Darksiders II Eyes-On

26 Jul 2011  by   John Robertson

Action-RPG. In the videogame book of buzzwords circa-2011, ‘action-RPG’ is right up there. Up there with ‘iteration’, ‘authentic-not-realistic’, ‘procedural’ and ‘free to play.’ Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, Deus EX: Human Revolution, Mass Effect 3, Dark Souls, these are all upcoming ‘action-RPGs’…we’re hardly short of titles to pick from. Not out until fiscal year 2012, we can now throw Darksiders II into the mix.
In comparison to the other aforementioned titles, Darksiders II is much more focused on high-intensity, high-speed action. Whereas Dark Souls feeds on fear and caution, Deus Ex on combat variety/stealth and Mass Effect 3 on team work and a range of diverse attacks, Darksiders II (at least from what we’ve seen) is primarily hack-n-slash with an underbelly of RPG stats, levelling up and questing.
It’s an action game built around character abilities and choices rather than, as is so often the case, an action game built around set-pieces, unlocking cut-scenes and waiting to be gifted the next new weapon/upgrade.

Darksiders II is clearly setting out with a ‘choose your own abilities’ mantra in mind. Use a weapon long enough and you become more skilled with it. Earn XP and you can choose how you want to spend it. Don’t want to use weapons much? Don’t, use magic instead. You get the picture…
This second outing in the series puts you in control of Death. In comparison to the first game’s War, Death is fast, agile and flashy; the Vega to the first game’s Zangief, if you will.
Rather than the 7-foot tall, black hooded edition popularised by the majority of visual depictions of Death, Darksiders II’s version is of a smaller, nimbler variety. His primary weapons are a pair of twin scythes that are used to launch high tempo attacks in wide horizontal and vertical arcs. The first game’s comparisons with God of War was rather unfair, perhaps here it’s less so.
Death doesn’t have the ability to block, instead its jumps, dodges and parries that keep you out of harm’s way. Despite not being afforded the opportunity to get hands-on with the demo ourselves, it’s clear from watching the action unfold on-screen that the lack of a block makes things a whole lot faster and considerably more exciting to the onlooker (and presumably the player).

There are other weapons to play around with. One of these was a comically large hammer that, predictably, was slow to swing but dealt serious damage. Despite the added power, the hammer seemed to make things more difficult against the numerous enemies that inhabited the level we witnessed. Perhaps the hammer will fare better in areas that house foes in groups of only one or two.  
Then there are the magic attacks. Featuring lots of pinks and purples, magic looks to be the best strategy for those that prefer a more ‘standoff-ish’ style of play – the hang back and shoot stuff approach. Despite the increased focus on RPG elements, Darksiders II (for me, at least) is always going to be about getting your hands dirty and taking out enemies at close range; magic looks nice, but does it look at nice as  smashing someone’s head in with a giant hammer? Answer, no.
As you land attacks on enemies hit points erupt in a stream of numbers above their heads. The game’s developers Vigil say that this feature makes things feel more ‘satisfying’ but I’d be willing to bet it was added to make things feel more ‘RPG-y’.

There are other RPG elements that have a significant impact on gameplay though. The loot system, for example, is (as today’s fashion dictates) procedural, meaning different players are likely to find different things in the same box/enemy/nook and/or cranny. Aside from the usual clumps of gold coins and vials of potions there’s some rather flashy armour to be found.
Depending on how you’ve levelled up your character, you’ll find armour that fits with a certain aesthetic approach. If you’ve concentrated on magic you’ll find some nice robes; if you’ve concentrated on melee you’re more likely to find something considerably meatier. (PS. The robes looked cooler, creating a bit of a quandary for someone like me that prefers smashing heads with steel/rock/fists.)
The third major gameplay pillar (joining combat and RPG ‘stuff’) is what Vigil call ‘traversal elements’ but the rest of us call platforming. This sees Death jumping over gaps, climbing up vines, scuttling across walls and using his ‘Ghost Hook’ (read: grappling hook) to launch himself across jumps too wide to make on his own. The Ghost Hook can also be used in battle; sling it towards small enemies and you’ll drag them towards you, sling it towards big enemies and you’ll fire yourself at them.
Our demo ended with a two-part boss battle in what looked to be an ancient gladiatorial-esque arena of some kind. The first part saw Death dodging out of the way of a charging land worm made up of a giant eyeball and an exposed spinal column. Whenever the eye popped out from below ground the trick was to us the Ghost Hook on it and smash away until it ducked back underground.

Once enough damage had been done, the rest of its body jumped into the fray and inserted the eyeball/spinal column in through its head to create a giant Cyclops. Dodge the attacks, send it off balance and deal some damage until defeated. You know the drill.    
For a game that doesn’t come out into deep into next year, Darksiders II is looking promising. The build we saw had its fair share of bugs and visual deficiencies (unfinished texture mapping, in particular) but, that’s to be expected at this stage. If Vigil can improve on the formula of the first game and truly combine action heavy combat with worthwhile RPG elements then it’s possible that they’re on to something. (Vigil also seem well aware of the criticisms levelled at the first game… for example, they’ve decided to include a horse this time around. Seeing as you’re one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, the inclusion is more a case of ‘finally’ than ‘well done’.)
Oh, and Death had an English accent which is rather nice. I’ve always imagined that he would…  

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