Saturday, August 25, 2012

REVIEW - Darksiders II.

Dear Vigil Games,

You're not there yet.

When I say this, please understand it comes from a place of love.  I love what you guys are doing.  I love your vision.  I love your ambition and I love your games.  I've been watching you since you put out a (terrible!) gameplay video featuring horrific graphics in which a stocky, nondescript, rumbling character who would become War traipsed around a huge, featureless, brown-on-brown desert.  It looked awful - but your enthusiasm was infectious, and I wanted to believe.  More than anything, I want to play the game you want to make - but I can't help feeling Darksiders II isn't... quite... it.

I can see the game Darksiders could be, through the trees.  Beyond the fumbly menus and the bugs and the far-too-broad scope of your sequel.  Behind the razor focus and the straight-up-theft/homages of gameplay mechanics of your original.

You're getting there.  You've taken two steps forward and one step back.  You'll get there.

I believe in you.

Your platforming is a massive step forward.  Whoever put Death's locomotion together deserves a raise, because no one else has done this before.

For the uninitiated, Darksiders II's platforming is an almost-direct-rip of the mechanics of Prince of Persia's 2008 iteration.  There are less bells and whistles, but it's got wall-running and hookshot-grabs and wall-run extending nubs and you can spring back and forth between walls and... well, a wonderful sense of speed and flow.  It works great - and when I say this hasn't been done before, I mean the combination.

God of War, Devil May Cry, The Legend of Zelda - their platforming sucks.  It's absolutely useless - particularly when compared to comfortable, beautiful mechanics like this.  Prince of Persia may have mastered platforming of this ilk, but Ubisoft always married it to far-below-par combat... and you haven't done that.

Sucker Punch and Naughty Dog have already combined platforming with excellent third-person shooting, but as far as I'm concerned you - you, Vigil games - are the first ones to successfully blend it with great melee combat.

My God.

Whoever refined your combat system deserves a raise.  Where Darksiders' mechanics could be directly traced to Devil May Cry - the gold standard of brawling in three dimensions - Darksiders II's combat feels like... well, Darksiders.  Somehow, just as satisfying as Devil May Cry - and, to this blogger, more enjoyable than God of War's.


Built on a streamlined, accessible system of timed button presses, Darksiders II allows the player a wealth of options in combat - floating enemies, air combos, direct-damage, crowd control and special moves tied to skill trees - it doesn't feel like you've ripped off anything, here.  It's fast, tactical, thoughtful and rewards absolute viciousness.

Throwing a spinning scythe into a boss to watch it explode with blue and green wrath and health souls is so satisfying.  Mastering the timing allows your combat system to feel so... expressive.  And "expressive" is the highest compliment I can pay any combat system.

The way you've designed it to flow from one move to another is wonderful.  Going from a dodge to a heavy hammer slam to elegant scythe attacks to floating a foe to an air combo to the devastating skills... it works.  It works really well.

There are fabulous little touches, here.  The way Dust, Death's sentient crow and constant companion will land on your shoulder when you're stationary is... so iconic.  "See what you can find," Death growls with a press of L3, and Dust will fly off to show the way forward.

It's... unfortunate that his direction isn't entirely reliable.  When he flies to a wall halfway up a tower I'm in, and I've done everything at the top and bottom, he's not offering much help - but he's a great idea! - and far less cumbersome than Navi or The Watcher.  Just... not as uniformly helpful as say, Isaac Clarke's navigation system.

Speaking of little touches, whoever designed the doors in the Land of the Dead deserves a raise. (Each door has around 50 skulls lodged in it, and the eyes of a few skulls light up at your approach.  As you get closer, more of the door lights up to observe you before you push it open).

That's brilliant.

Whoever cast Michael Wincott deserves a raise.  You cast the bad guy from The Crow as Death - and it pays off big time.  Wincott's casual, incredibly gravelly voice is exactly what Death needs - it's as iconic as his familiar, and a perfect compliment to the darkly funny, comfortably merciless rider - it's just a shame he rarely has access to material of the same cheesy, dramatic gravitas War did back in 2010.

Death's story feels almost boring, when compared to War's.  It's not, really.  It's not bad at all - it's punctuated by some seriously cool stuff - it just has abysmal pacing, a sparse introduction and a terrible ending.

And I'm sorry to tell you, but nearly the entire game has pacing that could only generously be described as such.  This is a potential hazard of any and all sandboxes, but Darksiders II regularly drags due to the phenomenal saminess of what you're doing and why you're doing it.  Doubly egregious is the fact that the final boss in your game is mechanically identical to almost thirty other bosses I fought.  It was no grander or more challenging than anything else in the previous twenty-five hours - visually, almost identical to them - and a rather large disappointment, as such.

