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Archive for August, 2012

By Shawn Alexander Allen

In January, 2010 the first Darksiders burst onto the video game scene with a vengeance. It became popular due to due widespread critical acclaim fueled by comparisons like “Zelda meets God of War”. But Darksiders distinguished itself as a clever fusion of varying game styles woven into excellent action/adventure gameplay and dungeon solving.

Now, over two years later, Vigil has created an even better game with Darksiders II. Asserting that Death is the new king of action in town, the game makers have included a brilliant RPG element, so good that future action game developers will have to go the extra mile (or ten) to be the best around.

Darksiders II starts with a bang. Within moments of starting Death’s adventure I was caught up thanks to a cool motion comic and some expert narration. Moments later, an epic score began playing as I was riding my horse Despair through a gorgeous, bright blue ice valley. Soon I was climbing, running on walls, and wall jumping my way to kill ice skeletons. I immediately noticed the new HP system at work with numbers flying out of enemies’ heads as well and red numbers appearing when I was hurt. After dodging some hits and hacking away with Square I pressed Triangle to bring up my secondary weapon. But nothing happened.

I express to you how disappointed I was; and I was utterly confused. How could there not be a secondary weapon, or a heavy attack button? After killing some more skeletons, a few of them dropped some loot which included some heavy axes and hammers. I discovered I could choose any one to equip and immediately use. I went from disappointment to excitement. Secondary weapons were now dropped items with different styles, stats and buffs to go along with them.

I eventually made it to an all new environment, one that has been featured heavily in previews, the Forge Lands. This place was exponentially bigger than the first area and instead of a cloudy sky looming over ice covered mountains, I took in the expanse of green plant life covering rocks and decrepit temples bathed in golden sun.

All this unfolded within the first 20 minutes. As someone who has been moving away from “AAA” titles in favor of more personal “indie” creations of late, I was trapped firmly in Darksiders II’s grasp and there are many reasons why.

Death, the new protagonist, is certifiably bad ass. Everything about him makes you feel powerful; a level of characterization that transcends his Razael (from Soul Reaver) meets Skeletor visage. Death, much like Tom Hardy’s Bane, talks from the sides of his mask, and emotes purely with his eyes. He runs around wielding his Scythes, hunched over in a calculating fashion, dashes forward and effortlessly vaults into the air. When greeted with doors or chests he puts his hand forward and giant, ghostly arms are summoned to open them, as if such minor tasks are beneath such a fierce warrior.

Everything about the world of Darksiders II, the characters, both old and new, the various monsters you encounter and the new environments that inspire awe because of their size and scope, looks simply stunning. The game is not the most technical marvel ever foisted upon gamers. Instead, it focuses on a very stylized and deliberate art style over brute force techology. I would often stop to look around. From statues depicting ancient warriors to once great now destroyed temples, everything is grand and beautiful. There are some occasional missteps such as some low resolution textures, pops in lighting, a flickering texture here and there, some flat pieces of environmental foliage. And there are framerate hiccups in the largest, most open environmentss. But these things do not detract much from the overall beauty and scale of the world.

The garish, 90s comic book sensibilities of Joe Madureira mixed with the heavy metal fantasy look from the first Darksiders returns in Darksiders II. But it’s without Earth as a central point focus. With a much broader universe to work with, the designers and artists had the freedom to take things to next level. The artists created a world aesthetic that uses light and shadow juxtaposed with numerous colors to unveil not only a distinct and varied look, but to guide the player through the environment. Even within the first world, green organic environments give way to purple thunderstorms, monochromatic, gloomy corners and fiery red eruptions. These sights make the world worth exploring to find all manner of chests and items and serve to guide the player to the array of sprawling dungeons.

Dungeons are designed to be like interweaving webs. They’re full of vertical and horizontal layers requiring puzzle solving and clever use of multiple powers and abilities to complete. Death is a nimble character so dungeon design has a ton of climbing, similar to the 3D Prince of Persias. But I didn’t like those games much (because of the over reliance on that one ability). I‘m glad to say it never feels like too much. In fact, many of the platforming sections are great breaks in the action.

Solving puzzles requires many different techniques, and since Death shares few abilities with his brother War, everything feels nice and fresh. Occasionally a solution is a little too obtuse (or just doesn’t “click” the first time) but those are rare exceptions (that might be caused by a personal lapse of judgment, like forgetting the properties of a certain power) in an altogether brilliant string of dungeons that were put together with a great deal of care to feel empowering, especially when the solutions to puzzles are figured out.

The glue that holds the expansive world of Darksiders II together is the combat and it has been honed to near perfection. Everything about the combat feels super smooth with button presses feeling fast and accurate. Small variations in button press order or timing are used to pull off a myriad of different combos for different situations to dish out serious damage. There is even a simple, effective launcher that can be used any time that instantly sends most enemies up in the air where the player can continue the combo and then come shooting down to destroy his foes underneath.

Combat is fully customizable. The player is able to equip large weapons, to perform slower, high damaging hits or he can equip faster arm-based claws/blades/gloves and play much like what Wolverine in Capcom’s Vs. fighting series, complete with fast dashes and an on the ground berserker claw attack.

