This is a game I've been looking forward to ever since first finishing Darksiders 1. Then I looked forward to it some more when I finished Darksiders 1 a second time, a third time, a fourth time and eventually a fifth time. It isn't obvious yet: I'm a big Darksiders fan.
Let's start by saying that Darksiders is in no way original. If you've played Prince of Persia 2008 then you have, quite literally, played this game's platforming sections. If you've played World of Warcraft you've played this game's combat sections and levelling mechanics. If you've played any games like Zelda, the most recent Tomb Raider trilogy or basically any other hack and slash, then you know what you're in for.
The difference, however, is that Darksiders 2 manages to walk a very beaten path and still keeps it interesting. It does this not only by providing a large open world packed with dungeons, loot and awesome bosses, but also by basing this open world in what I think is one of the more interesting translations of Christian/Hebrew mythology yet.
So without further ado, let's get started:
In this game you play one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, the head of the group named Death, rider of the pale horse called Despair. The game runs parallel to the events of the first game where his brother War, rider of the red horse Ruin, stood accused of riding when no call was given and thus prematurely triggering the Apocalypse. The kingdom of man was annihilated and planet Earth reduced to a battleground between angels and demons vying for supremacy over creation. In order to absolve his brother, Death now travels the other myriad of worlds in the Darksiders universe in an attempt to find a way to resurrect humanity and repair the damage done.
The first thing that stands out is that Death is considerably more talkative than War ever was. Stealing the dialogue wheel from the Mass Effect franchise, Death is in most conversations given some investigative options in dialogue, leading to prolonged conversations as opposed to the oneliners of the first game, which were rife with War's barely restrained rage. Death is not so angry, but he is fairly desperate, and will often find himself agitated or unamused with the way events are turning out. Still, amidst all the bitterness there is something amusing to Death's manner, brought to life in expert fashion by Michael Wincott.
2. The Cast.
Michael Wincott isn't the only name you might recognise. There's James Cosmo from Game of Thrones fame, there's Keith Szarabajka whom you will either recognise as Harbinger from Mass Effect or the cop who took the Joker's bait in the Dark Knight and thus enabled the crazed criminal's escape plan. There's Phil Proctor (Warren Viddic in Assassin's Creed), Fred Tatasciore (Saren in Mass Effect, Baird in Gears of War), and last but not least: Jesper Kyd to deliver a stunning soundtrack.
It all makes the game feel very professional and adds a layer of believability to the story, because when Vigil is going to the lengths of hiring a cast like this, where else do they intend to go but to the top? This isn't some throwaway platformer: Darksiders intends to cement itself amongst gaming's classics. The question then becomes: can it?
This is where things get a bit dicey, as I'm not convinced that Vigil did the best they could in this department. Let's start by saying that there's definitely some significant improvements over the first Darksiders. As opposed to War, Death has stats, has talents (literally talent trees like you know from WoW), has levels that mean more than which skill he can learn, and so forth. Death is very versatile and very customisable and whether you want to play a necromancer summoning ghouls and crows while he sparks with lightning or a so-called harbinger whose focus is on his scythes is all up to you.
There's a vast range of gear aswell, as while Death will always wield his scythes as his primary weapons, for secondaries you choose from axes, maces, hammers, glaives, claws, bucklers and gauntlets, each of which has its own specific style of play. Then there's further equipment: caster oriented robes and pauldrons, melee oriented variants, hybrid gear for diverse builds, you can literally go wherever you want. And the best of it? It all looks awesome. Even low-grade gray quality gear, or regular greens and blues look amazing and intimidating, and you'll never have to fear that Death won't look the part.
But it's not all sunshine. The truth is that combat difficulty doesn't scale as well as it did in the first game, resulting in Death proceeding to the second of four worlds in storyline without so much as a hiccup, but when he returns to finish up some previously closed-off dungeons in the first it's suddenly too much to ask. The Crucible, a new wave-based gamemode where you fight for loot and get nothing if you die, also isn't sure of how to challenge you: lower waves are ridiculously hard and make it nearly impossible to progress further, until suddenly you have sufficient gear and level to not only laugh your way through the first waves but through everything at once.
The gameplay issues culminate towards the end of the game, where the third-last and second-last bosses are arguably four to five times harder than the last one is. While gameplay grows more and more varied through acquisition of new abilities from dungeons (such as Portal's infamous... portals, here used for platforming reasons), things only seem to get more and more easy aswell. Even at the highest difficult the game fails to truly challenge. This was a problem that plagued the first Darksiders as much as it does this one, leaving me with little hope that Vigil knows how to solve this problem in the third game.
4. The Story.
Let's also clarify some things with regard to earlier statements. There are dialogue wheels, yes, but the game is completely linear. This does not truly bother except for a specific decision being left in Death's hands and then being rather underwhelmingly handled, leaving you wondering if perhaps it should've been the player's choice. Still, I cannot berate Vigil for not letting me choose as that's not what this game has ever been about, but the way the plot presents Death's inner struggles and doubts gives way to higher expectations for its eventual resolution than you're truly going to get. In fact, the game ends rather suddenly and abruptly, which strikes an odd contrast with the truly massive scope of everything that came before.
The game starts you off on a world populated by what are essentially giant dwarves: Makers. If you've played Darksiders 1 then you know Ulthane, and now you meet his people. And this world is huge. So huge in fact that by the time you've finished it through a positively colossal boss encounter, you start to think that this was it. And then the game tells you it's only beginning. The next realm, the kingdom of the dead, is just as massive in scope. After that, however, it all starts to shrink.
The last two realms are considerably smaller, together totalling not even half of the dungeons of either of the first two realms. While this isn't something to truly complain about, considering how massive the game is regardless, you do have to wonder if perhaps Vigil wasn't a bit too ambitious. This isn't even so much an objection as it is something that stood out and, again, does make the end of the game (which doesn't even give you a dungeon, only a boss) feel sudden.
There's some porting issues on PC, and while Vigil is working hard to fix them, some remain. World map navigation is clumsy, there are extraneous UI elements that serve a purpose on a console but not on the PC, there can be framerate issues and so forth. Mostly, though, it's a game well worth playing regardless of the platform.
Darksiders 2 is larger than Darksiders 1, it's better than Darksiders 1 as far as combat, exploration and customisation goes, and there's quite simply far more to collect and see and do. The Crucible mode is awesome and a lot of good fun, if a bit oddly scaled in terms of difficulty, and it seems like Vigil has a solid DLC plan for this game starting with the release of Argul's Tomb somewhere during the next few weeks. It's a very, very solid title in its genre with a story that can't fail. Or, well... a setting that can't fail. All in all it has to be said that events in Darksiders 1 felt more urgent and important than the ones here, as the truth of the matter is that Death is on a quest to absolve a brother quite capable of absolving himself. Sometimes it feels like Death is jumping hoops for no reason.
That said, this is a franchise that's going places, and provided that THQ stays afloat and can afford Vigil the room and time needed to create a third installment, you'll be happy to know that you either started with this one, or used it as an opportunity to stick with a series that began without a bang and then grew into one.