As you are no doubt aware I am a bit of a Dark Souls obsessive. So as I have recently finished Dark Souls 2, I thought I would share my thoughts. I finished the game in about 80 hours, with only small guidance from the internet, playing it on my PC with my now very well worn 360 pad.
First thought is that it looks good. Compared to DS even with the resolution patch on, it looks great. And as with the first DS it has some clever level design, though not as clever as the first DS. In the first game I explored the game world, finding myself weaving in and out of known and unknown areas. I would often be astonished by the design, this hasn't happened in DS2 yet. This maybe down to a designed choice that has been instituted. You have a "main" bonfire where you can level up and it has a merchant and a blacksmith nearby, and you can teleport to every other bonfires you have discovered.
While this does make life easier, it does take a certain joy of discovery out of the game. This would possibly explain why I checked every nook and cranky I could find (I am certain that I probably still missed loads). The urge to explore the hidden dangers hasn't gone away, and there are still rewards for doing so, like the hairy merchant I could have very easily missed. Regardless while all the areas appear to be connected the fact that you can bounce from one bonfire to the next does make the world appear a little less real than DS1's.
From Software have counteracted that ease of travel by the fact that as you die, your maximum health progressively reduces to half. The only way to get passed this is to become human, either by using a effigy (humanity) or helping other people defeat bosses. This system may seem like a pain, but it actively encourages people to drop summon stones, so the online portion of the game seems very active. Which leads me to good news. The game still seems very populated, and the unlike the first game, the online system seems very reliable and quick.
In fact the game seems to be designed to be played co-operatively far more so than the first Dark Souls. Again this is good and bad, in that it encourages online play, but bad that if playing alone you will often find several groups of enemies that are hard to kill one on one, let alone 2 or 3 versus one. To counteract this enemies start to stop spawning after you have killed them a few times, so if you are struggling with a boss, the run to the boss gets easier and easier. And again if you want to grind out a few souls often the easiest option is to be summoned into someone else's game.
All these little, perhaps even seemingly insignificant, changes are both the joy and the problem with Dark Souls 2. The developers have looked at all the systems of Dark Souls and have analytically decided how to change them to make the game more accessible, if not easier. It is, I believe, widely accepted with Dark Souls that you have suffer through the initial challenge up to defeating the second boss before you truly get it. I don't think DS2 would prompt the same love/hate relationship, not because it is easier, but because it is easier to get on with. This is not to say fair, as I said, some areas throw several enemies at you at the same time. This feels distinctly unfair, which weirdly caused me to get annoyed at the game, even though Dark Souls never annoyed me despite being, on the whole, harder than Dark Souls 2.
So here is the rub. I get why they have made the changes from 1 to 2, and all of the amendments are clever and make sense. The cost of these changes however, it that the world is less engaging, the bosses less satisfying to defeat and your character feels less like it is in constant danger. All this is a massive shame. Because Dark Souls 2 is brilliant. It's a beautiful, engrossing and still very satisfying game. But it isn't a masterpiece, and I don't love it more than any game I have ever played.
And it is entirely likely that had Dark Souls 2 been the follow up to Demon Souls, it would have been heralded as classic of gaming. However it pales in comparison to Dark Souls, and this makes me a little sad.