Anyway. Darksiders 2. This is one of the games that I've actually been waiting for this year. Largely because the first game was amazing in many aspects but felt like it could use a sequel. Many games these days do. In the movie industry sequels are often crap, but in the games industry it seems more like the sequel is often the better game because in a sense the game has gone through one hell of an iteration already with one launched title. The third title in a series might be a mistep again, largely because when there are no huge flaws to fix, new things have to be added into the mix. It's either that or be accused of "beating on a dead horse". You just can't win there. It would probably be an interesting study to look at how many series consist of exactly two titles. Might be interesting to also involve the sales figures of second versus third iteration.
1. Originality, schmoriginality
Let's just get this out of the way immediately. Not a single ounce in the gameplay of Darksiders 2 is original. The game steals from a variety of sources: God of War, Prince of Persia, Diablo/Borderlands and of course Zelda. Most likely a bunch of other titles to boot. Does it matter? No, it does not. It is somewhat of a dick move though - taking good concepts from the wealth of past game design while giving next to nothing back. The one thing that has been done exceptionally well is the combination of so many influences. The core is definitely Zelda. The guys at Vigil clearly have decided that Zelda just isn't manly enough for them, so they replaced green elves with
2. Fighting matters
Actually yeah, I think combat is the single biggest differentiator between Zelda-like titles I like and ones that I don't. One problem in the first Darksiders was that War was more or less a tank, and tanks are not really interesting to play in solo hack'n'slash. Death on the other hand is a master of agile DPS (you know, like agile programming but with more violence!) There is no guard button in Darksiders 2; the only way to avoid damage is to evade or interrupt attacks. The game also acknowledges the importance of hit stun resistance. Some enemies are more resistant to hit stun which makes them a lot harder to interrupt. Death's combos also have varying hit stun. This forces different strategies against different enemies. Hit stun is one of the most important aspect of hack'n'slash games. The lack of proper hit stun mechanics is what often leads to button smashing.
Games where defence relies on evasion can become evade fests instead but Darksiders 2 also avoids this by limiting the number of subsequent evades that can be performed to three. The last evade has a lengthty recovery which often leads to taking hits and hit stun (also known as quick death). I am not sure whether I liked this mechanic or not, because sometimes the enemies just attack in patterns that are really difficult to get out of with just two evades. On the other hand, this forces the player to seek strategies that avoid getting into such situations in the first place. So the jury is still out on this one. Most important thing is though that combat in Darksiders 2 actually demands some skill, especially against multiple opponents. Single opponents, no matter how strong, were mostly quite easy because of Death's superior mobility.
Here's a theory. It involves the guard button. Thing is, Darksiders 2 has the most enjoyable fast-paced hack'n'slash since Devil May Cry 3. The difference between these titles and titles like God of War and Dante's Inferno? Guard button. The guard button is a kind of fail-safe; it removes the need to telegraph attacks and in general make all attack situations perceivable. It's a get-out-of-jail-free card that allows creating fights where the player has no way of seeing what the f is going on because whenever things get like that, they can just hit the guard button and wait for a clearer situation. But that's bull. Holding a button is not a whole lot of fun. Getting a cue when attacks are coming and avoiding them with carefully timed evades is fun. More so, because often you might even need to learn which way to evade in order to get a good counter-strike opening.
So um yeah, the problem is not exactly the guard button itself. Still, guarding as a mechanic is horribly static unless some dynamics are added into it. See Dark/Demon's Souls to see a guard that works for the game.
I guess there is not really that much more to say about Darksiders 2 what with it being a sum of mostly other games. The hardest difficulty setting was quite enjoyable to play and many fight scenes in the game took several attempts so can't complain about lack of challenge either. What the game really lacked was interesting boss fights - most of them were too easy because of Death's ability to easily evade anything thrown at his way by a single opponent. The ultimate challenge in the game was also a bit lame: fight 100 rounds of arena battles without dying. Having to start the entire process over after reaching 98 or so was really really annoying. These things are hardly ever acceptable but even less so if the first half of the challenge is more or less trivial but still takes a great deal of time.
All in all, I guess, combat aside, the core message of Darksiders 2 is that theme matters. If it had been a cute game with pixies or silent elves in green tunics I probably would not have enjoyed as much. Furthermore there is always something to do in the game and every dungeon is different. My favorite ability was soul splitter which allowed Death to become a statue and spawn two clones of himself. The best puzzles in the game revolved around this ability. I dunno if this is stolen from another game or not; if not, good job Vigil. Adding looting and simple character development in Borderlands fashion was also a smart move. Hunting better equipment is always much more fun than trying to locate some small upgrades like extra health. As long as you don't mind lack of originality, you could do a lot worse than to pick up Darksiders 2.