Well, Holiday 2009 is over and done with, and we can get back to playing all the games that we didn’t have time to fully explore last fall, right? Well…. it turns out you shouldn’t be so hasty. 2010 has a lot of potentially high quality games coming along, and things are starting off with a bang. Today we’ll be taking a look at Darksiders, a game notable for the art design by popular comic-book artist Joe Madureira and being the first major release by Vigil Games. Darksiders asks the question, “What if you threw Armageddon, and nobody came?”Â
Bear with me, because this might bounce around a bit. Long before humanity existed, angels and demons were waging a never-ending war. Seeing that this was pretty much wrecking the whole of everything, a group of powerful beings known as the Charred Council created the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. They sent the Horsemen into the fray, and they were so powerful that Heaven and Hell called a truce. The Council agreed, and forged Seven Seals. No outright war was to take place until all seven were broken. At that time, all bets are off, the End Times will be here, and the war can resume. Flash forward to the modern day, and we see shots of a city teeming with humans. News reports are pouring in about random meteor showers all over the globe, especially in heavily populated areas. One of those meteor showers hits this city the game takes place in, and it turns out the meteors are demons falling to Earth. Cue War, first of the Horsemen, and your character throughout the game. After a quick run in with a huge demon that shakes the ground, (I mean it, the first boss literally picks up a city street and shakes it) you are de-powered and summoned before the Council.
There’s the first twist of the game. It turns out the seals haven’t been broken, and someone tricked War into starting the apocalypse before it was scheduled. War convinces the council to send him back to Earth so he can figure out who did this, clear his name, and put things right. Here’s the second twist: War returns after a century has passed. Humanity is done. The world has become a battleground between ancient demonic powers and heartless, battle-crazed angels. Left with no chance to put things right, War decides to put his sword right through things instead, and sets off for vengeance against whoever framed him. He is shackled, however, by the Watcher-a spirit attached to his arm that won’t let him gain his power back too quickly. Framed by demons, hated by angels, War decides the best course of action is to kill everything that moves against him.
That’s it for the synopsis, at least as much as you are getting out of me. Does the story work? Yes, absolutely. There is a shift from story to puzzle at about three-fourths through. Once that is done, Darksiders wastes no time going back to beyond epic levels of story. There are double and triple-crosses, obvious betrayals, arcane treachery, and one of the best sequel set-ups I’ve ever seen. The fifteen-hours pass by relatively quickly, and the story is truly amazing in scope. There aren’t any extra modes to speak of though, not even arena combat which is featured throughout the game.
A lot has been made of the Joe Madureira artwork for this title. For a guy who took six months between comic book issues, you’d never know he has a history of being late. His art design really shines through in places. Character designs are excellent, especially his take on the War and the angels. The world of Darksiders really hits the idea of a true post-apocalyptic nightmare. When you are in the middle of a ravaged city, standing on the side of a building that is being held horizontally by black chains, with newspapers drifting by on the smoke-charred breeze, you really get it. War moves quickly and powerfully, and little touches like the ground splintering beneath your feet when you drop from a great height add a lot. Also, the gothic architecture will shatter if it isn’t necessary to hold up a wall. Knocking someone through a pillar is a great feeling. The enemies are well varied, and almost all of them have multiple death animations to keep things fresh. Ever wanted to beat an angel to death, or pick up a zombie and crush its head? You’ll see every blow land and every bit of cerebrospinal fluid gush.
The bad news? At least on the Xbox version, you get some pretty fierce and constant screen tearing. It can almost make you dizzy when you are exploring. My HDTV is a few years old, but it still works perfectly on every other game I’ve played. I hope that Vigil was just testing on top-of-the-line models and didn’t let street-date dictate an unpolished product. Aside from that, there really is nothing to complain about, and the tearing honestly isn’t noticeable unless you are doing a lot of walking around. During my time with the game, I never once noticed a clipping issue. The camera is really good too, and that’s normally what kills an action game like this. If they had taken just a few more weeks and fixed up the screen tearing, I’d call it perfect.
With the themes of Darksiders being the end of all human life on Earth and the final act of the war between Heaven and Hell, you’d expect some serious bass while you play. Fortunately, you aren’t really disappointed. Most the nu-metal riffs are left behind for more of an orchestral score with soaring voices, when there is one. Much of the time you are left without music, with just the howling winds or rushing water as your accompaniment. Cut-scene music is really well done and fits the mood, as long as you are into high, chanting voices. Battle sounds are about what you would expect. Meaty slashes as you cut limbs off of foes are your constant companion. While they don’t do anything new, they sound just as you want.
