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Hands On: Darksiders II

Death becomes me

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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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