Hands On: Darksiders II

By Adam Smith on March 22nd, 2012 at 4:08 pm.

I didn’t play Darksiders until its PC release, which meant I’d already heard a million people compare it to Zelda and God of War. What a pleasant surprise to play the game and find that it had character of its own and kept rewarding me with new toys throughout its substantial and entertainingly silly story. Sitting down to play the sequel I thought it would just be more of the same. Wrong, wrong, wrong.

Before I talk about the game, here’s some info on where I played it. In a church, in Amsterdam. I’m not telling you this because the setting matters, if the game is good I’d gladly play it in a cardboard box in Slough, but because the placement of the things inside the church on that particular day was pleasing. The nave was full of 360s, lined up awaiting eager journalists but I was ushered past them and directed to the elevation of the crossing, between the transepts, right before the altar. That’s where the PCs lived.

When I’m invited to play a multiplatform title before release I expect to be plugged into a console so it was a pleasant surprise to have the PC build ready and waiting at all, let alone literally looking down on everybody else. The good news is, this time around we won’t have to wait for a late release on PC. Development has been parallel across the platforms and although I was playing with an Xbox controller (as I will on release; it’s that sort of game) and didn’t have the chance to mess around with any settings beyond inverting my y-axis, it’s clearly a handsome devil.

Now, onto the reasons why I was getting ahead of myself by expecting a rehash. The big difference between Darksiders and Darksiders II is the protagonist. At times as I played through the final parts of the game’s first substantial realm I was convinced that I understood the formula entirely; design a protagonist and then build a game around him. Levels, abilities, enemies, dialogue, worlds – all are in service to Death, the spider-like, dodgy, jumpy horseman whose story this sequel tells.

Temporally, all of the action takes place alongside the events of the first game. While War was stomping around our Earthly post-apocalypse, smiting demons and angels alike, Death was traversing other, more mysterious realms. By more mysterious I mean more imaginative. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy the setting of the first game but I’d seen it before. I play games so burning cities filled with angry demons are as familiar to me as my own kitchen.

Darksiders II moves away from the familiar and into more inventive territory. The Makers’ Realm that I explored is part traditional fantasy, part proto-mechanical golem factory and altogether Vigil’s own creation. As in the original, strong voicework and an interesting companion contribute to the world-building but it’s Death himself who makes this a sequel that is more than a retread.

In some hands, a change of protagonist could mean a change of skin but Death is not War, though obviously related in many ways. It’s a third-person action adventure with a similar visual style but, to return to somewhat lazy comparisons, this is less God of War and more Prince of Persia.

The towering, crumbling structures of the Makers’ Realm are pathways as much as obstacles, tracks along which Death can clamber, climb and wall-run. I spent less time scything down enemies than I did looking for hand-holds, overhangs and broken machinery from which to swing. There’s still plenty of combat, which involves the expected combos and side-splitting finishing moves, but it’s once an area is cleared that Death shows what he brings to the party.

Running along walls above spitting lakes of lava, scaling a toppled tower, activating ancient and ominous machinery; that’s what he does best. The Makers, from what I can gather, are the Genesis of all things and their realm is one of creation. Accompanied by one of the beings, best described as a giant dwarf, Death is attempting to activate a huge automaton that will assist him in his quest. However, a corruption has taken hold in this world and, presumably, all others, a webbing of dark fluids and crystals growing on surfaces and infecting some of the Makers’ own machinery.

To clear it, Death can hop onto Custodians, large humanoid structures that have a sphere in place of their legs and trundle about smashing enemies into pieces. They’re not just battle-mounts though, they’re also the only means of clearing the corruption and therefore accessing new areas. And that’s not all either. They can also fire large chains, slamming into distant walls to create a bridge. More still, as those spheres they roll about on fit perfectly into indents in the floor; parking on top of these changes the level, opening a door or activating an elevator. The Custodians are combat machines and keys in the guise of artificial beings.

In practice, they are temporary abilities that, like every other ability in the game, allow the player to progress to the next battle, the next puzzle. Crucially, they are fun to use, as are the other abilities that were on show. Darksiders II is a game that’s proud of the fact it’s a game. “Hey,” it seems to say, “isn’t it cool when chests creak open and bits of armour, potions and weapons shower out and bounces on the floor making noises that sound like joy?” And then it throws in a randomised loot system because, yes, that is cool.

