I first heard of Darksiders at E3 2007, the show where we spent most of our time getting shuttled between hotels. It was described then as a "dark Zelda," and looked remarkably generic. I remember almost nothing about the presentation. The game simply faded into the background next to other THQ titles, particularly Supreme Commander.
Last December, I got the chance to play Darksiders just before its retail release at a hotel in Los Angeles, and afterward, to talk at length with the guys who made it. It's an unusual approach to game promotion; usually, you either get a very carefully controlled sample of the gameplay along with access to the developers, or somebody mails you a disc. It's rare that you get both at once.
Darksiders comes across as nothing quite so much as a bunch of guys who really love video games who finally got a chance to make one of their own, and who proceeded to wedge every single feature they've ever liked into one.
The "dark Zelda" comparison is perfectly valid, as the game is about equal parts visceral combat and environmental puzzles; also, you get a boomerang, hookshot, a power gauntlet, two different types of bomb, and your own horse. It abandons the traditional overworld-dungeon setup of Zelda in favor of a single cohesive game world that you can navigate with teleporters and new equipment, "Metroidvania"-style.
A lot of people - a lot of people - are trying to write Darksiders off as a God of War clone based upon the combat, and it's an entirely valid criticism. The combo system is simplistic, but you weaken opponents with basic attacks until you have the chance to tear them limb from limb with the Circle or B button.
That said, Kratos goes after enemies like a force of nature, and many of them aren't obstacles so much as bloody minigames. War, on the other hand, is a much more fragile protagonist; he has much of his power stripped from him at the start of the game, so most of your opponents actually stand a legitimate chance of killing him. You don't plow straight into any but the weakest enemies; instead you carefully circle around them, waiting for an opportunity to counterattack. It reminds me a great deal of Ninja Gaiden, really, in that many commonly-encountered enemies can be dangerous.
Darksiders scatters a couple of dozen homages throughout its twelve to fifteen hours, too. About an hour and a half in, you steal a hippogriff and go flying around a devastated city, Panzer Dragoon-style. Half of one of the areas is devoted to fighting enemies with a giant turret that fires explosive bolts, which is vaguely reminiscent of the parts of Halo 3 when you can rip a mounted gun off its tripod and go nuts on something. When you reclaim your faithful horse, the ensuing gameplay is some demented blend of Dynasty Warriors and Space Harrier. About halfway through, you gain the ability to slow down time in specific areas. Near the end of the game, you get a damned portal gun.
A lot of people writing games criticism like to throw around the word "innovation," and often cite the lack thereof as a negative quality. Darksiders could not be less original; you can track almost every facet of its gameplay directly back to another triple-A console title.
This isn't a bad thing at all, though. Darksiders isn't brainlessly imitating gameplay trends, the way that Halo gave rise to a generation of first-person shooters with recharging health and limited weapons, or the mediocre sandbox crime games that followed the success of Grand Theft Auto III.
There isn't a sense of intellectual bankruptcy about what Darksiders uses from other games, like they put in all of these things because a focus group and a marketing team thought they were good ideas. (You don't see a lot of people rushing to imitate 3D Zelda any more, after all.) Darksiders does all of this because the developers thought these were cool things, and the result is a kind of gameplay museum tour. This is what Vigil Games likes in an adventure game, and they hope you agree.
Overall, it's successful. Darksiders changes up its basic gameplay with surprising regularity, so there's always something new going on. Every time the world expands, you get a new way to navigate it. Every time the combat's getting a little dull, you get access to new weapons or magic, or you go for a lengthy period of time without having to get into any real fights.
Darksiders isn't an entirely flawless experience, of course. My biggest complaint is that the game loves to hit you with one big enemy surrounded by a dozen smaller ones, so your camera lock inevitably grabs the wrong opponent first. After that, I have very serious issues with the quick dodge, which doesn't cover enough ground to be useful for its intended purpose; you have to actually start moving away from an enemy before you use it to avoid an attack. If I'm using an in-game dodge move in the first place, I'd prefer that I not have to put some English on it before it's useful.
Really, all of the issues come down to the combat system. The exploration and platforming are just fine. As you go through the game, you'll frequently encounter obstacles in the environment that keep you from progressing, which strike a nice balance between challenging and frustrating. I found I was usually a few moments' thought away from getting through any of them, which was satisfying.
The game ends with a really blatant sequel hook, and the buzz about the game is better than I thought it'd be. Darksiders could use a few overhauls to its combat system before it's a truly great game, but what's here is an entertaining series of shameless thefts.