There have got to be over fifty boss fights in Darksiders II - but almost none of them actually stand out.  They blur together to form a thick slurry of large foes with broad shoulders and huge weapons - usually covered in spikes.

Where was a boss fight to rival Tiamat?  Where was a battle that used my combat tools to the same effect as she, Sithila or The Griever?  Nowhere to be found, I'm afraid (aside from the Arena Champion, I suppose).

Oh, Vigil.  By painting so broadly and offering so much, there is less to remember about your game.

There are moments, of course.  Wonderful moments.  My defeat of the Guardian - the most successful riff on a Shadow of the Colossus-style boss fight since you yourselves offered up the Stygian two years ago - is a hit.  The ringing of the bell at Serpent's peak is super cool, and... well, I'm actually having trouble thinking of others.

The why of Death's actions nearly always feels paper-thin, when compared to War's righteous indignation.  You arrive at X.  To leave this realm you must do Y three times.  Often, in a dungeon, you will have to complete Z three times.  Then, once you triumphantly escape your current realm and find yourself set to explore the next, you stroll up to the leader of that world and learn... you're going to have to do Y.


Compounding this tedium of design is the (philosophically commendable) inclusion of a ton of side quests, collectibles and optional dungeons to explore.  In terms of telling a story - in terms of actually involving me in this fantastical world, Darksiders II is an almost complete failure.  In terms of providing the player with an absolute wealth of content to explore, it's a boon.

It's a pleasure to play, and that is your saving grace.

The fact that This Dungeon looks and feels identical to the last five I went through is unfortunate, but that doesn't stop the combat that fills it from being thrilling, stylish and satisfying.  Scampering up this wall may be exactly like the last ten walls I had to climb, but that doesn't stop the platforming from being slick, comfortable and well-implemented.

Dashing across the fields of the Forgelands and hopping off my spectral steed to snap up a page of the Book of the Dead (I know a demon who'll pay handsomely for this) or a power gem (to feed a sentient construct of stone) doesn't get old, and successfully taps in to every gamer's completist compulsions.  Riding towards my next waypoint and deciding to detour into an optional dungeon containing I-know-not-what is never boring.

Darksiders II - much more than the original - is a game that's endlessly fun to just play.  It's just that the game is spread so far and so wide that the rare crests of inspired storytelling or epic vistas - of anything memorable - are washed away under buffeting waves of identical-looking dungeons and (far more varied than the original, and yet) limited enemy design.

And then... there's the bugs.

Nearly absent on my first playthrough, Darksiders II has repeatedly stymied my desire to continue playing by way of occasional and cruel coding gremlins that make a Bethesda game look like the pinnacle of quality control.  There are less bugs here, to be sure, but they are absolutely devastating.

A major side quest may be entirely shut out.  The final dungeon of the first act may suffer a crack, and prevent you from moving any further in your game.  An NPC may stubbornly refuse to speak to me - even though he is my next waypoint - and I am denied access to the entire last third of the game.

What the Hell, Vigil?  You don't seriously believe that a game your players may never be able to finish is ready for release, do you?

At times, I worry Darksiders II is taking too much of my good will for granted.  The way you bludgeon me with suggestions to buy DLC every time I start up the game is just...  unseemly.

I want better from you.  And I believe in you.  I believe you can do it - so here's what I want you to think about, between now and Darksiders III...

One : You make very good games.  What elevates a good game to special is, more often than not, the small touches.  I want you to look at everything in your game and ask yourself how you can make it more memorable.  How you can add more character to it. Why isn't there a slick animation for Death pulling out his resolver, for example?

Fill your game with moment of genius and style akin to the doors of the dead.

Two : With Darksiders, you stand to enter competition with some of the best developers in the industry.  Don't come back with Darksiders III until your presentation can stand toe-to-toe with Sony Santa Monica or Sucker Punch.  I want Darksiders III to represent a leap of overall quality that echoes the difference between inFamous and inFamous 2, Assassin's Creed and Assassin's Creed II, or Uncharted and Uncharted 2.  That means, I'm afraid, better graphics - but "better" does not have to mean "more expensive."

Delve deeper into the artistic sensibilities of your key art, and make worlds that more closely resemble a moving painting.   The next Darksiders needs to be gorgeous - and look like nothing else.  Continue to separate yourself from the rest of the industry, by doing what they're not.