As I played through I found myself obsessively collecting new scythes, boots and capes, even though I knew full well as soon as I left the building I’d never see that saved game again. Give me collectibles that boost my stats, even better put choice in there rather than just incremental upgrades, give me that and I will make sure I search for hidden stashes in every cranny and corner even if I have to start all over again once the game is released.

The largest area that I saw contained an enormous contraption that had to be activated in order to set a conveyor of corruption bombs into motion so that I could psychically grab one and…it’s complicated. Understanding what to do next, particularly when sprinting around the larger environments, can be quite tricky.

There’s plenty of subtle signage – scuff marks on a wall, the mutterings of a companion – but at times it’s not clear which route leads to hidden goodies and which leads to the next puzzle. That can lead to poking around in a dead-end, expecting to find a passageway, or attempting to navigate a pit only to realise that there’s no way across yet, not with your current moveset. It’s a minor gripe, particularly as being pushed into a game several hours from the start can make things more confusing. Maybe I just didn’t understand all the visual rules yet.

I enjoyed being Death, that’s the strongest memory. Exploring the realm and drinking in the details, gives an insight into the culture of the Makers and that’s something that the full game will take further. With four major zones to explore, each one apparently as big as the first game, there’s scope for investigation of four otherworldly people, hopefully with the same kind of hokey but engaging NPCs in each.

There was a boss battle too and, damn it all, I’m going to throw out another game that I reckon Vigil have been playing: Shadow of the Colossus. On horseback, battling a giant angry stompy creature, riding between its legs, feeling like a cowboy as I fired my pistols into its elbow joints, I knew I’d be clambering up the thing sooner or later. Yeah, Darksiders II reminded me of a lot of other things but all of them were things I’d enjoyed and it always felt like it had something of its own to offer.

It’s a sequel, and it has bits and pieces of other franchises running through it, but it does all those things so well and in a world of its own making. With the first game, I thought I’d be bored of doing the same thing over and over, but it turned out there were plenty of new things to do as time went by. Death’s so much more interesting than War already and even though I’m sure he’ll end up with some of the same old tricks, I already feel that the game built around him will be more varied and, as much as anything else, a Hell of a lot more interesting to look at.

Darksiders II is out June 26 in North America and June 29 elsewhere. In the coming days, check back for my interview with game director Marvin Donald. We talk about whether those Zelda comparisons ever get irritating and try to work out why I’m so obsessed with finding new clothes in treasure chests.

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45 Comments »

  1. Prince says:

    Sounds rather promising, then. I’m really looking forward to this now, although I wasn’t 100% sold on the prequel.

  2. Mordsung says:

    I really liked the first one and this one looks right up my alley. The first one did feel a lot like Zelda, but it was Zelda set in a world that I could appreciate a lot more as someone in my late 20s and as a giant Warhammer and Warhammer40k fan, which were obviously huge influences on the look of the Darksiders world.

    I’m really hoping this makes a lot of money for THQ and Vigil so they can dump it all into the 40k MMO and make it good.

    • Premium User Badge

      liquidsoap89 says:

      Well considering how the 40K MMO seems to be on its last legs, we’d better hope Vigil succeeds with this.

      • Mordsung says:

        At least THQ seems to consider the 40k MMO to be one of it’s primary games, so it’ll be one of the last ones they give up on.

        Problem is, all the info released about the 40k MMO (two factions, level cap of 50, the promise of “instanced and open world PvP”) just makes it sound like another EQ/DAoC/WoW type clone, which means it will likely fail to save THQ.

        If THQ and Vigil were smart they would go “We need to make a game people would play even if it wasn’t an MMO, then we need to MMOize it.”

        They need multiple factions (at least 3, but WH40k is a universe that really should have each race as it’s own faction.) They need to focus on fast paced combat, avoid ability bloat, avoid gear grinds (A Space Marine should not bee looting Astartes gear from dead enemies, he should be given it by his chapter. On the other hand, an Ork SHOULD loot ALL his gear. Hence the gear should be more dynamic from race to race, not grindy.)

        I don’t care how cocky it sounds, but if Vigil gave me an hour to outline what they should do with the 40k MMO, I think I could really set it down a path to greatness, as could almost any dedicated Warhammer 40k fan who’s also an MMO player.

        Most MMO game companies seem to be full of people who don’t actually play MMOs as they seem to make very basic mistakes that any MMO vet would avoid.

    • apocraphyn says:

      Quite looking forward to this! The original game was surprisingly brilliant, very much a Zelda-like with a somewhat improved combat system. The sequel sounds just as promising, if not more so.

