Darksiders 2: hands-on preview

A screenshot from <em>Darksiders 2</em>.
A screenshot from Darksiders 2.
A screenshot from <em>Darksiders 2</em>.

A screenshot from Darksiders 2.

Haven't we all had the perverse fantasy of being Death and swinging your oversized scythe into the face of a 20 foot tall golem? No? Just me then, I suppose. Still, if that piques your interest at all, then the Darksiders series is designed just for you. The thrill of being a horseman of the apocalypse is a feeling generally, and surprisingly, untapped by the world of video games. If the original was anything to go by, the compelling story and addictive combat is more than entertaining enough to get you through the surprisingly long campaign on offer.

I had a chance to chat with producer Jay Fitzloff from Vigil games, the gatekeeper of the Darksiders franchise. From our talk it's obvious that Fitzloff and Vigil have their audience's best interests at heart. They seem dedicated to delivering a true sequel that improves upon the original's best aspects while introducing exciting new elements to make Darksiders bigger, better and "more badass". As if any self-respecting avatar of mortality would be anything else.

The previous Darksiders dealt with the actions of a horseman called 'War' after a premature apocalypse (they have pills for that now) and the fiery retribution he dealt to those responsible. Well after the end of humanity came and went, War was summoned by the "Charred Council" to answer for the unscheduled apocalypse that was normally his job to kick off. War was offered the chance to find those responsible for framing him lest he be held accountable. But as the world had already ended, all that was left to do was find those responsible and administer War's particular brand of justice. Lots and lots of stabbings. By the end, the implication was that the other horsemen (Strife and Fury in the Darksiders universe, as "those names seem more evocative," Fitzloff decided, "but also because having a protagonist that makes enemies hungry presents some serious gameplay design issues") would be introduced in the event of a sequel.

Sadly though, Death seems to be alone in this new endeavour, at least from the content released so far (Strife and Fury could well make an appearance considering the sequel's potential). The idea of a game that includes all four of the horsemen as playable characters might get fans salivating but Vigil isn't ready to play their whole hand just yet. Though apparently this is for a good reason, "since the first game gave only a very narrow slice of what was going on during the Apocalypse," Fitzloff said. "We felt it was necessary to fill in the details of how this massive event affected the entire cosmology of the Darksiders universe. If we were to try to do that while picking up where the first game left off, players would have been very confused and overloaded with information - to the point of frustration. So we decided to do a parallel storyline with Darksiders 2 that fills in a lot of these gaps and sets the stage in a more complete manner."

So the events of Darksiders 2 run concurrent with the first game, instead of being a chronological sequel. The new protagonist (Death), locations (the Underworld, as opposed to a dilapidated Earth), enemies and mysteries are hopefully enough to make the formula seem fresh again, even if the climactic conclusion to the first game will go unresolved for now.

Having Death as the lead also offers Vigil a chance to create a more compelling hero than before. While War was certainly tough, he wasn't the most vocal, audience-friendly protagonist. (What he lacked in personality, he made up in sword length and body count). The Vigil version of Death seems to immediately offer a different experience, both in character design and combat situations. To start with, he is definitely not the solid, walking tank that War is and his slender frame means every aspect of controls have been revamped to feel more nimble. This is a god send, because you will be doing a lot of climbing and platforming. The first game was liberally compared to classic Zelda for its dungeon-based gameplay (not that this is in any way a bad thing) and the sequel seems to have embraced this concept once again.

Choosing Death to take the reins was not just a chance to switch up the feel of the protagonist. Fitzloff claims some sizable things are going down. "We're making a much bigger, richer game with Darksiders 2 so it seemed only natural that it should feature the most well-known, most feared Horseman of them all. Death is the de-facto leader of the group, and this adventure is of such a grand scale that it requires the head honcho to take care of business."

Still, it's a welcome change to have a more relatable protagonist this time round. Death's voice actor is Michael Wincott (of The Crow fame) who, from what I've seen, nails the raspy vocals of our not quite dead protagonist. Fitzloff is confident in their choice too, "we did a casting call for voice actors and based our decisions not so much on star power, but on who sounded right for the roles. The second [Wincott] read some lines, we knew that was the voice for Death."

Though the game lacks the star power of the first entry, which saw Mark Hamill playing your guide/parole officer, so far the voice talent seems as fitting and well acted as the original.

The sequence I played through dealt with Death attempting to revive an ancient, and very large, stone guardian who would seemingly deal with the "corruption" in the area. Vigil is understandably wary with giving away too many plot details and the "corruption" that featured heavily was not fully explained. Still, the yellowy webbing is obviously not a good thing and, in typical Darksiders fashion, Death had to collect three magical stones to power the behemoth. What ensued will feel instantly familiar to fans of the first game, but Death's nimble acrobatics are already more satisfying than War's lumbering frame ever was.

The platforming, puzzle-solving and dungeon-crawling all make a return to form in Darksiders 2. Though many players complained of repetition in the first game, Fitzloff says they've heard the fan's cries. "Two common concerns from players of the first Darksiders were that it took too long to get your horse and there was too much backtracking in dungeons. Both of these have been addressed in Darksiders 2. Death literally begins the game on the back of his horse, Despair."

Fitzloff also addressed one of the major annoyances with the first game. "We've also significantly cut down on the amount of backtracking that takes place. Generally, once you get to a goal, there will be a shortcut that allows you to exit the dungeon nearby."

The art design was a huge part of the first Darksiders and the same talented art team led by Joe Madureira (an ex-Marvel Comics artist) has returned to work their magic. This is immediately apparent as soon as the game starts up. The environments look fantastically decayed and the creatures have had the same unique eye for detail applied to them that the awesome monsters from the last game had. Fitzloff is rightly quick to praise the design from the first Darksiders, but says the art team went all out for the sequel. "It was much more free wheeling and collaborative in Darksiders 2, and the main reason for that is it's not set on Earth like the first game. With an Earth setting, you're somewhat constrained by reality. Everyone knows what a car or a street lamp looks like, and you can't stray very far from what people expect."

But Fitzloff knows that gamers are expecting them to up the ante considerably. "In the sequel, our settings are all in the Underworld which (hopefully) nobody knows what that looks like. This allowed our art team to go wild in terms of creatures and environments. In fact, quite a few of the monsters in the game started with a sketch that an artist thought up in their off time. Art was allowed to lead the game design process much more in Darksiders 2." Considering the length and breadth of a Darksiders game, the art department at Vigil has their work cut out for them to create unique new worlds, but even the concept art and screenshots coming out of Vigil pre-release shows they're on the right track.

Darksiders 2 is shaping up to be a more than worthy successor to the unexpected triumph of the first game. That a new and unique IP can reach the heights of success that Darksiders has is a testament to fact that gamers are clamouring for new and interesting ideas. Admittedly, story details for Darksiders 2 are still being kept under wraps, but the gameplay aspect is shaping up to be everything the audience has come to love about the series and more.

This story Darksiders 2: hands-on preview first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.