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Darksiders: Wrath of War Preview (PS3, Xbox 360)

The most successful action games of late have featured characters and/or times of historical significance. Kratos (God of War) relied heavily on Greek mythology, for instance, while Altair (Assassin’s Creed) jumped his way through the Third Crusade. But no characters or period is quite as universally recognized as the four horsemen and the apocalypse, which will provide not only the basis of THQ’s action game Darksiders: Wrath of War, but some fantastic story fodder from which the developers can draw.

Darksiders: Wrath of War takes players into an apocalyptic world, but not in the nuclear-warfare sense. Instead, it explores what might have gone on if the apocalypse had occurred prematurely, if one of the four horsemen had accidentally caused the apocalypse earlier than it was supposed to. That horseman, War, is the protagonist in Darksiders, a semi-deity who spends the entire game trying to “clear his name” from The Almighty’s s**t list while doing battle with the demons and angels still fighting on Earth.

 Darksiders screenshot for PS3 Xbox 360

The game opens in mid-apocalypse, presenting a world that’s not often explored in literature or games. Because of this novelty, the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 game mixes hardcore action-game elements with free-roaming open-world gameplay, giving players the opportunity to battle super-sized beasts yet also explore the world in its mid-apocalyptic state.

These open-world environments are remarkably diverse, from gothic-style downtowns a la Gears of War to the snow-like Ashlands, a hub area where the landscape has been so burned that it looks more like a fantasy world than anything you’d expect to see on Earth. Navigating these huge environments could be time-consuming, so players will eventually gain access to Ruin, War’s horse. Much as horses helped in The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, this makes travel times much shorter in the Darksiders. However, because Ruin is a demon and can be summoned or sent away at any time — even in mid-fight — his inclusion also gives way to some impressive combinations a la Devil May Cry 4.

 Darksiders screenshot for PS3 Xbox 360

One battle in the Ashlands saw War going up against a massive worm-like creature reminiscent of a dungeon boss from The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker. War relied heavily on one of the game’s many guns to shoot at the worm’s mouth, but as the creature got closer, War slashed away at its underbelly, summoned Ruin, jumped off Ruin’s back to gain access to the worm’s head and slashed at the creature while sending Ruin back to the netherworld.

Darksiders screenshot for PS3 Xbox 360

It’s not a stretch to call such characters “bosses,” but they’re not level bosses as much as they are dungeon bosses. Again, this is an open world game, so there aren’t really levels, just “dungeons” or specific scenario areas. At this point in development, Darksiders includes dozens of dungeons, each averaging 90 minutes in length. Like the Zelda games, each dungeon is more than a hack-and-slash fest, as they all include certain puzzles that test players’ mettle and unlock new items for War to use in his fight. These items will grant War access to new areas/dungeons, each of which has its own boss as well. Some items, however, will improve War’s abilities both in the dungeons and in the open-world settings. The Tempest Club, for instance, will let War glide over deep chasms in the dungeon, but it will also let him glide over dangerous areas of the world, thus letting players explore previously inaccessible areas.

Darksiders screenshot for PS3 Xbox 360

As one might expect with a character named “War,” the protagonist also has incredible strength, so players will also be able to pick up virtually any object in the environment and wield it as a weapon. In one real-time gameplay scene, we watched as War ran down a debris-filled street toward a three-story demon. After roaring and flexing at the game’s anti-hero, the demon tossed a car at War as if it were a playing card. Rather than dodge out of the way, though, War caught the car in mid-air and threw it back. Then, while the demon was stunned, War pulled out his sword and hacked away.

Darksiders screenshot for PS3 Xbox 360

Clearly War doesn’t have many friends in the game, but he shouldn’t. He is being persecuted for causing a premature apocalypse, after all. However, his lack of friends means battles can break out against demons, zombie-like humans and angels. Unfortunately, War was sent back to Earth stripped of his powers, so defeating these creatures will hinge largely on players’ ability to wield the Angel Gun, Chain Gun and Demon Guns (creature heads that shoot special ammo). War will gradually regain some of his abilities, so players will eventually be able to cast Wrath Abilities (magic spells) as well as empty clips. Just what exactly those spells will accomplish is still being kept under wraps, but it’s safe to say they’ll include fire, ice and many of the “traditional” spells you’d expect to see in an action game.

Darksiders screenshot for PS3 Xbox 360

Some of these spells can be purchased with the Soul Cores emitted from fallen enemies, as can certain weapons. Players can also use Soul Cores to upgrade weapons and spells, and even to unlock new abilities entirely.

This combination of light RPG elements, open-world exploration and fast-action gameplay bodes well for Darksiders, and it certainly doesn’t hurt that the game looks phenomenal even at this early stage of development. However, it’s not without its possible pitfalls. With its release date set for Q2 2009, will Darksiders feel late to the God-of-War gameplay party? With its Unreal Engine-like graphics, will it still look fresh and original one year from now? The game’s premise is original, but will the game itself be the same 12 months or more from now? We certainly hope so, because the brief time we spent with Darksiders: Wrath of War has us clamoring to explore an apocalyptic world. And that’s not something we say everyday.

— Jonas Allen

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