Previewing Joe Mad's "Darksiders II"

When the original "Darksiders" debuted in early 2010, it helped launch a strong gaming year for THQ, with its post-apocalyptic vibe and its non-stop action. It told the story of War, one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, fighting back against a demon horde as part of his penance for creating such havoc in the first place.

"Darksiders" also marked a big transition for comic creator Joe Madureira, known for his work on "Uncanny X-Men" at Marvel Comics and his creator-owned "Battle Chasers" series. He worked closely with his Austin-based studio at Vigil Games to make sure "Darksiders" had the proper tone going for it, a dark, decadent vibe that stayed with the player over the course of War's journey.

Madureira and his team have returned, working once again with THQ on the follow-up to its end-of-the-world fable. Rather than a traditional sequel following the events of the original, "Darksiders II" coincides with them, spinning off in a different direction and following another Horseman of the Apocalypse, Death, on his own quest for vengeance.

Following his capture on Earth, War is sent to the Charred Council and convicted of creating the apocalypse that largely wiped out mankind. Upon being sent on his merry little way, the Council informs the other Horsemen of War's fate. Death, a fellow rider who feels that War is too honorable and incorruptible to be responsible for such crimes, decides to take matters into his own hands and prove War's innocence, despite the Council's objection. Players guide him into the Nether Realms, a place perched between Heaven and Hell, to get some answers -- provided an onslaught of demon enemies don't try to squash him first. (Yes, it seems Death can be killed.)

THQ released a fresh, new trailer this week for the GamesCom event in Germany, showing off more backstory than what we saw at Comic-Con International: San Diego. As Death proceeds on his path of destruction, he'll run into a number of characters, some menacing, some providing a little bit of help -- in exchange for collected souls. Undead creatures and other demons are running across these stages, and Death must eliminate them in order to collect these souls, making deals with these unlikely types and proceeding on his way. The sequel makes use of the same bartering system introduced in the first game, and it looks like it'll work the same way here, though all the items available for purchase haven't been revealed yet.

Madureira's influence is easily noticeable in "Darksiders II," not only in character design, but also stage design and story. Vigil Games is once again going all out when it comes to mood and atmosphere, rather than just setting the stage for another rip-off of Sony's "God of War" series. Every step you take in the Nether Realms actually feels like you're wandering around in a believable oblivion, if you will, fending off creatures that get in your way and occasionally solving puzzles involving levers, switches and other traps in order to proceed. Your fellow Horsemen, Fury and Strife, will also make appearances during the game, though THQ hasn't yet confirmed in what capacity. War is expected to show up as well, since Death is trying to save his neck in the first place. No word yet if The Watcher, one of the most interesting characters from the first game, will return, but we wouldn't be surprised if he did (and we hope that Mark Hamill voices him again).

The scope of the level design in "Darksiders II" is massive compared to the original. The stages are twice as big this time around, giving Death a lot more to explore, including multiple paths above ground and underwater (without having to worry about drowning, obviously) that allow players to locate secret chests that contain power-ups and energy refills. There are also small dungeons that Death will venture through, all of which are interconnected through city hubs. He can travel quite easily between them, and occasionally pick up side missions for extra souls or power-ups by talking with townsfolk and completing their tasks. These are optional missions, but ideal for completists who want to cover every aspect of what "Darksiders II" has to offer.

Death should have the same kind of maneuverability that War had in the original game. He'll be able to latch onto gratings, ceilings and rails, moving around in a speedy fashion -- a bit of a surprise considering the weight of his armor. In addition, Death can slide along walls (ideal for deep descents) and possibly even use Shadowflight to glide to newer areas. (This is where a pair of dark angel wings pops out and swoop him around, as the player keeps control of him.) He's also got a terrific combat style, using a pair of scythes to cut his enemies to ribbons, with the option of using additional weaponry picked up over the course of the game. No word yet what those weapons are, but it would be interesting to see the Cross Blade, a variation of the classic Glaive from the movie "Krull," make a return. It's not only handy for activating switches, but also gutting an enemy in a pinch.

While we're uncertain what secondary weapons will appear in "Darksiders II," we do know the game features an in-depth power-up system, enabling Death to increase his attack patterns and armor effects. By "looting" enemies of their souls, you can turn around and spend them across 12 different armor piece categories, improving Death's performance in a number of ways. Though we've only seen bits and pieces of the Horseman in action, it looks like there's going to be a lot you can do with him.

As mentioned, Joe Madureira's influence is clearly on display in "Darksiders II's" visual design, even more so than in the original. You can see every crack in the Nether Realms hiding something sinister, whether it's an enormous gargoyle ready to eat you alive or lifeless zombies trying to surround you on the ground. The dark, Goth-like design of the game is impeccable, even in this early stage of its development, and it doesn't look like the team at Vigil Games is skimping on the details in the slightest. Death's character creation is also quite good, hiding him behind an impenetrable bone mask, making him a foreboding force inspiring fear in anyone who dares face him. The other diabolical monsters in the game, particularly the huge, almost unstoppable boss creatures, look fantastic as well, even though we only managed to catch glimpses of them. Something tells us Death's job will be anything but easy.

The first game showcased a soundtrack as atmospheric as the visuals with shadowy, foreboding tones and orchestral majesty, and if the advances on the visual side are any indication, we expect the same this time around from the audio. The sound effects should also be quite good, as Death's scythes rip into anything that gets in their way. As for voice acting, the company has already put its best foot forward by hiring an ideal actor to fill Death's role: Michael Wincott, a veteran of films including "The Crow" and "Alien: Resurrection." Wincott gives Death just the right tone, portraying him with the utmost confidence without wandering into a "too cocky for his own good" territory. Based on this decision, we're positive the rest of the voice cast will be stellar as well.

"Darksiders II" includes a single player campaign that spans several hours, keeping players busy as they build Death to his maximum potential. Unfortunately, despite the presence of all four Horsemen, the game will not include a multiplayer mode. When speaking with THQ, we learned a potential multiplayer mode was scrapped because each Horseman would need to be programmed individually, a process that would force the game to be delayed. Considering THQ is banking on the title as one of its 2012 tentpoles, they didn't want to see this happen.

That said, Death's journey looks to be just as thrilling as War's in the first "Darksiders," and "Darksiders II" should be a strong continuation for both Joe Madureira and Vigil Games' legacies in game development. The visuals should push even further than the original game did, and the gameplay should be excellent for fans of hack-and-slash games of this nature. Don't be afraid to answer the door when Death comes a-knocking next year for Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and Nintendo Wii. He's not coming for you -- this time, anyway.

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