Darksiders 2 Death Darksiders II Hands On Preview
In the Book of Revelations, when the end of days is upon us it will begin by opening the first four of the Seven Seals.  From those seals rides War, Conquest, Famine, and Death – the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.  In January of 2010, Vigil and THQ kicked off the first Darksiders game with the supposition that the Seventh Seal (the Wrath of God) had been broken, unleashing Hell on Earth.  War brings vengeance and fury to our world as the final battle between Heaven and Hell begins.  War, after a brief encounter with agents of both Heaven and Hell, finds that he has indeed been duped, single handedly bringing about the Apocalypse before its appointed time.  The Charred Council (the entities charged with unleashing the Four Horsemen when the seals are broken) gave War one chance to restore balance to the world by uncovering the plot to frame him, or his death will be swift.  In the first title we see that plot unfold with War finally retrieving the Seventh Seal and striking down The Destroyer, freeing himself from the control of The Council that had conspired against him.   His purpose clear, we see the game close with War looking into the distance as Strife, Fury, and Death descend from the heavens.

After much anticipation I get to take Vigils sequel for a spin – today I am become Death.

thumbs 7142DarksidersII Online DeathGrip Darksiders II Hands On PreviewDarksiders II takes place shortly after War discovers that he has unwittingly unleashed the Apocalypse.   The remaining Horseman are told of War’s fate, but Death simply cannot believe that the brutal yet honorable War would be corrupted.  Seeing through the conspiracy, he defies The Council and sets on a journey to discover the truth.  Revelations 6:8 says “And I looked and behold a pale horse; and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him” and that is exactly what is happening here.

The hands-on gameplay that we got to experience is in the first of four major zones in Darksiders II.  This zone, called “The Makers Realm” is roughly six hours into the game, representing the final dungeon section of that area.  We find the Pale Rider on a quest to restore an automaton construct called “The Guardian”.   Joined by a companion named Maker Karn, we must recover three massive Heart Stones to restart The Guardian, freeing him from his shackles within an area called “The Foundry”.  For frame of reference, each zone is roughly the same size as the entire original Darksiders map – we will be getting our money’s worth.

The demo kicks off teaching us some of Death’s new skills.  Wall running, Mantling, and Mounts all make an appearance in the multi-hour demo, but it isn’t just new moves that makes Death different than War, but more the way that he moves.  Gone is the lumbering ox that is War, replaced by the more nimble and lithe spectre.  While War is content to sit in the thick of battle, blocking and deflecting strikes, Death is more nimble, eschewing an active block for a rapid dodge and evasion skill.  In a semi-hunched manner he ambles across the landscape, his scythes gathered at his arms like dread wings.  Running up vertical surfaces, Death can also use small outcroppings and handholds to propel himself even higher.  Later, when you discover the “Deathgrip” (it functions very much like the Crossblade from the previous title, but with more flexibility) you’ll be able to propel yourself even further through the environment.  In my few hours of play I wasn’t able to detect any re-used animations despite the obvious temptation of that easy road – kudos to Vigil!

As I mentioned before, Death can also perform a limited wall run.  Similar to what we’ve seen in the Prince of Persia series, Death can skitter across visually-marked areas, thumbs 7143DarksidersII Online Despair Darksiders II Hands On Previewallowing him to reach otherwise-inaccessible areas. When combined with the Deathgrip ability, Death can remain in motion for a great deal of time, rebuilding his momentum with each scrambled outcropping.  Timing during these sequences is crucial as you must press A at just the right moment to prevent calamity.  In a nod to the Ninja Gaiden series, Death can also perform vertical wall bounces, popping between two parallel surfaces, climb pillars, and run along thin beams and chains to accomplish his goals. All of these skills combined serve to show off the increased verticality (especially with bosses!) that Vigil has brought to this newest title.  These aren’t the only new methods of locomotion, but we’ll get to that in a moment.

Back to the vast list of changes for Darksiders II, Vigil has taken a page out of the RPG book, bringing some much-needed variety and customization to our Pale Rider.  Death has a robust inventory system to organize all of the crazy loot that drops.  In a Diablo-esque fashion, enemies drop seemingly-randomized gear color coordinated and drowning in juicy stats that’ll make any min/maxer happy.  Energy use, energy drained, damage per second, health stolen per kill, frost damage, piercing damage, critical chance percentages, resistances, strength bonuses, and much more are all prominently featured both on your weapons, as well as in aggregate in the inventory menu.

