One of my favorite games from last year's E3 was Vigil Games' first major title: Darksiders. This third person action adventure game in the vein of God of War and Devil May Cry casts players as War from the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Darksiders tells a tale of revenge and redemption, packed with violence and a variety of familiar, yet very well implemented, gameplay elements. With only minor issues sustained throughout the entire campaign, Darksiders is my first must-own have of 2010.
Premise and Control Scheme
The opening cutscene tells us that Heaven and Hell have been in constant battle since the beginning of time. Eventually a third kingdom, the kingdom of man, was created whose fate would change the balance of the war between Heaven and Hell. An entity known as the Charred Council oversaw a pact between Heaven and Hell that kept the Endwar (not this Endwar) for mankind at bay. The pact was to only be broken when the Seven Seals were destroyed, which would then summon the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. The Horsemen, who answer only to the Charred Council, are feared and respected by both the HellGuard (Heaven's forces) and Hell. After this brief introduction, the game begins in a post apocalyptic Earth, with forces from Heaven and Hell doing battle in the busy city streets (not terribly unlike the start of Prototype). War arrives to the surprise of both sides. It's soon revealed that the seventh and final seal was never broken and War should have never been summoned. Before having to face the wrath of the Charred Council, you're over powered by the Destroyer, one of Hell's most epic warriors. War
convinces the Council that he can root out the cause of this calamity and discover who broke the pact and caused this imbalance. He's granted some of his power back and given a chance to travel a long, hard road to redemption and revenge.
That's the gist of the story in a nutshell. You'll spend the next 15+ hours exacting your revenge and discovering who summoned War at the wrong time.
There's a lot to love about Darksiders, and just a few minor things I didn't like. Before getting into either, let me take a step back and look at this game from a more general perspective by starting with the controls. For anyone that's played many third person action/adventure titles, the controls won't take long to get used to. Players move with the left stick, attack with X, jump (and double jump) with A, interact with B, and perform their secondary weapon attack with Y. The A button is also used to glide once you've gotten to the point in the campaign that gives you the Shadow Wings. Additionally, B is used to execute finishing moves on worn down enemies, including bosses. A 'B' prompt appears above an enemies' head whenever they are ready to be swiftly executed, but you can just as well continue to pummel them to death instead of performing a finishing maneuver (except on bosses, B must be used).
Moving right along, the Left Trigger is for targeting enemies while the right stick is for switching between targeted enemies. I found this to be useful during boss fights so that I could run and evade while still having the camera focused on the boss. This allowed me to know when to move in for an attack or when to jump or dash to avoid a ground pound, for example. The Left Bumper brings up your Wrath ability and Consumables menu, which is just a concise graphic with an icon mapped to the four face buttons. You can configure what Wrath abilities and Consumables you want for each face button in the pause menu. There are four Wrath abilities in game, and several Consumables, which I will discuss soon. The Right Trigger is used in conjunction with the right stick to aim and use a projectile weapon or Passive Ability, such as your Crossblade or Abysmal Chain. Both of these are used to attack enemies as well as solve a variety of puzzles. The Right Bumper is used for blocking (which with proper timing allows for automated counter attacks) and dashing (quick evade maneuver) and it's also used in some special attacks. The d-pad is for switching between Passive Ability and projectile weapons. Back is for your Map, stats, and revealing the Watcher, while Start is for bringing up your character and inventory menu, including your collectibles progress.
That's a lot of talk about controls including several Darksiders-specific buzz words. I thought Vigil Games did a great job with the controls and rather than mention the control setup for each gameplay mechanic along the way, I figured it'd be more efficient to condense them here. Now, how about that gameplay?
Darksiders is a long game when compared to others in its genre. My final game time was around eighteen hours, much longer than I expected but the vast majority of that was steady, fun-filled progress. Yeah, there were a few dry spells, especially towards the end with one particular eight-legged boss that took an hour and a half, and a bunch of puzzles in the final area, but otherwise it was steady, "vertical" progress. I didn't manage to find all of the Artifacts or complete the Abysmal Armor either, so besides having a great time and a new difficulty level to try, I have reasons for replaying the game again when time allows.
Anyway, something I noticed throughout Darksiders' long campaign that I thought was great was that it kept introducing new gameplay elements and mechanics. When War first embarks on his journey, he wields only the Chaoseater, the massive sword that is his primary weapon. Shortly thereafter and throughout the rest of the game, Darksiders adds a slew of cool, useful elements that add to the fun, depth, and replay value of the campaign.
