Darksiders II Preview - Staring Death in the Face
Written Tuesday, July 19, 2011 By Lee BradleyView author's profile
Look at Death, just look at him - stood there with his boney, pupil-less visage, his muscled arms giving way to thick, skeletal hands. His trousers are made out of rib cages, for God’s sake. He duel-wields giant scythes with skulls on them. Skulls! Death makes his brother War look like a drippy wimp.
It’s a good job too, because in Darksiders II Death is tasked with clearing his brother’s name, taking on all manner of marvellously twisted beasts as he goes. To achieve his goals he’ll have to draw on hitherto unknown levels of badassery. He’s certainly got what it takes.
Darksiders II’s story takes place roughly parallel to the events of the first game. When War is accused of bringing about an early apocalypse and is banished to Earth by the Charred Council (the ruling mediators between heaven and hell), Death immediately recognises that his fellow Horseman has been framed. Bound by a strict ethical code, War is just too honourable to have done such a thing. So Death sets about putting things right.
Being a creature of somewhat looser ethics, Death defies the Charred Council and disappears off to the Nether World to find his own solutions. Along the way he’ll strike up deals with all sorts of unsavoury folk in the name of seeking War’s redemption. In doing so, he’ll also save mankind. Which is a turn up for the books, isn’t it? It’s not often you see Death saving humans from oblivion.
So that’s the set-up, but what of the game itself? Well, while the original Darksiders picked up plenty of fans for its take on the action-adventure template exemplified by Zelda, the sequel brings more. A whole lot more. Adding both breadth and depth to almost every aspect of the game, Darksiders II represents a step closer to the title Vigil hoped its debut would be.
This time out there’s a larger world, new traversal techniques, a whole raft of customisation options, more outlandish settings and some seriously fleshed-out RPG elements. This one’s got XP and loot coming out of its ears.
Our demo began with Death leaping onto his spectral horse, Despair. You’ll get your mount far earlier into Darksiders II than in the original. This is a necessity as the game’s world is four times larger than before. Indeed, Vigil are boasting that one of the cities will feature more dungeon areas than the whole of the first game combined.
This sense of scale is hinted at by the mission hub featured in the demo, although “mission hub” is a terribly understated way to describe it. It’s actually a floating ship, the kind that could only be conjured by Creative Director Joe Madureira’s gleefully demented art style. The home of the Lord of Bones - who Death hopes will help him in his mission - it’s an airborne island dragged through the sky by two humongous, snapping serpents on chains. I defy you not to smile when you see it.
To reach the bowels of the ship, Death has to exhibit some of the enhanced traversal techniques on offer. He’s clearly lighter and far more nimble than War, able to scale and cling to vertical walls. Timing his jumps between grinding pistons he descended carefully towards the town at the centre of the island.
Once there, Death approaches the Lord of Bone’s consult, a Skeletor-like figure who will only grant access if Death proves himself worthy. This, inevitably, means kicking the crap out of a load of enemies. Death is advised to make his way through a dungeon to reach The Gilded Arena. Defeat what lies in wait and he’ll get face time with the Lord himself.
As he pushes through the dungeon, Death has to call on the new “Ghosted” ability. This allows him to bridge larger jumps. Throughout the environment you’ll see glowing purple skulls, indicating the areas in which the ability will come into play. A click of a button mid-jump and Death will fire out a leash that connects with the skull, propelling him further along. It’s not entirely unlike the Elika-assisted double jump from Prince of Persia, all executed in one smooth, flowing motion.
Deeper into the dungeon, Death encounters his first puzzle. Still an early build, this element was yet to be fully fleshed out, but it involved rotating a light-emitting column so that the beam hit a symbol above a door, therefore unlocking it. Vigil promise that the puzzles will become far more complicated as the game, and development, rolls on.
With the door unlocked, Death emerged into the arena to get his combat on. Going toe-to-toe with enemies, the first thing you’ll notice are the numbers. Every hit is accompanied by a shower of digits indicating the damage inflicted and skill points earned. In addition to this, kills also result in tiered, randomly-generated loot drops, with boots and capes and various other special ability-laden goodies littering the floor.
All of which speaks to Darksiders II’s hugely enhanced RPG elements. Death has four key attributes that are modified by the equipment that he uses, as well as the skill points he earns. These feed in to a branching skill tree that Vigil says offers a far greater degree of customisation over its predecessor. While in the original Darksiders players could effectively max out all of War’s attributes, here they will have to choose their own path. So if your play-style favours spell-casting or heavy weapons you’ll have to support this by finding a synergy between the loot you equip and the skills you unlock.
In our demo, Death equipped a comically huge hammer from the menu and prepared to take on the mini-boss that signalled the end of the quest. It’s an incredibly inventive beast. Starting out as a kind of skeletal serpent, it burrows beneath the ground, only popping its head out at specific times. Death had to seize these moments to bash the snake with his weapon, all while dodging out of the way of attacks. Unlike War, Death doesn’t block. He’s too cool to block.
In the grand old tradition of Zelda, once the mini-boss has taken a certain amount of damage it shifts into a different form. In this way the snake becomes a giant built from a jumble of parts from previously defeated foes. Its boney tail becomes its spine, which at regular intervals is ripped out and used as a whip. Using the Ghosted ability, Death has to leash the monster’s head and beat it furiously into submission until it explodes into a squall of limbs and armour. He was then free to return to the Lord of Bones to seek his counsel.
The entire demo was rather impressive, truth be told. The sheer variety on offer is mind-boggling. Sure it still features a Zelda-like structure, encompassing inventive boss fights, area-unlocking abilities and a fair amount of exploration, but now it’s now bolstered some vastly improved Prince of Persia-esque platforming, Diablo-style loot drops and an XP system we’ve yet to see the full extent of. It’s a hugely ambitious project, especially considering Vigil’s relative youth. This is only its second game.
Indeed, the only slight concern is that they’ve bitten off more than they can chew. The quality of each individual element looks good, but can they mix all of these facets into a well-paced, nicely balanced adventure? The early signs are good. Vigil could be onto something very special indeed with Darksiders II.
Darksiders II is scheduled to release sometime in 2012.