In Darksiders, one of the Four Horsemen, War, was falsely accused of bringing about the Apocalypse early, thus dooming mankind to extinction. Darksiders explored War's story as he sought to discover the true culprits behind the false call and establish his innocence. Darksiders II runs in parallel to the original game, with Death searching for a way to undo the damage to the balance by restoring humanity. This isn't done out of a sense of honor, or of right and wrong; rather, Death cares only for his brother and does not wish to see War punished for a crime he did not commit.
Players who are new to Darksiders will be able to quickly pick up the basics without feeling like they've missed anything. Those who discovered every last secret in the first game will appreciate how Darksiders II expands on characters they've come to know. As an aside, if you have beaten Darksiders and play Darksiders II on the same system, the new game will grant you bonus items for your loyalty.
One of the most important changes to Darksiders II is in the style of play. Much like the original, Darksiders II is built around its lead character. Death is much more agile than War, so the gameplay reflects that. Instead of the direct approach, Death is a fast action fighter. He reaches in to strike, quickly executes a devastating combo and then pulls back to a safe distance. Dodging and countering are standard moves that you'll have to learn if you want to survive on the harder difficulty settings.
Many of Death's physical attacks can be performed with two buttons. Simply mashing them like crazy will get you through the cannon fodder enemies, but to pull off the fancier moves, you have to master the timing. Getting a pattern down allows for some impressive offense.
In addition to Death's weapons, he also has access to special attacks that are unlocked via two skill trees. The Harbinger tree is geared toward melee players, while the Necromancer tree appeals to ranged players. Skills are restricted by level, but not by type. So long as Death meets the minimum level requirement, you are free to mix and match skills from both trees. Darksiders II also allows you to re-spec your skill trees by visiting a merchant, so there is no penalty for trying out new things. If you don't like a particular skill, just re-spec and start over.
As a result of Death's speed, combat in Darksiders II is very much a fast-paced affair. In some ways, it feels a lot like the fighting in Devil May Cry. Being able to anticipate your opponent's attack is just as important as dishing out the damage.
Adding a layer of complexity to the whole thing is the deep loot system. Adventuring through the game, you will pick up a great deal of weapons and armor. Each of these items can impact a handful of Death's stats. How you mix and match these pieces can drastically change the way the game plays. For example, a build that is heavy on strength and health regeneration will make it easier to attack in close quarters. Items that build wrath power (the game's equivalent of magic) will be favored by those who use the skill tree.
Most of the items are random drops; however, Darksiders II allows you to customize weapons with the possessed weapon system. Possessed weapons are items that can consume other items, and by "feeding" the possessed weapons, you can level them up as well as selectively add specific attributes. Want to increase the critical attack chance? Feed the possessed weapon items with that attribute. Careful crafting can result in some impressive combinations. Do it right, and your possessed weapons will be better than the quest items you find.
Players who take the time to explore the world of Darksiders II will find there is plenty to see and do. It is possible to complete the game simply by sticking to the main story path, but in doing so, you will miss large swaths of content. It's worth noting that many of the side-quests feature their own dungeons to explore. These are fully realized areas, complete with puzzles and bosses, and adventuring through them will add hours to your game time.
All of the dungeons in Darksiders II are expertly crafted, with puzzles that ride a perfect line of difficulty. They are challenging enough that the solution is not immediately obvious, yet the answer is usually right in front of you. Solving a puzzle is satisfying as well as useful. It will invariably result in opening a gate or raising a bridge that provides a quick shortcut back to that section. This is quite useful, especially if you plan to revisit a dungeon looking for hidden items.
Pacing is also well balanced, with the game alternating between exploration, puzzle solving, platforming and combat on a regular basis. The individual elements pop up in rotation, preventing boredom from setting in. There's never a point at which the 30+ hour adventure drags because you're never stuck doing the same thing over and over. Even the combat gets a quick change up, as one dungeon gives you the chance to play third-person shooter style should you use the optional weapons.
Solid gameplay is the core of a good game, but top-notch visuals never hurt, and Darksiders II delivers those in spades. All four of the game's major worlds are visually striking, with a comic-inspired artistic style that is vibrant and colorful. There is an underlying similarity in design across all the worlds, yet the differences are what define the individual realms. It's a shame that the HUD elements cannot be entirely removed, as some of the in-game vistas are worth viewing by themselves.
That said, graphics quality is also the one area where Darksiders II has its most noticeable flaws. It's not a major issue, but the Xbox 360 version of the game exhibits occasional screen tearing. The frame rate can also dip if Death is swarmed with enemies. It's never enough to impact the controls, but since the game looks so good otherwise, these issues are that much more noticeable.
Finally, there is the Crucible. Essentially an arena mode, the Crucible is separate from the main quest and is not necessary to complete the game. It is an optional mode that is available if you've purchased the game new. Players who buy the game used will need to purchase a Crucible pass separately.
Inside the Crucible, you're faced with 100 waves of enemies. After every five waves, you're given the option to take an unknown reward or continue. If you take the loot, you're done. To play more requires starting over at the first level. If you keep playing, the next loot drop will be better, but there's a catch. If you die in the Crucible, you don't get any loot, and you have to start over at the first level. Fighting in the Crucible is a great way to test out new weapons and alternate skill tree configurations.
Aside from the minor visual issues, there is little to criticize about Darksiders II. The game is packed with content, is visually striking and features some brilliant level design. It expands on the mythology of the franchise, giving players a world that is both bigger and better than the original. Darksiders II is one of the best games in its genre, easily surpassing last fall's The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword.
Editor's Note: Want to snag some Darksiders II goodies? Be sure to follow the official WorthPlaying Twitter feed today (8/17/2012) as we're giving away copies of the soundtrack as well as DLC for the game!
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