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Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Late to the Party Reviews: Darksiders

They say when you’re looking for a mate, you should find someone who is strong in areas you’re weak, and vice versa. That way you can bolster each other and provide support during difficult times. In that spirit, it’s worth noting that my wife is a big fan of Zelda games, while I am not.

It’s all about temperament, really. She’s more of a How gamer, while I’m more of a What gamer. Puzzles are her thing. But she doesn’t have the experience I have driving dual analog sticks, so modern Zelda-type games are more difficult for her.

But Modern Zelda type games are good for us to collaborate on. She can help guide me on the puzzle solving, which I’m weak on, and I can mow down enemies and complete jumping puzzles, which she is weak on. I drive, she navigates.

Just like in the car, but with less angry grumbling about the fact that nobody in New England knows how to make or hang a street sign.

This is how we came to be in possession of a copy of Darksiders for the PS3. Too much combat for my wife’s tastes, but too much puzzle solving and block moving for mine, Darksiders is a game that neither of us would have picked up on our own. But together, as a team, it’s several flavors of excellent.

The plot revolves around War, one of the 4 fabled horsemen of the Apocalypse. He is summoned to oversee the apocalypse and maintain the balance between the forces of heaven and hell. Of course, he’s not supposed to be alone. But he is. Being the dutiful type, War sets about his work while presuming that Plague took a sick day, Famine is at lunch and Pestilence is having his house tented.

Slackers.

It turns out that the apocalypse wasn’t supposed to happen, and the other horsemen were never summoned, and weren’t just holding out for better pension benefits after all. The world of humankind is destroyed, the balance is out of whack, and everyone is blaming War.

Now stripped of most of his powers, and his horse, War convinces the Council, aka the powers that be, to grant him passage to Earth so that he might find out what happened and bring the responsible parties to justice.

Thus, we are thrown headlong into a conspiracy that involves angel and demon alike.

The game is structured like your typical Zelda game, or so I’m told by the Missus, who has played the typical Zelda games. You set out on your quest, only to find that the guy who knows where you need to go wants you to collect three things for him. So you do, only to find that you need to collect seven more things to access the place that the guy who wanted three things told you to go. You will face bosses that are so confident in their own power that they store the only weapon that can kill them in a crate right next to the entrance of their home. Also you find currency and health if you open chests or hit chickens with your sword.

Well, just kidding about the chickens. This game his giant bugs and bats instead, and they attack you back.

The game has been criticized for being derivative of other games. There is some merit to that: The best way to describe the game is to say it’s Legend of Zelda with God of War’s combat and World of Warcraft’s art style (also known as the Never-mess-with-a-man-who’s-fists-are-larger-than-his-head-and-has-white-hair school of design), with some puzzle elements from Portal (you actually get a gun that shoots orange and blue portals at one point in the game)

But let’s be honest here: If you make a game that gets favorably compared to Legend of Zelda, God of War, World of Warcraft and Portal all in the same sentence, I can’t think of logic tortured enough to conclude that the end product is a bad game. It’s like complaining that a pizza has sausage, pepperoni, meat balls and peppers on it. Sure, you’ve enjoyed all of those things before. But now here they all are in one place, with a tasty crust, homemade sauce and three kinds of cheese.

You might as well criticize a Swiss army knife for being too useful, or criticize John Ford for making too many movies with John Wayne in them. The very question is absurd.

The game features a good blend of puzzles and action. The twitch gamer in me that took years to make its peace with the death of the arcade didn’t get bored, while at the same time the puzzle gamer in my wife who finds it tedious to watch me mow down enemy after enemy with an over-compensatory sword didn’t lose interest in helping me figure out how to go about bouncing an energy beam off of six mirrors by slowing down time and lighting a torch with a boomerang in order to get the energy beam into a portal that sends it to a kind of mystical capacitor that stores energy beams until a path to another mystical capacitor is made.

And no, I’m not kidding. Except it might have been seven mirrors.

The controls took some getting used to, I’m not ashamed to admit, but it works well considering how much the game lets you do. This is a game that would have been made for the PC ten years ago, and probably would work on the PC today if there were any money in that niche market of Triple-A-PC-Games-that-are-not-developed-by-Valve. (Send hate mail to…). On the console, I occasionally found myself wishing for a Nostromo or an updated version of the old Atari Jaguar controller, because twelve buttons and two analog sticks barely covers everything you need in order to play Darksiders effectively.

Basic combat and puzzle solving is straightforward enough (X to jump, Square to attack, circle to grab), but when you get into spots where you’re fighting off legions of hard-to-kill mini-boss type enemies who are being aided by easier to kill run-of-the-mill enemies and you have to summon your chaos form, or use a rage-based ability (that’s right, you have both a chaos meter and a rage meter, which enable you to do different things) while blocking, dodging and figuring out which alternate weapon would be most efficacious in dispatching the hordes of enemies, it’s really easy to accidentally summon your horse or use a health potion before you actually need it.

As with any game that tries to go 3D with a third-person perspective, the camera sometimes gets in your way. For the most part it’s no problem at all, and it works better than a good 80 to 90 percent of the third person action game cameras out there. But there is this boss fight against a critter that can teleport, and who does so quickly and often, where I died a number of times just because the camera whipping around the keep him in view was so disorienting.

But these are minor quibbles. The complexity of the controls is mitigated by the fact that the game eases you into your abilities with a nice, gentle learning curve. By the time you need to do anything really complicated, you’re pretty close to the end of the game. And while a few of the bosses are frustrating (there is one that involves using portals to jump on his back, but the portals only work if you stand very still and hope you don’t get hit by the boss’ unblockable, almost undodgeable attacks) most of them are challenging without being cheap. The final boss in particular was a good example. Without getting into spoiler territory, I was out of health potions and darn dear dead when I struck the final, triumphant blow.

And yes, it was an actual attack. Each boss fight, as with the rest of Darksiders in general, is refreshingly free of quicktime events. The worst offenses in this category involve a few minor “tap circle as fast as you can” instances, and the “press circle to finish him” moves. But since circle is mapped to a context-sensitive grab move anyway, those moves don’t really count as QTEs.

I would heartily recommend Darksiders to anyone who has a bit of the puzzle-gamer in them. For my part, even though I had to marry my puzzle gamer, I thoroughly enjoyed it and I eagerly await the sequel that the ending so blatantly set up.

Worth 55 out of 60 dollars, for those of you who must apply a number to everything.