First Impressions: Darksiders 2

My Death will be on 8/14/2012.

Wait, sorry, forgot to add “copy of” and “arriving” in there.  My life as I know it is going to, well, not end, but certainly undergo a drastic change.  Darksiders 2 makes its slightly delayed arrival this month.  Apparently because slaughtering hordes of devils, angels, and damned near everything in-between wasn’t enough as War, Horseman of the Apocalypse himself, Vigil is upping the ante for the sequel by putting players in the boots of Death.  This tiny nugget of triple-distilled pure awesome in conjunction with a greater emphasis on plot and a sandbox purported to be four times the size of the original means much ass will be kicked (and stabbed, and sliced, and hammered, and burnt, etc…).

While not without its flaws, the original Darksiders was an entertaining tribute to days gone by and instantly familiar to anyone acquainted with games featuring protagonists fond of sharp objects and exploring new places.  Mechanically, the premise is simple enough: Said protagonist travels from one spot to next, acquiring new items which open additional areas of the sandbox to use said stuff in new ways while developing skills and abilities to ultimately provide a whole suite of means and ways to make other stuff die in fun, stimulating, and potentially agonizing ways (did you even think about what getting hit with the red candle felt like, you sadistic pyromaniaical bastard!?).

Using the ever-popular backdrop of the End of Days and the love it/hate it art style of Joe Mad (personally?  Love it.), Darksiders did not do much in the way of breaking new ground.  I posit that any seasoned gamer could spend a few hours with the game and come up with a hefty list of obvious influences.  Quick time events?  Done.  Over-the-top finishers?  Got ‘em.  Portal gun? Yeahwaitwhathuh?  However disparate the pieces, the sum of the parts easily eclipsed any individual failings.

Building upon the solid action/adventure foundation of Darksiders, Darksiders 2 has a heavier emphasis on the RPG elements of story and character development than its first outing.  Players will have a greater opportunity to put their own spin on the play style of the Final Arbiter with a wider variety of weaponry than the original, running the gamut from the ubiquitous scythes (one is never enough) up to hammers apparently cribbed from Thor’s Christmas list.  A broad palette of Death-appropriate powers are going to be available for those more inclined towards casting than stabbing.

Armor and outfits are apparently also available in this mix-and-match and provide their own bonuses.  Such a blend of cosmetic and functional options will give gamers the freedom to play, much like a traditional RPG, Darksiders 2 in their own unique fashion. Without a demo disk in hand it’s difficult to say how precisely the feel of the sequel differs from the original, but according to gameplay videos and developer statements, Death was designed as more nimble, acrobatic combatant as opposed to his rumbling, sword-wielding brick of a brother.

Getting more of the back-story behind the divine and demonic forces at play as well as shedding light upon the motivations of the Horsemen themselves is positioned to soundly answer one criticism of the first game, which was a thin plot.  The machinations of Heaven and Hell which led to War being flagged for a false-start on The End of All Things were inventive, but did leave many with a feeling that we weren’t getting the whole story.  Vigil, perhaps not fully appreciating how quickly the Darksiders mythology would hook players, are taking pains in the sequel to fill players in on precisely why they just stove in an angel’s chest with their fist, aside from the obvious offense of their being between where the player is and where he/she wants to go.  In a day where gamers are no longer satisfied with just the how, the expanded focus on the why is going to result in a better-rounded and overall more enjoyable experience for the player.

Characters in the original were a mixed bag.  The Watcher, thanks in part to the typically stellar voice work of Mark Hamill, was such a vicious little worm to make up for the personality deficit held down by the titular Horseman.  War was, and I believe by design, a one note character. Extremely brutal and straightforward, doing whatever was necessary to discover those responsible for his deception and solving many a problem via use of obscenely large bladed objects.  More of a force of nature than a real character, though flashes of personality did appear here and there, just enough to keep believing there’s something there beside a fondness for wrecking face.  I would say all filled their roles adequately (you cheered in the finale with the Watcher, don’t lie), though as with the story, more information was necessary.  “More meat!” cried the masses, and Vigil is again answering the call.

Death, though oddly not opposed to the kill-everything-moving approach (note the name), has been characterized as a manipulator and tactician, and is quite conniving in his actions and plots.  We will also be party to his motivations and back-story from quite early in the game so as to appreciate the underpinnings of this inventive take on the netherworld.  After a steady procession of kill-first-ask-questions-later protagonists in this genre, I’m looking forward to seeing underneath the mask, so to speak. Darksiders and its hotly anticipated and heavily advertised sequel wear their hearts on their sleeves – actually, they’re more likely to wear your heart instead – or in War’s case, potentially give them to a demonic lieutenant of Hell to consume.  But I digress…

Just because it’s easy to point out their similarities to titles past doesn’t mean this is a bad thing.  Wheels work.  A person can add spinners and Pirellis to it, but this makes no difference to the ultimate fact it is round and until the advent of personal commuter-sized magno-repulsion technology the most efficient means of moving a car about. Darksiders married the feeling of “I have done this before,” which I felt within minutes of starting, with a sense of “I have come home.”  Darksiders 2 appears poised to do what a sequel should: shore up where the preceding game was weak, expand upon those areas which can use it, and leave those elements which worked the hell alone.  We’ll find out if that’s what happened in a few short weeks.  Check back with us for the review!

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August 2, 2012 - 8:00 am