The ending of the first Darksiders game was a fairly risky move on Vigil Games' part. An unproven developer with a new, home grown intellectual property, it already had a lot going against it without a fairly epic cliffhanger ending. Thankfully we're getting the sequel fans of the original were hoping to see. Sadly, its story doesn't take place after Darksiders' cliffhanger, but wrenches control of War from our hands and puts us in control of Death, a new protagonist on a quest which runs parallel to that found in the original game. D'oh.
But talking to Haydn Dalton, Principal Designer on Darksiders 2, this could be more akin to the game they wanted to make in the first place. "It was a very close call between whether the main character of Darksiders 1 would be Death or War," he told us. "He's the character that people associate with the Horsemen. I think it was because War was the first one that we created from an actual production point of view. He just kind of stuck."
Having Darksiders 1 under their belt also meant the developers could implement some more in-depth systems in the sequel which they couldn't do previously. The main new feature being the expansive loot system, which is an appealing addition for anyone with a collectible itch to scratch. "Darksiders 1 gave us a foundation to work from. A lot of the control and camera issues, you know all the base level stuff, they're hurdles that we've already leapt over in the first game." Dalton explained.
"Now we had a lot of that stuff already in the bag, it was more about retreading some of that ground again, but with a lot more experience. Adding more things in there became less of a risk at that point."
Conceptually the loot system is risk-free. Diablo and World of Warcraft have built entire global economies around such things, but it's interesting to see it working within the Darksiders formula. Enemies will randomly drop items, which vary in rarity. The rarer an item, the more powerful it is and the higher it will raise your stats. It's not uncommon to find similar items which raise different stats, meaning you'll need to make a decision about what stats you value most, depending on your own play style.
This feeds directly into a concern Dalton had with the first game. "With Darksiders 1, irrelevant of how two different people played the game, it's difficult to diversify your War character in comparison to anyone else's. With Darksiders 2 we wanted it to be much clearer after a couple of hours of playing to see how differently each person chooses to play the game."
This is also true of the skills system, which is reminiscent of the Diablo II skill tree. Death will level up as he defeats enemies and doing so allows him to invest points into a skill tree. Whatever your play style, you should be well catered for, with the potential to invest heavily in either warrior-based and spellcaster-based skill trees, or by mixing up skills from both.
It's a dramatic increase in player choice since the original game and one which seems to work well, despite being a little overwhelming. The preview section that was playable was set around six hours into the game and presumably the final game will gently lower the player in rather than pushing them into the deep end.
Death is a very different character to the first game's protagonist, War. He's a lot more agile and as such Darksiders 2 will involve a lot more traversal puzzles, taking advantage of the character's ability to run along walls, climb beams and generally pounce around environments like an evil, purple monkey cat. It's a little bit Prince of Persia, which isn't a terrible thing, and these traversal sections are enhanced when you find the Death Grip. This allows you to grab ledges and beams from afar, making some already quite hair-raising acrobatics that little bit more intense. Controls were a little janky in the preview section we played, but Vigil were keen to tell us that they're still squashing bugs and tightening controls, so this isn't a deal breaker just yet.
While the game's story doesn't expand on the great ending of Darksiders 1 (well worth checking that game out if you never got around to doing so at the time), it does seem we'll be meeting a lot of familiar faces. "There are some very interesting references to the first game and what's going on with War. Players who played the first game will have that extra little bit of insider knowledge so they will think 'oh, so that's why that happened!'" Dalton told us. Death is working to clear War's name, but War has no idea that this is happening. We wouldn't be too surprised to see a Half Life: Opposing Force vibe, with glimpses of War from Death's perspective throughout.
When pressed on whether we would see or play as War again, Dalton replied that it's "not an impossibility!". It seems important items from the first game might also be making a reappearance, but no word on which; we're hoping for a return of the Portal Gun.
The superb art style of Joe Madureira returns in Darksiders 2, so the game has that same great chunky, comic book aesthetic that we love so much. Some camera issues made navigating the preview level a little trickier than we'd have liked - mostly thanks to an NPC following us through the dungeon. He's pretty hefty and tends to take up about half the screen. Still, we'll remain cautiously optimistic that Vigil can deliver the same level of polish that Darksiders 1 had when the game releases in a couple of months. From what we're seeing it'll be a worthy successor that's not afraid to try something new. And we'll be honest, we're very eager to explore the Darksiders universe again.