When it came time for us to hand out our year-end awards for 2010, the first Darksiders – released that January – came away with the dubious honor of “Most Original Rip-Off.” It was more than just a backhanded compliment, though; the post-apocalyptic adventure wore its influences on its sleeve (Zelda and God of War in particular), and it brought elements from those games together to create something unique and cool, becoming a surprise hit in the process. Darksiders II seems to continue in the same vein, but this time adds the likes of Prince of Persia and Diablo to its sources of inspiration.
Taking place during the events of the first game, Darksiders II stars a different Horseman of the Apocalypse: Death, a fast-moving, versatile departure from the first game’s lumbering hero, War. Early on during our first real look at the game, we saw how his “traversal” (developer-speak for climbing and wall-running) will work, as Death rapidly leapt up the sides of a circular shaft, outracing a rising tide of lava with the help of long ledges that let him wall-run horizontally to reach the next climbable handhold.
Death’s speed is also the least of the changes we saw. At a recent press event, THQ showed off two huge, impressive levels, which the publisher made sure to point out were side dungeons, completely separate from the game’s central quest. The first one was set in a cavernous dungeon, where Death (on the trail of a hulking, automaton-looking rock-monster named Ghorn) found himself plunged into a pit and forced to fight through hordes of smaller rock monsters. At Death’s disposal were his scythe, Harvester (which can be split into two smaller scythes for quick strikes, or one large one for power attacks), as well as a huge, secondary hammer weapon, which – like all of Death’s secondary weapons, apparently – can be combined with the scythes for rapid combo attacks. Other abilities included a monstrous Reaper form that can bust out massive damage for a limited time, and an attack called “Murder,” which summons a flock of ravens to attack enemies.
As Death made his way through the dungeon, we soon found out that speed and wall-running aren’t Death’s only ways of getting around. The demo also introduced a “ridable construct” – in this case, a big robot that rolled around on a ball – which death was able to use to cross rivers of lava unharmed. The construct could also smash through crystal barriers called “Corruption,” and extend its arms on a chain. At one point, Death used this ability to bridge a long chasm, running across the arm before swinging away across rings in the ceiling with his own grapnel-like “Ghost Arm” – an ability that, we soon saw, also comes into heavy use during combat to yank Death closer to his enemies between combos.
Apart from Death being faster, nimbler and more maneuverable than War, there was another big difference that was visible right off the bat: enemy names and health meters now appear above their heads, MMO-style, and every bit of damage Death deals sends hit-point numbers flying into the air. More interestingly, enemies now drop a variety of loot, which ties in to Darksiders II’s new RPG elements.
“Character customization is probably the one biggest thing that we have in this one,” said Haydn Dalton, the game’s principal designer. “It’s the thing that really differentiates it from the first [game], the ability to apply loot in different ways and use the statistics to change the way Death plays.”
Where War’s abilities and inventory grew along a more or less linear path dictated by the story, Death will be able to use loot dropped by enemies – visible mostly as armor pieces during the demo – to alter and accentuate his abilities. He’ll also be able to keep several suits of armor on hand at a time, enabling him to quickly switch between, say, a nimble “rogue” loadout or a heavier one built for close-quarters combat. At the same time, players will also be able to grant Death new abilities using a system of unlockable skill trees.
Dalton, who said that Darksiders II will be “at least twice the size” of the first game, stressed that the loot system won’t replace the gadgets and weapons that Death will receive as part of the story (and which, in Zelda/Metroid fashion, will let him go back and conquer obstacles that were impassable before).
“The loot thing will always be happening,” Dalton said. “But as for the key gear, as we called it in the first one, there’s definitely critical ones where, you know, you can see that thing, that obstacle you can’t overcome, and at some point down the road you actually get the item, then you can go back and overcome that thing. … Loot actually works in a slightly different way. You might come to, say, a side dungeon that you find really too difficult to get through. Then it’s not really about a gear item. You might go back with a much better suit of armor, and much better weapons and much better Wrath magic moves, and be able to handle that, just because of the loot.”
After the lava dungeon was complete and Ghorn (who sported a big ugly cleaver, a spinning bed of spikes instead of a left hand and a penchant for speaking in the third person) had been put down, we saw the second part of the demo. Set in what looked like a big, open mountainside palace, it was a showcase not only for Death’s wall-climbing abilities, but also for a couple new sub-weapons: Strife’s pistols (which Darksiders fans will remember from the first game) and a pair of Wolverine-looking claws that enabled quick combo chains.
The second level – also a side dungeon, according to THQ – ended in what we were told was a mid-level miniboss. We say “what we were told was,” because the thing was enormous: a towering, golem-like creature with a black, tentacle heart that could only be harmed once its frame had been thrashed into a stunned state. After Death had finished the thing off, we got a glimpse of an actual boss from the game – and we do mean “glimpse,” because it wasn’t anything more than a brief shot of what looked like a giant hammer suspended by chains above a pit of lava. Will it be wielded by an even-bigger monster? Is the hammer a boss? We’ll probably find out soon.
Darksiders II doesn’t yet have a definite release date beyond summer 2012, but it’s already looking pretty impressive, and if it improves on the surprise greatness of Darksiders even a little, then it’s definitely worth keeping an eye out for. Especially since, as Dalton revealed, we’ll get a horse right off the bat this time.