  3. akeso says:

    Darksiders really took me by surprise how good it was; even with all its cliches. I bought it on a Steam sale thinking it would be a throwaway game like so many others I have bought on sale.

    However, now, this is one of the few games I’m actually looking forward to this year.

    • Daz says:

      I got it in a steam sale also, I never quite finished the game but put in a good 20 hours or so. Very enjoyable but I did get stuck a few times with some of the more complex puzzles. Thinking about it now, that’s probably the only reason I left it uncompleted, I got stuck on a damn puzzle!

  4. Ertard says:

    What a beautiful game. Didn’t care for the first one but this seems allright.

    • Ragnar says:

      The gameplay in the first one felt wrong to me. Combat felt too slow and cumbersome. The platforming wasn’t nearly as slick as Prince of Persia, or as forgiving as Uncharted, so I kept missing jumps. I love that the demo was a full dungeon, and over an hour long. I just hope the gameplay feels better in this one, though de-emphasizing combat in favor of PoP style platforming sounds like a good thing.

  5. KikiJiki says:

    Loved the first one, it really was just a reskinned zeldalike, but the setting was lovely.

  6. BatmanBaggins says:

    I tried the first one but it never really clicked for me. I got bored a few hours in and never touched it again. This sounds better, though. Maybe I’ll try the first one again before this comes out.

  7. kataras says:

    They can kiss my axe… or in this case my scythe.
    On a more serious note, it sounds more interesting than the first one.

  8. Torn says:

    But is Darksiders II a GOOD PORT? Were there options for FoV, Vsync, mouse controls, graphics options, etc?

    • Adam Smith says:

      As I said, didn’t have any opportunity to fiddle with visual settings and only had a control pad to play with. I asked and was told there’ll be full mouse and keyboard support that’s being worked on right now. As for the rest, I expect we’ll know more closer to release.

      • Torn says:

        Thanks for the reply.

        Just concerned it’ll be as consolised as Amalur was, whose ridiculous FoV made me feel dizzy pretty quickly.

        • RegisteredUser says:

          To be fair, outside of the FOV and a not-perfect inventory system, KOA plays excellent on a PC with gamepad. No crashes, anytime saves and lightning fast loads.

    • Calneon says:

      Well it’s 3rd person so I don’t think FOV applies so much (correct me if I’m wrong though). I’ll be playing with a 360 controller so mouse options are not a concern (though nice obviously).

      • trjp says:

        Fov is probably more of an issue with 3rd-person than 1st

        Play Kingdoms of Amalur for an example of how to get FoV/Camera way, way wrong.

        “The Elder Scrolls in technicolour with blinkers on!!”

        • Torn says:

          Yeah Amalur FoV was horrible, and probably my biggest technical annoyance with the game.

  9. InternetBatman says:

    Darksiders was a fun game, but it didn’t ape Zelda well enough. It had many of the same puzzles, abilities, etc., but it was too linear for its own good most of the time. It didn’t provide enough of the seeming exploration or limited open world to provide an illusion of freedom. Most of the time it felt like you were sprinting down a fun, well animated corridor, but a corridor nonetheless. The gallons of blood spilled stat was a nice touch.

    • trjp says:

      I have no problems with corridor/trench game design so long as the corridor/trench

      a – doesn’t feel like one (Darksiders never did)
      b – has plenty of variation

      Arkham Asylum is arguably a ‘corridor’ game if Darksiders was – and Arkham City is worse for being more open IMO

      • InternetBatman says:

        Personally, and it is just a personal opinion, I felt like the rails were just a little too apparent. You would get shut in the same dungeons for too long, and there weren’t enough places just to run around.

    • nearly says:

      the only way Zelda isn’t linear (these days), is that you sometimes reach the end of the line and then have to turn back and go down a different one instead.

  10. db1331 says:

    “When I’m invited to play a multiplatform title before release I expect to be plugged into a console so it was a pleasant surprise to have the PC build ready and waiting at all, let alone literally looking down on everybody else”

    Just snorted tea out of my nose. Thanks.

  11. Ridnarhtim says:

    Cool.
    Just like I started with Bioshock Infinite a while back, I am from now on ignoring any and all information relating to Darksiders II, because I know I’m buying it anyway.

  12. Premium User Badge

    Hanban says:

    Neat! I too was surprised at how good the first game was. Much preferred it to Bayonetta.

    • trjp says:

      Bayonetta is a totally different beast tho – it’s a fighter which incorporates guns and the most ridiculous combos and extras that anyone could ever imagine, packaged to LOOK like an action/RPG :) It’s closest relative is the first XBOX Ninja Gaiden (it shares that completionist MASSIVE score hunting thing too).

