Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Darksiders II

Post-Launch Review
Darksiders II (PC)
Developer: Vigil Games
Released: August 2012


In an action-RPG running parallel to its predecessor, Darksiders 2 stars Death, horseman of the apocalypse, embarking on an unsanctioned mission to absolve his brother War of a crime he did not commit. In an attempt to revive humanity after its annihilation in a premature apocalypse, Death travels across many realms, encountering old souls, dead souls, angels, and demons. Along the way, he's haunted by his past, carrying the souls of a dead race, and fighting against the corruption it created.

At Launch

Darksiders 2 received average review scores in the low 80s across all platforms. Most critics enjoyed the mash-up of various genres and gameplay types, impressed by the variety and depth of each element, while others felt the collection of genres worked well but lacked originality or uniqueness. The game's art direction was widely praised, and the story and music were also well received. The PC version received complaints for its lack of graphic options.

Post Launch

Darksiders 2 received several patches to fix bugs and resolve issues. The PC version received options to adjust shadows, ambient occlusion, and antialiasing.
Many DLC packs were released, some as pre-order bonuses, some as collector's edition benefits, and some as purchaseable packs. All of the DLC seems to be available on Steam. Here's a list:
Demon Lord Belial: additional mission; Death investigates a rumour that humanity was not completely wiped out.
Abyssal Forge: additional mission with new area, two dungeons, and unique items.
Argul's Tomb: additional mission with new area, two dungeons, and unique items.
Death Rides: adds three new side quests.
Mortis Pack, Rusanov's Axe, Van Der Schmash Hammer, Fletcher's Crow Hammer, Mace Maximus: each contain one new weapon suitable for various levels (mostly low).
Deadly Despair: speeds up Death's horse.
Angel of Death, Shadow of Death: each add one unique armour and scythe set.

The Good

A Different Character
Darksiders 2 does an excellent job of differentiating Death from War, in both gameplay and character. Death is the only one of the four horsemen who feels any guilt for destroying the nephilim (a hybrid angel/demon race, of which the horsemen are part), and this guilt is carried with him through the story. Mechanically, Death is more agile than War, able to perform acrobatic maneuvers to scale walls that War couldn't. He's not as physically tough as War - Death can't block attacks, and relies on dodging to avoid damage.
Art Direction
Like the first game, Darksiders 2 features strong art, resulting in a beautiful and colourful game despite the lack of technical flair. The expanded range of environments and architecture shine in the sequel, surpassing the first game in most respects.
New and Different Items
The first block I ran into was a grapple point attachment. Oh no, not Zelda's hookshot again. And then I noticed portal surfaces. Groan. Fortunately, the subsequent items and abilities are much more interesting:  golem control, spirit summoning, body splitting, and time travel allow for some really cool puzzles. I was particularly impressed by a couple of puzzles that required the combination of multiple elements - for example, using the body split to place portals in multiple locations, and then using your spirit form to push your real body through the portals.
Combat Expanded
Death has access to a wide variety of secondary weapons. In the first Darksiders you could eventually swap between the scythe and tremor gauntlets. Death can't swap, but he can use a ton of different secondaries, each with slightly different abilities and potential stat arrays. Probably the most notable is the buckler subtype - small shields - which actually let Death block attacks. Possessed weapons are also new, and are upgradable by "feeding" them more common items. Death can also unlock some abilities by levelling up, focusing on either improving his physical combat ability (teleport, damage buff, area-of-effect attacks) or using magic (summoning crows, undead, and a shield).
Darksiders Bonus
If you have a completed save from the first Darksiders, you can unlock some extra items in the sequel - pauldrons and scythes. This is a nice touch to include, and the Chaos Fang scythes are deadly for quite a long time, with their absurdly huge bonus to critical chance and damage.

