Review: Darksiders II
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"For the last time, I'm Death...not an aging member of Van Halen"...
It's an interesting concept, that's for sure.
Of all the films, TV shows and games that you may have interacted with - in some form or another - over the years, I'd be pretty darn confident to say that not once had you played, viewed or imagined 'Death', or, to be specific, the Horseman Death, as some form of 'good guy'. And yet this is what presents itself within THQ's latest offering, Darksiders II.
However, before we lose all track of our sanity we must consider the history of this series. Our protagonist in the original Darksiders was War himself, a man hated by both heaven and hell (and you thought you were unpopular), and it is the [unjust] imprisonment of 'War' that spurs Death's journey here in the sequel.
But what of the gameplay? What of the storyline? And ultimately, have THQ and Vigil Games listened to their fans, to their complaints as well as their praise, and produced a game that builds on the success of the original?
Well, let's find out...
Darksiders II simply picks up where Darksiders ended. War is convicted for his crimes against humanity, crimes Death is adamant he did not commit, and is sent back to Earth by the Charred Council to face his punishment. When the other three Horsemen are told of his fate, Death flies into a violent rage, protesting that his brother War is the most honorable of them all and would never seek to start the Apocalypse early. So strong are his feelings on the matter that Death soon defies the orders of the Council and sets out on a personal quest to prove his brother's innocence. It is here that our journey starts, and what a journey it is.
Fans of the series will immediately feel at home, with THQ basing the sequel - which has also been described as a prequel and sidequel - within the same time period as the first. Conversely, it will be like returning to a home that's undergone a secret transformation - imagine something alongside a "60-minute makeover" sort of home. Of course, this hasn't taken 60 minutes, rather 15 months of solid development, and the improvements are obvious to see. But, for the time being, let's stick with the story.
As the game progresses, Death is sent through a number of different realms, meeting makers, spirits and ghouls of all sorts, in an effort to seek the truth that will clear his brothers name. At no point does his journey feel repetitive. Instead, the story complements Death's plight, allowing the Horseman to express multiple emotions that tie in well with his current situation, a remarkable feat considering that this is Death we're talking about.
Anyone with a fondness of titles such as Zelda: Ocarina of Time or Skyrim will instantly be drawn to Darksiders II, but for entirely different reasons. Darksiders II is comparable to Zelda because of how the storyline unfolds. To succeed, gamers will need to have both the patience to see it through and the wit to progress. Puzzles and mazes litter Death's path, obstacles that favour brain over brawn, and users will need to assess their surroundings and situation for a solution.
In regards to Skyrim, Darksiders II is comparable because of one point alone...it's length. It's huge. Like, solar system huge. In the four days I've had to review it, I racked up roughly 20 hours of game time...a not too shabby number I thought. However, in Darksider figures I barely scraped the surface, managing less than half of the storyline. And that's before taking into account all the separate side missions and quests available.
THQ and Vigil have put a lot of time, effort, blood and sweat into this game, with the storyline alone proof of this. In a generation that often forgets the importance of single player and continuity - we're looking at you CoD: Modern Warfare 2, with your four hour completable storymode - it's refreshing to play a game that is seemingly unfinishable. With all the sub plots, mini quests and collectables available, Darksiders II could keep its users happy for months.
A small addition, but one I'd be lamented for missing. Some of the complaints that arose from the original Darksiders were towards the vocal performances put alongside the characters. Some even went as far as to suggest that War himself, voiced by the ever-talented Liam O'Brien (Naruto, Bleach), was somewhat placid, unconvincing in the role and a tad tentative.
Well, I'm pleased to say that these issues have been laid to rest - the vocal casting on show in Darksiders II is one of the best I've ever come across, game or film alike. Michael Wincott is impeccable as Death, bringing a suave nonchalance that fits the character perfectly; and the supporting cast add a pinch of personality as their characters cross paths with Death himself. But it is Wincott that is present throughout, so the applause must fall primarily to him - even the tiniest of interactions, such as Death refusing to pick up a health potion due to a lack of room in his inventory, is met with humourous derision. "Impossible", he quips, and, despite your annoyance, his response is enough to lighten the mood.
Anyhow, back to the game in hand...
Whilst similar to the previous release, Death's nimbler physique means that the fundamental fighting system has changed somewhat. Combat is far more chaotic under Death's reign, with an emphasis on speed rather than size. From the very beginning, gamers are taught to avoid oncoming attacks with a nifty roll and/or side-step, a fundamental arsenal in Death's fighting style. Furthermore, skills such as wall running, vertical parkour and pole clambering are an essential element to Darksiders II, pivotal to reaching the next checkpoint and progressing through the storyline, so gamers will need to be as nimble as they are savage.