      Visually it’s also probably the best looking game ever made – no other game has made me smile at it’s sheer LUNACY – it’s a tough mistress tho, she looks like she’s into S&M and you’re definately the M.

      • Ragnar says:

        Yes, exactly! And while I wouldn’t go so far as to say that it’s the best looking game, the art style in Bayonetta is great. It’s really a beautiful game to watch – my fiancee had no interest in playing it, but enjoyed watching it.

        • MistyMike says:

          Watching Bayonetta is great if you want to get a seizure from too much razzle-dazzle.

      • Premium User Badge

        Hanban says:

        I don’t disagree about them being different games. What reminded me of Bayonetta was just that it came out at roughly the same time and tended to be compared to Darksiders.

    • Ragnar says:

      I really liked Bayonetta, while disliking Darksiders, but they’re very different games.

      • siegarettes says:

        I prefer Bayonetta as well, the combat system is tighter and faster, but its mostly the art style that gets me.

  13. MondSemmel says:

    “With four major zones to explore, each one apparently as big as the first game [...]”
    Did anyone else read the part and instantly think of the Gothic series?
    Gothic 1 was already rather big. Gothic 2, they promised, would be 3 times as big as Gothic 1. (And I think they delivered – for example, you return to most of the areas of Gothic 1 in its sequel). In Gothic 3, again, they promised it would be 3 times as big as Gothic 2.
    And Gothic 3, finally, received horrid reviews: The game was too big for its own good, too ambitious in scope to deliver, full of bugs, etc.. I never played it – I prefer to think of the series as having ended after Gothic 2..

    In any case, that part certainly made me very anxious all of a sudden…

  14. Suits says:

    “We talk about whether those Zelda comparisons ever get irritating”
    It sold me on the first game tbh

  15. Miltrivd says:

    I really didn’t like the first one, so I’ll prolly pass, but boy I’m glad they developed PC on parallel and not just made an awful port after, we need more of that.

    Another thing, does it have controller/gamepad support or XBox 360 controller support? Lately, the gaming industry seems to think they are synonyms, but there are quite a few of us that outright hate the XB controller and are given no options if we want to use anything else. Besides no options to remap the buttons even if we do use a XB360 controller.

  16. MistyMike says:

    Darksiders One was the mehest of the meh. Darksiders Two looks to be even mehier.

  17. Angel Dust says:

    Sounds fantastic. I love my innovative/original/deep games as much as the next RPSer but sometimes something familiar, executed extremely well, is just as good. Really looking forward to this one.

  18. Pointless Puppies says:

    Did you get the chance to watch any cutscenes while playing the demo? If so, did they make the same mistake of having fugly, pre-rendered-but-still-in-engine*, 30 FPS, compressed-to-hell FMVs that make a transition so jarring I almost got whiplash while playing? I (and many, many others) can render the game at a smooth 60FPS, thankyouverymuch.

    *why the hell have something prerendered if they’re still using the engine? That has never made any sense to me. See also: Arkahm Asylum/City

  19. Bob says:

    Apart from a couple of bugs and the giant worm boss fight I was entertained by Darksiders. I’ll be playing this too. It seems it might be a better game with some fun “toys” to play with.

  20. Yuri says:

    This preview made me want to finally play through the first Darksiders game.

    Lo and behold, the first one is currently available for a measly €5 on Gamersgate.
    Except, they won’t take my money. Their “too many orders in a short time” policy is sometimes quite infuriating.

    Anyone have any tips on how to bypass that? :(

  21. Prime says:

    Darksiders 1 made me ache for another Legacy of Kain/Soul Reaver game. I was enjoying it up until I hit the big teleporting spider boss who seemed able to kill me in seconds no matter what I made poor old War do. After I hit that wall I found my interest dropped sharply. A few weeks later, game left untouched, I uninstalled it.

    If the second one promises more variety, invention and something a bit different from the first then colour me interested although it’s probably not a day one purchase.

  22. Freud says:

    Darksiders is on sale on Gamersgate at the moment. Well worth a buy if you haven’t played it. I enjoyed it way more than I would have thought I would.

    Some of the boss battles are a bit annoying, but otherwise it’s a great mix of puzzles and over the top fighting.

  23. jimboton says:

    “at times it’s not clear which route leads to hidden goodies and which leads to the next puzzle”

    why on earth should that be clear beforehand? don’t you like to explore?