Darksiders: Wrath of War
Charred Council enforcer War - a legendary Horseman of the Apocalypse - arrives on Earth for EndWar, a monumental clash between the Kingdom of Man and the armies of Heaven and Hell. However, with humanity clearly not sufficiently evolved for the ensuing battle, War quickly realises only six of the seven protective seals forged in truce between the armies of Heaven and the legions of Hell have been broken - and the EndWar is unjust. A hundred years later, and with the Kingdom of Man completely obliterated, the Charred Council returns a disgraced War to the scarred surface of Earth in order to reclaim his stripped power, discover the truth behind the premature struggle between Heaven and Hell - and wreak vengeance upon both factions in its name.
And so begins a bold and bloody open-world adventure that strives to trace the quality blueprint of several genre heavyweights while powering forward on a bountiful supply of creativity provided by former X-Men and Battle Chasers comic book artist Joe Madureira. Sounds good, eh? It is... and it isn't.
Taken on its obvious and more immediate merits, Darksiders looks, sounds and feels like a cracking action adventure that's inadvertently slipped below the quality radar and been criminally under-marketed by publisher THQ and developer Vigil Games. The game boasts increasingly impressive environments, a sweeping orchestral soundtrack, and a cast of gravel-throated characters that lend the grandiose detective story a suitable air of celestial and demonic melodrama - especially central protagonist War, who's portrayed as a something of a perpetually angry Pierce Brosnan struggling to growl his performance through clenched teeth and a Strepsil.
Both primary and secondary support character models convincingly push established boundaries of quality, with demons Vulgrim, Samael and Ulthane standing out as particularly noteworthy in terms of believable performance, weight of animation, and as an example of the guiding light provided by Madureira's beautiful artwork. Indeed, that overarching influence is clear from the outset, with War's disgraced Horseman existing as perhaps the most obvious testament to the rich appeal that drew so many comic book readers towards the now-abandoned Battle Chasers series. Sadly, however, while the ceaseless onslaught of Darksiders' generous aesthetics will likely placate gamers focused on instant gratification, there's no hiding the game's derivative structure and lack of ambition when it comes to level design and back-track exploratory aspects.
Moreover, while Joe Madureira's artistic direction is undeniably potent throughout, and gameplay is brimming with action, passable puzzling, interesting mechanics and often mammoth boss battles, Darksiders as a whole is oddly lacking where originality and invention is concerned. Consistently high production values may mean its slick presentation and gameplay execution are hard to resist, but virtually every facet of the unfolding adventure has been so shamelessly lifted from other, better games, that the ominous shadow of disappointment soon begins to spread across the experience.
For example, the level structure, puzzles, and exploration in Darksiders all represent something of a poor man's take on the classic Legend of Zelda franchise, while sporadic run-and-gun opportunities owe a debt to Gears of War, core hack-and-slash combat clearly apes God of War - and even the interesting teleportation power-up secured toward the game's (limp) finale is little more than a half-baked Portal clone. Openly tipping a gameplay hat to genuinely great videogames is all well and good - and a frequent occurrence these days - but in pilfering so wildly without any attempt to add something new in the process, Darksiders only serves to appear like mutton dressed as lamb.
The game also falls short when it comes to balancing progressive difficulty against sustained appeal. Specifically, while players will initially nudge War cautiously towards minion hordes, perhaps even fearing future boss encounters after a surprisingly arduous contest with fire-breathing Tiamat, the steady gathering of War's abilities, improved weaponry, and related augmentations quickly renders the lone Horseman an unstoppable force capable of dispatching foes with little effort. Granted, there's always just enough going on in Darksiders to keep proceedings on the right side of fun, but challenge reaches its ceiling after about 12 hours (of around 20) - and then swiftly drops away. Be warned, the first 18 hours of gameplay promise a truly thundering climax, while the final two amount to a shockingly dull exercise in item retrieval, an incredibly unsatisfying boss resolution, and the prerequisite tease of a possible sequel.
It's hard for me to come down heavily on Darksiders. Honestly it is. I'm a huge Battle Chasers fan and, as a result, I genuinely enjoyed the first half of the game as the beautiful environments and superbly realised characters whisked me along without allowing me to look beyond the rich design and eye-popping attention to detail. That viewpoint was only afforded when circumstance separated me from the game for a few days, and I discovered I had no gnawing desire to return - a sensation I couldn't stem when playing all the games Darksiders tries so overtly to emulate. Ultimately, Vigil Games and Joe Madureira have spread themselves too thin with Darksiders, which is, though I'm loathed to say it, largely style and scant little substance.