Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Darksiders 2 - Latest Demo Hints at Shadow of the Colossus Scale

Before the release of Darksiders, Vigil Games took every opportunity to liken its unproven title to Nintendo's prestigious Legend of Zelda, and rightly so.

Based on a fresh IP and developed by a newly founded studio, Darksiders was ostensibly as risky as it gets - Kryptonite to suit clad execs and destined to float in the periphery. It made sense to leverage the title's similarities to Zelda and the involvement of Marvel Comics legend Joe Madureira to offset apprehension.

A few years later and when posed with similar questions of Darksiders 2's influences and competition Vigil's mouthpieces dance around Ocarina of Time, God of War and the numerous other titles it so obviously bears semblance to.

Cynics will say it's the puppetry of public relations at work, but those that took a chance on the criminally underappreciated first game might see the evasion as a sign of the studio's new-found confidence in itself and its latest title.

In Darksiders Vigil managed to do what so many have tried and so few have achieved; it tweaked Nintendo's formula and gave it a 'mature' edge by draping it in an angels versus demons setting dreamt up by one of the comic book industry's finest.

From our latest look at Darksiders 2, a game coming to OnLive, Vigil looks to be taking a more confident stride forward with its second effort, stepping out of the shadow of Nintendo's behemoth by creating a game that's more ambitious in scope, design and mechanics. And by broaching territory Zelda's developers have shown a stubborn resistance to.


In the last game War, one of the four horsemen, is tricked into kick-starting the apocalypse. Along with the hellfire and brimstone the end of days also brought about the destruction of humankind. Death's goal is to exonerate his wrongly imprisoned brother and restore mankind. No doubt a nice change from the usual soul reaving.

In our demo the reaper ventures off the main path and into a cavern filled with spitting pools and rushing waterfalls of red hot lava to tackle an optional side-dungeon. Although we could painstakingly describe every detail in the environment, simply using the words 'Fire Temple' should paint the right picture.

War was a vengeful mountain of muscles, barely contained in stretched cloth and clanging oversized armour, but his brother Death is comparatively plain - at least initially. Darksiders 2 allows players to create their own version of death, the grafted on RPG tropes such as tiered loot and skill trees let players piece together a character that's unique in aesthetic and play style.

Death's armour, ability and weapon choices dictate the flow of combat. His primary weapon is the trusty scythe, which has been split into smaller dual-blades that deliver quick, relentless strikes and can be combined together for a heavy attack. Secondary weapons include short-range melee claws, slow but devastating hammers and of course there's the hack-and-slash stalwart: the gun.

Armour in Darksiders 2 comes in different shapes and sizes, each piece carrying different attributes. Individual pieces that have similar alignment or properties can be equipped to form sets. In our demo Death starts out in the 'Necromancer' set, which makes him more proficient at spell casting, the 'Slayer' set creates a character attuned to wading into combat and dishing out punishment, while the 'Wanderer' gives our grim hero quicker attacks and abilities much like a rogue class.

Skill trees are divided in a similar fashion; the Harbinger tree beefs up damage output and grants Death with new melee abilities, while the Necromancer tree does similar for his sorcery capabilities.

These systems look like they'll add interesting new wrinkles to the formula, although not exactly breaking new ground the inclusion of RPG conventions could provide some well needed nuance to the combat button orders and timing.


Venturing into the dungeon we find ourselves faced with a precarious bridge and a brutish cobbled together enemy called a 'Construct'. Apparently this one is important enough to have a name - it's Ghorn, and he wants to crush Death. Before we can make our move he destroys the bridge and plunges us into a conveniently placed arena below to be set upon by smaller Constructs.

The first battle is taken care of entirely with the dual scythes, which deliver a flurry of attacks mixed in with the occasional heavy attack to keep enemy numbers manageable. We're told the current scythes are an early form and new types can be found and upgraded later. The next group of enemies is unfortunate fodder for our giant hammer, although it takes much longer to attack it lands devastating blows that deal with most of the runts easily.

