Monday, September 17, 2012

Two notes on Darksiders 2

Last night I finished an epic -- for me -- drive through Darksiders 2. I've been playing it for two weeks now. (It was my self-reward for the last HL milestone.) I think the counter on my save slot reached 36 hours. I know that's not large for a modern RPG, and weighs as a feather in the MMO world, but I don't play those genres much; for me, this is an enormous game.

Fortunately for me (I count my ambivalence quietly), the immersive, 3D, explore-puzzle-fight genre is in a gentle recession these days -- at least on consoles. I suppose its golden age ran from Tomb Raider to Sands of Time? There have been some excellent ones recently, mind you; Arkham Asylum counts, Bioshock counts, and we shouldn't neglect the finely-written Enslaved. But, again, those were rather smaller. I won't expect to burn this kind of time again until (presumably) a Darksiders 3 appears in (presumably) three years or so.

My first comment mirrors what I said about the original Darksiders: The writing is adequate. The acting, ditto. The plot is an overcomplicated mess, floating in a tepid goulash of Milton, Revelation, and second-string Vertigo. The characters are stock cardboard ("oh, look, a big grim muscleman") and every single game mechanic is lifted from an earlier game. But so what because the level design and puzzle construction are the best all-around work in the genre.

I say "all-around" design work. When a Darksiders game pulls out a portal gun, I don't expect them to out-portal Valve. Portal and Portal 2 are deep explorations of one concept; DS and DS2 use a limited version of that concept in a limited way. But they get the concept, and -- more importantly -- they get all of their other puzzle concepts, and they get how these mechanics can be bounced off each other in continually surprising ways. Combinations that you have to think of. By the end of DS2 we have done Prince-of-Persia wall runs into portals, we have swung on Link's hookshot into portals, we have used portals to connect -- oh, you'll see. Those were the easy examples, anyhow. (We have not pushed a crate into a portal, because that's too easy.)

And all of these mechanics are built into landscapes with a sense of history, a sense of scale, a sense of use and decay. Landscapes that don't feel like they're made out of puzzle-legos. Also, landscapes that are pretty. Very, very pretty. Pretty can't save a poor game, but it sure does boost a well-designed one.

(When I say puzzle-legos, I'm not dissing on Portal. Portal's design sense starts with grid-block test chambers, but it knows when to break out into tilts and curves and organic decay. Tomb Raider games, in contrast, can't always manage that.)

So. Best design sense in the industry. I wanted that said. Second comment, less gushy:

Why is this a game with Diablo-style randomized weapons? How the heck does that fit into the genre? How does it fit into the theme? You are Death in this game, you know, Death, the Horseman, Pale Rider, the Reaper, you've been there and you're on the t-shirt! Death has Death's Scythe! Death does not pick up some orc's axe and say "Ooh, this one has a +2 and a bonus to loot drops!"

This gets extra-stupid when you encounter inventory limits. And then, to deal with the inventory limits, the angel who is really into arms trading. Come on.

The first Darksiders got this right. You were War, you start with War's Sword. Then you're hit with the old "Powers that Be cut you down to size" gimmick, so you spend the bulk of the game recovering your mojo -- but you do this by finding epic weapons from the beginning of time. Not an orcish pig-sticker and somebody's second-hand boots.

(I think DS2 was trying for a similar gimmick. There's an "actual Grim Reaper" form that appears for special attacks and so on, which implies that maybe you're a cut-down version of Death? Because of the whole seventh-seal problem from the first game? But this is never explained, or even alluded to strongly.) (Hm. Now that I look, the mini-comic included with the game mentions this... but it's just a promo chapter, so no help there either.)

Look. I get that you want some tactical customization in your combat system. I appreciate that; I made good use of it to play DS2 my way. (Crank hard on defense and health, make the fights tedious but low-risk button-mashers. Yes I was playing in easy mode.) But you can do customization with a skill tree or weapon upgrades. You don't need to drop the player into repeated inventory hell, sorting through a dozen pairs of gloves and trying to pick the optimal combination of bonuses. Screens full of little red and green numbers! The Reaper does not play spreadsheet with the universe.

Bonus third comment: the Horsemen in this mythos are War, Death, Spite, and Fury. (I think Fury is a Horsema'am.) Pity. I was looking forward to playing Famine in a first-person slasher. "Taste... the Spoon of Starvation!" Ka-WHACK

Comments imported from Gameshelf

Eric H (Dec 27, 2013 at 1:33 AM):

"but you do this by finding epic weapons from the beginning of time. Not an orcish pig-sticker and somebody's second-hand boots."

I know this is an old post, but since I just got around to diving in to this one (which I actually preordered and let sit for... well, a year now, but I digress), I have to say that I agree completely. In the first one, it was a throwback to the SNES Zelda where you collect a small number of predefined pieces that made the final stages of the adventure possible. Chaoseater was a big bad chunk of steel forged eons ago and spent most of the game with you.

This one gives you some similar scythes (the description even says they bear a striking resemblance to the Chaoseater), and then proceed to make it vendor trash by level 3 or 4. And then the loot system kicks in. You have to stop after basically every drop to get some idea of what you've just picked up, compare it to what you're wearing, and then consider its attributes as a sacrifice candidate as well. With no inventory management other than "in the order in which it was received", you have to go through that same exercise in aggregate when you get back to town to decide what to keep and what to vendor.

It's not a terribly difficult process; it's certainly not as invasive as in e.g. Mass Effect 1, but it detracts from the game as a whole IMO. This is especially true for those of us who are OCD enough to actually do the math of a case like "Is 3% more crit chance worth more than 8% more crit damage."

Ultimately, I find that in this type of game, simply buffing the character's base damage (via a new weapon or mythical power imbuement or...) at scripted points in the story is a better route to go. Then you can select skill trees and apply stat points to get the desired effect in much less granular doses.

Andrew Plotkin (Dec 29, 2013 at 5:20 PM):


Of course, since I wrote this, the company has been broken up for spare parts. If the franchise ever resurfaces, it'll be in new hands, and who knows what they'll have in mind.

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