The voice acting side is pretty good also. War sounds much less intimidating than I expected. He isn’t hushed, but he isn’t booming and authoritative either. It is a calm, menacing voice that fits the character more and more as time goes on. We really should find a way to declare Mark Hamill the Patron Saint of voice actors. Fresh off his award winning stint as the Joker from Batman: Arkham Asylum, he provides the voice of the Watcher here. This time he is channeling his inner-Starscream to provide a nasal, scheming wretch of a spirit who harasses War when he’s not offering advice. Basically all of the NPC voices are awesome, especially a Hephaestus stand-in named Ulthane. Some of the enemy voices could use more variety though. There was a section of angels who I was plowing through, and I swear every one of them told me that they would not yield. They did actually; they just needed convincing. There were a few times I was actually surprised though, as an ogre-type enemy was actually taunting me with several lines mid-fight and not just growling at me.
Control and Gameplay:
There are a lot of different control schemes that you will encounter in Darksiders, so I won’t try to list them all. Most of the combat comes down to the X button being mashed until the enemy is ready to die, and then you hit the B button for a kill animation. You don’t have to kill them that way as continual striking will kill them. However, you don’t have to perform any quick time events for the death scenes. It’s just a simple button press. This is a huge improvement in my book. Another interesting change is that you don’t switch between weapons if you buy different ones. War uses his sword, the Chaos Eater, almost exclusively. If you pick up Death’s Scythe you hot key it to the Y button, and can use it alternately in combos. You can also pick up any of the burnt-out hulks of vehicles and throw them, or uproot any street signs or lights that are still standing. Smashing a zombie with a minivan really is a lot of fun.
As War fights, he builds up two special power meters: Wrath and Chaos. As Wrath builds, it lets you use special moves like the Blade Geyser-War slams his sword straight down and a circle of blades expands around him, doing radial damage. If you fill up the Chaos meter, something different happens. War can change into his Chaos form, which is effectively a giant, indestructible Balrog that does amazing damage. I’ve turned into the Chaos form and won boss fights in less than a minute. It might sound cheap, but then you remember you are playing as the living incarnation of war.
There is also a healthy amount of platforming and puzzling to be found here. The jump button sometimes sticks, but the game is forgiving at leas. You lose a tiny amount of health and pop back up where you where died, instead of being insta-killed. War climbs and swings as well as anyone. He also rides a horse and shoots holy bolts from a gryphon when required. Darksiders tries to play the Metroidalvania (however you want to say that horrible word) game by giving you reason to backtrack and explore once you have new gear. There is nothing wrong with the backtracking, especially since there are worm holes throughout the game that let you jump to another location quickly. You can pop over to a certain area, grab the power-ups you were missing, and pop back out with relative ease.
So, after the last beheading, are you going to be keeping Darksiders in the tray? Probably not. While the game is a romp to play from beginning to end, there isn’t a lot of after-content to play. The hardest difficulty level isn’t even locked at the start. However, the way Vigil throws everything and the kitchen sink at you while you are playing, the lack of replayability isn’t the end of the world. You can, if you are of a mind, start it up again and try to track down all of the armor shards and the various legendary weapon enhancements, but you don’t need to. They aren’t going to make War play any differently at heart. This issue is somewhat mitigated by the fact that Darksiders is easily twice as long as most games on the market these days. I’ve played action games before with a similar set-up. You have the first boss, four zone bosses, and a recap of the first boss. Most games would be happy to end things there. Vigil just keeps going though. When I was expecting to be facing the final boss in the game, Darksiders says, “Good. Now, go out there and keep killing things!”
Replayability: Above Average
Sure, you may be one of the most powerful beings in existence, but this wouldn’t be a game if there wasn’t some challenge, right? Well, good news and bad news on that front. The combat is fun, but it becomes easier and easier as you progress. Some of that has to be due to your familiarity with the attacks and better weapons, but some of it is also because you see the same attack patterns but more health for later enemies. The real challenge to this game lays in the puzzle sections. Darksiders has a bad habit of handing you an item or ability, telling you that it will be needed to get past a certain part. Then, before you can use it, they force you to use something else. Case in point: the time stop ability that you get midway through the game. You are told that this will help get past sandworms, and are promptly shown a puzzle where you have to swing on a rope to get past three carnivorous man-traps, like the ceiling beasts from Half-Life. I spent twenty minutes or more looking for a way to activate the time stop, but it turns out you have to use your throwing blade instead. There is also a section just a few minutes later where you would love to use the time stop ability, but the key stone to activate it is nowhere to be seen. So you get to make like Muad Dib and run from the sandworm. Normally this would be a great way to add tension to a section of the game, and the first few times I played it did. That’s when the problems began for me. I was clearly on safe ground, and yet the worm kept eating me at the last minute. That was a half hour or so of frustration, very nearly controller-tossing. Aside from a few moments like that, Darksiders is paced well and provides consistent interest, if not consistent challenge.
