Whether you love the game or hate it, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 did a number of things to affect the video game industry. It helped bring game sales to a high mark not expected in this economy. It brought about another brand that is instantly recognizable to both gamers and non-gamers alike. Most importantly, it decreased the influx of games arriving for the holiday season. Because most companies were so afraid of the game cannibalizing the sales of their own big titles, those games were pushed from their original release dates to a later time. The result was not only a lighter holiday schedule of games but also a heavier first quarter of gaming, a time period when nothing important usually comes out so that gamers can have a chance to breathe and catch up. One of the first games to come out for the new year was Darksiders, the first title from THQ's new internal studio, Vigil Games. Is this game, along with Bayonetta, a sign that good things are coming for the first part of the year, or should we wait for a price drop?
Darksiders takes a story that's rarely explored in video games. You play the role of War, one of the infamous Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Because of others' lies and deception, you caused an incident that ignited a war between Heaven and Hell and brought about the apocalypse a little ahead of schedule. Seeing the mess that you created, the powers that be have deemed you unfit for your role and stripped you of your powers. Now on the demon-controlled Earth, your purpose is to get revenge on those that used you and find out why they used you in the first place.
Previews have made a big deal about how it seems to have been heavily influenced by other classic games, specifically God of War and The Legend of Zelda. Playing through a few levels gives you a clear idea of how critics have come to this conclusion. The first level alone feels just like God of War, thanks to its chaotic nature and use of giant creatures. The fighting system is fast and combo-heavy, with the ability to switch weapons easily between moves. Quick Time Events (QTEs) also appear, though there are more one-button kills this way than there are multi-button kills. There's also lots of gore present in the game. The environments aren't exactly bathed in blood, but there's no shortage of body parts being squeezed, limbs being torn asunder or heads being split.
The Legend of Zelda influence is also heavily present throughout the game, specifically from The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. The Watcher acts as your guide through the game, showing up when necessary to point out hints or whenever you ask for them. There are plenty of puzzles in boss areas to go through before you meet said boss, but they end up being much easier than those found in any of Link's adventures. The accessories you find also make you realize how much of an influence Nintendo's game was. War will find tools reminiscent of Link's hookshot and boomerang, both of which can be used in combat and in puzzles. Finally, War has a horse named Ruin that speeds up using a meter similar to the carrot system seen with Epona.
The influences don't stop with those two titles, either. There's one level that mimics Panzer Dragoon rather well, though the controls use the dual stick setup instead of a single stick. It also only allows you to aim forward instead of completely around, but the same feeling is there, thanks to the setup of creature and rider. Amazingly enough, Metroid also gets a nod since you'll constantly encounter areas in which a special tool is needed to traverse it. The constant backtracking never feels tedious since you want to find out what's behind every nook and cranny before heading into the final fight.
Normally, when a review begins to mention how much a game cribs from other titles, the initial feeling is that the title doesn't seem to do anything good with its influences. This is definitely not the case with Darksiders. Everything feels like a natural fit, with no element feeling out of place. It's a rare thing for a game to feel so coherent, considering the patchwork roots that it seems to have, but that's exactly what the developers have accomplished. It also helps that the game is more than decent when it comes to overall length. With most big-budget games barely managing 10 hours of gameplay, it's good to see that Darksiders lasts an average of 15 hours even when you're not trying to go for a 100 percent completion rate.
The controls also emphasize its link to some classic game designs. This is especially true of the lock-on system during combat, something reminiscent of the 3-D Legend of Zelda titles. Moving past this, you'll see a control system that's tight and responsive. Combos are handled with combinations of the left analog stick and the Square button (along with the Triangle button once you reacquire your gun). Despite the large number of combos available, each one is easy to pull off so a really stylish player won't have too much trouble seeing them all performed. With a control system that feels very responsive, there's really nothing to worry about or complain about in this category.
The graphics needed to stand out positively, especially since comic book artist Joe Madureira was involved. The character designs carry Madureira's signature style of large limbs and larger bodies which, concerning the subject matter, match up rather well. Each of the major players sports a great amount of detail that adds to his or her overall quality. The enemies also sport some good details and designs as well as great animations. Their deaths, especially the fatal strikes, look especially gruesome when performed. The environments also carry a sense of quality; they might not be as detailed as the characters and creatures in the game, but they definitely look good. They also don't fall under the same vices as most games of this generation by being doused in shades of brown and black. Despite being the end of the apocalypse with plenty of ruined and decaying buildings, there's a good amount of color being shown, thanks to the various fire and ice walls and spires as well as a good amount of daylight. Players will rarely complain about environments being too dark.
Particle effects always seem to be present on-screen, whether it be dust from a just-opened door, light rain or embers flying all over the place. The game does a good job of displaying them all without sacrificing the overall frame rate. The camera also makes sure to not obscure the view, especially during tricky jumps and sequences where lots of action occurs. If there's one flaw to the graphics, it would be screen tearing. It doesn't happen as often as you would think, and it happens far less on the PS3 version as opposed to the Xbox 360 version, but when it does, it mars an otherwise graphically excellent package.
The sound in Darksiders is phenomenal. The effects, as expected, are excellent. Sword hits, explosions, and ground slams all carry the right pitch to their sounds, while the flesh rips during finishing moves make it sound just as brutal and gruesome as it looks. The musical score makes every scene feel epic in scope, which is exactly what's needed considering the story line. Every time the music begins to play, there's always a feeling of doom and dread along with hints of great battles to come and the feeling never gets old. The real standout is the voices. The appearance of the characters and creatures goes a long way toward making them feel unique, but it's the voices that make them memorable. Everyone, from the merchant to the angels to bosses, sounds evil but their personalities and lines set them apart. You expect certain things to happen, like the merchant being shifty or the angels being a bit full of themselves, but no creature comes off as being exaggerated.
One fault with the voices comes in at boss fights and a few battles where lines are repeated. Fortunately, the delivery is good enough that you won't cringe much once they're repeated for the fourth or fifth time. Also, there are moments when your Watcher mimics Navi from The Legend of Zelda series by asking you to pay attention to an object or item that's supposed to let you progress in the game. It's a cool joke the first few times, but it does make you wonder if maybe they just took a bit too much from other titles when they did this.
Darksiders is certainly a pleasant surprise. A game that takes multiple mechanics from other, highly successful games usually ends up being nothing but a mess, but in this title, everything seems to mesh together well. All of the components feel so good together that you wonder why no one has done this before. Match up the good gameplay with a graphics and sound package that contains a high level of polish, and you have the makings of a game that simply should not be missed. Adventure fans will have a great time with Darksiders, and gamers who are looking for something new amidst a sea of sequels should definitely pick up this title.
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