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Beta’d: “Darksiders II” Brings Death Back to Life

Beta’d breaks new ground this week by taking a break from our preview coverage to present our inaugural review of Vigil Games’ and THQ’s Darksiders II, the much-anticipated sequel to 2010′s Darksiders. Unlike your favorite band’s second album, Vigil Games’ doesn’t suffer from a sophomore slump. While not without its issues, it delivers one hell (no pun intended) of a gameplay experience.

Story: For those who did not play the first game, you may find yourself wondering just what the hell is going on, especially at the game’s outset, but, like Death, if you just kind of nod your head and begrudgingly go with it, you’ll be okay. Where Darksiders put you in the revenge-hungry shoes of Horseman of the Apocalypse War, Darksiders II puts you in the slightly dingier, seemingly annoyed-to-be-there shoes of his brother Death, who may or may not be taking his fashion advice from Legacy of Kain‘s Raziel (and his workout advice from Tom Hardy’s Bane). Whereas War suffered from time to time from his unrelenting grimness, Death shines as the equally gravelly-voiced successor to the tale. Death knows who he is – he’s a goddamn Horseman of the Apocalypse – and thinks everyone else better recognize too.

Hearing Death’s palpable annoyance at a menial task like having to gather materials to make an amulet was a refreshing change of pace. He’s trying to clear his brother’s name and save the world from certain destruction, for crying out loud! Can’t you send an intern to gather 6 demon gourd seeds or whatever you misplaced inside the temple? It’s a nice to have the hero actually call the quest-givers on some of their shenanigans for once.

While only-children like myself may not understand the brotherly bond shared by Death and his apocalyptic brethren, we can certainly sink our emotional teeth into the plight of a put-upon golden child with the expectations of the world (or your immediate family) heaped upon you. The story hits the ground running, dropping you off on the Frozen Mountain of Doom™, where you confront an old foe and find out exactly what misfortune has befallen your brother War. Basically, he’s on trial for causing the end of the world, and you need to clear his name to prevent his execution (and prevent a second, more world-ending end of the world). Thanks to the expansiveness of the game world, plenty of side quests, and the size of certain dungeons, the plot can feel almost secondary to the gameplay. It’s hard to feel a sense of urgency about things, when you’re crawling around every nook and cranny, searching for pages from the Book of the Dead or scouring for hidden treasure chests.

That being said, the story is pretty decent: the good guys are good, the bad guys are bad, Death is annoyed that his vacation was interrupted, and there’s enough momentum and hooks to keep you compelled to see Death’s story through to the bitter end.

Gameplay: Darksiders II doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel, nor did it necessarily need to do so. At its core, the game plays like a less intense cocktail of Devil May Cry, God of War, and Ocarina of Time, with a dash of Skyrim bitters for good measure. I say “less intense” because its combat doesn’t require the complex inputs of a game like DMC, but that’s not a bad thing. What it means is that anyone can pick up the controller and start kicking ass right out of the box. It’s a heady blend of action-adventure gaming with RPG-style character progression and quest structure.

With two primary skill trees – Harbinger and Necromancer – from which to choose, you can customize your abilities to reflect your preferred gameplay style. In layman’s terms, Harbinger is for warriors, featuring more melee combat-oriented skills, whereas Necromancer is for spellcasters, giving you hordes of undead minions to distract your foes while you rain hell down upon them. Thankfully, the two tracks aren’t exclusive; you can mix and match to your heart’s content, giving you the tools needed to destroy the minions of Corruption in any manner you see fit.

Much like Ocarina of Time‘s Link, Death acquires a slew of different tools to help him lay waste to his enemies and solve various puzzles in the dungeons of the world. And much like Skyrim, you can carry more bracers, scythes, shrouds and helms then you’ll know what to do with, which should keep min/maxing-obsessed RPG buffs plenty busy. Unfortunately for Skyrim diehards, there is a distressing lack of cabbage in this world for you to take with you; you’ll have to settle for Health and Wrath (mana) potions to keep you fighting fit.

Enemies have plenty of variety and increase in difficulty as you travel to different zones, but the creature design really shines when you plop several different enemy types in an encounter together with Death. It gives Death a chance to show off the full array of his combat skills. Boss battles often feature screen-filling monsters, which sounds good in theory, but due to a sometimes finicky camera, they can quickly become annoying. On more than one occasion, I lost track of Death when I was fighting a monster five times my size or plummeted to my fiery, lava-filled death due to a wonky camera mechanic while hanging from a ledge.

The game’s many dungeons have enough puzzles and challenges to keep you guessing and they’re diverse enough to feel familiar without growing stale. The other main offender in Vigil Games’ epic quest is the camera. Like I mentioned before, like it or not, you will accidentally jump off the wrong cliff to a fiery doom or you will get pummeled by an oversized boss because he takes up the entire aspect ratio of your television. It’s not a big enough issue to ruin the experience, but it occurred frequently enough to be a source of annoyance. Fortunately, the rest of the game is fun enough that it’s a forgivable offense. However, the game’s non-combat control scheme is almost too complex for its own good. Rather than taking a page from the free-running book of Assassin’s Creed, Darksiders II makes you input nearly twice as many commands to accomplish the same tasks. After you conquer the initial learning curve, you’ll be fine, but it still seems like an annoying oversight that should have been improved from the first game.

Despite its apparent ease of use, Darksiders II‘s combat is fun and fluid, with a surprising breadth of moves that you can chain together to rack up obscene combos, which the game kindly (and addictively) tracks for you on-screen. There’s something quite satisfying about sending a group of enemies flying with a well-timed swing of your scythe, grappling on to them mid-air with your Deathgrip (a grappling hook you get on your journey), slashing them again in the air, then slamming an oversized hammer into them from fifteen feet up.

While the game doesn’t have multiplayer, it does have The Crucible, a hundred-level coliseum of increasing difficulty, where you can earn rare equipment to serve as a badge of honor for your badassery. If the thrill of the accomplishment wasn’t enough for you, there are also online leaderboards through which to measure your relative awesomeness. Statistics buffs will also be happy to see that the game tracks nearly every conceivable metric, a la Grand Theft Auto. Want to congratulate a friend or help a pal who’s struggling on the leader boards? You can send equipment, items and messages across games through the Serpent Tome, the in-game mail service. Or you can just be a dick and send crappy loot to friends to free up more space in your own bags. Why you wouldn’t just sell it is beyond me, but remember, you’re trying to be a dick, so logic is right out the window.

Graphics: The game looks terrific, especially when you take in its sweeping, apocalyptic vistas and cut a swath of carnage through hordes of enemies. The game’s highly stylized world gives it both a sense of dark realism and gritty fantasy. It’s not the photorealistic world of Skyrim, nor does it try to be; Darksiders II is its own universe and proud of it. While the graphics haven’t been significantly overhauled since the first game, it does look much more polished than its predecessor. It’s not going to push the PS3 or Xbox 360′s hardware to their limits, but when you’re cleaving an enemy in two while spectral Reaper wings emerge from your back and blood flies across the screen, we’re not sure you’re going to care.

Impressions: Darksiders II is a blood-soaked, fantasy-filled blast. Apart from minor control scheme, camera and pacing quibbles, the game is a must-have for fans of brutal, fast-paced action-RPGs. It provides hours of gameplay both through the main storyline and myriad side quests, as well as plenty of replay value through robust character customization. For a game about Death, it’s surprisingly full of life.

Final Score:  

4 out of 5 burritos (Excellent)

Will you be picking up Darksiders II? Quemment below and let us know!

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