In this era of excessive gore, you’d think a game with one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse would be rife with blood, guts and violence. The original Darksiders game proved that hypothesis wrong, with a mature tone but decidedly more adventure- than action-oriented experience. For Darksiders 2, THQ and Vigil Games hope to up the ante in every possible way, a goal made possible in part by switching from the protagonist War to his brother, Death. The change means much more than a new veneer and name; after spending some significant hands-on time with Darksiders II, I can tell you it changes the experience completely. If Darksiders 2 does nothing else, it will make you glad War is over, because Death holds much more promise.
War was a powerful being, more of a tireless warrior than an underworld-spawned assassin. The gameplay saw players blocking, hacking and occasionally mounting a horse. With Death, players wield the power of a thousand demon ninjas, complete with acrobatic moves and lightning-fast attacks. If War was an apocalyptic Marcus Fenix, then Death by comparison is an unholy Prince of Persia. Now that’s an evil combination everyone can get behind.
The world of Darksiders 2 is at least twice the size of the original, so you’ll find yourself summoning Death’s horse, Despair, pretty regularly as you traverse the game’s four major zones. Within each of the four major zones lie some of the largest dungeons you’ve ever encountered, larger that the most involved dungeons in Skyrim. For context, I spent three hours playing through most of a dungeon that you’ll uncover about six hours into the story, and I didn’t quite make it to the dungeon’s final boss.
It’s within these dungeons that the gameplay really shows its evolution from Darksiders to Darksiders 2, as the game feels more like a Prince of Persia than a Ninja Gaiden, although it uses elements from both. The Prince elements are much more overt, as Death can Wall Run, Mantle and even Wall Bounce between surfaces to bound his way up to higher platforms. Death is much more agile than War, and every movement he makes reminds you just how dramatic the change truly is.
In spite of these heavy adventure-game undertones, though, Darksiders 2 is equally focused on RPG elements. Among the RPG aspects are earning XP for each kill that you can spend to augment Death’s attributes, being able to self-select Skill Tree upgrades to customize Death’s abilities, and utilizing a Looting system that randomly awards new weapons that you can then decide to sell or strategically equip. The result is a much more personalized experience than the original Darksiders, and it deepens players’ investment in Death as a character. It also improves the chances that you’ll replay the game several times with different techniques, just to see how many different ways Death can help his foes meet their Maker.
With that said, Darksiders 2 will only be as deep as players allow it to be, and since it’s not required to tweak the Hell out of your character, there will certainly be people who play the game more for its adventure elements than its RPG undertones. Conversely, people looking forward to focusing more on the RPG elements may find Darksiders 2 to “wander” a little bit, almost as if Vigil Games is trying to do a bit too much with the sequel. The role-playing content is there, but in a way it detracts from the real meat of the game, which is a bad-ass adventure. I would think it’s better to really refine the core mechanics and pull-in the scope than to offer a bit of decently-done everything just to say they did.
For instance, after spending three-plus hours with this preview build, several other editors and I commented that the Death Grip mechanic (an arm-mounted zipline or grappling hook) wasn’t as responsive or accurate as it could have been. Some of the platforming elements seemed too finicky. The transitions from Wall Running to Mantling and back again led to too many failed sections, and the camera needed work in multiple places. Some of these feelings are to be expected from a preview build, but the fact that so many of us commented privately about the same things – and the fact that there were so many of those arguably little things – begs the question of whether Vigil’s trying to do too much. I’m all for ambition, but I’m much more supportive of making every included element as flawless as possible.
Yet even in its early state, Darksiders 2 has plenty to like, highlighted by a surprising mix of gameplay mechanics and some remarkably diverse level designs. Keeping in mind that I played three hours in a single dungeon, I was tested by some expertly-paced platforming elements, some puzzle-solving exercises that left my brain numb, and multiple sequences where Death reassembled a ‘mech-like Maker Custodian and rode it like a cowboy to reach otherwise-inaccessible areas while dishing out some pain. The level designs within that one dungeon were just as diverse, ranging from lava-filled caverns to jungle-like environs to an open-air “room” several hundred meters across that required solving various navigational puzzles to raise the water level and access a Heart Stone. If this diversity could be found in just one dungeon in just one zone, I can only imagine what Vigil and THQ have up their collective sleeve for the rest of the game.
When it launches in late June, Darksiders 2 is going to surprise a lot of people. They’ll be surprised by its adventure-game feel. They’ll be surprised by its RPG elements. They’ll be surprised by the size of its world. But just as important, they’ll be surprised that a game with this much depth and personality is coming from a development team that’s working on just its second game together. There’s still some polishing to do between now and June 26, perhaps even a few features to kill or scale back, but Darksiders 2 is shaping up to be one of the best under-the-radar titles of 2012.
Pre-order your copy from Amazon.com using these links, and your pre-order will automatically be upgraded to the Limited Edition version: Darksiders 2 for Xbox 360 or Darksiders 2 for PS3. The Wii U version of Darksiders 2, which will be a Wii U launch title, is not yet available for pre-order.