It is for good reason that the first Darksiders is still considered something of a cult gem. Vigil Game's presentation and design were beautiful, the game was great fun and there was always room for a sequel thanks to how entertaining the game remained long after its immediate shelf-life expired. So what a joy it is to confirm that THQ's sequel takes everything fans loved from the original and making it all bigger, bolder and a fair sight cooler. The environments that Vigil have painted as the backdrop to new "hero" Death's adventures are beautifully designed and impressively huge from the first hub-world through to the last. The art design is excellent throughout, though the graphic limitations aren't at the same level, and the frame-rate can distract from an otherwise beautifully designed game. And who would have thought playing as Death could be so damned entertaining? The script presents the reaper as a super-cynical loner, a hyper-violent island of reason in a chaotic world hell-bent on killing him, cutting the same sort of disgruntled figure as the very best action movies. And it's understandable - he's here to clear the "good name" of his brother War, condemned for a crime he apparently didn't commit, traversing a world just one hop, step and jump away from falling to complete ruin to restore humanity and exonerate his familiar brother. Rather wonderfully, Death doesn't seem to care much about the plight of the various characters he meets, even when willingly taking on their quests, and never afraid to drop a pithy quip at their expense, sauntering through scenes with a cool detached charisma that makes him one of the best protagonists of recent memory. Wandering around looking like something out of Slipknot in a plot reminiscent of a grand Coheed & Cambria song, it's difficult not to think of Darksiders II as the most heavy metal of games. And it certainly has the bloody credentials to go with that claim: Death can't go twenty yards in any of the game's colourfully conceived worlds without something trying to cause harm, and the reaper can more than hold his own. THQ have packed some serious weapons into the inventory, from the primary scythes that are a constant to the increasingly spectacular secondary weapons from giant hammers to axes and claws, which can be chosen throughout the game to suit the player's needs or desires. The impressive armoury is supplemented thanks to an-RPG like looting and customisation system, that allows the player to collect coins, potions and best of all cursed weapons, which you can sacrifice other weapons that you loot from chests and fallen enemies. It is genuinely impressive to see something so innovative in a sequel at the end of this console generation, and it's a system that should certainly be looked at by other RPG makers. Thankfully the combat system meets developer Vigil's eye for weaponry and character design: it is as smooth as a stripped skull, with Death leaping around a lot more nimbly than his more cumbersome brother, and able to string together combat moves deftly and with huge impact without compromising his ability to dodge incoming attacks. The boss fights aren't quite as varied as you might like, with the same approaches needed to off the majority of them, but there is still enough skill needed, and enough reward in the damage system to make that less of a problem than it could have been. It's all about timing evasions to perfection and launching your own attacks based on speed and agility before moving back to tactics of evasion, calculating the best opportunity to strike.
That agility is matched in the platform sequences which require Death to climb and clamber up walls and hanging objects, flinging himself with reckless abandon through the air nimbly in portions of the game that are completely successful thanks to a refined system that draws influences from other games and puts them all together with aplomb. There's lots of variation in the sequences, which demand more concentration than other similar sequences in other games that can feel more like rhythm games, so little is required beyond pressing the right button at the right time. Here there is skill involved, and it's not difficult to plummet to your death quite often early on. You do spend an awful lot of time running around, sometimes over great distances looking for items to collect for the multifarious (but sadly not overly varied) and those with shorter attention spans might lose interest in playing fetch, but the ability to call on Death's trusty hell-steed Despair mostly at your every whim makes the travelling a lot more enjoyable, though he is infuriatingly rubbish when attacked. There's a welcome leveling up system that thankfully doesn't mean a compromise on the starting abilities of the character - Death is no weakling even before he starts unlocking upgrades, and the new abilities merely augment an already impressive skill-set, which is exactly as it should be. Death feels like a character befitting his status among the game's other characters, and the ferocity of the enemy attacks, rather than a downgraded, prototype of the completed character. Take note, developers, this is how you present an upgradable character. Though the gameplay experience is excellent, under the hood the game's engine is not quite up to those high standards, looking aged and more than a little dog-eared alongside some of the other games released in the last twelve months. This certainly isn't the highest grade of graphics possible, and some sequences look over pixelated and blocky, especially in beards. Technical restrictions can be forgiven as a limit of the engine, but what cannot be quite so easily glossed over is the lazy texturing that shows up the technical limits even more. There are also a few too many glitches as you progress through the lengthy game-time, which smacks a little of rushed final checks and a lack of the kind of quality assurance you would want from this sort of flagship release. But a patch will almost certainly fix that, and it can't really be held against the overall quality of the game. It would also have been nice to see more variation, and a little more difficulty in the game's various puzzles and side-quests, and indeed at times the game does feel a little stretched in the interest of making something really huge. It's a shame, because the high points coupled with a little more focus would have made this an even more enjoyable experience, and there would have been no need for the caveat. This is somewhat to be expected though, given the size of the game: you're looking at between 40 and 50 hours for full completion, and that is unprecedented in a game of this type. And turning up the difficulty factor makes the game eye-wateringly hard, which can balance any perceived lack of variety and dials up the fun quite markedly. But let's be honest here, none of the problems are hardly deal-breaking for Darksiders II and it still goes down as one of the most entertaining gameplay experiences of the year so far. Grand in scope, huge in scale and engaging from start to finish, it is exactly what we should demand of every gaming sequel, aside from the few flaws - I just can't wait to see what the development team are going to do with the property when the next generation comes fully into play.
Darksiders II is available to buy on XBox 360
from Friday 21st August. Buy your copy here