Saturday, February 23, 2013

Headcase: Darksiders 2



Ed examines the history of, and the terrible fate that awaited one of the coolest games of 2012. So run to the nearest distributor of forty ounce malt liquor and prepare to pour it out all over your poorly received drawing tablet - it's the only real way to show your solidarity.



THQ doesn’t exactly have a proud pedigreed history, and at the root of that twisted little tree is a man named Jack Friedman. Friedman came onto the gaming scene when he committed a Captain Planet level crime against the environment by co-founding cartridge based shit factory LJN games. For those of you who missed out on late 80’s gaming, seeing that little LJN rainbow on a game box became a convenient indicator that you were better off eating the cartridge than playing it. To be fair, by the time LJN decided to focus on the professional ruination of childhood, ole Jack was moving on to bigger and better things. In 1989 he founded a little company called Toy Head Quarters which then went on to… mass produce digital sewage just like LJN. Once you look at the games both of these companies published, it’s kind of hard not to be astonished at how one man was indirectly responsible for the grand majority of condensed terrible that plagued home consoles in the early 90. I mean, these two companies ran long and hard with the tradition of making licensed garbage games. The winners are all here, you’ve got your Where’s Waldo’s your Terminator’s, everything from Wayne’s World to almost every terrible Marvel game around. It's hard to capture the zeitgeist for the type of game that could actually come out before gamers were connected enough to warn each-other off of terrible crap with a great name, but I think I've found an admirable attempt in the title track from Wolverine: Adamantium Rage.

Pray for death before the synth strings section kicks in.

THQ largely continued to push out official;y licensed turds until the turn of the millennium when, in what must have been a family comedy's worth of life lessons, someone decided to actually try and publish some decent games.They did so by buying up the developers that would put out their most successful titles in the last decade. Volition would bring them recognition from their Red Faction and Saints Row series,while Relic Entertainment would bring out strategy games and handle their Warhammer 40k license. Of course the company still went about it's business as a publishing house, releasing things like Yuke's WWE yearly, and running Nickelodeon and Bratz discs out the door, but the point is that THQ started releasing stuff a cut above the usual licensed shlock. Among these pickups was a little development house called Vigil Games, headed by designer David Adams and creatively directed by noted comic book artist Joe Madureira. Together in 2006 (and finally my tree analogy way up top bears fruit!) they made a game called Darksiders.

