Giant Scottish dwarves, giant environments, giant enemies... I'm noticing a theme here.
In what is PR 101, one of the THQ representatives tells me that they're proud of how Darksiders II improves on Darksiders, that it's not just a cookie-cutter copy of the previous game. It shows through in the design—the developers are quick to point out how much faster Death is than the previous protagonist War as well as the customizability and expansive world they've created. If the popular girls from my high school days were apocalyptic horsemen, they'd probably be like, "Oh. My. Gawd. Becky, Death is the new War; like next year they'll be calling War last year's Death, and who wants to hang out with THAT."
At a previous Darksiders II event we got to see the game in off-hands action, but this time we finally got our hands on the controls. The section we played was about six hours into the game. It's a testament to the expansive nature of the game that the demo we played lasted for three and a half hours. It's also a refreshingly vibrant game that isn't afraid of bright colors in a world of grey games. The game is not a traditional sequel either; set concurrently with the first Darksiders, it tells the story of what Death does during War's adventure. The THQ rep crossed his fingers when I mentioned the possibility of two more games for two more Horsemen, thogh fans of theology will have to mute their expectations for game based on Famine or Pestilence as in the universe of Darksiders they've been replaced with the more action-oriented Strife and Fury).
Create Your Own Death: That's one of the selling points of the game. Death has two skill trees that can be filled out—Harbinger and Necromancer, a morbid warrior and undead mage respectively. The game continues the RPG elements with weapon and armor drops from slain enemies and treasure chests. Upon finding some loot, standing over it brings up its stats versus the items Death already has equipped. With a sniff of nostalgia, it reminds me of the days of Final Fantasy VI accessories (just what is a "bangle" anyways?).
The section we played was The Foundry, part of a Maker's level that we were told was as large as the map of the whole previous game. One of the Makers, Karn, accompanies Death, like a giant Scottish Tolkien dwarf. The goal? Retrieve three Heart Stones to bring a skyscraper-sized golem, The Guardian, to life. The level plays out as a series of lengthy environmental puzzles, briefly interrupted with combat and traversal sections. It prizes exploration but doesn't get stale when Death is forced to backtrack; completing one puzzle filled a previous area with lava, and completing another cooled it to rock by flooding the area with water, each environmental change allowing for a new area to be explored.
With all the Heart Stones collected, the Guardian turned out not to be quite the benevolent golem he was made out to be, and promptly tried to crush the Maker Elder into paste. It was somewhat harrowing to suddenly have to destroy the goal I'd been helping build for the previous three hours, but the battle itself was intense. It's tempting to compare it to Shadow of the Colossus; in order to avoid being clobbered by the Guardian's giant mace, Death has to call his horse, Despair, and ride like crazy, firing at the giant boss with the gun of his brother Strife. However, without giving away too much about how the fight plays out, this aspect of the game brings to mind a cross between the series' Zelda-like roots and its brawler fighting style.
The combat in Darksiders II is fast and fun, balancing between normal weapons and the specialized secondary weapons with furious action. The skills are also a powerful addition to the gameplay. My favorite is "Murder" [Also my favorite ~Ed. Nick] which draws a flock of ravens that do incremental damage to the enemies around, both distracting enemies and building up the battle multiplier. At higher levels, the ravens also refill Death's life gauge and Reaper gauge as they attack and can the ability to inflict ice damage. Had Edgar Allen Poe lived in these times, he might have written, "Quoteth the Raven / Cold and health bonuses!" (It's probably better for the state of poetry that he lived in an earlier era.)
The traversal sections make up a huge part of the game and involve a new moveset for the series including wall-running, mantling, wall-bouncing, and later in the level, the use of his grappling hook-like Death Grip to keep Death constantly on the move. These sections, which take the place of platforming in other games, allow the player to navigate from one area to the next quickly once you've determined where you need to go. Death is clearly the Parkour Horseman (Parkourseman?).
The game's emphasis on exploration was both a positive and a negative. I felt nothing but pride figuring out where to go on my own. On the other hand, in one section after opening up a new area, I spent what seemed like forever trying to figure out where to go, magaging to get somewhere I really wasn't supposed to be able to go, only to discover that I was looking in the wrong place. However, this may have been due to the early nature of the build, since materials provided by the developers revealed that portions of the level had recently been changed.
When I was stumped, I could send Death's pet raven, Dust, to look for his next objective, but this didn't always yield clear results. Clearly in these moments, Death's raven was too focused on Health Bonuses and got distracted. Still, paths are often differentiated by color (wooden beams stand out in rich browns, hooks for the Death Grip sparkle purple, etc.) and when entering an area the objectives are generally relatively clear.
Darksiders II looks to be an expansive addition to the Darksiders franchise that increases the scope of the game and enhances the abilities and customizability of the main character. Darksiders II drops in North America on June 26th on the Xbox 360, Playstation 3, and PC, and is slated to be a launch title for the Wii U.