Flicker flames and haunted faces
Shuffling feet find empty spaces
Moving shadows, someone's hurting
Huddle closer, campfire burning.

Monday 6 December 2010

100 Minutes With . . . Darksiders

Darksiders is the kind of game that gives games a bad name. It’s infantile and crass, and appeals to the part of a gamer’s mind that’s stuck in adolescence - in heavy metal fantasies, cartoons and comic books. It’s not the kind of game you could present to Roger Ebert as evidence that yes, games are art. It’s not the kind of game you could show your mother, or your non-gaming better half. It’s the kind of game you sit with in a darkened room, and feel slightly guilty about booting up when there are worthier, more intelligent titles lining your shelves.

It’s the kind of game that, after five minutes of play, makes you forget everything I’ve just said because you’re having so much damned fun with it.

Yeah, you know the kind of game it is. It’s God of War, it’s Dead Space. It’s part of a new generation of games that takes an old genre - the Zelda-styled action adventure in this case - and reinvents it by slinging bucket loads of blood and angst and over-the-top violence in your face so you’re spitting it out, letting it dribble down your chin, and having the time of your life. It should be laughable but every so often it tips you a wink to let you know it’s in on the joke, too. It’s Commando. It’s Deep Blue Sea. It’s ridiculous.

The game starts with the end of the world. Crowds gather in the centre of Metropolitan City USA to watch news broadcasts of meteors falling to Earth, smashing the continents, killing thousands - then one of them strikes the massive LCD billboard everyone’s watching and all Hell breaks loose.

I’m hooked before the opening cinematic ends. There’s something primal about storytelling that presents you with a load of arcane back story about gods and demons and then jettisons you into modern day society. The word ‘epic’ gets bandied about a lot these days, but this is a great way of setting up an epic story. It’s the same thing James Cameron did with The Terminator - we get the back story, we see the future war, and then we’re in familiarly modern surroundings and it’s here the shit’s going down, it’s this moment that’s pivotal.

With Darksiders you’re not given much opportunity to make sense of what’s going on. You are War, one of the four horseman of the apocalypse, called upon to fight in the climactic battle between, well, everyone. So you tiptoe through a city that’s disintegrating by the second. Windowpanes shatter, buildings topple, the sky falls and you beat up angels and demons alike, using cars as clubs, turning into some shadowy smoke monster, smacking puny humans around as collateral damage. The occasional cut scene or scripted moment shows the war raging all around you - you see a winged monstrosity snatching a helicopter out of the air and flinging it to the street below, and you see this through a hole torn through the upper floor of a tall building. As far as the apocalypse goes, it’s crazy apocalyptic. And somewhere along the line - shortly before your first boss tears the damned road up from beneath your feet - you realise that something’s not quite right here.

Then you get squished between the boss creature’s monolithic fingers and wake up in Hell.

Darksiders wears its influences on its sleeve. There’s a pervading air of familiarity about it - it doesn’t quite feel like a rip off, but there’s just enough deja-vu for it to feel comfortable yet disquieting at the same time. The action mechanics fall somewhere between God of War’s manic elastic band chain-swinging and Devil May Cry’s dashing about. I’m no connoisseur of these kinds of action mechanics but it all feels solid enough, with mid-air dashes and reflexive counters, and with a few carefully-timed button presses even I felt like an unstoppable killing machine. Enemies can be pummelled for a set number of hits before a finishing move is made available to you, and as you’d expect from such a game these moves are kind of things that make you want to yell “Did you SEE that?” A particular favourite was one where you pin a villain to the floor by driving your sword through his hand, and then you punch him about a bit while he struggles to get free - although I must admit even that pales in comparison to the move where you slice a monster’s arm off and use it to beat him into submission, all the while yelling “Stop hitting yourself!” at the flickering screen. If that doesn’t say ‘God of War’ to you, nothing will.

There are plenty of other familiar elements scattered throughout the first one hundred minutes. At times the game feels very similar to the Legacy of Kain, with its pompous post-apocalyptic setting, but there’s just as much of its era-mates Shadow Man and Spawn at play. Your sidekick - a shadowy being who lives inside your gauntlet - quips on your events and surroundings, and frequently goads you about your circumstances. At one point you’re whisked away to a shadow dimension in which you partake in a number of challenges - kill 50 monsters within the time limit, defeat 30 monsters only using mid-air combos, which recalls the arena challenges from the Ratchet & Clank games. . Even the Council - a trio of immense talking, blazing stone skulls - bring the Quintessons from Transformers: The Movie to mind. It’s all maddeningly familiar.

And it’s all ludicrously over the top. Characters speak in portentous riddles, the actors wringing every last drop of drama from their voices, reading from a script that’s a hodgepodge of names and clichés drawn from the book of Revelation. Hell, even the locks gout blood when you stick keys in them.

But Darksiders’ main influence isn’t one you’ll necessarily feel for much of the game’s opening. For all its God of War moodiness Darksiders is a Zelda clone, and it’s not until you reach the first dungeon 90 minutes into the game that you’ll realise this. The gore-splattered action is tempered by puzzle solving straight from Ocarina of Time, with bomb-chu and boomerang analogues, block-pushing, treasure chests and hidden exits. Zelda-clones are such rare beasts that it’s something of a surprise when you realise that all the gore is disguising a more-than-competent take on this beloved, underrepresented genre. It’s even more of a surprise when this Zelda dungeon comes after an elongated tribute to Sega’s Panzer Dragoon series. Somewhere in the middle of that level, riding my demonic steed through waves of angels, blasting them all with my mouth lasers I realised that this was the kind of game I’d have made as a teenager - and I don’t in any way mean that as a slur. The developers have taken all the things that would have thrilled me and my mates as teens and whirled them into a title that’s more than the sum of its parts. It would have been all too easy to lean heavily on the more parodic aspects, or to abandon the levity altogether, or to make the minigames ragged and unsatisfactory.

It’s easy to judge Darksiders based on its ludicrous finishing moves and preponderance for gore, but it’s the love that’s gone into this thing that makes it shine. You get a real sense that the people who made it are people like you and I - people who love video games and pop culture, and wanted to mash them together in a whole that makes you smile instead of wince. Maybe Darksiders is the kind of game that gives the hobby a bad name, but it’s also the kind of game that spawns a loyal following who’ll shake their heads and tell you you just don’t get it. If you don’t get it it, it’s an adolescent mess. But if you’re one of those guys who can browse through Games Workshop catalogues and Iron Maiden album covers, or who still laughs when the bad guy in a zombie movie gets his entrails torn out then trust me, man-child, this game was made for you.

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