Darksiders landed on the sunnier side of gaming temperament, being a largely well received game. The title was ambitious, striving to offer an open-world hack n' slash that would be heavy on exploration and deep in combat. The game largely delivered on these promises, and it met with a relatively warm critical reception save one common bone of contention. If the penny-arcade provided illustration here isn't enough of a hint, Darksiders got hit for playing like a lot of other popular games. It committed the sin of being derivative. Ah derivative. This little slice of faux-critisism is right up there with "overrated" in terms of laziness. A game that doesn't have "shiny feature hook" and is comprised of elements that can be compared to other games is derivative. The worst thing about this descriptor is that it needs a qualifier. By itself, this is the type of blanket accusation that can wipe out entire periods of art. The bottom line here is that for something to be badly derivative it needs to do what its borrowing worse than what it's borrowing from. It needs to not try something new, and fail at that too. It does happen, and you might have experienced it first hand if you happen to be a fan of certain vampire hunters that can't quite climb out from under the shadow of the colossi they're clumsily slaying. Darksiders was not that. Vigil might not have done something new, hell even I'll tell you that it was pretty much goth Zelda, but under that paint, the game was all around solid. Remove that dark little paint job and slap a Link in there and it would be remembered as one of the better Zelda games around. Carry all of that with you as we jump to late 2012.
Darksiders ended on a cliffhanger, and more importantly sold a million copies so a sequel was inevitable. That sequel came in the form of aptly named Darksiders 2. I don't want to weight the deck here, especially considering how favorably I just spoke of this games predecessor, but simply put, Darksiders 2 represents the most drastic improvements in a same generation sequel I've ever seen. Alright, I know that's going need a little backup, so I'll start with presentation. The Darksiders premise is pretty simple, it's the end of days and it's time for the four horsemen to stab many dudes. Of course, something goes wrong, War get's blamed for accidentally kick-starting the Apocalypse, and embarks on a quest of to clear his name. Darksiders 2 runs parallel to the first game which, much like the renaming of Pestilence and Famine to Strife and Fury, I had initially viewed as a cop-out. The concept, like a lot of aspects of Darksiders 2's story, is handled a lot better than it could have been. The writing lets Death's journey weave in and out of War's, keeping it tethered to the original story while allowing Death to do and be his own thing. The thing about Darksiders is that it's a bit of a tightrope trying to put across the attitude they're going for. When you're controlling the personification of Death as he hunts for the forbidden blade of Kry'te'nor or some such timeless artifact, it's real simple for things to get real dumb real fast. Darksiders 2 manages to fill it's story beats with the sort of ancient legends, deadly trials and larger than life characters that sound immensely stupid on paper but come across genuinely interesting on the screen. I mean, look at this, at one point Death needs to meet with an undead king called the Lord of Bones who lives in a dragon-drawn chariot airship. That sounds like something that would have made whoever said it my new best friend in middle-school. At no point during this sequence did I scoff. 
"THSPPSSPPBLLLRRR!"
If you pay attention, that theme is something that courses through the whole game, the idea of taking potentially campy stuff and allowing you to experience without a smirk on your face. The dialog is just shy enough of ridiculous, the characters are fleshed out just enough to avoid being caricatures, and the mystical mcguffins are just interesting enough to keep you nicely immersed in tracking them down. This is mostly accomplished by deftly keeping a sense of mystery constant during the proceedings. Far off places and big bad people will be often mentioned, but never shown. It really gives off that cool vibe where everyone inhabiting these fantastical worlds are already aware of the larger goings on, and it's a remarkable tool for helping the player suspend his disbelief. The characters never really reject the crazy things swimming in front of them as impossible, and it helps you put your guard down as well. By and large this is handled excellently, the only criticism I can lay on the writing is that at times that brush is a little too light, you might meet a character and be a little confused at who he is or exactly what role he plays. The talent here really shines through. Michael Wincott (The Crow, Metro) pours every ounce of his gravel and honey voice all over his performance as Death, and believe it, he gives industry vet Liam O'Brien a run for his money during his turn in the franchise limelight. Composer Jesper Kyd turns in the strongest soundtrack he's ever put in a video game, elegantly elevating Darksiders 2's soundtrack above the choir heavy dirty-goth tunes it's predecessor leaned on unabashedly. Instead, Kyd channels something closer to Jeremy Soule with ambitious fantasy overtures that really resonate with the larger than life tasks Death usually finds himself embroiled in. I wasn't kidding when I talked about stellar improvement across the board here, the characters are better acted and animated, the music is on a whole other level, and the settings are lousy with fantastically detailed backdrops. For a game that'll have you blazing through a lot of it's areas with fast travel or on horseback, there were numerous times I just had to stop and gaze out at the bizarre vistas stretching out into the horizon. 