Most of these elements are tied to the three types of Souls that War collects -- green ones for health, yellow for Wrath, and blue ones for currency. Wrath Souls can be thought of like mana; with Wrath, War can execute any of four Wrath Abilities. You get Wrath Souls from caskets (think chests in God of War), killing enemies, and using Consumables.
Blue Souls are retrieved via caskets and by killing enemies and destroying environmental objects. Blue Souls are traded to Vulgrim, a demon who isn't partial to the Destroyer's cause. Vulgrim pops up in certain locations throughout most of the gameworld, but you have to find him first, which I thought was a good design decision. From Vulgrim, War can purchase weapon upgrades (more damage, more special moves), Consumables (HP and Wrath replenishment, etc.), Wrath Abilities, Life and Wrath Shards (to increase total HP and Wrath capacity) and a few
other goodies. He's also the key to moving quickly in between major zones in the game world as players can utilize Serpent Holes to get from one discovered area to another.
Lets talk abilities. I've mentioned them before, but specifically speaking, War has Passive Abilities and Wrath Abilities. These abilities aren't purchased, they are given to you at certain points in the game (after which you keep them for good). Passive Abilities are primarily used for completing various environmental tasks or puzzles, but some can also be used in combat. One such ability is a horn that is used to awaken the massive gateway giants. In combat use, the horn can send weaker enemies flying back from the sonic shockwave it creates. Without trying to spoil too much, War gets the ability to glide, control time, and create two way teleportals, and even a few other skills, by game's end. As for Wrath Abilities, there are four, with a ground spike attack given to you and the other three requiring a purchase from Vulgrim (having all four does net you a 10 Point Achievement by the way). The other abilities include Affliction which drains life from enemies for several seconds. There is also Stoneskin that reduces the damage War takes from enemies and increases the damage he causes. Finally, a third Wrath ability sets War's skin on fire, causing him to do more damage to enemies.
War can also take advantage of several weapons. While his primary weapon is always the Chaoseater sword, players can also purchase a Scythe from Vulgrim very early in the game. Additionally, a set of gauntlets and two Passive Ability weapons are earned too, giving War five total weapons. The three main weapons can not only be upgraded with continued use, but they can be enhanced with certain powerups. These powerups are pretty hard to come by, but give benefits like increased damage, more Blue Souls for every environment object destroyed, and slow, but steady Wrath regeneration (without the need of Wrath Souls). Your weapon appearance changes slightly depending on what enhancement you have equipped, too. All five weapons have additional abilities that can be purchased from Vulgrim as well, and most of those can be upgraded three times, yielding a very respectable amount of upgrades and customization.
Darksiders also throws in a five minute shooter-on-rails sequence whereby War hijacks one of the Hellguard's aerial beasts and uses it to kill some of the Hellguard. That part was cool and surprising, but I had even more fun during a couple of other sequences where War can pickup massive guns dropped by some of Hell and Heaven's forces. These guns have infinite ammo and dish out tremendous damage, balanced by the fact that the game throws a ton of enemies at you during these sequences. Great fun.
Further still are the collectibles to be had. There are a few dozen collectible items to be found, split between Abysmal Armor pieces and Artifacts. Artifacts are traded to Vulgrim for blue souls (which you then spend with him for goods I mentioned earlier). There are well over twenty Artifacts to be found, many of which require you to use Passive Abilities from later in the game to access hidden areas from places you've visited earlier. While not nearly as interesting and varied as the Treasures in Uncharted, the Artifacts are interesting enough to make me scour every area.
Admittedly, with all that said, Darksiders doesn't quite offer the genre any original gameplay elements. For some gamers, that's a problem, or a shortcoming, but for me? I have no qualms with that. Instead, I respect that Vigil Games has taken these proven elements and blended them extremely well to make their particular third person title a very entertaining one. It's not an easy task, but Vigil did it and did it right by throwing so many great elements together and giving them all a lot of purpose and weight. Ultimately, I find very few faults with the gameplay, and I'm already planning on my next go around on the Apocalyptic skill level.
