The brilliance of Dark Souls multiplayer was partly that you had to find it, drilling down into deposits of rotten, fecund backstory. There was the shock of seeing another player's shade, re-enacting its own death near a puddle of rippling gore. Then, the terror of being invaded for the first time, and the hunger for glory that saw countless waifs and strays entering into 'Covenants' with various tortured deities, in order to travel between realms.
A less ambitious - or perhaps, more self-conscious - developer than From Software might have explained all that in a tutorial, or crammed the salient details into a trailer, three or four weeks from release. The sequel can't take quite as enigmatic a tack, for obvious reasons, but the changes and revisions are fascinating all the same.
Covenants are once again your conduits to other worlds, determining how and why players meet. I know of five, at the time of writing: a Covenant that summons you to defend the area around a magical bell; a red invader's Covenant, the Brotherhood of Blood, for the playground bullies out there; a blue Covenant that automatically summons a Blue Sentinel to aid the player against invaders; a Covenant that allows the player to be summoned in turn; and an especially arcane Covenant ruled by the fearsome Mirror Knight, who can conjure up player allies using his tarnished silver shield.
This seems a little cut and dried, to say nothing of colour-coded, but what Dark Souls 2 online loses in terms of mystery, it may gain in terms of frenzy. The thrill of the original's multiplayer was that you never saw it coming, save possibly for those of us who sampled Demon's Souls on the PlayStation 3. The sequel's contribution is that you can't escape.
No looking back
Expire and you'll go 'Hollow', as before, but Hollow players are no longer spared the attentions of invaders, and must reckon with reduced maximum health - up to 50 per cent off, if you make a habit of kicking the bucket. Visiting phantoms are also now able to use items, including restorative Estus flasks, so PvP encounters should be more protracted and gruelling. It's a recipe for acute paranoia on the part of victims-in-waiting that could be frustrating, but there are a few checks and balances.
The window for backstabs has been trimmed down, for one thing, so fast footwork isn't as devastating, and the new blue Covenant should help greenhorns make headway. Hopefully, the presence of dedicated servers will also quash the original's latency issues, which sometimes allowed backstabs to connect before the assailant had moved into position. Still, you might want to think twice before switching the wifi on.
You may also want to think twice before passing through a mist gate - as in the original, the most inventively evil critters lurk beyond each wavering rectangle of white light. The Mirror Knight is a terrifying foe, especially given that you'll probably have drunk all your Estus battling the enchanted statues outside his lair. Close the gap and he'll smack you with the flat of his blade, or sweep your legs away with a backhand. Fight at range, and he'll lash you with lightning, or throw himself into a homing ground pound, or crouch to summon an ally.
There's plenty of room to manoeuvre during the fight, at least. The same can't be said of a clash with the Executioner's Chariot, a rickety bladed juggernaut trapped in a looping tunnel, which (hint hint) can't be beaten the old-fashioned way. Bring the creature down and you'll need to land the fatal blow double-quick, or it'll cough up flesh-withering energies like a blender with the lid off. It goes without saying that there are garden variety enemies to worry about alongside the boss, many tucked into the very nooks you'll need to use for shelter.