However, fear not action-activists...your thirst has not been forgotten. Whilst lighter on his feet than War, Death is equally as savage, carving through multiple enemies with a vast array of weaponry and sorcery (much to the delight of the gamer, I can tell you). Preferring, but not limited to, his might scythes, Death is able to combat a large number of enemies at the same time, dodging attacks as they come and stockpiling multiple-hit combos like a violent squirrel storing his nuts for the winter. Moreover, the gamer is rewarded for combining different attacks with different weapons, so throwing in a big scythe hit before clobbering the enemy with a hammer blow and finishing them off with a few pistol shots is always going to go down well.
There's an interesting level up system deployed throughout, again rewarding the gamer for big combos and checkpoints, but that's not to suggest Death starts off weak (like War in Darksiders). The warrior is a constant dab hand with his scythes, with level ups/improvements coming courtesy of his secondary weapons and add-ons. This way, the player is able to imprint their own style upon Death's combat - some may prefer the powerful but slow addition of a Hammer, with others favouring brutally fast claws. The choice, ultimately, is yours to make, allowing for a personal relationship between the gamer and their individual quest.
Equally, Death's inventory is subject to improvement as the story unfolds. Death has many means of adding to it, be it via a reward, as part of successful plundering or simply through purchase. Again, the player is free to stamp their own mark on Death's accessories, tampering till their hearts content whilst constantly deciding on whether to focus on his defensive or destructive needs.
Simply put, you're free to do as you will. Darksiders II has a bare basic foundation for gamers to follow - from there, they make their own destiny; their own decisions; heck, their own weapons...dealing with the consequences as and when they arise.
Like the game itself, the worlds Death transcends within are huge. Luckily, the inclusion of a fast travel system allows for an automatic return to a certain area, preventing the need for long treks through already conquered lands. However, should you forget to find the fast-travel map for that area (that's right, they too need to be collected) you'll hardly suffer. Summoning Despair, Death's trusty stallion, gamers are capable of scaling much of the land on fairly speedy horseback - a far cry from War's four-legged partner in the original escapade. Moreover, such is the beauty of said environments that forgetting to find certain maps will often feel like a blessing in disguise.
From the lush, vibrant greenery of The Forge Lands to the barren isolation of the deserts within The Land of the Dead, there's no doubting the significant up-scaling in the series' looks. The range and size of the lands are at times breathtaking, leaving one to marvel at what we see in front of us. From the smallest of tunnels to the brightest of skies, the attention to detail is remarkable - minor chips, subtle erosion, all additions that needn't be there but are.
Now don't get me wrong - Darksiders II isn't the pinnacle of graphical galore. And yes, at times it's slightly cartoony, with an arcade-esque appeal, but what is does is to the best of its ability. The graphics are as good as they need to be, complimenting the storyline rather than conquering it, and I feel that THQ and Vigil got the balance just right here.
A few more thoughts
Before I sum the game up in my final thoughts, I'd like to offer a few more pros and cons that I feel need to be explored. However, to save time, I'm going to present these in digestible bullet form:
- Pro: The score, produced by BAFTA award-winning composer Jesper Kyd, is the perfect complement to both the action and drama within. Powerful, rousing and beautifully rhythmic, the music further entices you into the game.
- Con: Camera angles, whilst consistent, can be detrimental at the best of times. By limiting Death's range of sight at times, the gamer becomes susceptible to oncoming attack, missing a climb point or failing to move in the correct direction. A minor grumble, but one nevertheless.
- Con: Despite its size, you do get the feeling, at times, that you're stuck on a predesignated route. Sure, you might have chosen the task in hand, but the path you must take to the task is always the same. If they don't want you going a certain way, then rest assured you won't be.
Darksiders II isn't a good game...it's a wonderful game. Its size, slick finish and personality offer enough to bring gamers back time and time again, and its vocal and audio talents surpass even the most acclaimed of titles. Of course, like any game it isn't without faults, but when seen through the bigger picture they're somewhat diminished.
In Darksiders II, Vigil and THQ have taken a good game and made it into a classic; a title that people will be speaking about long after its release date. They've taken the praise, listened to the complaints and worked hard to deliver a game that truly delivers across the board. Unlike War's adventures, the action isn't chaotic or frantic, rather baron and far more isolated...just like its protagonist. Of course, the lack of a multi-player is disappointing, but fans of the series will be unfazed by this.
All in all, Darksiders II is as close to perfection as you can get without actually achieving it. Which is good, because now they have something to work towards for Darksiders III...
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