Three :  If it's not a set piece, I don't want to see it in any story dungeon. You've created an amazingly cool fantasy universe.  I want everything in it to be so striking and memorable that I don't need a map to navigate the overworld - and I want a narrative that thrills me with the details and grand opera that's surely been driving this series, 'cause I've seen far too little of that, here.

Four : Continue to refine your two core gameplay tenets - the combat and platforming - but don't give us combat tools unless they're actually useful.  I didn't use my revolver for anything but shooting insects and gemstones, and rarely needed the Death Grip for anything but the platforming.

I love you, Vigil, and God help me but I love your latest game.  I love it despite the relative tedium of its boss encounters even as I thrill to its supple combat.  I love it despite the blatant saminess of my objectives, despite the identical-looking dungeons, despite the occasional puzzle that seems to defy all logic and mechanical progression, despite the awful ending and (comparatively) limp opening.

I love playing this game - and that, in and of itself, is all one should ever need - but the game-stopping bugs must be fixed.  They represent such clear and present danger to a gamer's enjoyment of Darksiders II that I hesitate to even give it a recommendation - but my faith in you remains.  I believe you'll patch this game, even as I condemn you for releasing it in such a state.

Darksiders II is a grand vision - a vision I can't help but share.  It's regularly beautiful, inspired and inspiring - even as it's dragged down by the sheer volume of its content.

Exploring a huge, expanding world, getting in awesome fights with supernatural foes, zipping effortlessly around ancient ruins.  That's the Darksiders II that I love.  It's far from perfect - and perhaps even a few fathoms short of the game you had in mind - but it's still something special.  Something wonderful.

Something no one else is doing.  So thank you, Vigil games, for that much.  I can't wait to see what you do next.

With love,

  • just fun to play, all the way
  • there are many, many improvements over the original Darksiders - and more than a few people at Vigil deserve raises
  • supple, expressive, fun combat that makes you feel totally badass and really rewards thoughtful aggression
  • I love the way you access different scythe moves when you mix alternate weapon attacks into your combos
  • Easygoing, comfortable platforming very akin to modern Prince of Persias.  Even swimming is totally natural - and I love that you made L2 a button to jump backwards off ledges/pillars a'la tilting the controller back in Uncharted.  More games need to do that.
  • often wonderful art direction
  • excellent music!  I want the soundtrack.
  • Michael Wincott as death is awesome
  • an absolutely massive amount of content.  Tons of side quests, and (what feels like) ten optional dungeons on top of a fifteen or twenty-hour campaign
  • The Crucible is very cool
  • a good sense of progression - you feel like an absolute badass by level twenty, and a true harbinger of death by 30
  • there are a few wonderful little touches
  • The system for possessed weapons is wicked cool.  I love my +attack power +crit chance +crit damage +health on crit scythes.  I named them Ravenous. 
  • I rather like that I can customize Death's abilities to suit my playstyle.  Harbinger tree FTW. 
  • the Guardian was cool
  • I like meeting characters from the original game again - and kind of wish more time was spent exploring their relationship with Death
  • Most of the dungeons and bosses in the game all kind of blend together.  Even the final boss - which is pretty much a hate crime against your fans, and almost none of the boss fights really compare to the major bosses of Darksiders.
  • You need a way better system for comparing items in the shop/on the ground to what's in your inventory.  It's like sometimes it shows you all the differences but other times it won't - what's up with that?
  • The loot system lends itself regularly to imbalance in combat.  I'm level 30 and still wearing a level 20 shoulder piece because nothing better has dropped.
  • I hate that as a melee/crit-centric Death, I'm obligated to wear heavy, spiky armor. I feel that the character would be more striking and iconic if you'd just made one design for him and stuck with it. 
  • It's great to have an overworld as vast as what you've got, here, but I'd like to see more striking set pieces that differentiate areas better. 
  • Bugs!  They're under my skin!  Get them out, get them out!
  • the story feels about 50% as cool as the story in Darksiders, most notably the opening and the ending
  • uneven pacing
  • if your game world is going to be so big, it'd be nice to have it a bit more densely populated.  The bases in the Land of the Dead and the Forge Lands never really feel like towns. 
  • the final third was a bit of a disappointment after what came before - even as it massively improves the pacing
  • fumbly, inelegant menus
  • tying the God-of-War-style finishers to a stat on my gear was... a weird choice.  I'm sorry I didn't get to see all the cool finishing animations you made, Vigil :(
  • the lack of multiple, manual save slots was a bad idea
Darksiders II is a game I can't help but love - a delicious, unique blend of expressive combat, comfortable platforming and sprawling exploration - always fun, and well worth sixty dollars, even as the pacing lags and bugs threaten to stop your progression dead.

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