Next we're given an exhibition of Death's sprightly acrobatics. While War was notoriously rigid and relied heavily on his spear-tipped Abyssal Chain to cover gaps, Death is a dab hand at running along walls, pinballing up crevices and bounding across fall-and-you're-definitely-paste gaps. Consequently, Darksiders 2 moves at a quicker pace, occasionally forcing the player to kick up some dust by triggering hazards in the environments such as rising pools of lava or dissolving platforms.

This dungeon's quirk is centered around the Constructs; the worker machines created by the Makers. These machines can occasionally be employed by Death to traverse the area and solve puzzles. We came across the crumpled remains of a Construct, activated it and leaped aboard. The thing worked much like a Dyson ball vacuum; rolling around on a sphere impervious to the lava, it can also punch anything in front of it - should you command it. One of the Construct's more handier abilities allowed it to fire its arm across huge gaps, letting Death walk along the chain and reach a key.

The spell of platforming came to an end in another enemy filled room. This time around we got to see a couple of Death's combat abilities. The first, 'Murder', summoned ravens that badgered the enemies and kept the attention off Death long enough for him to wind up a and start clobbering away. The second ability, 'Exhume', raised a group of zombies to fight alongside him - you know what they do.

Eventually we came face-to-face with the aforementioned Ghorn and - as with most games of this ilk - victory lied in identifying attack patterns and exploiting brief windows of opportunity. Occasionally Ghorn mixed things up by calling in backup to keep the pressure of himself. A few minutes of dodging sword swipes, lunges and chains of exploding and reforming and he was on his knees, powerless to stop Death as he transformed into his full reaper form and cut him asunder.


The next area we're shown is the Maker's Realm; a lush, forest area with ashen skies and decrepit Aztec architecture. Here the smaller enemies are of the insect and animal variety. The larger enemies come in the form of a Stalker, a feral beast favours charging you down, and the Golem, a Construct tied together by plants that can also burrow underground for attacks. They both kept Death on his tippy toes but the powerful Slayer armour set and quick claws made short work of both eventually.

The main focus of this area was a simple puzzle which involved locating a stone sphere and placing it in a divot to open a door. The ball in question was tied up in some vines one floor up, so Death hopped, skipped and wall jumped up, shot the vines to release the ball and watched it roll into the divot Rube Goldberg style. It's simple stuff, but to be expected from early areas such as this.

At this point Dust, a raven perched on Death's shoulder that flies to areas of interest, draws our attention. The bird acts as the game's clue mechanic and functions very much like The Watcher from the first game. Dust leads us straight to this area's mini-boss, the Construct Hulk, a larger version of the Golem that stumbles around in a frenzy and lashes out with his arms and spits out enemy pods.

The mini-bosses showcased in the demo were all impressive in their own right, we were a little suspicious that they all seemed to be a variation of the same Construct type, but nevertheless they look to have different abilities and patterns to keep combat varied. Fortunately Vigil saved the best for last.

During the demo the phrase 'everything is bigger' was used frequently, and we were skeptical until we were shown just the weapon wielded by a main boss. It was monolithic, a towering sword held in place by numerous, thick steel chains. Next to it Death was a diminutive spec on the screen. We can't wait to see whatever wields it, we might be in for a little Shadow of the Colossus type action.

If you're wondering why we haven't said much about the visuals it's because at this point you can pretty much take it for granted. The first game's clean comic-book inspired art style is just as eye-catching in the sequel. Whether he's standing bare or geared up with armour and trinkets Death looks as badass as they get, weapons, armour and enemies are all intricately detailed. Everything you'd expect from a game with Joe Mad serving as its creative director.

On paper much of what's new in Darksiders 2 is all stuff that's been done to death (pun fully intended) in other games for years. What makes it exciting in Darksiders 2 is that it's all being used to rejuvenate a genre and formula that has remained static for a while now.

After cutting its teeth by sticking close to the formula Vigil seems to have gained the confidence to start chipping away at it and building something new. For fans of the first Darksiders, action adventure fans generally - and of course - Zelda fans, this is an incredibly exciting prospect.


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