Sunday, July 12, 2009

SPOTLIGHT ON: Darksiders.


I first got a look at Darksiders back in 2007. In it, a chunky-looking player character walked around gigantic, uninteresting environments and fought some nondescript enemies. It was, granted, very early in development - but they were still showing it, and they weren't showing anything special. It looked like a D-quality title. A game that would be released at a discount price, and still be (justly) ignored when it reached the $1.99 bin.

At the time, Darksiders was slated to come out in fall '08. By fall '08, they were telling us to expect it in '09. And now, halfway through 2009 they're telling us it will be released on January 1, 2010. I don't expect their predictive accuracy will be any different this time around, but what is different is my level of interest. Sparking my imagination with this trailer before fully subjugating my will to resist with this series of developer walkthroughs, I must admit that what appeared to be a straight-to-bargain-bin game now has me deep in its thrall.

I can't wait to saddle up as War, the first Horseman of the Apocalypse, and take the fight to Heaven and Hell.

So what changed? Well, for one, the art direction has revealed itself to be pretty darn stunning. It turns out every design in the game comes from Creative Director Joe Madureira - I'd never heard of him either - he's apparently a big deal in the world of comic books. He bounced back and forth from comics to games before he and David Adams founded Vigil Games with some talent from NCSoft.

Which isn't particularly impressive. Vigil Games' roster may have talent, but what they don't have is cred - on the other hand, neither did Sony Santa Monica until God of War. These people may have potential - but a great game isn't just art direction or story or graphics or rock-solid gameplay - it's all of these things and more, combined. Glimmers of hope appeared here and there, as game journalists reported no major flaws in Darksider's gameplay. They almost seem surprised that it plays as well as it does.

Which is... mildly impressive. A look at gameplay reveals the title to have a little bit of God of War in it - enemies can be dispatched with brutal finishers once enough of their health is whittled away. Combat shows War blasting an enemy into the air with his massive sword and keeping the demon afloat with a barrage of bullets from his pistol - so it has a bit of Devil May Cry as well. This is not a criticism - if you're going to have a stylish, over-the-top action game, Devil May Cry and God of War is where you want to start - and there's nothing wrong with taking mechanics that worked elsewhere and applying them to your vision. It worked fabulously for Dead Space.

Further digging reveals a relatively interesting story to be told. You first pick up the controller to guide War as he and his Mounted Apocalypse Posse bring about the end of the world, as described in the Book of Revelations. Angels and Demons move in to have their final battle for the Earth, and War gets a bit of a surprise: he instigated the end of days a little ahead of schedule. He messed up, and so is stripped of his powers and banished to wander the wastes of Earth. Driven by revenge, his quest is simply to discover who was pulling his strings, and who deserves his punishment (my money's on an angel. A demon is too obvious, but a heavenly being is just obvious enough.)

Further ingredients to this stew of potential awesome are the excellent cast. Liam O'Brein plays War - an incredibly prolific voice talent specializing in anime. The game's merchant who upgrades War's gear and abilities is voiced by (my personal favorite) Phil LaMarr - this guy's in everything, though the gaming world perhaps knows him best as Vamp in Metal Gear Solid 2 and 4. And then there's The Watcher...

Played by Mark Hamill (yes, that Mark Hamill) - another talent responsible for whole bucketloads of voice work - The Watcher is a spirit that has been attached to War to keep an eye on him as he progresses through the game. THQ's Waleed Kamel calls The Watcher "an evil Navi" - he's there to help, and point things out, but he's no one to be trifled with. On the same note, there's the Horseman's horse, Ruin - an otherworldly steed that Kamel likens to "a bad-ass Epona" - a second Legend of Zelda reference, which brings us to the really interesting part.

One of my favorite games of all time is probably Ōkami. I won't go into how great I think it is, but let's face it: Ōkami is a Zelda-like game. A huge overworld with most areas rendered inaccessible until you unlock a power to proceed further, dotted with dungeons which tend to hide unique abilities which will be the key to defeating that lair's demonic overseer.

And based on everything I've seen, that's precisely what Darksiders is, too. Joe Madureira himself shrugs off the comparisons to Devil May Cry and God of War by suggesting (this is no doubt paraphrased) Darksiders is "The Legend of Zelda... if Hyrule were destroyed in the Apocalypse, Link was given a chain gun, and grew some balls."

And so... at this point, I'm sold. Darksiders has everything going for it, except a previous hit by its developer. The story sounds interesting, the cast is great, the art direction is gorgeous, the gameplay sounds solid, and if anything else it is ambitious as Hell.

Wisely skirting the Holiday Game Megahits Jamboree, it's due out early 2010 - but we've heard that song and dance before. Perhaps by the time I'm spotlighting it again next year, it will look even more promising.

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