To many gamers, the original Darksiders was a fun surprise during the first week of 2010. Releasing in what is usually the most barren season for game launches, Darksiders was known for blending the art of Joe Madureira with the frenetic action of God of War and the cerebral dungeon solving of The Legend of Zelda. The game delivered a fairly solid action-adventure experience, if not a bit familiar to those who played its influences. With Darksiders 2, Vigil Games has upped the epic quotient of the franchise severalfold. The developers have created a world to explore that is double the size of the previous game, while also promising around a 25-30 hour playtime for the campaign, up from about 12-15 hours from the first game. Needless to say, Darksiders 2 is a long game. While I haven't been able to complete the copy of the game THQ sent CA in its entirety yet, I've played through the first several dungeons and have some positive thoughts to share about the experience so far.

Those who played through the first Darksiders may remember how sparse and boring the introductory sections of that game were from both a graphical and gameplay point of view. Vigil Games has definitely learned from their last go around as Darksiders 2 starts off at a brisk pace in a beautifully drawn snow environment and doesn't let up from there. As you begin the game, you're offered the opportunity to ride on an awesome skeletal horse named Despair, with glowing green flames emanating from its hoofs. That's right, the first area of the game is so expansive as to allow you to get acclimated to the controls while on a mounted steed. Within minutes, Death is knee deep in a labyrinth, spelunking with the grace of the Prince of Persia and slashing enemies with the fury of Kratos.

It may be important to point out that the Horseman of the Apocalypse du jour in Darksiders 2 is Death, rather than War from the first game. Plot timeline-wise, the story of sequel actually takes place prior to the events of the first game, as Death fights to clear his brother's name from prematurely causing the Apocalypse while also finding time to resurrect humanity. In all honesty, I've forgotten most of the story details of the first game, but the game does a good enough job of referencing the previous story early on that you feel caught up anyway. I imagine that even if you hadn't played the first game, that you would be fine starting your Darksiders Universe experience with Darksiders 2.

One of the main draws for playing this game as a comics fan is the inescapable involvement of Madureira. As Creative Director for the game, Madureira's influences can readily be seen in all of the character designs. I'm an admitted fan of his superhero comics work, dating back to his run on Uncanny X-Men in the 1990s as well as his oft-delayed Battle Chasers. While the character models in Darksiders 2 may not showcase the heavy manga influence that Madureira's comic pencils do, they do look great in fully animated 3D models. If you aren't a fan of beefy, over-exaggerated character designs, though, your impression of the visuals may vary.

Where Darksiders 2 makes the greatest leap in scope from the first game is in character customization. Enemies and treasure chests now drop individual, color-coded rarity-based (similar to Blizzard's Diablo series) equipment pieces that you can slap onto each portion of Death's body. We're talking a full slate of gear, including a primary and secondary weapon, shoulder pieces, gloves, boots, amulets - the whole nine yards. Even more interesting is the "Possessed Weapons" upgrade system where you can "sacrifice" old gear to make certain possessed weapon drops more powerful. So far, I've had some interesting decisions on whether to simply sell my old gear for money or whether I should feed them to the few possessed equipment pieces that I have. Death will also gain experience levels and money from completing quests and killing monsters. At each level up, you'll have the opportunity to place a point in a branching skill tree that grants Death new action skills as well as upgrades them. You can also spend your money to learn more combat combos, skills, and buy new equipment from the blacksmith. There's even a little persistent multiplayer component as you can mail and receive equipment pieces to your Xbox Live or PlayStation Network friends. Darksiders 2 gives players plenty to do, but all of these options haven't proven confusing or overly tedious so far.

The Darksiders series may get a bad rap from some critics for being too derivative of other iconic games. It's easy to see where the influences of games like Prince of Persia, God of War, Shadow of the Colossus, and The Legend of Zelda all fit in. Wall running platforming, large button icons hovering over near-dead enemies for execution, dungeon maps and bomb flower puzzles - hell, I was even reminded of Ryu Hayabusa from Ninja Gaiden with Death running along walls and slashing enemies with his two sets of weapons. However, I think there's a point at which the amalgamation of so many gameplay influences ceases to be derivative and instead starts to take on a unique character of its own. Even though I'm still a merely fraction of my way through the main Darksiders 2 campaign, the overall playing experience thus far has been so natural, that I'd characterize the game as having found its own identity by successfully melding different gameplay genres.

If there's one thing that I have been underwhelmed with by the game so far, it's the lack of a compelling narrative thread. Yes, resurrecting humanity is a pretty ambitious goal, but most of the early game "questing" involve finding a doohickey for one person or flipping a lever for another. While I'm aware of Death's ultimate goal, early game quests could, for all intents and purposes, be outsourced to FedEx. Despite this, though, the game never gets as overly decompressed and tedious as the most recent Legend of Zelda games in between dungeons. I'd much rather be riding a horse named Despair through expansive fields, while hacking at enemies from above, than be chasing cats and chickens through pots in a sunny village.

Darksiders 2 has been a blast thus far because of its driving pace, exciting combat, and fluid platforming. If you were a fan of the first game, I'd recommend picking this one up without hesitation. Even if you haven't, it still might be worth checking out. Vigil has essentially created a "gaming's greatest hits" compilation and in a world with limited free time, sometimes the greatest hits collection is the best way to go.

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