Presentation is the pretty big tip of the pretty big iceberg when it comes to Darksiders 2 outpacing the franchises previous effort. The games predecessor boasted some functional ass combat that managed to register itself on the positive side of competent. Vigil really grew some nut hair in between these two games, because Darksiders 2 doesn't pull any tried and true punches when it comes to their combat systems. On the outset the first thing you'll notice is that Death moves. War filled the role of (to use the parlance of the experienced gamer) big-sword-swingy-tank-man. Death, on the other hand is much more mobile character, able to dart around the arena with an easy to use evade button. You'll use this evade a lot, by default Death doesn't even have a block ability. The system becomes truly interesting when you realize the potential for deep customization. See, you're not just swapping the standard War moveset from Darksiders for the standard Death moveset for Darksiders 2, what you're doing is building your Death out of a variety of styles to fight the way you feel most comfortable. Most of this is going to come from the games secondary weapons. While Death is always going to have an attack button assigned to his standard dual scythes, you'll come across a variety of secondary weapon types that have their own fighting styles. If you want your Death to sacrifice some speed for devastating heavy hits, you'll find yourself leaning towards the gigantic hammer or axe secondary weapons. If speed is your thing, using a set of claws as a secondary weapon will let you flit in and out of melee, carving a quick combo out of your enemies before they can retaliate. More character diversity is given through the special ability trees. You'll be instantly familiar with the way Death levels up if you've played an adventure game along the lines of Diabo or Torchlight, with each level gained the character earns points which he can sink into new abilities or making current ones more effective. These abilities fall pretty evenly into two camps, either giving Death something new he can do himself like a teleport slash or a temporary strength buff, or letting him summon some minions to fight at his side, like a couple of upgradable ghouls that will jump into battles at your will. When you combine all this, you'll see that there's a lot of room to create your own character, whether that be a slow beast that hits like a train, a quick guerrilla fighter who keeps a wall of minions between himself and his quarry or any number of amalgamations of the two. There is, of course, more. 
How do you feel about loot dear readers? I'm talking about slow cooked, stat loaded, color coded, falling off the bone Loot. Darksiders 2 is drenched in it. Every time you use Death's ghostly arms to crush open a chest, you'll feel that warm and tingly loot rush as fresh gear spews out. You'll be finding a whole mess of gear, armor and weapons that visually change Death's character model as you equip them. The stats also let you further customize your character, letting you focus on things like reflecting damage against your character, improving your special abilities or buffing your critical hits or executions. The pinnacle of the loot system in Darksiders 2 is delivered via little stroke of genius called possessed weapons. Possessed weapons are individual weapons that you can level up by "feeding" them other loot. The idea is to feed them items with the stats you want your possessed weapons to pick up. If you want your weapon to steal heath when a critical hit lands, you feed it other weapons with that ability. You can put up to four unique stats on these weapons, and if you play your cards right you'll be wielding some real beasts by the time they reach their cap. I, for example, used a set of possessed claws that not only increased my chances of landing critical hits, but increased the damage of those hits and made them payout in health. If a fight wasn't going my way I could wade in and throw a few quick slices that would see a little stream of health relief coming my way. There's a lot of possibilities here that the player can gear towards with the kind of weapons they prefer using and the special moves they're using to augment them. You'll find yourself hoarding what would normally be designated as vendor trash in the hopes of sacrificing it to your next possessed weapon. The sum of all these parts is that the gameplay in Darksiders 2 stands out among its peers, let alone leaving the previous installment in the dust. Fighting with Death is deep and satisfying all while molding itself to the player. Helping Death scurry around the environment is quick and easily controlled and the game world is littered with collectables and side quests that will keep you backtracking Metroid style as you gain new abilities. 
