Difficulty setting: Easy, Normal, Apocalyptic? Darksiders is having fun with the end of the world, rebranding the four horsemen so that they sound like American Gladiators (tempted by the sound of Strife and Fury? They're both totally killer at Powerball), pillaging its favourite pieces of God of War and - yay! - Zelda, and lavishing the whole thing with Joe Madureira's hulking comic book art. If the combined id of antisocial teenage nerds the world over ever vomits up a game, it's going to look a lot like this.
Previous demos have provided vertical slices of the action - Tom even made a joke about vertical slicing in a game where you spend so much time cutting things to ribbons, because he is clever and funny - but with a chance to sit down with nearly finished code and play through from the beginning, we're finally getting a chance to see how it all comes together. This is a glimpse of the beginning of the end, then, but if the sequel that's already being hinted at ever emerges, you can console yourself that it's a glimpse of the beginning of the end of the beginning.
And it begins in an approximation of New York, by the looks of it: a regular enough day on good ol' Fifth Avenue, before the sky is split into a million flaming pieces by a blistering shower of falling meteors and all of a sudden the streets are thick with brawling demi-gods, lobbing cars about like Transformers and generally swaggering around in their dazzlingly colourful armour.
Here comes one now: a gigantic, bruise-coloured many-fanged monster, idly drumming his fingers on a bus, dwarfing the game's protagonist War - one of the Horsemen who needed no rebranding - who's no beanpole himself. 'Press B to attack', suggests the onscreen prompt, rather meekly, as drums beat and choirs shriek at the horror of it all. That sounds like quite a good idea, all things considered.
Here's another good idea: left trigger targeting, allowing you to unfold a blistering range of moves on a single unfortunate. Tom's spoken at length about the frightening depth of the combat, so I'll just focus instead on the fact that it feels really good: blades bite, sparks fly, you can fling Escalades about to cream people with, and huge monsters topple before you as you block and sidestep.
The colours are sharp and the lines are clear and bright, and the frame-rate rarely dips, too, which all adds to the power of the spectacle. When things get really nasty - when the bosses drop in - you can even squeeze a few triggers and bumpers to activate Chaos Form, in which you become a flaming giant, capable of bringing down ludicrous amounts of damage on anyone who gets in your way. (In true Metroid style, Vigil Games, the developer, snatches this little toy away from you pretty sharpish once the story gets going.) So yes, fighting is pretty entertaining stuff in Darksiders.
And that's brilliant news, as there's an awful lot of it. When the first battles give way to a few cut-scenes, and after, amongst other things, we've followed a giant rune-encrusted colossus as it strides down a boulevard, Darksiders shifts gears to a more adventury pace as Demonic Growth - a kind of urban eczema that can be climbed - erupts from the ground sending you into the ruined buildings around you and giving you proper options to explore.
You're still never far from a fight, of course - War could probably kick off a scrap at a primary school sports day, as he no doubt will in a DS version - as the hellspawn is perfectly capable of pursuing you up walls, and knocking them off with a wayward swing feels just as good as it does pulping their heads in the impromptu arenas formed in the streets below.
Fighting is only half of the pleasures on offer, however. Darksiders has a more thoughtful dungeon-raiding side to it too, filled with traversal options and puzzles. Kicking off with double-jumps, and wall-slides, the more explorative elements start simply enough with a little block-dragging and pipe-clambering, but the whole thing quickly ramps up in complexity, and some of the game's larger set-pieces, while unable to match Zelda for intricate brilliance, certainly show signs of its influence, and make up for the difference with spectacle and enthusiasm. There are grisly machines to coax back to life, impossible rooms to navigate, and Vigil's not above throwing a fetch quest in amongst the puzzles either.
Early on you'll have to buy information from ghoulish shopkeeper Vulgrim with collected souls, but even that generally leads you back into the game's chunky combat, and, even after a few solid hours, the battling isn't as quick to become a slog as it did with Prototype, due to the colour and pace and the beautiful-ugly enemy design. Meanwhile, incidental details, like ruptured hydrants spilling water over the streets as you smack people into them, and the greying papers twisting on the breeze, make you feel that someone really put some time and effort into this one.
And while the ever-enlarging hub of post-apocalyptic American city can initially seem a little unwieldy to get around, as soon as Ruin, your hellish horse, makes an appearance, the game shifts up a gear, flinging monsters at you on a different scale, while you race through the game's slalom of overworld missions and bigger, chunkier dungeons, which will be familiar to anyone who's ever strolled through Hyrule, even before the game starts dropping a series of very familiar items into your lap. It's homage, certainly - actually, at times, it's clearly total theft - but it's all carried off with such boundless energy that it's hard to begrudge the game its own lovingly-referenced influences.
In between the action there's a few pieces of plot now and then - the apocalypse has been triggered early and it's all a bit of a fit-up job by the looks of it - but that's for the handful who will want to read the inevitable comic book series.
And in the long run, that's perhaps the best way of summing up how Darksiders is looking at the moment: it's exactly the kind of game that would be well-suited to glossy high-action layouts and pithy, speech bubble dialogue. If that's what you're after - even if it's just for a guilty pleasure - Vigil Games may have rustled up just want you need.
Darksiders is due out for PS3 and Xbox 360 on 8th January 2010.