Hands-On With Death In Joe Mad and THQ's "Darksiders II"

THQ set the stage for its hands-on demo of "Darksiders II" accordingly in San Francisco just over a week ago with a huge Death mask hung overhead, closed caskets laid on the sides and a presentation screen ready to show bits and pieces from the extended demo taking place roughly six hours into the game. The original "Darksiders" released in 2010 marked creative director/fan-favorite comics artist Joe Madureira's video game debut, telling a startlingly original story revolving around War, a Horseman of the Apocalypse who inadvertently causes terrible events for Earth, forcing action to resolve them. Now, Madureira's Vigil Games is back for the next installment in the "Darksiders" saga.

However, the sequel doesn't put players back into War's shoes. Instead, "Darksiders II" focuses on Death, a fellow Horseman who's traveling to deeper areas within the underworld in an attempt to clear War's name. The events if "Darksiders II" actually occur at the same time as "Darksiders," with Death following his own game plan, using his weapons and nimble acrobatics to travel through the huge, exploration-worthy levels.

"Darksiders II" shows a much more expansive design than the original release. In fact, the Vigil team explained the stages have grown nearly four times in size, something the demo showcased first hand in the Maker's Realm stage. Here, Death sets out to awaken a Construct, a large stone creature embedded within the middle of the Realm. In order to reactive the Construct, Death needs to retrieve three heart stones scattered within a nearby Foundry. Aiding Death is Karn, a large Scottish warrior who can hold his own in a fight -- and also proves useful when it comes to carrying the Stones.

At first, it's easy to get lost within this enormous stage without any indicators of where to go save for the provided strategy guide next to the demo station. Vigil explained the final game will include improvements to the navigation system, so players can ask for a prompt where to go next. However, it's not necessary to use and going off the beaten path can provide ample rewards, such as bonus goods for Death's personal use as well as collectible hidden glyphs scattered throughout the game.

Traversing through the stage was somewhat tricky at first but once we got used to Death's physical prowess, we moved onward. He's quite handy when it comes to running along walls and hoisting himself up to higher ledges, as well as using a "Death grip." With this special ability, he can grab objects -- such as a lowering chain or a post on the side of a wall -- and jump off of them for an extra boost. He can also grab items like exploding mines or activation keys, which can be inserted into switches to lower bridges or elevators. He can also swim through water when the situation calls for it.

In addition to his physical capabilities, Death also has the ability to activate Custodians. These large stone beings are quite helpful throughout each stage. Players can ride one over lava or fire a chain across a chasm to climb across. Another lends a hand during a puzzle segment, needing to be crushed down so Death can roll him over onto a switch. Sadly, the Custodian's loyalty only went so far in the demo, having been infected by a corrupt heart stone, forcing a mini-boss battle where it needed to be destroyed.

It's here we were introduced to Death's varied style of combat. Much like War in the original "Darksiders," the masked warrior can chain together combo attacks and occasionally call on the power of his dark side to grow massive skeleton wings, lifting himself up for a devastating final attack. He can also pick up additional weapons scattered by enemies after each fight including a more powerful scythe as well as various pieces of armor, which can be equipped at any time through a sub-menu. When it comes to firing long-range, Death packs a mean pistol that can easily do damage to most enemies.

The combat can be overwhelming at times, particularly when Death is surrounded, but Karn is a helpful advantage, not afraid to charge in as a non-playable character and keep enemies distracted while you finish them off. The Custodian is also excellent when it comes to smashing groups of demons, using large fists to pound them into the depths of the underworld -- until he turns.

Puzzles occasionally popped up during the demo, such as an interesting room where you need to jump up to out-of-reach vines. After a little exploration and finding a switch that moved the Custodian and its chain to higher ground, we were finally able to move ahead, getting to the final piece of the heart stone to activate the Construct. Unfortunately, it's all for naught as it awakens and like the Custodian, also becomes corrupted.

This introduced the final part of the demo, the "boss battle" with the giant, hulking beast. This battle was reminiscent to Sony's "Shadow of the Colossus" and Konami's "Castlevania: Lords of Shadow" as you systematically have to attack its weak points to stop it, starting with shooting the explosive material on its arm and then switching to your pistol when a large rolling mine threats to squash you and your faithful steed, the dark yet speedy Despair. Although there were some frustrating elements to this battle (particularly when the Construct swings its hammer down with a nearly unavoidable impact radius), it was definitely a memorable battle, larger than anything that had been seen previously in the original "Darksiders."

Madureira and his team at Vigil Games have put a lot of work into the intricate design of "Darksiders II," making the underworld setting stand out in this particular stage. Lava fluidly flows off the walls and its orange glow lights up the hallways you traverse. What's more, the outdoor environments are simply stunning, particularly the valley with the Construct battle. The animation did stop up at times, like when the screen swarmed with enemies, but the final version of the game should run just as smoothly as the original game. The animations are impressive -- particularly Death, who swoops around like a master swordsman in combat but has plenty of speed and agility running along walls and along ledges.

Not all of the audio components were in place for the game as of the demo. Some lines of dialogue are missing and only one continuous music track played throughout. Even without the full sound experience, Michael Wincott, who previously appeared on "Lost" and "The Crow," really stands out voicing Death. He provides just the right amount of malice and doesn't go overboard with the character. The actor who voices Karn also does a solid job, though the accent is laid on a bit thick.

Even if there were some mild frustrations (or "stuck points," where someone needed to come over and mildly explain something), "Darksiders II" leaves quite an impression. The larger level design is stunning if a bit overwhelming and the mixture of puzzle solving, platforming and combat is just about right. With Madureira at the helm, the story is sure to be just as good as the original game, with a few surprises in store. The whole team seems to be on the main page, setting the stage for Death's mighty return in just a few months' time. We can't wait to see what the rest of the game is like.

"Darksiders II" arrives in stores on June 26 in the U.S., for Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC with a Wii U release later in 2012.

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