Elden Ring hands-on preview – Closed Network Test
- Elden Ring is the highly anticipated next souls-like game by FromSoftware
- It's a brutally difficult game full of dangerous enemy encounters and towering bosses
- The Closed Network Test was a gated-off experience but offered amazing insights into what's to come
This weekend a select few people were given some time to experience the amazing world of The Lands Between in the Elden Ring Closed Network Test. Each test moment was only 3 hours long and came at some inconvenient times depending on your timezone, but we still had about 7.5 hours worth of playtime. Let’s discuss!
Elden Ring is the next souls-like by FromSoftware, the inventors of the genre with their famous titles like Demon’s Souls, Dark Souls, Bloodborne, and Sekiro. Players who are familiar with their games know what to expect: brutally difficult gameplay with even regular enemy encounters posing a lethal threat and bosses taking multiple tries to defeat.
One of the elements that were used to really build some hype around Elden Ring was the involvement of George RR Martin, who you might know as the author of A Song of Ice and Fire which was translated into Game Of Thrones, the massively popular TV show. He’s working on the script of the game, but this test was pretty light on lore and storytelling.
Having to dig for the story has been somewhat of a Dark Souls staple, with most of the lore hidden in the world through item descriptions and the occasional conversation with one of the NPCs. The same is true in Elden Ring, but luckily Melina blesses us with some of her knowledge and insights whenever she visits at a save point.
Melina plays the role of your Finger Maiden, but what exactly that means wasn’t entirely clear from the limited story included in that network test. What was clear though, is that many of Dark Souls’ elements have been copied over, albeit with new names.
You no longer have Estus Flasks to restore your health, but you can now choose how to divide your four held useable items between Crimson Flasks (HP restoring) and Cerulean Flasks (FP restoring).
You’re no longer called a Chosen Undead, but you’re called Tarnished. And you don’t save your game and level up at a bonfire but instead, do so at a Touch of Grace.
It’s like a find and replace with mechanics copied over but being given a new name. But you know what they say; if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. And what I’ve gotten to play here is far from broken.
Perhaps the biggest improvement for me, as someone who shouldn’t be labeled as a pro-souls-like player, is that the game is far more forgiving. The above-mentioned save points are far more common than in any other FromSoftware title I’ve played and they even throw in additional checkpoints.
This is godsent and makes the entire experience a lot less frustrating with minimal backtracking needed to go back to where you perished the previous time. And you will die. A lot!
When you do get killed, you’ll drop all of your gathered Runes, which replace the titular Souls from Dark Souls (see, another word they replaced), and which is the game’s main currency. Runes are used both for leveling up at bonfir… Err, I mean Touch of Grace savepoints, as well as buying new spells and gear at merchants.
And you only get one shot at reclaiming those lost runes because if you die on the way to retrieve them, they are gone for good.
Combat plays out much like in a Dark Souls title as well, slower and more methodical than Bloodborne for instance. Depending on which characters class you picked at the start of the game, you’ll be blocking and parrying enemy attacks, dodge rolling out of the way, or simply staying at a safe distance and throwing magic spells at them.
I’ve tried my hand at multiple character classes and all of them felt great to control, with unique abilities and equipment load-outs vastly changing the way you face enemies in combat.
- Warrior is a Dexterity based class which can be hard to use, but is great with bow & arrow or crossbows.
- Enchanted Knight is a Sorcery using class that can use ranged Spells or go into the defensive with a strong shield.
- Prophet is the strongest user of faith-based Spells like Beast Claw, allowing you to keep a safe distance.
- Bloody Wolf is a more typical Dark Souls-like knight class with heavy armor and giant swords.
- Champion has a unique firebreathing spell that spews dragonfire and roasts enemies.
(We’ll have a more detailed Character Class breakdown up soon, with their strengths and weaknesses)
But looking at the combat as a whole, I was less inclined to keep my eyes trained on the HP, FP, and Stamina bars as much as in the other titles, which loops back to the game feeling more forgiving. Enemies seem to die in fewer hits and your character is able to endure more attacks as well.
You’ll still need to play it smart and approach every combat situation with the utmost care, but you have multiple tools at your disposal to handle them and it rarely feels unfair. With the proper player skill, everything is very manageable and won’t require grinding for runes to level up your character too much.
Freedom to experiment
While each class has its own advantages, I didn’t feel held back to experiment with various load-outs at all. I played most of the game as a Bloody Wolf, which should normally face enemies head-on and slay them with giant swords, yet I found myself casting Lightning Bolts from a safe distance more often than not.
That particular spell was imbued onto my sword through what’s called an Ash of War. These are weapon enchantments you can find throughout the world and they all look amazing and were pretty powerful attack options. Visually, I really liked the Glint one that was slow to cast but magically enlarged my sword to 4 times its size and killed almost all regular enemies in a single hit.
