Darksiders II: Putting the Action Into Action RPG

We pick up our scythe and get harvesting with a look at the role-playing elements in Darksiders II.

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It would have been easy to dismiss the original Darksiders as the equivalent of a gaming pickpocket, liberally pilfering ideas from third-person action adventure titles such as God of War and The Legend of Zelda. But for a game that borrowed so heavily, Darksiders carved out its own clear and fascinating identity. At the centre of the experience was War, one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, who had been summoned to Earth believing the last of seven seals keeping the forces of heaven and hell at bay had been broken, in the process signalling the endwar.

Darksiders II takes what the development team at Vigil confesses was originally a game of experimentation and refines the formula by stripping back the ideas that failed to meet the grade and expanding further on its strongest traits. We recently got an updated hands-off look at the sequel and found that while much of the basic structure that made it such a solid first outing has remained intact, this isn't the safe, cookie-cutter follow-up many may have expected.

The game takes place during the same time period as Darksiders and runs concurrently to explore what older brother Death was doing while War sliced and diced his way through the armies of angels and demons. With the stage for battle set, the development team is using the sequel to branch out with more exotic locations than in the previous game, and to move away from the human planet setting to investigate events occurring above and below the surface.

Though of the same stock, Death and War are very different in their approach to movement and combat. War's hard-hitting, lumbering way made taking care of business deliberate and brutal. Death is no less violent than his brother, but forgoes blocking and slower, more powerful strikes for zippier hit-and-run pokes and scrapes with scythes and fist weapons. That's not to say that slower, higher-damage-dealing weapons like hammers aren't available in his arsenal, but they act as secondary tools of the trade. New ethereal powers let you trade energy earned in combat to summon tombstones filled with zombies that act as crowd control in multitarget fights. Alternatively, you can take a page out of the skunk playbook, dousing yourself in shadow and dealing hurt to anyone who invades your personal space.

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Straight brawling has been tossed aside to usher in combat that rests on two new skill trees. Spending points on Harbinger abilities increases Death's agility, speed, and proficiency with melee strikes, while earning and unlocking those on the Necromancer side boosts his magical prowess. The addition of these trees gives the game a more role-playing feel, while another change is that enemies receive designated levels of difficulty, complete with visibly depleting health bars as you whittle them down with your attacks. Damage figures scroll across the screen as you land hits, and though Vigil is playing its cards close to its chest for the moment, we saw sporadically increased amounts of damage that suggests the new gear items that drop from bad guys may help raise your chance to perform critical strikes.

Before you go throwing your hands up to condemn this new attempt at a more cerebral experience, it's worth noting that platforming, puzzle-solving, and skull-splitting with big metal weapons, which made the original so great, are back in spades. In fact, in response to user feedback, Darksiders II will be more difficult than its predecessor and will have less-generous windows of timing when you're performing specific objectives. Quickly rising lava in one room showed an example where precise pillar jumps and Death's wall-running and Ghost Hand skills were needed to avoid being burnt to a crisp. The new construct robot unit lets you smash corruption crystals blocking access to new areas, like the gauntlet did previously. Firing chain-tethered arms from the machine as makeshift walkways helps you retrieve items, while its raised control position from on top of its humanoid body keeps you safe as you coast across dangerous environmental hazards.

If you're going to be traipsing across the newer, more-open world, you're going to want rewards for your troubles. Darksiders II hopes to provide both tailored gameplay and incentives to replay the campaign by offering multiple sets of armour to collect and wear. We were told about the slayer, necromancer, and wanderer ensembles, but so far we don't know where they all come from, or what we'll need to do to obtain them. Loot dropped frequently during our demo, and while we were impressed with having the simplicity of quickly equipping it on the spot, or tossing it in a bag for later with a single button press, new items seemed difficult to spot on the ground. Optional side quests and dungeons will now also be available, some of which may take several hours to complete outside of the main campaign. It's worth pointing out that though this is a single-player game, Vigil has hinted at the possibility of letting players trade bind-on-equip items online with friends rather than vendor-trash them.

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Our demo ended with looks at two of the nastier foes you will encounter in your travels. The first, Ghorn, was a miniboss who exploded and rebuilt himself at will. Carrying a huge cleaver, he spurted waves of lava through open grates on the floor of the arena. The second enemy was a mixture of organic and robotic, with giant black tendrils pulling together parts to build a kit-form monster who loved to pound the ground. Doing so sent out a huge shock wave, but in both cases, Death's nimble movements allowed us to deftly jump to safety before returning fire.

Certainly not as pointy-headed as some of the other action role-playing games already available, or soon to be released, Darksiders II appears to be cutting its own path. The addition of a more open-world map, optional side content, and a more fluid and thoughtful combat system has us interested to see more of the game running. Look for more on it during 2012 ahead of its launch on the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Wii U, and PC.

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