At times I actually stopped and noticed how nice the music sounds. A lot of the time - even during fights - it's very atmospheric with instrumentation that's unusual for an action game.
DLC Missions
The three large DLC packs - Demon Lord Belial, Abyssal Forge, and Argul's Tomb - each add a fairly substantial amount of new content, featuring new areas and dungeons. They're about one or two hours each. Argul's Tomb and the Abyssal Forge don't really add anything plotwise, though they do add a bit more lore and background. I was impressed with the puzzles, though - they do new things that the original campaign didn't, whether that means using Death's abilities in new combinations, or taking existing puzzle mechanics further or adding a new twist. Demon Lord Belial is more interesting plotwise, but it doesn't do much with puzzles and doesn't really end, finishing with a somewhat frustrating "maybe there are humans, maybe there aren't".

The Neutral

Suddenly, Action RPG
The ARPG elements are mostly fun, but I don't think it works very well in context of the story. In the first Darksiders, War starts out relatively weak because he's been stripped of almost all his powers, since everyone thinks he caused the apocalypse when it wasn't time. War spends a lot of time powering up, regaining abilities and finding new ones. It's explained (in a side conversation, not in the main plot) that Death doesn't have his full power because his quest doesn't serve the Balance. But still, every piece of gear he finds is better than his starting stuff, and every person he meets thinks nothing of demanding favours from Death - horseman of the freaking apocalypse - before they'll help him out. Despite the lack of access to his full power, why is Death ill-equipped and treated as an errand boy?
Shooter Sequence
There's a segment of the game (about a dungeon worth) where you're given some big guns and huge hordes of weak enemies. You can fight without the guns, but the enemies can easily overwhelm if you aren't quick enough. Since there's no other shooter portions in the game, I was initially excited for the change of pace, but the segment was dragged down by two problems. One is a technical issue: aim sensitivity drops drastically when you're using one of the guns, potentially making it difficult to move your cursor on time if you're already playing on a low sensitivity. The second problem is that there are just so many enemies. What started as a fun change of pace quickly started to feel like a repetitive slog.
Item DLC
The DLC items aren't really worth getting. Most are low-level items that you'll outgrow pretty quickly, and since they all cluster around level 5, you probably won't use most of them. They're not worth much at the merchants, and you can't use unique items as fuel for possessed weapons.
The Despair speed boost is nice to have, but not necessary by any means.

The Bad

Weaker Conversations
Being an ARPG with a lot more characters and dialogue, Darksiders 2 has a lot of boring conversations where characters stand rigidly with only their mouths moving (and the occasional idle animation, apparently one per character). This is a step back from the first game - since there were fewer characters and less dialogue, Darksiders did everything in more cinematic cutscenes, with more body language, facial expression, and interesting camera movement.

Camera Stutter
After only 5 seconds in game I ran into this problem: as I rotate the camera, it skips. It's like there are certain camera positions that work and nothing in between, and I'm skipping between viewpoints. I tried the fix listed here (D3DO to be specific), and it mostly works. There's still some skipping in large open areas, but it's much more manageable.
Audio Stutter & Crashing
Sometimes when I'm in an intense fight with lots of action - usually with lots of enemies that I'm hitting all at once - the sound starts skipping. It doesn't affect gameplay but it sounds awfully irritating. And sometimes this leads to a crash. I've only had the game crash once the sound issue started.
EDIT: I'm told the PS3 version also crashes on occasion.

Menu Load Time
For some reason, almost every time I enter or exit a menu, it takes a good 5 seconds to get to where I want to go. This is incredibly annoying for a game that constantly asks me to open the menu to level up or manage inventory or fast travel.
EDIT: I hear the PS3 has a similar issue; not sure about XBox.

The Verdict

Recommendation: play it, skip the item DLC.
There are some technical issues, including a pretty severe camera problem (on PC) that doesn't seem totally fixable.  The small DLC packs don't offer much and are skippable, but the larger ones are much more substantial and have some interesting gameplay twists. Overall, Darksiders 2 is a lot of fun. The shift to an action-RPG system might be a little jarring coming out of the first game, but the new features add a lot. Darksiders 2 feels more like its own game than its predecessor, differentiating itself with more unique items and wider variety in gameplay, and it maintains the strong story and art design. I enjoyed Darksiders 2 and I hope the franchise finds a way to continue after THQ and Vigil's shutdown.

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