Equipment drops are divided into several categories.  Rare, Legendary, Greens, Blues, vendor-trash and sets all make their appearance here.  All this sweet loot is categorized into groups including scythes, secondary weapons (hammers, claws, guns, etc.) chest armor, shoulder armor, gloves, boots, talismans, and a catch-all bag for your potions.   Additionally, Death can pick up “Possessed Weapons”.  These most rare of drops are sentient devices that devour other weapons, leveling up and gaining new powers.  While I was not lucky enough to discover one for myself, these weapons sound like a drop worthy of a Horseman.

thumbs 7148DarksidersII Online ReaperForm Darksiders II Hands On PreviewIt isn’t just weapons that get to level up – Death gets the full RPG treatment this time around.  In addition to getting gear to allow Death to progress through the game, he also gains experience points with each kill.  Granting a skill point with each level, Death now has to choose between a Harbinger and Necromancer skill tree system.   The Harbinger system is a heavy damage warrior-style, giving Death incredible weight to his attacks.  Stealing health, slowing or freezing his enemies, teleportation, increasing damage, and unleashing Death’s true form are just the start of the 16-skill tree.  More akin to a spellcaster track, the Necromancer Skill Tree focuses heavily on summoning.  Exhuming corpses to fight on your behalf, enhancing those corpses (including setting them on fire and making them explode), laying waste with a tornado, or unleashing a murder of crows on your enemies just scratches the surface of what Death is capable of when you put points into this tree.   As you put points into both trees (or specialize completely) you’ll also be advancing your “Reaper” Track.  This track unlocks your ability to change into your true form, allowing you to manipulate puzzle elements, as well as unleash devastating power on your enemies for as long as your meter lasts.  Continuing to spend skill points enhances this form.

The weapons, loot, and skills combine into a massive upgrade for the combat engine that powers Darksiders II.   Death rips through his enemies at blinding speed, even with heavier weapons like the Scythe and Hammer, and this is only amplified when using the Tonfa or claws.   Adding in powers that bring additional allies to the battlefield creates a chaotic and colorful cornucopia of carnage.  Eviscerating enemies through sheer damage, or timing a button press to unleash a finisher, Death is always in motion.  The Deathgrip addition allows the player to yank enemies closer for a melee finisher, and Strife’s Pistol allows you to pick them off at range, depending on what you need for that particular moment.

Before we get back to the demo, I wanted to mention that Jesper Kyd must have an entire room devoted to video game soundtrack trophies.  If this first area is any indication, he’ll have another one to add to his collection.  The soundtrack does a great job of growling in the dark, much like Death himself, rising to meet the player during times of battle, but slinking back to the shadow until the next opportunity.thumbs 7146DarksidersII Online MakersRealm Darksiders II Hands On Preview

Our demonstration revealed the map for Darksiders II, showing four quadrants for play.  Tri-Stone, The Drenchfort, The Lost Temple, and The Cauldron.  Each area is supposedly completely different than the next, both in art and approach, but we will have to see how well this idea comes to fruition later as we were not shown these portions. Additionally, there are clearly more areas than these four hubs on the map, just waiting to be discovered, but we had to deal with this Guardian situation first.

Back on the ground, Death and his ally Karn tear through The Foundry to reassemble The Guardian.  Diving into a nearby pool, Death soon faces his first puzzle.  Pushing a giant ball through the area, Death opens up heavy doors that only Karn can keep open long enough to allow Death’s passage.   Using this orb in a way I won’t spoil brings the aforementioned new method of locomotion – the Maker Custodian.  A small golem that sits astride the orb, the Custodian is capable of crossing lava, opening even more areas of this zone.  Using his powerful arms in a sweeping motion, the Custodian is also capable of crushing the Corrupted Construct Warriors that guard The Foundry.  Over the next four hours I would slowly solve puzzles both devious and simple, recovering two out of the three stones.  The third stone, unfortunately has been Corrupted.  Retrieving this stone, we hope that the presence of the other two when set in the Guardian will cleanse the Corruption.  Unfortunately this is not the case.  Now freed from its shackles, Death takes to his trusty horse to pursue the beast across the landscape in what would be the first of many promised boss battles.

Similar to Shadow of the Colossus, The Guardian dwarfs Death, even astride his powerful steed, Despair.  (Which, by the way, you receive mere moments into the beginning of this game, unlike the first title which made you wait quite a bit before receiving Ruin)  The beast swings his massive arms at you, attempting to crush you underneath tons of steel.  Spurring Despair, Death narrowly avoids destruction, giving a chance shot at the weak points on this behemoth.  Again, I will not spoil the battle, but suffice it to say that it is as epic as it is difficult.   The monster felled, Death has a brief conversation with the Maker Elder before the hands-on demo came to a close.

thumbs 7147DarksidersII Online Pounce Darksiders II Hands On PreviewLooking at Darksiders II, it is very clear that Vigil has spent a great deal of time playing games and listening to player feedback.   Taking the best elements of the first title, as well as some of the best portions of the top games of all time, Darksiders II looks to improve on the smash success of the first game.  While I’ve only played 4 out of the 40+ hours of content, it is plain to see that Vigil is out to prove that lightning can indeed strike twice.  From improved combat, refined locomotion, a revamped RPG / Loot system, and incredible set pieces, this title is kicking off the Summer season right.  Keep two pennies in your pocket to pay the ferryman – Death comes for you on the PC, Xbox 360, and PS3 on 6/26/12, as well as on the Wii-U when that console launches.

- Ron Burke
Director of Gaming Trend
Editor in Chief