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Darksiders II is a competent blend of Prince of Persia, Devil May Cry, and Castlevania (preview)

Even before the cliffhanger ending of the original, we all knew a Darksiders II was coming. But developer Vigil Games pulled a fast one and set the upcoming sequel to run parallel to the events of the first game, replacing the brooding War with his equally brooding brother, Death.

After a few hours of hands-on game time and developer interviews, I’ve decided I’m alright with this. Vigil is attempting to create a complex universe, not just a linear narrative, and what they’ve shown off so far seems to be worth players’ time. As Moses from Attack the Block would say, “Allow it.”

WHAT’S LOOKING GOOD

Amazing Joe Mad-inspired visuals

Joe Madureira is unarguably one of the most influential Western comic artists. His impact on the aesthetics of the Darksiders franchise is undeniable — everything from the characters and monsters to the environments have his chunky, signature Anime-inspired style — and the art team on Darksiders II has really pushed their capabilities far beyond what was seen in the last game.

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Bigger in every sense of the word

The visuals are not the only aspect of Darksiders II that have been aggrandized. The world itself is said to be larger than the original game many times over. Just the level shown off in the playable demo, the home of the Makers, was said to be roughly the same size as the entire Darksiders 1 map.

Death is far more agile than War was, so the traversal has been drastically expanded upon as well. It’s hard not to make a direct comparison to the most recent Prince of Persia titles, as the gameplay is practically identical. “Well, we do believe the ultimate measure of success and quality is the execution,” says Producer Ryan Stefanelli. “So whatever we decide to put in … We always said that we’re gamers, and we want to build the kind of game that we want to play. So we just put in the stuff that we think would be really fun. As long as we execute on it really well, regardless of what the comparisons are, it’s going to be well-received.”

The loot system also adds a much-needed layer to the game. If it’s going to be bigger and lengthier, that means that combat is also going to be more frequent, and runs the risk of getting repetitive quickly. By introducing loot into the fray, every battle is one more whack at the pinata, rather than a dull exercise in room-clearing.

“In a game like this you want to explore and go to different nooks and crannies and do different stuff, but often times you don’t really have a lot of rewards for that,” says General Manager David Adams. “It’s just, ‘Yeah, I collected a little medallion that I can turn in for something stupid.’ At least in this game it always gets back to your equipment. If you explore something, you’re going to get an honest reward.”

“I think that’s the key,” adds Stefanelli. “It’s making Darksiders an adventure game and then incentivizing that exploration through a constant reward system, which is what loot is. Every time you see a chest or a creature, it’s exciting because it’s another pull on the slot machine, and that addictiveness that makes loot so compelling in other games, we wanted that in Darksiders.”

“As far as I’m concerned, every game would be better with loot,” jokes Adams. “Madden football should have loot.”

WHAT NEEDS WORK

That *&%$! camera

Among the dozens of journalists and bloggers previewing Darksiders II, the one standout complaint was the camera. I noticed this during the first gameplay demonstration a couple months ago and figured I’d give Vigil a chance to remedy it before holding it against them. However, it seems that the camera — the bane of all 3D adventure games since Mario 64 — may very well be Darksiders II’s biggest fault when it ships in three months.

Occasionally the camera will be automatically placed at a certain angle that hides either Death or nearby enemies. Environmental objects can also block the camera during platforming and traversal sequences, equating to needless frustration.

But the camera issues were most noticeable during the demo’s Guardian boss battle. Fans of Castlevania: Lords of Shadow will remember this encounter when it was still called the Ice Titan. Even more so than in Castlevania, however, players will struggle with a low-angled camera against a towering boss creature. Darksiders II is said to have lots of massive bosses, and we’ve been promised that this Guardian fight was just a taste of things to come, so that’s not necessarily a good thing.

Combat

While traversal flows smoothly (and why shouldn’t it? It’s literally copied and pasted out of Prince of Persia), combat is a little clunkier. It’s hard to explain how, but it just doesn’t feel as gratifying as it should. Death seems to have a fairly limited array of moves and combos at his disposal (especially compared to Dante, Bayonetta, or Gabriel Belmont), and the gun weapon is too slow and underpowered to be of any use.

There are two ability trees — the Harbinger and the Necromancer — but the majority of the different options all seem to focus on building up or adding new attributes to a single power.

Again, I can see the loot and different weapon/armor sets saving Darksiders II from tedium in the combat department, but I can’t shake the feeling that after all of Vigil Games’ claims to the contrary, battles are best won by mashing the same few attacks over and over again.

CONCLUSION

Darksiders II is an amalgamation of several other great games: the platforming of Prince of Persia, the combat of the original Darksiders (which itself was a hodge-podge of Devil May Cry-ishness), and the loot system of Torchlight or whatever your dungeon-crawler-of-choice may be. There’s nothing wrong with that, as long as it’s done right, yet it’s Vigil’s immensely unique visual design that truly elevates Darksiders II above the sea of action/adventure hack-and-slash titles the industry is currently drowning in.

It won’t be perfect, and it won’t be innovative, but it will be fun, and sometimes that’s enough, especially when it looks this damn good.

Darksiders II is set for a June 26, 2012 release on the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and Windows PC. It is being developed by Vigil Games and published by THQ.


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