"Cheer up," your friends might say. "It's not the end of the world." Only this time, it really is. Massive holes have appeared in the Earth, and bizarre creatures have torn everyone you know into bloody chunks. The global death toll is in the millions. The seas are boiling. Dogs and cats are living together... and everyone says it's your fault.
There's no denying that Darksiders has a pretty sharp story. The apocalypse has happened "a little bit early," and everyone is angrily pointing the finger at War - the co-worker and drinking buddy of Death, Famine and Pestilence. The thing is, it's not his fault - and now the legendary horseman has to clear his name, setting out on a journey through the scarred wreckage of the Earth. If he can survive the celestial fight that's erupted, he might be able to regain some of his powers and find the person (or creature) that framed him.
As unusual and enticing as this plot may be, the core gameplay for Darksiders looks very familiar: it's a third-person action game with lots of combos, quicktime finishing moves and a dash of RPG-like levelling up. There are massive bosses to defeat, a few puzzles to solve, and the odd spot of platforming. In short, it's all stuff we're used to dealing with - particularly in an age where the third-person slasher/shooter is the world's most popular genre. There's nothing wrong with being part of the prevailing trend, of course, but it does mean that there are an awful lot of games to be compared against.
Luckily it seems as if Vigil Games is running a fairly tight ship. The basic controls seem pretty smooth and fluid, allowing you to concentrate on whatever battle happens to be currently unfolding. Mr War has two attack buttons at his disposal which he can use to string together blows from his sword and Hellboy-like giant fist, plus a third button for picking things up. Even in his diminished state the horseman is a force to be reckoned with - and during the demo levels I played he was quite at ease grabbing cars and lobbing them at the hapless zombies now wandering the world. The same button can be used to pick up smaller enemies, at which point War will crush their head or hurl them around. In addition to these basic attacks, you'll also get access to special weapons and items that can be mapped to the D-pad for quick access.
As things currently lie, the real standout feature of Darksiders is its dark and unusual setting. The game kicks off in the ruins of a hotel of some sort, with you learning the controls as you battle zombies and climb through a car park and a devastated dining room. When you finally get outside, you're greeted with an impressively bleak-looking urban landscape - a city disfigured by massive canyons and craters, winged demons stalking about next to the walking dead. As you kill enemies their souls fly out of their bodies and into yours; spirits come in three different colours and act as health boosts, currency for demonic traders, or energy for high-power Wrath attacks. One of your first quests in the game is to gather 400 souls for a skeletal merchant who arises from a portal in the ground, and there's something enjoyably nasty about the whole task. This isn't exactly your standard rescue-the-damsel heroic quest - you're harvesting human souls and then selling them to a nightmare with a bony face. Still, needs must as the Devil (or the apocalypse) drives.
Once you've handed the souls over you're given a mysterious horn that allows you to pass a large stone gate. As it turns out, the horn actually wakes the gate from some kind of slumber deep slumber - the whole structure turns into a granite giant and goes stomping off down the road. This unexpected expected event results in a barbed comment from The Watcher - a sort of demonic chaperone who accompanies War on his travels. Although the full ins and outs of the plot have yet to be revealed, it seems as if The Watcher has been assigned to War by some form of heavenly authority. Our anti-hero is none too pleased about this state of affairs since it effectively turns him into a dog on a leash, but at least the demon is on hand to give help with puzzles and to guide the player to his next destination. The Watcher is also voiced by none other than Mark Hamill, and his spiny performance helps add a bit of edge to War's adventures.
The journey undertaken by War and The Watcher will bear certain similarities to the Zelda games, in that new abilities will open up further areas of the world for exploration. It seems as if much of the mid-game action will be concerned with fighting and defeating four creatures who serve The Destroyer - it's not clear who he is, but I'm guessing he's the main villain of the story. THQ's demonstration day offered a chance to battle the first of this demonic quartet - a winged monstrosity known as The Bat Queen. Before confronting her you'll need to battle your way through a gothic cathedral, an impressive level that trains you in the tools you'll ultimately need to defeat its boss - a sort of giant shuriken-like weapon, and demonic sticky bombs.
This preparation-before-confrontation setup seems fine, and the following battle with the Queen seemed suitably epic - a challenging fight that required the player to learn her attack patterns before battering her weak spot. This old-school approach work fine in this instance, but I wasn't so convinced by a similar use of "traditional" game design that arose earlier in the demo. It seems that between levels you'll sometimes encounter flying sequences in which you'll fight enemies from the back of an airborne creature. In the section I played, War rode what looked like a giant eagle as he was pursued by demons through an underground tunnel. This essentially amounted to an on-rails shooter where the player controls his birdie with one analogue stick while aiming his shots with the other. The whole thing came across as Space Harrier: Bible Blast Extreme Edition, and not in a good way either. With any luck there won't be too many of these in the final game, or perhaps these interludes will improve during the QA process. Let's hope so, anyway.
As I've said, it looks as if a strong streak of originality may help to give this game a badly-needed edge in a crowded genre. God of War 3 is looming on the near horizon, while EA's Dante's Inferno is also exploring the topic of biblical-themed violence, so War and his chums will need to be at the top of their game. Still, Darksiders has got a fighting chance, and if Vigil can ensure that its action matches the creativity of the concept then there could be plenty to enjoy here.
Darksiders: Wrath of War will be released later this year on PS3 and Xbox 360.