|System: Xbox 360, PS3, PC, Wii U|
|Release: June 26, 2012|
|Screen Resolution: 480p-1080p||ESRB RATING|
by Shelby Reiches
In January, THQ walked us through a short demonstration of Darksiders II, introducing us to its new protagonist, Death. In the time since, details have come forth on the title's release date, its pre-order incentives, and its Limited and Collector's editions. Then came Monday, when the developers finally felt comfortable putting the controller in our hands and letting us have our first taste of the upcoming action-adventure-with-light-RPG-elements mash-up.
The demo was set near the end of the first act, we were told (the game takes place over four major areas, each of them purported to be as large as the entire map for the first game), and the basics of control were explained to us. Then we were off. It turned out that our journey would begin just after where the previous demonstration had ended, with Death striding past a massive hammer on his way deeper into a dungeon. Exploring the temple led to its center, where the massive, guardian construct we were tasked with awakening stood dormant, demanding three "heartstones" before it would come to life and help rid the Makers' Realm of the Corruption.
Pursuing these stones took us through varied environs, from old hallways of brick and metal to verdant clearings and chambers coursing with lava. There were lakes as well, in which Death could swim. The scale of these areas was incredible, elements often stretching into the distance so far and so high that I assumed they were only background, until the game demanded that I proceed to them. The graphics, in general, are consistent with those of the first game, though most objects seem somewhat smoother, their textures more intricate.
Eventually, after finding all three stones, the guardian shuddered to life, but one of the power sources had been corrupted, and soon I was riding atop Despair, combating a hulking behemoth that would easily have been at home in Shadow of the Colossus. Once defeated, the demo came to a somewhat abrupt end, the entire experience leaving me, on the whole, tentative regarding the game. Before I go into my thoughts, though, a few housekeeping things: First, I asked whether the game had been sent in for certification prior to the event, which it had not as they were still in the process of polishing it; second, the demo was based on month-old code, and was thus not entirely representative of the game as a whole.
That said, there's definite promise. The environments are creative and interesting to explore, the graphics are recognizably Darksiders, but are both cleaner and more complex than the first entry, and weapon variety has been improved. In the demo alone, Death had tonfas, axes, hammers, and claws available as secondary weapons. This was in addition to his dual skill trees, each of which features multiple abilities to buy and a series of skills that in some way modifies or powers up the attached ability. Each of these skills could be upgraded multiple times.
Further, as mentioned before, the boss for the demo was tremendous, as was the open field in which we fought him. In general, environments were bigger and more open to exploration than in the first game, which only occasionally left me feeling overwhelmed and, far more often, provided a sense of wonder at the scale of the game.
There were a few things that irked me, but they may be fixed by release. The frame rate was inconsistent, constantly dipping if things were starting to get a little hectic. There was also prevalent screen tearing, though turning on V-Sync in the options menu reduced this at the cost of more frame rate. Platforming occasionally felt a little wonky, with Death inconsistent about when he would grab a ledge and when he would just bump into the same and plummet to his demise. The camera was unwieldy, resistant to being controlled and often too close in or at the wrong angle to give a proper sense of distance and orientation for the target of Death's next jump.
Then, there are the elements of the game that just seem like poor design decisions: Combat is even more button-mashy than in the first game, since Death is a faster character. I caught myself hitting the attack buttons in a regular, dull rhythm, only occasionally having to think about defense. Abilities are still somewhat awkward to use, demanding that one hold down a button that temporarily disables one's capacity for normal attacks. As such, abilities are still unable to be worked naturally into combat, demanding a very specific intent to use them; often I just forgot I had them.
Most worrisome, though, are the platforming controls and the loot system. While Death's expanded wall-running capabilities and more acrobatic climbing are welcome, it seems somewhat unnecessary to—if one has already used one button to specifically target and launch toward a peg on the wall for the express purpose of boosting oneself into the air—demand that a player press the jump button at some ill-defined time as Death approaches the peg to actually use it correctly. This "press jump to use the peg" concept shows up when wall-running, too, if one wants to use one of them to continue their wall-run longer without dropping too low. It's reminiscent of 2008's Prince of Persia reboot, which required a ballet of button presses for various platforming feats. As in that game, there's no feedback here to tell you whether or not you've succeeded, until Death either uses the object correctly or doesn't. It's a strange enough choice that I constantly caught myself forgetting to actually hit the button as I was launching myself toward my target.
Even this, though, is relatively minor compared to the loot system. Equipment drops fairly often from downed enemies and springs out of opened chests en masse. There are half a dozen different slots to equip, from weapons and armor to accessories. It's great that there's so much variety in what Death can wear, and that it models so well on him, but there are seemingly innumerable characteristics that a given piece of equipment can possess, from the basic "attack" or "defense" stats to various elemental resistances and bonuses to specific types of damage. Percents and scores flit around onscreen, and it's all a bit overwhelming. Further, the number of stats any given weapon has all but ensures that there will be a lot of red in the comparison screen, and picking an item that suits your play-style becomes overly time-consuming. This utterly broke the flow of the demo, which was at its best when I was either exploring or solving puzzles.
Again, all of these impressions are based on a non-final build of the game, which has yet to be submitted for certification. What I played, though, has left me a little apprehensive about Darksiders II. The first was a hodge-podge of various genres and gameplay elements from prevalent series, but it managed to use those elements well and, as a whole, it just worked. The sequel has certainly expanded its range of inspirations, but seems to have a little trouble distinguishing what works for it from what's best left on the cutting room floor.
Date: March 22, 2012