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Darksiders II hands-on

On Monday, March 19, 2011, I was jetted off to San Francisco to go hands-on with Vigil’s Darksiders II, courtesy of publisher THQ. The follow-up to their surprise hit seems to have tackled all critics head on, designed with every gripe that fans had of the original in mind. The original was too small? This one’s far bigger. I played one part of the first dungeon, six hours into the game, that took me three hours to complete. Players wanted a more agile hero, so there’s more platforming. They’ve also added in a ton of loot and expanded the fiction of the universe in an effort to give it an identity other than the games it reminds people of.

The event took place at The Bently Reserve on Battery Street. Death was seen running through smoldering wastelands on advertising filling the lobby of an otherwise quiet and orderly building. The actual playing venue consisted of forty screens set in four neat rows, with a stage at the end of the hall. Sandwiches and snacks were set up opposite of the open bar, and along the walls, coffins and crypts surrounded us. Rock music from the early days of the millenium was being played from the PA system and a large Death’s mask overlooked the center of the room.

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To start, the representatives from THQ gave a very brief introduction to what we were playing. In Darksiders’ lore, The Makers existed well before the beings of Heaven and Hell. We were about to explore a part of their world, called the Foundry, on a mission to restore a guardian (essentially, a Shadow of the Colossus colossi). In order to restore the guardian, Death has to recover three heartstones from an area teeming with corruption. They made a particular point to emphasize the size of the game world and the enhanced movement mechanics. It was a fairly brief presentation, and then we had three hours to clear out the dungeon on offer.

As billed, The Foundry is massive area, with lots of corridors to explore. There was a nice flow throughout the demo from platforming to puzzle solving to combat and back again. The demo opened with a platforming segment that introduced me to how Death moved around (which is a lot like the Prince of Persia, as it turns out). I had to dangle off ledges, jump from stationary to moving platforms and wall run across huge rivers of lava. I was particularly pleased that the camera almost always provided the best angle to see the action.

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Once I landed back on solid ground, I was buried in some combat. The mechanics are familiar enough that I was able to get into it easily. Darksiders II plays like most hack-and-slashers, with light combos formed around different attack strengths. On defense, Death can’t block incoming attacks and instead has to dodge to avoid slaughter. As in the first game, it’s very easy to lock on to foes, so while I would have appreciated the option to block incoming attacks, most of the time I was able to dive out of the way in time. It was very satisfying to bust out Death’s dual scythes and lay waste to opponents, but I found myself particularly intrigued by the alternate weapons on offer. Death’s tonfas, a light weapon class that moves fast but does light damage, were my favorite. Matching the speed of the scythes, I felt superior to my foes. I felt like Death would.

For as big as the Foundry is, I was impressed with how well Vigil was able to keep players directed. Though the game does feature a map and on-screen compass, the only time I actually consulted the map was when I encountered a glitch, couldn’t progress and thought I’d miss something. Good direction aside, there’s still a lot of thinking involved in the Darksiders II experience. Most of the puzzles in the demo centered around activating one of the newest features, the Constructs. Constructs are rideable creatures three times Death’s size and capable of wading through lava. They also dominate every challenger, giving Death a great combat advantage.

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Finding parts for and resurrecting Constructs forms one half of the puzzling while the other focuses on using the assembled Construct to progress. The Construct can create bridges between platforms to help Death get around, which not only opens up new areas but allows the team to add in some more platforming. In one, I had to move the Construct to a movable platform and extend a chain over to a pillar on another moving platform on the opposite side of the room. Then I had to crank the platforms to their apex and then use the taut, descending chain to swing across to a higher platform. The challenge was certainly there, but it was made more difficult by somewhat unresponsive controls. Hopefully Vigil can tighten the controls up before release.

The control issues really reared their head during the final boss battle. Throughout the demo, I had a hell of a time trying to position my character in order to target and interact with specific objects. Death’s Ghost Hand, a device which can pull him toward out of reach pillars, was particularly hard to align and my frustration with it led me to spend the final boss battle cursing at the game. Battling against a corrupted guardian (the one we were building turns out to be evil), I had to first dodge an attack that left bombs attached to its right arm exposed. I then had to switch to shooting those with Death’s pistol, the aiming of which felt sluggish and disjointed in tone with the speed of the rest of the combat.

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After a bomb detonates, the arm detaches and Death can saunter up to one of the Heart Stones in order to destroy the corruption. Easy enough. Once that’s destroyed, however, the next one we need is on the Guardian’s head. Getting to it requires luring a homing attack the Guardian launches at you back onto the Guardian. This causes him to stumble to the ground. But in order to get to the heartstone, you have to climb up, and the controls get in the way. The controls are too unresponsive, and I felt like I had a really difficult time trying to position Death exactly the way I had to in order to get him to do what I needed. By the time I did, the guardian would recover and I would have to try again.

That said, this was frustration was only felt for a chunk of the demo and I’m optimistic that the controls will be tightened up before release. I otherwise had an enjoyable time playing what is, as of now, a fun hack-and-slash game a few kinks from greatness. I think it will please critics of the original, as the developers seemed to have moved from “designing a game around all of our favorite games” to “designing a game that attempts to respond to every criticism of that other game we made.” I think the speed of the action and the straightforward design will also please those who may have avoided the first release because it was too puzzle or exploration oriented. I expect good things from Darksiders II and hope that Vigil spends these next few months quietly polishing what seems to be shaping up as the stronger entry in the franchise.

Airfare, accommodations and board provided by THQ.

The author of this fine article

is an Associate Editor at Thunderbolt, having joined in February 2003.

Gentle persuasion

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