San Francisco is known for some rad sights. The City by the Bay's got the Golden Gate Bridge, a neighborhood that sounds like it hates... ash berries? and that house the Tanner girls grew up in. I didn't really see any of those last week when I visited to attend a hands-on event for THQ and Vigil Games' upcoming Darksiders II, but I did see a version of the horseman Death who looks like a fusion of Casey Jones and Skeletor cut through a bunch of monsters, run along walls and ride around on some magical robots, all in the art style of Joe Madureira. Want to hear more about my Darksiders II experience? You got it, dude.

The first Darksiders game followed a horseman of the apocalypse known as War. Framed for bringing on the end of the world at the wrong time by sinister forces, War fought to clear his name and uncover the plot behind reality's peril. Naturally, things got complicated, paving a clear path for a sequel. Darksiders II, of course, is that sequel and tells the story of his brother and fellow horseman, Death.

Members of the press were given access to a build that takes place about 6-7 hours into Death's adventures, which run parallel to that of the first game. At this point, Death is in a place known as the Makers' Realm, which is home to a race of cosmic sorta-Scottish blacksmith dudes who look and act like colorful, tall Gimlis. The realm is a diverse place, with lava pits, crystal clear pools of water, stone spires and enchanted-looking forests spread across a spacious map that THQ noted was larger than the entirety of the first Darksiders Game (this game will have something like 4 main zones and more than 25 dungeons, plus extras -- it's huge). Its scale is important because, in this dungeon, Death's job is to team up with Karn the blacksmith to activate a skyscraper-sized fantasy mech called a Guardian.

To awaken the Guardian, Death and Karn have to do some fairly standard dungeon stuff -- namely, collecting three magic items that power the Guardian by solving puzzles, collecting keys and clearing environments of a few different sets of ugly monsters. I call this standard stuff, but this build of Darksiders II managed to feel fresh. Unlike his more stoic, sword-slashing tank of a brother, Death moves like an assassin or thief. A lot of folks compared the first Darksiders to the God of War and the Legend of Zelda games. I'd say this game traded out GoW for a Prince of Persia influence, and that's a good thing if you dig wall-running, grappling and extended jumping sequences that depend on deft timing. I wasn't in love with how heavy War felt in the first game, so playing with Death's speed and agility was literally a great change of pace.

One of the things I appreciated about the build right off the bat was how well the AI worked. As sidekicks go, Karn kept gameplay going without giving away puzzle solutions or getting in the way of the action. Most importantly, he didn't act like a nag or spout the same annoying dialogue over and over again (maybe I've been playing Skyrim too long?). Given his approximated Scottish accent, the dude could've sounded like a drunken mashup of all 17 Shrek movies strung together, but Karn keeps it cool and ends up a likable extension of the dungeon's storyline. If the rest of the NPC's in Darksiders II work half as well as Karn, players can look forward to focusing on their adventuring rather than trying to decode another some other character's behavior.

I also thought the game's addition of upgradable -- and almost collectible -- armor and weapons was a nice touch. Defeating enemies and smashing certain debris in the dungeon left Death with new items to snatch up and add to a robust, but not daunting, inventory. The weapons and armor all had their own unique stats, which RPG junkies should enjoy cycling through. If you're not as interested in customizing Death's add-ons, the build made it seem like it won't be super crucial to advance through the game, minute-to-minute. Most melee weapons seemed to inflict enough damage that a player who enjoys chaining combos or even button-mashing can get by without too much stress. Weapons and accessories are readily available and easy to swap either way, though.

Some of the most fun I had in the build was activating and tooling around on Maker Custodians, which are like the Makers' versions of Ride Armor from Megaman X (and similar golems or mechs in other games). These machines are required to navigate the large map's lava fields and are also used to activate certain switches and advance Death to a number of areas via line-launchers. They've also got big mitts that can smash smaller foes with ease. If you ever wanted to play a game as Calibretto from Madureira's Battle Chasers comic, this is about as close as you're going to get.

Death's acrobatic challenges I mentioned earlier ended up being my downfall at the event. I wish I could blame it on a buggy build, but my inability to properly chain some grapples, a few jumps and some wall-running wound up keeping me from facing the game's huge boss while riding a creepy glowing horse. For the most part, I found Death's agility intuitive and more rewarding than that of games that use super heavy-handed guidance systems, so I'm going to chalk my failure up more to impatience and fatigue than to cumbersome design. Still, it was frustrating. The more swift bloggers around my station breezed through the build, so I put down my Xbox controller for a bit to watch their battles. It looked like a lot more fun than repeatedly falling into deadly lava, especially as my Charlie Brown-style mutterings of "rats!" (I was probably saying something worse than that after my eleventh death) were starting to become audible to those around me. I guess that's a testament to a difficultly level better players -- or those with more time to improve -- will find satisfying.

Though I left the Darksiders II event feeling a little frustrated for not having cleared the boss battle myself, I had an overall solid time with the game. It's a clear improvement over its predecessor in almost every regard and suited my taste for 3D adventuring. However you feel about Madureira's comic art over the past few years (I wasn't really into his Ultimates stuff, but I liked his art on Avenging Spider-Man), his work as creative director on Darksiders II looks like it's going to deliver when the full game drops on June 26. Just be ready to take a yoga class or something if you're not a natural at all of Death's acrobatic moves, or you might miss out on what looked like an epic battle.

Darksiders II trailer

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