When the time comes to review Darksiders, it's going to be very easy to tell who's played the game. If you see someone claiming that it's a button-mashing God of War and/or Ninja Gaiden clone, I guarantee you that he or she didn't make it past the introductory level.
Once you get past that part, which culminates in a boss fight that involves bouncing cars off a 60-foot demon's face, Darksiders gradually opens up into a surprisingly varied experience. Most of the game is an open-ended brawler, where you fight zombies and demons in the ruins of an unnamed city, but it's full of puzzles, minigames, exploration and the occasional complete genre shift.
At one point, I flew a captured hippogriff through the city streets, getting shot at by angels and demons, in a sequence straight out of the Panzer Dragoon series. Another sequence had me competing with a giant, quasi-Scottish, hammer-wielding demon to kill the most angels. I seized an angel's barely portable hand cannons and opened fire, which turned the game into a third-person shooter out of nowhere.
These quick set pieces are apparently scattered liberally throughout the game just to change things up a bit, and according to Vigil's David Adams, persist throughout the entirety of the game. You'll be discovering new things in Darksiders until shortly before the end.
Darksiders was first introduced to me over two years ago, at the cut-down hotel-room version of E3 in 2007, as a "dark [Legend of] Zelda." That comparison is fair. It's an adventure game in the classic model, born out of a professed desire to make something genuinely new in an industry that's mostly concerned with making sequels.
I'll admit that I'm not in love with the setting, but your mileage may vary. You play Darksiders as War, one of the Horsemen of the Apocalypse. He's summoned to Earth one day to discover the End Times have been set off early, as the result of some unknown plot by the demonic entity known as the Destroyer. War catches the blame for the murder of an angel and promptly gets stripped of his powers.
As part of a deal with his captors, War is released back onto a depopulated Earth a century later, depowered and barely armed, with a ghostly demon called the Watcher (voiced by Mark Hamill) giving him marching orders. Theoretically, War is on Earth to figure out who started the Apocalypse early and how, but in practice, he's there to get revenge on the Destroyer.
It all sounds (and looks like, and is) very '90s comic booky, which is fair. I initially wondered if Joe Madureira (Uncanny X-Men, Battle Chasers, the recent Ultimates 3) had been involved in the game's design, and that question was answered when he sat down at the table across from me. He's one of the founders of Vigil Games, a studio in Texas, and he's been working on Darksiders with his crew, off and on, for the last five years.
Progress in Darksiders is determined to some extent by what you're able to find. As you overcome the Destroyer's various lieutenants, you can find new equipment and powers, which further expands your ability to explore the world. This is where the Zelda comparison really kicks into high gear; by finding new equipment inside the lieutenants' lairs, you're not only better able to navigate those lairs, but also explore the game's larger world.
You also collect souls from treasure chests or defeated opponents, which can be traded in at a demonic merchant for new combination moves, weapons or items. You never have quite enough souls, at least early on, to simply buy your way to success, but you can usually afford a few new toys every time you run across the merchant's hideout. He also provides access to Serpent Holes, which allow rapid transit throughout the game's map.
War is somewhat customizable via items you can buy at the merchant. By forging his weapons with various runes, you can give him extra passive bonuses. If you'd prefer to fight like the Hulk and defeat any enemy you run into by beating it in the face with a car, there's a forge for that. If you prefer combination attacks or the quasi-magical Wrath attacks, there are forges for that, too, as well as a variety of extra subweapons that can be readily comboed with one another.
Despite all that, Darksiders actually gets fairly challenging early on. It took me several tries to get past one fight in the first dungeon, where I had a limited ability to regain health while taking on three waves of enemies. Some of the more common enemies are actually really dangerous even after you've gotten a few upgrades, like a poison-spewing demon; hitting him while he's swollen with toxins will get War poisoned, which can knock off a surprising amount of health.
THQ and Vigil have a lot of faith in Darksiders. At most of the press events I've attended, the games are carefully presented to look as good as they possibly can, and it's rare that we get any real hands-on time with them. Last week, I was simply set up in a hotel room with Darksiders and given a couple of days to play as much of it as I wanted.
Darksiders is not going to grab you right away. The opening level is about as bare-bones as the gameplay gets. You have to sit through that and a lengthy cut scene before the world opens up, and after that point, you're given new abilities and action sequences with relative regularity. I can genuinely say that at the point I was able to reach, I had no idea what to expect from the game, and that may be the best endorsement I can give.
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