Posted by John on February 3, 2012

PS3/X360/PC Preview - ‘Darksiders II’

As video game plots go, the story driving the original Darksiders wasn’t exactly all flowers and unicorns. Shortly after the game begins, some supernatural shenanigans bring about an early apocalypse, which results in the destruction of humanity. Naturally, this upset in the cosmic order causes issues, and the Charred Council blames the entire thing on one of the Four Horsemen, War. Playing as War, your goal in Darksiders was to figure out the truth behind it all and kick some ass along the way. For the second outing, you’ll be taking control of another one of the Four Horsemen, Death.

An iconic figure even outside of the Four Horsemen mythos, Death has appeared in art and literature from just about every major culture to roam the planet. Though the exact look has varied over the years, the classical interpretation of Death isn’t wholly different from the modern version. Death is not good or evil; Death simply is. As part of the natural order, Death is all about maintaining balance in the universe, and the early apocalypse in Darksiders upset that balance. Driven to clear his brother’s name, Death sets out on his own quest to discover the truth.

While we weren’t allowed to go hands-on with Death, we watched a representative from Vigil play through two sections of Darksiders II, and one of the first things that we noticed was how differently War and Death moved through the worlds. If you’ve played Darksiders, then you know that War is all about power. He’s big, but a little bulky. Death, on the other hand, is fast and nimble. This extra agility appeared to come in handy as Death ran along walls, climbed pillars and balanced on narrow chains.

Because Death doesn’t have War’s brute strength, you lose the ability to block. In its place is the evade ability. This quick step allows Death to dodge an incoming attack and then counter while the opponent is vulnerable. Being able to avoid attacks looks like it may be an important mechanic since part of combat is chaining together combos.

Your primary weapon as Death is a pair of scythes, but you’ll also have access to both light and heavy secondary weapons. Some examples include claws, a massive hammer and pistols. Yes, Death gets to play with one of Strife’s guns. The pistol has the lowest damage but the longest range of any of Death’s weapons, so it’s useful against distant targets and flying critters. In addition to his weapons, Death is also equipped with the ability to cast spells.

Even though Death is a well-known figure, the team at Vigil knows that players don’t always have the same style, so in a nod to customization, Death can be equipped with three different armor sets and develop two skill trees. The Necromancer armor set is designed to appeal to spell casters. The Slayer armor is meant for in-your-face melee players, and the Wanderer armor gives a boost to agility and speed for those who prefer the rogue play style. Skills that you can learn branch between warrior abilities and spell casting.

The first level we saw was in a dungeon of sorts. Death was taunted by a large, demon-like creature named Ghorn. After Death falls to the ground, a group of enemies attacked, and the battle was on. Our erstwhile demo person started in with the combos with a caveat: Available combos are limited in the early game, and more unlock as you play.

Death’s hammer certainly appeared to earn the “heavy weapon” description. It took a few moments to build up, but after swinging, it imparted a large amount of damage. The hammer also appeared to stun enemies on impact. We got a direct example of Death’s agility as he used the wall-run and climbing abilities to scamper up the sides of a well that was filling up with lava from below.

In the next area there was something that the developer referred to as a “rideable construct.” Originally used by the makers to create the world, Death used it as sort of a mobile tank. It could be used to cross lava beds safely, which was a plus. After solving a puzzle, more wall-running and unlocking a door, we got to see one of the spells in action. Called murder, it summoned a flock of ravens to attack. Individually, each one did minimal damage, but on aggregate, it appeared to be pretty powerful. The ravens also served to distract the enemies.

Skipping ahead is the encounter with Ghorn. The Vigil rep emphasized the fact that Ghorn was just a miniboss. We weren’t sure why he made such a big deal out of it until Death entered Ghorn’s lair and we saw that Ghorn was at least three times as big as Death. Later enemies are much bigger. The actual battle against Ghorn appeared to be one of learning the pattern. Ghorn would use his sword to attack when close, along with casting a spell that caused an explosive shockwave. He could also hit the ground to cause lava plumes to shoot up and summon standard monsters as backup. Eventually, Ghorn went down and we shifted to the second demo level.

This section was a complete change in terms of feel. Instead of a lava-filled dungeon, Death was outdoors in a beautifully forested area. Wandering around, we saw what looked to be castle ruins, and the background music here was very light and ambient. Our demo man equipped the Slayer armor and headed down the path. We immediately got to see Death’s melee abilities as a large group of prowlers (lizard-like enemies) ambushed Death. The scythes were moving fast and furious, with plenty of bloody gibs appearing on-screen. Random loot drops seemed to be occurring often, though that may simply have been due to the sheer number of enemies that were getting slaughtered.

A mud golem showed up next, and here we got a chance to see Death use the claws. This battle was up close and personal, with Death looking like he was channeling Wolverine. After that, it was a bit more puzzle-solving and then a fight with the Construct Champ. This guy was a regular enemy, but he was as big as Ghorn. The spinning bladed claw on his left arm looked nasty, but the bark seemed to be worse than the bite. We were quickly on to the second miniboss, the Construct Hulk.

In terms of size, the Construct Hulk was about two to three bigger than Ghorn. He basically filled the screen. Both of his arms had giant mace-style studded balls in place of hands, and he used them to bludgeon Death if we got in close. At a distance, the Construct Hulk would smash the ground to cause a shockwave. The trick seemed to be picking up the explosive balls that would get knocked off the side walls of the coliseum ruins and then throw them at the Construct Hulk. After he takes enough damage, the energy globe that serves as a heart is temporarily exposed before he re-forms. Destroying the energy globe resulted in a nice cinematic kill. We could imagine the Mortal Kombat announcer screaming, “Fatality!” as it happened.

With the demo wrapped, we were treated to a small visual tease of an upcoming boss that will debut at the next round of demos. Basically, it made the Construct Hulk look small.

It’s difficult to pull together any gameplay impressions when you can’t hold the controller, but from what we saw, Vigil seems to be on the right track with the sequel. The core elements of the original game are here, along with enough tweaks and changes to make it feel fresh. One of the big questions is, “How well does it actually control?” Death’s focus on agility sounds promising, but if either the camera or the controls are off, it has the potential to result in frustration. Here’s hoping that Vigil nails it.

One tidbit that we did glean from the THQ PR rep was that War should be making an appearance in the game. After the demo, the PR rep was explaining to us that the story lines of Darksiders and Darksiders II were basically running in parallel, and they would converge at the end of Darksiders II. We followed that up with an explicit question about War’s appearance, and the PR rep’s demeanor quickly shifted to guarded with a hasty, “No comment.” If past experience is a guide, that’s as good as a confirmation.

When Darksiders first debuted, it was an unknown IP offering up new characters and a new world. Now that the basics are established, Darksiders II looks to expand on the original and turn a single game into a franchise. At this point, we’re cautiously optimistic.

Editor’s Note: Want to win some sweet Darksiders II swag? Be sure to check back on Monday (Feb. 6, 2012), when we launch our Darksiders II Death giveaway. One lucky winner will take home an EXTREMELY LIMITED, life-sized Death face mask suitable for display.

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