die. You can’t fast travel to them, but they’ve clearly been added to cut down the time spent retracing your steps.
For those that always find themselves getting lost in open world games the state of grace sites show a literal golden path for you to follow, but there’s no way you’d be levelled up enough, or have suitable weapons and equipment, if you didn’t go off adventuring and exploring in-between. There’s at least two mini-dungeons in the Network Test, with a minor optional boss at the end of them, and while the first is easy to find the other involves working your way through a river canyon filled with reanimating skeletons that drop down from the bridge above.
Possibly our favourite moment though was trying to work out how to get to an island just off the coast, and then discovering a pitch black tunnel system filled with horrible-looking troglodytes, which have to be fought off with a lit torch before you confront two larger creatures in a subterranean cavern. This all plays out like horror movie The Descent and the mini-bosses are tough foes, but beat them and you not only get a reward but emerge out into the sunlight to be confronted by a half-destroyed ‘dragon temple’ whose giant statue is still spouting flames, as if it’s actually a real, calcified dragon…
The mini-bosses, like the Tree Sentinel, a weird cat-like creature that may or may not be an automaton, and a knight with a giant flail, are difficult but beatable on your own – as long as you level up sensibly and maybe buy a new weapon from the merchant and upgrade it at a blacksmith’s forge. There’s a crafting system too, which can create things like arrows for your bow and various bombs, buffs, and other helpful equipment.
You can also summon fallen spirits to fight by your side, more of which can be collected or bought from merchants. These use up a lot of focus points but even the seemingly ineffectual ones, like a gaggle of zombies, are very useful for distracting enemies.
The initial boss of Stormveil Castle though, Margit the Fell Omen – who you can see in the gameplay trailer, is terrifyingly strong. We couldn’t beat him without help and even with three of us playing together, out of a maximum of four, we only defeated him by the skin of our teeth. (The other two died with just a sliver of Margit’s health left, leaving us to deliver the finishing blow – which we admit was super satisfying.)
In typical From fashion, co-op is not well explained but while we think it can be In typical From fashion, co-op is not well explained but while we think it can be initiated at any time there are little martyr effigies before a difficult section, where it’s much easier to find someone willing to help – especially when it comes to Margit.
Elden Ring is already looking and playing fantastically well and while there’ll no doubt be long debates as to where exactly it stands amongst From’s celebrated gameography it’s already obvious that it’s right up there with their very best. It’s also notable that apart from the minor frame rate hiccups the game is, at this preview stage, far more stable and bug free than most other completed games at launch.
Whether you’re a veteran of From’s work or looking to see what all the fuss is about for the first time, it’s certain that Elden Ring is going to be one of the best games of 2022. You might say that was always a given though and, as we’ve already suggested, the real question here is whether this ends up being one of the best games of all time.
Formats: PlayStation 5 (previewed), Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Xbox Series X/S, and PC
Publisher: Bandai Namco Entertainment
Release Date: 25th February 2022
Age Rating: 16
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