The faults I do find are minor in the grand scheme of things. For one, I thought some areas were just too compartmentalized. I was reminded of Devil May Cry a lot in this regard, and by that I mean certain goals are met only when three or four of the same type of task has been completed. In other words, lets say there is a door that you need to get past, but it's magically locked. To open it, you need to seek out and destroy three or four big enemies in different rooms. Each of these rooms is a 'trap' where the exits are magically sealed and the room fills with some random number of enemies. Only by defeating all of these enemies do the doors open. When not combat based, it's usually a matter of fighting your way to a few switches. I think you get my point, and while that type of design is cool some of the time, I thought it may have been over used a little in Darksiders.
Secondly, I would have liked more interaction on some of the boss fights after pressing the finishing move button, B. Instead, players fight the boss, and then press B and sit back for a cutscene rather than doing a God of War like button matching sequence for the win. Third, I think more kill animations for the common, weaker enemies would have been great. While there are about a dozen different enemy types in the game, there is only one finishing move animation per each, so you see the same animations quite a bit; don't get me wrong, they're cool, but with about 2,000 downed foes by game's end, you'll get a little tired of several of the animations. Speaking of getting tired, I couldn't help but be put off by the amount of environmental puzzles that get thrown at you during the last few hours in The Black Throne. They seemed really arbitrary and unnecessary, as to extend the game length more so than serve a real purpose.
While I'm on the subject of things I didn't like about Darksiders, there are a few presentation-related aspects I noted. The first thing I noticed within just a few minutes of play was the amount of tearing on screen. This is a technical issue that is not unlike a refresh rate being out of sync (like a computer monitor captured on film, you see those repeating horizontal refresh lines). This isn't a constant problem in Darksiders, but it does happen throughout the game at different times. The framerate also suffers in areas, like during the boss battle with The Stygian that has you running in a huge open desert space while riding Ruin, War's horse who is granted as a Passive Ability. The framerate crumbles when you switch to aiming mode and rotate the camera for certain, very wide views. There are a handful of minor clipping issues too, but the tearing and random framerate drops were the most noticeable visual issues, in addition to the lack of variety in the finishing move animations I mentioned earlier.
Now as far as the audio goes, Darksiders has some great voice acting (including Mark Hamill) and effects, but is almost entirely lacking a soundtrack. A great soundtrack isn't a requirement of a game, but it can make a huge, positive difference. Just think of God of War -- that score is as epic as the game itself. Had Darksiders had much of a soundtrack at all (nearly the entire game is effects-based), I think it would have helped.
Then Again, This Game Kicks Ass
To this point I've mentioned several of the things I like about Darksiders, all the things I didn't, and now I have a few more positives I want to list here. These are in no particular order, but I will start off with how Darksiders handles falling deaths. Falling deaths are those that occur when, for whatever reason (albeit usually accidental), your character goes careening over the side of some edge and falls into a bottomless pit. A lot of games treat this as an epic fail and players lose all of their momentum and health and must restart at the nearest checkpoint. Then there's Prince of Persia that completely forgives players, something that works in that particular game. Darksiders falls comfortably in between. Vigil Games penalizes players by docking a little bit of health but also encouraging them to continue by taking just a literal couple of seconds to bring them back into the game, just a few steps from where they just fell. I appreciated that because there are quite a few platforming situations where I fell, and other times where I simply just wanted to see if I could get to a certain area to inspect it for Artifacts. Knowing I would only lose a little bit of health and a couple of seconds if I fell to my death, I wasn't worried about falling, which was great.
Darksiders also has a great sense of difficulty about it. Creating that is something easier said than done as any seasoned gamer knows. With Darksiders, there are moments when you feel completely empowered, able to destroy all of the enemies around you, and other times when you're like 'oh sh*#!' At those times and in between, the sense of difficulty Vigil struck is fantastic.
Another positive is that you don't just have to go from point A to point B to C. Once you reach the point where Vulgrim gives you Serpent Hole access, you'll spend (optionally of course) some time revisiting previous areas. The good thing is that you won't find a full slate of respawned enemies here, although there are some respawns to fight. Going back to old areas with new combat and Passive Abilities is cool -- I've always liked level design in old school FPS games, or world design in more robust titles, that "wrap around," giving players the chance to revisit areas.
You know I feel like I could go on about what I like about Darksiders but only at the risk of dropping spoilers or repeating myself. For me, my bottomline is that Darksiders is a tremendous amount of fun because it's very well designed from top to bottom with just a handful of drawbacks. None of these drawbacks are critical enough to thwart an epic, and truly enjoyable experience.
To the summary...