Last year's release of The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing was a pleasant surprise. The game ably competed with other higher profile titles of a similar vein, and in a few aspects even surpassed them. I was given the opportunity to spend time with the short closed beta build for its sequel, surprisingly enough titled The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing II, to get a preliminary feel for whether it will be able to carry on the fun. The beta (available immediately to those who pre-order from Neocore Games' official site) contains about an hour or two of content, so while it doesn't give too much of an indication how the entire thing might play out, it gives a decent opportunity to play around with the different classes, including the "new" ones that made an appearance in the first game via DLC.
"All those aspects that made the first game so enjoyable appear to be well accounted for."
To summarise where things left off, Van Helsing (the player-named son of the famed Abraham Van Helsing from Bram Stoker's Dracula) and his ghostly companion Lady Katarina, liberated the city of Borgova from a dastardly plot, leaving a very large number of monstrous body parts and a similar amount of loot in their wake. The beta takes place in a district of this steampunk city, which is currently under attack from the forces of General Harker, likely an ally of previous game's antagonist Professor Fulmigati. Van Helsing must fight off Harker's waves similarly to assaults on Van Helsing's lair from the first game, where players could set traps and defences to prevent waves of invaders from getting through. Options in this case are rather more limited, with Van Helsing really only able to give somewhat generic tactics or advice to pockets of troops, but it seems to indicate more of a presence of friendly forces to help Van Helsing this time out.
Only a Veteran campaign option for levels 31-60 was accessible in the beta (the other, greyed-out, level 1-30 option was interestingly labelled as a New Game Minus in the menu), but it did allow players to import their character from the first game. However, my imported character felt ridiculously underpowered to the standard class builds available, despite being at around the same level. It is possible that this is just a result of the balancing setup for the beta, but if not this could be a source of contention if players are forced to choose using a weaker, but probably rich, imported character or a stronger, but penniless, fresh build. One thing that did seem clear is that a specialised build is much more helpful than one that tries to balance out all the attributes.
There are six different pre-built classes to select, all of which seemed powerful enough and able to cope with the challenges the beta laid out. That said, during play it did feel like being a mage-based character was a bit of a step up from the rest. The melee-based class felt a bit more awkward and difficult to use, particularly when having to work through masses of enemies that can very quickly knock down Van Helsing's health bar. There is an option to create a custom class from scratch, but this was greyed-out in the beta. The beta did, however, come with all five difficulty levels (and the perma-death hardcore mode) readily available.
Players will be pleased to know that snarky back and forth between Van Helsing and his ghostly companion Lady Katarina appears to be as present as ever. Whether the characters, story, and writing will still remain as enjoyable for the entirety of their second time out is perhaps one of Van Helsing II's main challenges, as this was certainly an area that helped the original stand out from other games in the third-person looter space. Indications from the beta seem pretty positive on this front; conversations retain the entertaining and wacky tone from the first game, even if there were a couple of overused jokes in the incidental chatter. As the beta just dumps people into the campaign right before Harken's assault commences with little background info, it's a bit hard to tell if players will get enough information.
As it is a beta, the game isn't quite running as smoothly as would be expected for its launch. Judging from how the beta content didn't have all the assets in place yet—quite a few drops had placeholder names and no image—the build is a fairly early one. So Neocore Games should have enough time to wipe out most, if not all, of these issues by release.
Van Helsing II seems very much an evolution of the previous game, there's no major new features but plenty of tweaks and enhancements to the game's current ones. Whether it will be able to hold the same level of enjoyment that the first game did, without the freshness bonus of its setting and characters, is going to depend on the content that the full game brings to the table. As it is, it's still too early to be able to pass any judgment on Van Helsing II, but at least all those aspects that made the first game so enjoyable appear to be well accounted for.