The game isn't without its weaknesses. Occasionally the screen filling combat will get so hectic that players might have a hard time following whats going on, especially if they're using the summoning abilities. Very rarely Death will miss a jump or handhold and launch himself off of a cliff. The biggest stumbling block is thankfully avoidable, I'm talking about the games downloadable content. Darksiders 2 offers a variety of DLC, and it's almost universally crap. I'll skip the "pay a dollar to speed up your horse" mess, anyone dumb enough to buy a sometimes speed boost in a game that features constant optional fast travel has already wandered off to eat their game disc. The most innocent among the rest of the content is a mess of purchasable armor and weapons which would be kind of harmless until you realize that there's no storage area in the game. With a limited number of slots for each type of gear you might find yourself facing some tough decisions when it comes time to make some room. The pre-order bonus turned regular content "Death Rides Pack" seems like it was exclusively designed to be ammunition for people arguing against pre-order bonuses and "snip n' save" DLC practices. What's left is a trio of side quest packs, each of them problematic. Problem the first is that these pack aren't integrated into the game, the player needs to select them from the main menu. This normally wouldn't be so bad, except that the player is given no indication of when to tackle the content. Death starts with necessary abilities from the get go, which might spoil some of the character developments in the main story for those unfamiliar with the extra abilities (or the potentially spoilery in-game description of those abilities). Problem number two is that these things are all a bit content light for the price tag. Seven to ten dollars gets you about an hour and a half of dungeon crawling per go, and the story beats are threadbare, sometimes to the point to confusion. If you're crazy about Darksiders 2 dungeons (understandable) and need an extra hit, I'd still advise waiting for some discount action before you partake in these extras. 
Here comes the part where I unceremoniously tie in my largely glowing recommendation of Darksiders 2 to the cute THQ bio I opened with. As many of you know, Jack Friedman's little pub-house that could was scrapped for parts in January 2013. There's a lot of fingers pointed at a lot of things that may have lead to the demise of the company. Some claim poor management, some cite some bad games, a whole lot agree on a particular pale rider called the udraw; a drawing tablet peripheral who's monumental failure was unfortunately eclipsed by the investment the company put into it. Whatever the cause(s), THQ was unable to meet its debts, blocked from taking up a last minute creditor up on it's offer, and ultimately butchered and sold for parts. In a lot of cases, THQ's collection of developers and IPs found new homes. Sega swooped in for Relic Entertainment (it's chance to combine both halves of the Warhammer IP double-dragon), German based Koch Media snapped up Volition and the Saints Row and Metro IPs. Even Homefront, and game that met with critical icicles was purchased by sequel-developer Crytek. Somehow, after all the smoke had cleared, after the metaphorical bones had been picked clean, it seemed like only Vigil Games and it's singular IP remained. Hell, even Vigil was mostly salvaged when the bulk of their talent got turned into the US branch of Crytek, which leaves Death and his apocalyptic brothers the lone orphans of this little debacle. And that, my friends, is nothing short of tragic. This game had it rough from the start, from outside speculation that the title would need to sell upwards of two-million copies in order the break even, to it's release being overshadowed by news of its terminally ill publisher. With all the news surrounding Darksiders 2, it seemed like no one could pay attention to the game itself, and a great game it is, one that can stand proudly on your shelf next to any other entry in the genre. As it stands now there's no plans for Darksiders on the horizon, or even where the reigns to the IP lie. Considering the downright excellent quality of the title, and the now proven ability of the talent behind it, Darksiders 2 is the saddest story I can think of to come out of THQ, and from a company that once published Home Alone 2, that's saying a whole lot.
And lo, the rider would totes let you draw Disney Princesses

6 comments:

  1. I've now added you to the mental short list of people who has an opinion counting for something more than shit when it comes to action games. I can assure you that list is fucking small.

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    1. Thank you, and thanks for the correction as well!

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  2. Gorilla Injected With HormonesFebruary 27, 2013 at 11:24 AM

    The first pic with the knees and the quotes made me laugh.

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    1. Interesting side note, in the opening of the first Darksiders, we get to see regular humans, and they're normally proportioned, which tells me that these characters really do have feet bigger than their heads.

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    2. Gorilla Imaging Templates by Ollustratror, and Powering Bloggers EverywhereMarch 2, 2013 at 8:58 AM

      It's gout, from walking around the sizzling depths of hell. They use Pergo floors down there

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  3. Gorilla Seducing Argonaughts In An Attempt To Steal EggsMarch 6, 2013 at 12:47 AM

    Well, I started Psychonauts yesterday, under Luchalma's recommendation. Seems really good and they made a smart move getting Michael J Fox to do the voicework. I can see why he likes this game, and I will too as well.

    Got this game from Newegg pretty cheap, it's called "Front Mission Evolved"

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4Qytauboecc

    Looks pretty cool. How do I start a poll

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