All things considered, it's been a pretty quiet year for new intellectual property.
As development studios the world over suddenly tried to look very important to their publishers by reminding them of all the important gaming franchises they had ownership of, we saw a string of sequels and prequels designed to act as steady, reliable sources of income for an industry not quite as immune to global concerns as perhaps thought. It's easy enough to repackage up a general theme and resell it the second or third time around, provided you don't screw up the basics and can retain your fanbase, chances are you'll at least break even. It's a whole other challenge to create something from scratch.
Darksiders: Wrath of War is a mythological, supernatural action fighting game (with RPG attributes) that follows the story of War, one of the supposed four horsemen of the apocalypse. At the beginning of the narrative, what starts as an otherwise pretty lethal meteor shower on earth steadily becomes worse, as hordes of demons and angels appear in a prelude to the supposed "end of days". As one of the principal combatants, War is swiftly blamed for prematurely kicking it all off. This, understandably, makes him pretty angry, and an angry supernatural entity is hardly much fun at the best of times.
To determine what has occurred, and largely to clear himself of involvement, War strikes a deal with The Charred Council. The name may conjure images of Supercity protesters taking their campaign one step too far, but in actuality they're just a neutral governing body that regulate the actions of the much larger, more powerful collectives known as Heaven and Hell. War is allowed to return to earth to prove his innocence, and after receiving what we can only assume is one hell of a bollocking from the Council, he's stripped of a number of his supernatural powers.
We caught up with THQ in Auckland late last week to see how Darksiders is coming along. The build we saw wasn't finished, but it's certainly enough to see what direction the game has taken. We'd only seen the smallest hints from THQ at E3 this year, and some fairly basic video footage, so most of the content was new to us, and crucially quite different to what we'd expected.
First, it's essentially non-stop fighting action. War has a huge number of attacks, combo moves, power-ups and a range of movement abilities that mean you're pretty much always either attacking something, or running about looking for something to attack. It's easy to see the legacy of other great hack'n'slash action titles such as Devil May Cry, Ninja Gaiden, God of War and even SEGA's Bayonetta, which is due for release about the same time as Darksiders and looks to follow the same time-honoured tradition of gameplay mixed with gore.
Our gaming session involved moving between several saved games roughly one to two hours into the title. Even by this early stage, War has accumulated a number of comprehensive attack abilities that he can use to terrifying effect. His base attributes (which exist along with his ability to use environmental objects such as lamp posts and cars to attack enemies) are not to be underestimated either, as their attack damage is amplified through his enormous axe and can often allow you to survive when you're certain all hope is lost. But there's nothing like having spinning "crossblade" energy attacks and a set of wings you can use to glide about on, so it's not all about the heavy weaponry.
War also has the ability to gain increased attack power and attributes through the accumulation of the games currency, souls. These souls are collected from the fallen creatures you dispatch, the quantity of which can be determined by the manner in which you kill them. Use a particularly spectacular finishing move at the right time (denoted by the hovering indicator over the ailing creature) and you could get up to twice as many souls as if you'd simply waded in there with a sword and swung it about a few times. It's not just as simple as finishing moves either, as you can assign different weapons and artefacts to different controller keys, allowing you to switch weapons in the middle of combat and providing reviewers with such clichés as "a virtually limitless number of combos".
Developers Vigil Games have made no secret in hiding the Zelda influence in the dungeon design of Darksiders. All areas within a level tend to have a "hub" setup that allow movement past certain areas once they've been unlocked, which is usually achieved by solving puzzles. War can even swim - at one point he ducks through an underground river and into a cavern to discover a merchant where his accumulated soul points can be spent to upgrade his weapons and stats. What isn't particularly Zelda-ish however is War's ability to change to "Chaos Form", which turns him into a much larger, more powerful, and generally on fire demon for short periods of time. Ideal for when you're outnumbered, or you're trying to hail a taxi.
So despite the shortage of new intellectual property in 2009, Darksiders may kick 2010 off with a new IP comprised mainly of attributes taken from other rather excellent game franchises. Darksiders is most definitely a hack'n'slash action game above all else, so those out there who simply can't imagine a life without DMC or Ninja Gaiden will definitely want to pick this up on January 8th when it launches. Stay tuned for our full review shortly.