There was a large number of bosses in this test environment and I doubt I was even able to find them all, as I focused more on experimenting with the various classes in what limited time I had available. It’s clear that some are weaker to magic than others and each of them had multiple ways you could tackle the fight. It was thrilling!
Even the regular enemy encounters could be handled using different approaches. If you had a build like the Bloody Wolf that wasn’t very suited to handle packs of wolves, you could still single them out or lure them into a more narrow region to face them one by one.
Spotted an enemy encampment? You could just run into the middle and spam your Dragon Breath or Beast Claw attacks if you had the corresponding class, or you could sneak up behind enemies and take them out with a sword strike through the spine. It was very liberating to have this amount of choice and there rarely was a good or bad approach.
Another example: in the castle environment, there were enemies throwing bombs at explosive barrels. You can tempt them to throw their projectiles and then face them when most of the barrels have been cleared, or you could rush towards them and catch them by surprise.
Open world and spiralling castle corridors
Perhaps the biggest stand-out in any of the FromSoftware titles besides the memorable bosses is their excellence at level design. Dark Souls is still among my favorite videogame titles ever and it was mostly because of how they handled opening up shortcuts and how the levels were vertically built to loop back to previous areas.
In Elden Ring, you start in a training dungeon, but it doesn’t take long until you exit and are greeted with a vast open world. Sure, the network test had some invisible walls gating the experience off, but it still managed to impress me with how open it was, while still having very distinct and memorable areas.
To help you traverse this wide-open area, you’re given a horse that even has a double jump of its own. With the increased speed, you can ignore most enemy encounters altogether (but you’d be missing out on a lot of runes).
It’s hard to express the wonder I can still feel at a game-opening up to me like that, and after all these years, from all the way back to getting Epona in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time until now, it remains a powerful experience.
And it’s not because these plains are so open that there isn’t anything to discover, you’ll find hidden catacombs, dangerous enemies to face, and even a caravan with a carriage being pulled by two giants and a wake of undead warriors following closely behind. Truly an impressive sight to behold.
Now, players who’ve been keeping a close eye on the game since its announcement may not have seen many new screenshots here yet, but that’s because the Xbox Series X|S and PS5 versions of the game had capturing footage disabled. Sadly it wasn’t possible to screenshot the game or record small clips without an external capture card.
I did whip out the camera when I arrived at the castle gates, however, as this was truly a sight to behold:
The castle offered a more traditional Dark Souls experience, with winding corridors and branching paths that eventually looped back into the same locations. But the level design is truly outstanding, with new secrets around every corner. It’s very much worth taking your time with a game like this and exploring every nook and cranny, but the nature of this limited-time test made that feel somewhat more rushed.
One last thing to mention in regards to getting around: you could fast-travel to any Touch of Grace you’ve rested at on the map, which prevented you from saving yourself into a corner when you’re not leveled enough to face a challenging encounter.
It’s called a network test for a reason though, and that is because it already allowed some multiplayer components that will also be in the final game. You have the famous messages that you can leave behind to warn other players, eg: Explosives ahead, use roll, but more often than not these were just people trolling, eg: Try jumping at the edge of a cliff that only leads to certain doom.
New for me, were the Bloodstains, which showed you how a player before you had met their untimely demise. This was especially useful to learn what NOT to do.
And if you faced a difficult boss, you could either allow other online players to join you or you could summon an AI-controlled NPC of a certain class brawl alongside you. It’s definitely useful to have someone drawing most of the attention to themselves when you get in some hits from behind.
In the full games, this multiplayer aspect was something I mostly kept for the endgame, joining rookie players and offering them a helping hand, or allowing myself to be invaded by enemy players for some good old PVP action.
First impressions on Elden Ring
- Visually impressive world with expert level-design
- Fascinating enemy designs that put your skills to the test
- Lots of classes, gear, and abilities to experiment with
- 3-hour timeslots didn't allow for slow exploration
- It's not February 25 yet
While this was only a small taste of what’s to come for Elden Ring, I couldn’t help but already feel the magical touch of FromSoftware and I’m certain this will be one of their best releases yet. It was like getting an early look at a timeless classic and I’m almost certain that Elden Ring will be a strong contender for Game of the Year 2022.
The game looks fantastic, from its gruesome enemy encounters to the stunning semi-open-world design and brilliant level-building. It also offers players the freedom to experiment with various classes and playstyles and even in this small sliver of what will undoubtedly end up being a sprawling RPG with hours upon hours of content, it was already clear it will be an exceptionally great title to replay over and over.
February 25 can’t get here soon enough…
Elden Ring is scheduled to release on 25 February 2022 and will be playable on Xbox One and Series consoles, Playstation 4 and PlayStation 5 and Windows PC. Preorders are available for the regular version (€59.99) as well as a Deluxe edition (€79.99)
*Disclaimer: previewed on Xbox Series X. Review copy provided by Bandai Namco EU.