Looks can be deceiving. And it happens in the videogame world probably more than anywhere else (except maybe MySpace). So I'm going to be one of the first to say my initial thoughts regarding THQ and Vigil Games' Darksiders were so far off the mark, my whole perspective and expectation for the game have turned 180, and I'm going to make it my mission to ensure you too, are properly informed and thoroughly excited as a result.
You see, sitting down at our Darksiders press event in Ultimo, Sydney, the constant references to The Legend of Zelda series (specifically Ocarina of Time) from our THQ representatives started to grate on me. I'm a massive fan of Zelda, and hold the design philosophy of that series of games in the highest regard, so hearing the franchise name being dropped with this product – which was clearly
nothing more than a God of War rip off – was having the reverse effect on me; I began to grow more and more cynical.
Sure I love the artwork and imagination of the game's creator, Joe Madureira (having grown up as a geek for comics), and there's nothing wrong
with homage to God of War – it's one of the most refreshing action series to emerge in years, but everything I'd seen thus far of Darksiders (which admittedly wasn't much) just didn't naturally reveal the game's true self.
So internally I was scoffing at the constant Zelda drops, and almost deliberately scorning the new videos we were being shown (CG stuff, so I still had no ultimate idea about how the game would play), but I was definitely conflicted – I wanted to assume no one could capitalise on Nintendo's genius Legend of Zelda formula, let alone an out-of-left-field title that I barely knew anything about. Little by little though, each section of the game I was being shown (including
the new CG stuff) was telling me to stop being a purist and accept change; embraced in as much the same way it became evident Vigil Games were as rabid fans of The Legend of Zelda as I was.
Darksiders is the story of an apocalypse. Actually, the
apocalypse. The one from Revelations (with some poetic license thrown in for good measure – if you're gonna exaggerate, you might as well do it to, and alongside, the biggest exaggeration out there).
On a sunny New York afternoon, the sky darkens and from nowhere a plethora of flaming projectiles smash through anything in their path; decimating the world's capital metropolis (and presumably the rest of the world). But this is no terrorist attack. Nor is it asteroids from space. This is the army of light and dark, and our world has now become their battleground – humans being nothing more than ants littering the stage, and we are of no consequence in the grand scheme of this epic battle.
Enter War, the most feared of the horseman of the apocalypse and a warrior torn between two factions for reasons not yet fully revealed. What is known, however, is War is our protagonist and one hell of a bad ass; sporting a massive sword, donning chunky hulking armour and riding about on an incredibly cool horse called "Ruin" (whose mane is actually wisps of black smoke), he is the epitome of his namesake, and infinitely appealing as a result.
The first example of Darksiders siding
more with Zelda design than God of War was shown through the game's engine. There are no semi-fixed camera angles or action pans – you're in complete control the whole time. This immediately gave me recourse to start revaluating my position, but it was early days yet.
"You can hold down the attack button to do a Link-style charge attack," said our demoer. Okay, just one more small element. Not to worry. "War is no Link, that's for sure," I tried to convince myself.
But the truth is, the more and more I saw (and eventually played), the closer and closer the game came to Zelda design ideals and goals. But what became equally evident was these guys weren't copying that – they were expanding upon it.
There were two demo levels for us to play through; the first serving up an outside, exploratory example of gameplay through Darksiders, the second a deep puzzle-ridden dungeon wrought with danger. Both were great illustrations of the design philosophy, pacing and vision for the game and equally offered excellent exemplars for the progressive nature of gameplay; the first demo being early on in the game and more explanatory and tutorial than the second, which saw most of the other journos I was with banging their heads against the screen in frustration at not really knowing what to do next.
Thankfully, War has a helping hand throughout the game in the form of a ghastly Navi-esque
guide to becoming stronger and moving onto your next goal. You see, to look at another Nintendo hallmark franchise, Darksiders also strips our hero, War, of his key items so progression comes in the form of regaining stronger items that remind you of an area previously unreachable (ala Metroid). This falls in line with the game’s level design which sees War traversing an overworld hub; access to intricate and lengthy dungeons ensuing for the brave and investigative adventurer.
In the game’s dungeons I really felt at home. Never once was my hand being held and the puzzles faced put almost everything I’ve played over the last few years to shame. These short quests, goals and objectives are intelligent, hidden and challenging. You’re rewarded for thinking outside the box, and anyone who has survived a single Legend of Zelda adventure is going to fall into an immediately comfortable groove.
Enemies are equally challenging, and while most of the time you’re not facing intelligent AI in as much as you’re facing progressively more difficult to attack baddies, the way in which they’re dished out to you is both old-school, welcome and challenging. Some enemies can only be attacked with a specific weapon before needing to switch to another weapon to do damage. Others may need to be faced with a specific element such as fire or ice and you’ll find yourself in small areas facing the different levels of baddies you’ve just fought through the whole dungeon, and all at once (actually it’s where I ended up getting stuck).
There is a small emphasis on combos, but not nearly as much as the likes of Devil May Cry or God of War. You collect orbs for killing, and these are the currency of the game; utilised to upgrade health, special abilities and more. You’ll find God of War-inspired orb chests scattered about, and you’ll also be required to trade in souls to a shady character in order to unlock new areas of the overworld.
You can use a lot of the environment to do battle equally, and like so many other games of this nature you’re progressively introduced to new, stronger enemies as mini-bosses only to have them then matriculate into the game as general enemy population. It really is a throwback old-school affair on many, many levels and that is completely okay with us.
On a visual level, the game looks like Madureira’s art. So don’t go expecting the most mind-blowing visual bombardment of HD graphics. This is comic-inspired and it works for all the throwback elements. That isn’t to say art-direction throughout isn’t solid, because it’s often awe-inspiring, and the art and visual team still have quite a few months left to polish up the overall product.
Unfortunately what I played of Darksiders clearly only scratched the surface on what will be in the final product, and I didn’t even get to ride Ruin about the game-world. But I can honestly tell you, this is now one of my most anticipated releases of 2009. The pacing just feels so consistently awesome and the Zelda/Metroid/God of War homage throughout is not only cool, but welcome because of the progressive nature of it all. If you’ve ever played and enjoyed any of the aforementioned games, or just plain desire a massive, deep, intelligent and challenging adventure game to sink your teeth into, time to mark Darksiders on your release calendar.
We’ll have more from this game after we check it out at E3, but for now start getting excited and trawl through our supplied media via the AusGamers Darksiders game page