Holy crap, this is one unoriginal game. There, I said it. I’m sure we all feel better. Most of the character models should look familiar to anyone who has ever played World of Warcraft. In fact, the basic angel model looks like Diablo‘s Tyrael, right down to the wings of light coming out of a gold carapace. The fighting is the same thing you’ve played in Ninja Gaiden or Devil May Cry, right down to the “demonic energy”Â gates that only go away after you’ve killed a certain number of enemies. You collect orbs, but here they are souls, to gain health, special powers, or currency. An on-rails shooter section made an appearance, courtesy of Panzer Dragoon. The only really original element to the game is the setting. It is really cool to find yourself thinking, “I’ve made it to the jungle level”Â only to realize that the waterfall you are looking at is coming out of a ruined apartment building. Darksiders also tries for the Metroid/Castlevania style exploration that Batman: Arkham Asylum did so well. There are, for instance, ice gates that you can’t pass until you’ve acquired an item to shatter them. That doesn’t change the fact that this is a game you’ve played before, right down to the spider level. The story and setting are quite a lot of fun, and everything is handled well, but if you’re not sold on being a Horseman, you might be better off being a ninja or a girl with gun-boots. On the other hand, you can easily say that Vigil is just throwing all these old games at you in a homage kind of way. I’d almost be ready to let that rationale fly if I didn’t run into Portal about two-thirds of the way through. Not just a few uses of the Portal game ideas, but about an hour of puzzle solving via the Portal mechanic.
Fortunately for Darksiders, it might be unoriginal, but it is a blast to play. Helped by a great pace and almost constant stream of new things to look at and new things to kill, I never got tired of playing Darksiders. War upgrades his arsenal steadily, and earns experience for his weapons with every swing. The sense of, “I’ve got to come back here once I get a certain item”Â is also very addicting. The various kill methods for the enemies and bosses help keep you playing as well. One boss is killed by slamming a train into her head over and over again. Vigil really shows off that this is an over-the-top experience in every way. When Ruin, the horse of War, enters the picture, it is a beast of beauty. You can summon the steed just about anywhere, and a circle of flames erupts at War’s feet. Then Ruin gallops out of the portal as War grabs the reins and vaults on. There are some great moments of riding the horse and slaying everything around you with blade and gun.
What isn’t appealing about a solid action game with great art design and a literal post apocalyptic setting? Not much. The only thing that really works against Darksiders is the glut of other action games coming out. Well, that and the name. I guess “Anthropomorphic Personification of War”Â just doesn’t have the same ring as, oh, God of War. Vigil nailed a lot about the experience though, mostly with the great combat, the removal of quick-time events and the addition of a one-touch finisher button. The exploration idea helps as well, and they’ve included a simple transfer mechanic that lets you bounce from store to store. While you can’t pick and choose how you want to play, Darksiders does feature enough various gameplay elements that it is always fresh and frenzied. You can even pick up an angelic chaingun and a demonic rocket launcher at two different points.
Appeal Factor: Great
We have another example of a game company trying to prevent the BBT combo-Buy, Beat, and Trade-that is the norm in today’s video game marketplace. Inside the retail copy of Darksiders, there is a code to download….something. THQ is being very coy about this, with the website announcing that it is something you won’t want to miss. I have no idea what it is, or what it could be, because they won’t let you grab the content for another month or so. Have they packaged a bit of DLC expansion with their game? A new costume? More weapons? No idea, and no clue. It is an interesting take on how to keep gamers from dumping the game once they are tired of it though. One other thing that should be mentioned is the game’s cover. Joe Madureira got his start in comics in the Nineties, when things like deluxe foil and chromium variants made collectors think they were going to retire on the fifth printing of Uncanny X-Men #317. Well, the cover to Darksiders has a holographic pattern. Weird.
Control and Gameplay: Incredible
Replayability: Above Average
Appeal Factor: Great
FINAL SCORE: Very Good Game!
Short Attention Span Summary
At first glance, Darksiders is just another action game full of big characters, bigger weapons, orb collecting, and bloody destruction. However, the story, setting and presentation put it over the top, or at least on par with other titles in the genre. Framed for starting the Apocalypse early, you must guide War, first of the Horsemen, against both angelic and demonic hordes using the Earth as their battleground. The great art design and graphics are marred by some serious screen tearing issues on the Xbox 360, while the sound is very impressive. Darksiders favors fun over challenge, and some of the fights are simple, but all of them are fun. You might not play back through the game unless you are a sucker for getting a perfect completion, but you will have fun with Darksiders. Your apocalypse is here.