There’s an unfortunate myth in the video games business that the Summer months are the worst time of year to release a blockbuster title. That whilst most of the world is on holiday the last thing people want to do is sit around and play video games. 2011 saw the end of this Summer gaming drought with Deus Ex: Human Revolution and if THQ’s continuation of their Darksiders series is anything to go by – not only is 2012’s Summer gaming drought over, but there’s practically a storm on the horizon.

The Story Thus Far

Darksiders II takes place shortly after the closing events of Darksiders I – now in the interest of potential spoilers it is assumed that you have completed Darksiders I otherwise this game (and several things I mention) won’t make much sense to you. After being blamed for the arrival of the apocalypse and the destruction of humanity – the horseman War is imprisoned by the Charred Council – the embodiment of balance in the universe. Proclaiming his innocence, his brother – Death – a fellow horseman, vows to clear his brothers name by reversing Wars actions. Now, reversing the end of mankind might sound like a tall order but this lays some very good (and reasonably believable) groundwork for the story of Darksiders II.

Now, the traditional Four Horsemen of The Apocolypse aren’t really applicaple here as Vigil Games have taken the premis of the Four Riders and altered them enough to fit the ethos which best fits an action game. In other words, in Vigils Games’ world – the horsemen are not beings of myth and legend but rather legendary warriors who were once members of the Nephilim race – these cursed union of angel and demon were wiped out by the horsemen when they decided to join the Charred Council to help preserve balance.

Joining Death on his journey you’ll be accompanied by Despair and Dust, Deaths faithful spirit steed and crow companion respectively – now whilst we’re relatively used to having a horse on these types of adventures because of Wars horse Ruin – having Dust along for the ride offers us more options that were previously conceivable. Not only can you hold a button (L3 on PS3) to summon Dust who will glow green for a short time and guide you to the next door or pathway leading to your current objective but he usually finds himself perching near an alcove leading to a secret more often than not. Being this helpful does sometimes have its drawbacks however and there are the odd occasions where Dust will perch on a platform which Death has no hope of currently reaching – though this is a small price to pay considering, like some other video game helpers – Dust can’t say “Hey!” or “Listen!”

Sticking with the Zelda theme for a moment, it was mentioned when the original Darksiders came out that it was similar in part to the Zelda franchise – I immediately dismissed this as a game featuring War bringing about the end of the world could not possibly resemble a game such as Zelda but sure enough, with its self contained dungeons, Hookshot and Boomerang-esque items, treasure chests which contained compasses, maps and even boss keys the similarities between Darksiders and Zelda were inescapable – this tradition carries over to Darksiders II as many of the similarities remain.

This is not to say that Darksiders isn’t enjoyable however – it is a very solid game, the characters are believable – with some superb voice acting throughout (especially Death himself) – you’ll meet gigantic Makers who make you – The Pale Rider – feel small and obsolete in comparison. There will be golems which, unlike many other games, have the distinct feeling of age, size and power. Coupling this with the increased features such as secondary weapons ranging from quick but weak punch-daggers to hammers and axes with such girth they would give a mature Redwood a run for its money. You also have Possessed secondary weapons which can be upgraded through a system of ‘sacrificing’ other weapons to it for consumption and your new inventory system which allows you to alter Deaths equipment – Main Scythe weapon, armour, pauldrons, greaves etc can give you wonderful feeling of approached customisation in a contained environment. Giving you the illusion that this playthrough is uniquely yours and nobody else’s Death will be wearing that combination of Bone Gloves and Marauders Cowl.

A whole new animal?

Death himself has been hailed as a completely different character through the build up of Darksiders II and this is true in many respects. Death is indeed faster in game and quicker in combat. Whereas War relied purely on strength to overcome foes Death finds himself rolling around the battlefield, employing necromantic powers (upgradable through leveling up with two separate skill trees) and speed and agility to overcome enemies. The significant difference between War and Death during exploration mode however is that Death moves with a more furious and feral way – the differences reminding me strongly of the differences between Kain and Raziel in the Legacy of Kain series.

A special mention needs to go to the voice actor behind Death – Michael Wincott – famous for playing both Top Dollar from The Crow and the Prophet of Truth in Halo 2. Mr Wincott offers a much more sinister and sarcastic side of the horseman than I was personally expecting. Death travels through the land and, unlike War with his resolute sense of pride and duty, offers questioning one liners in a way that, if done by any other actor, would probably break the fourth wall in an unconvincing way. Mr Wincott makes you believe that Death’s only purpose in the game is to redeem his wronged brother and that the people and side quests around him and merely getting in his way.

Dealing with Death – There’s always a price

There are obviously the downsides to Darksiders II and I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t point them out. There are a few unfortunate instances of screen tearing when turning the camera too quickly and whilst this won’t be a huge problem for gamers – you can’t shake that familiar feeling of Darksiders Deja Vu as not only do Vigil Games appear to be sticking with their original mechanics for Darksiders II but it appears to be suffering from the same technical issues. Though last time this was resolved reasonably quickly with a system patch. There are a few other lingering niggles which seem more than just me being nit-picky. Those moments when the backdrops look ridiculously two dimensional – epic vistas which look like they belong on the stage of a nativity. Or that disappointing moment where you can see the seam of the skybox (the outside of any video games essentially being a larger room with a well animated sky)

Moments of exploration feel tarnished by Death getting mysteriously caught on tiny steps no bigger than the sole of his boot, forcing you to jump over what is essentially a curb or only being able to scale very specific ledges which can sometimes mean your character has wall-run above the ledge you are trying to climb without actually climbing it.

Button placement is also a bugbear of mine where you have (on PS3 version) your lock-on button assigned to the L2 button and the ‘ready special’ button assigned to the L1 button meaning that (like many gamers) when I instinctively use my index finger to hold down the L2 button and realise I need to use a special move, I have that awkward moment of either releasing lock-on and potentially losing my target in the inevitable crush of enemies or I have to perform controller origami during a fight.

Conclusion

Darksiders II is an excellent game and despite my complaints we could not have asked for a better way to kickstart the inevitable ‘final third’ of the year in which many more great games will arise. With a similar gameplay mechanic and aesthetic to the original Darksiders it’s very clear that THQ have taken exactly what worked for the original and simply built more on top. With a stellar voice cast and a universe which actually makes me want to play through the first game again, Darksiders II is a must play.

Review Score : [starreview tpl=16]
Title : Darksiders II
Format : PS3
Developer : Vigil Games
Publisher :  THQ
Release Date : 14th August (US) 21st August (EU)

[starreviewmulti id=1 tpl=20]

THQ provided SlimGamer.com with a promo copy of Darksiders II