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Joystiq hands-on: Darksiders: Wrath of War

Kevin Kelly

One of the biggest things we missed at E3 this year was the upcoming Vigil Games / THQ title, Darksiders: Wrath of War. How we managed to miss this one is still unclear -- we can only assume that it was in our blind spot the entire time. So, during our recent jaunt down to Austin for the Game Developer's Conference, we made time to stop by Vigil and take an in-depth look at the the team's debut title and two-year labor. Luckily, they weren't holding any grudges against our non-existent E3 coverage and were nice enough to give us a huge chunk of time with the game and the designers.

Concept artist and Vigil founder Joe Madureira and lead designer Hadyn Dalton sat down with us for two hours, taking us through the game and showing us levels that haven't been released to the public just yet. We got to take control of protagonist War and do battle with enemies, solve puzzles, and even take his massive warhorse Ruin for a spin. Check out the full writeup after the break, and be sure to check out the gallery, full of exclusive images from the game, just below. If you've been itching for a Joe Madureira Battle Chasers fix, this might be about as close as you can get.

Gallery: Darksiders: Wrath of War (9/30/08) | 20 Photos

"Think of The Watcher as a more evil version of the Genie in Aladdin. It's kind of like if he was a dirtbag."

In this game, you play as War, one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, the other three being (in the Darksiders universe, at least) Fury, Strife, and Death. Somehow, Armageddon has been prematurely triggered, and all signs point to War being the culprit. Thankfully, he's given a chance to go back and clear his name and find out who (or what) is truly to blame. You know, because no one would want the name of War to be sullied.

Naturally, you're stripped of most of your powers, but you're joined by a mischievous demon called "The Watcher," who's hidden inside a massive gauntlet (Battle Chasers fans know how much Joe Mad loves huge gloves) shackled to your wrist. This guy swallows the souls of the creatures you kill and, quite conveniently offers helpful advice. "Think of The Watcher as a more evil version of the Genie in Aladdin. It's kind of like if he was a dirtbag," explained Madureira.

Though War's final look is still being nailed down, we're particularly interested in his choice of weaponry. Take, for instance, the massive Chaos Eater sword that builds up Chaos as you strike enemies, doing more damage as the meter fills up. If you don't use it enough, the sword starts to "starve" and will do less and less damage. According to Dalton, "It's a bit like an in-game combo meter as well." War's power gauntlets provide his secondary attack, which is in addition to the ability to build up Wrath and release it as a powerful shockwave. It's a good thing to use when you're getting swarmed. Need more killing utensils? Try picking up some of the parking meters, cars, gates or rubble scattered throughout the environment -- they work for ranged attacks too.

"You'll see that there are quite a lot of puzzles in it. I think that part surprised a lot of people. It's a lot more like Metroid or Zelda in that aspect."

As you mow down your enemies, their souls will float towards your gauntlet and get chomped up (souls are delicious!), providing you with currency to use when you encounter the Soul Trader in the game. He's like your basic corner grocer, except he takes souls instead of green stamps. He'll help you unlock abilities and do simple things like sell you health. "Early on when we only had the combat to show, it got a lot of comparisons to Devil May Cry and God of War," said Madureira. "But once we started showing the dungeon areas like The Church, you'll see that there are quite a lot of puzzles in it. I think that part surprised a lot of people. It's a lot more like Metroid or Zelda in that aspect."

A lot of those puzzles involve the different weapons that War wields. For instance, he acquires an item called the "Crossblade" that works like the Glaive in Krull ... if you're old enough to remember that movie (if not, think Dark Sector). It's a huge whirling blade that War can control somewhat, and it always boomerangs back to him. He can also charge it up (by holding down the right trigger) and hurl it buzzsaw-style into an enemy -- or several if you select multiple targets. This comes particularly in handy when you need to hit several switches within seconds of each other to trigger a door. For more violent purposes, you can also hurl it through a torch, providing an incendiary boost when it strikes different enemies / puzzle objects next.

Some of the other weapons you'll encounter throughout the game include different guns, like the Gatling gun we later wielded against massive worm creatures, Death's Scythe, and an "uber-sword." All of the weapons can be slotted and upgraded after you encounter "The Smith" and his massive anvil. You'll want to enlist his help in banging out new items and carving out weapon slots to do damage with. According to Madureira, there will also be roughly six or seven guns in the game, including three BFGs, the weapons wielded by the angels. Wait, angels with blazing guns? We didn't cover this in Sunday School.

Helping War in his task is Ruin, a warhorse with blazing hooves. He'll get you across the landscape a lot faster and even has his own sets of attacks. He can even be summoned when you jump off a building -- land on him, gunfighter style! Clearly, he's a bit tougher that your faithful puppy dog in Fable 2, and you'll find yourself looking for excuses to summon him and trample multiple enemies. Plus, there's something satisfying about firing a Gatling gun at distant enemies while riding on the back of a horse whose feet are on fire. Maybe it's just us.

"We're thinking it will take about 15+ hours for players to get through the game, we feel like that's a very good target."

According to Dalton, "We're thinking it will take about 15+ hours for players to get through the game, we feel like that's a very good target." Based on what we were shown, that means the scale of this game is going to be immense. Some of the levels we saw, like the Ashlands, were still under development, as is much of the game -- it's slated for a 2009 release, remember? It's also something that Vigil would like to develop into a franchise, especially given that the subtitle of this is, you know, Wrath of War. Does that mean we'll be seeing the other horsemen? According to Madureira, "Part of the story is discovering what happened to the other Horsemen, and whether they were involved or not. They do make an appearance."

By now you might be thinking that it's impossible to take a look at Darksiders without comparing it to God of War II, and you'd be right ... not that it's such a bad thing, especially for you poor, PS2-less folks. On face value, they're very similar games, sharing approaches to puzzle-solving (how do I get to that chest way up in that corner?) and a combat system that includes multiple weapons and combos. Kratos finds the Wings of Icarus, and War finds a similar ability called a "Tempest Cloak" that gives him dark, demonic wings and allow him to glide. War has a chain-based weapon that allows him to yank enemies closer ... the list goes on.

Comparisons to other games aside, and there are plenty to make, the developers at Vigil are hoping that Darksiders is more than the sum of its parts. You've been through a Zelda dungeon before, sure ... but have you ever done it with a combat system like God of War's? With an early 2009 launch, Vigil and THQ may avoid being overwhelmed by this year's top titles, and get a chance to have the spotlight all on Darksiders.

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