Executions, a mainstay from the last title, are now infrequent (tied to a stat starting at a default 10 percent). But they’re still cool because they remain short enough to avoid slowing the player down. Vigil avoided the constant tapping of buttons, spinning of analog sticks and running into frustrating situations where you know you did everything right, yet the game doesn’t respond. So the executions feel like a welcome reward and not some forced minigame.

Magic is gained through a simple upgrade system based on points earned from leveling up. It can be used to augment the player’s abilities in a fight by granting damage or defense buffs, or help out by summoning backup powers to do your fighting for you.

To match Death’s awesome abilities the enemy encounters are smartly designed to give the player a sense of difficulty progression as well as time to get to know each new enemy type before hurtling into a group fight with numerous foes. They range in size, class, and ferocity and are sent forward, in mixed groups, to make the player keep moving. Not only are you always aware of your position in a fight, the fights never seem unfair. if you fail a fight and die, you probably just need to switch tactics.

Boss fights are an improvement over the bosses in the first title. Each fight feels unique from the much publicized horseback fight against a rock giant to another, more intimate fight with War. Each boss requires different skills to defeat, but when you do win you feel so good doing it. Like many of the bigger enemies, and even some of the smaller ones, when you beat a boss it will probably drop loot.

The loot system in Darksiders II is a great and addictive feature to give players something to manage when not slicing enemies or solving puzzles. From the very beginning of the game you start accruing various armor and weapons based on the various stat bonuses given. However, you might find that perfect piece of armor that just works, or even better, a rarely found possessed weapon, which can be fed different loot with the desired stats to boost that weapon beyond any others.

The music and sound in Darksiders II was strangely a mixed bag. While the music is truly memorable and high in quality, even at the highest volume it was subdued as if it had been programmmed to be arbitrarily low. I had to turn down the sound effects and dialog and crank my volume to get the music to the level I thought it should be played in game. The sound effects, on the other hand, while being noticeably louder and very satisfying, would become muffled at times. The voice acting is absolutely superb and well directed, but, because of the design of different characters, dialog would sometimes turn into growl vs. growl in the fight for how gravely one’s voice might sound.

More importantly, there is a deep issue surrounding the amount of missions that developers (of games in general and Vigil in particular) want the player to experience versus a certain level of logic that most players pick up on. If my player is such a powerful and presumably feared being, why does he keep doing all of these damned mandatory quests? The tone of disdain that Death expresses in several scenes when being sent on more errands after just finishing one shows that perhaps Vigil understands this too. But just acknowledging the problem doesn’t really do much. Thankfully, the dungeons or tasks attached with said errands are often enjoyable to embark on.

The cinematic grammar used in Darksiders II is very uneven – another problem that is present in most games. The camera work is at its best when the player is kept in control and the camera is used to accentuate something in the environment from Death’s third person point of view. Keeping the camera behind him to look up at giant bosses or the environment creates a sense of scale that pulling the camera back or using a preset fixed camera would not be able to. I also like when cutscenes employ shot, reverse shots or other real world visual storytelling techniques. The camera in Darksiders II is at its worst when it’s just moving, following no discernible specific character or subject other than a request for gamers to “look at the environment and how it might have just changed.” Just as bad is when the camera is sitting still but at an awkward angle where the characters look small and robotic because nothing is going on other than their yapping jaws moving.

When all is said and done Darksiders II should be remembered for what it is, and not just for its perceived pedigree. While the industry has been saying Zelda this, and Zelda that, at this point, as a life-long Zelda fan who couldn’t stay with Skyward Sword because of numerous clunky problems, I think people need to realize that Zelda just isn’t as good as it used to be. As much as Darksiders II gets some inspiration from Zelda, it’s obvious that Vigil was not complacent with just being an imitator.

Unlike current Zelda games, Darksiders II respects the player. The tutorial throws the player directly into the thick of it. The lesson is exciting and it’s over quickly. The map to a dungeon is not considered something that requires a single room dedicated to it with a little tune playing accompanied by a cutscene as you open the chest. Maps are just slightly off the beaten path; they’re found with little fanfare. The same goes for keys, new items and weaponry as most loot is picked up automatically and important items are shown once on a quickly skipped screen. With the infusion of action-RPG elements and a huge dose of platforming, Darksiders II works hard to shake that previous stigma, even if dungeons do perhaps rely a bit too much on bomb based puzzles.

After a little over 28 hours I finally put down Darksiders II after having felled the final story boss. Ending my time with Darksiders II to write this review was difficult. Over the course of my quest I became so entrenched in the game that I couldn’t help but want to find every last treasure, do every optional quest and conquer everything possible in the game. While the game certainly has its faults, as even the greats always do, when all is said and done I’d say that Darksiders II is one of my favorite games of this console generation. It deserves to be played and enjoyed by millions.

From time to time, the Circle publishes new work from promising writers. Shawn Alexander Allen happens to have the pedigree of working for Rockstar Games. He left recently to work on his own game, Treachery in Beatdown City.

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