Well, it's the apocalypse again, but at least Darksiders: Wrath of War has the class to bring in the big guns. This time we get the Four Horsemen themselves, War, Death, Strife and Fury. The eagle-eyed among you may have noticed that the last two are new additions from the subs bench; that's presumably because it's hard to make Famine and Pestilence look cool. But if you think the set-up promises biblical four-player co-op, you can forget it. This is a one-horseman show, with War taking centre-stage, and the others, according to developer Vigil, relegated to NPC roles.
It seems that War's been tricked into triggering the apocalypse early, which is all a bit embarrassing. Now, in true Metroid style, our horse-loving antihero has been stripped of his powers, and returned to the charred remains of Earth to investigate what went wrong. (Presumably, these orders came from the little-known Fifth Horseman, Social Accountability.) That's pretty much it for the story, and despite all the talk of demonic councils and a quest for revenge, the narrative's purely there to justify a trawl around the game-world, periodically reacquiring old powers and opening up more of the map. This is hardly a disappointment, since playing a game like Darksiders for the plot is a bit like buying a newspaper to make an origami hat out of it: some people may choose to do it, but they're probably missing the point.
And the real point of Darksiders is the combat and puzzles. On your horse, charmingly named Ruin, you ride about a large overworld exploring, battling monsters, and fulfilling the odd side-quest. It's a bit like Zelda, except it's post-apocalyptic and generally rather gothic, and you can chuck burnt-out cars at enemies and cut off their arms and watch blood spurt out before you head off to tackle a giant burrowing worm that's just erupted nearby.
In between this, you battle your way, room by room, through a series of dungeons, finding useful items that will prove strangely perfect when fighting the bosses. Again, it's a bit like Zelda, except it's post-apocalyptic and definitely highly gothic this time, given that the dungeon we recently got the chance to play through is also an abandoned church, with bat creatures flapping about and skeletons ready to do you wrong. In fact, if it were any more gothic, the dungeon's boss would be a fifteen-year-old girl with complicated clothing accessories who attacks by scribbling bad, home-made song lyrics on you in green biro. (It's not, though - it's actually a giant bat-dragon.)
As you may have gathered by now, Darksiders is a little bit like Zelda. You could argue that it's simply channelling twenty years of dungeon-based RPG traditions, but you have to understand how unmistakably Hyrulian some of the elements it offers up are. Naturally, there are standards like left-trigger targeting and that particular brand of overworld-to-dungeon-to-overworld pacing - these are things a thousand games have used, and the mechanics have become industry stalwarts on a par with Halo's rechargeable shield. But Darksiders goes further, taking entire concepts wholesale, and using them in pretty much identical ways. There are bomb plants, for example, which are yanked from the ground and hurled at barriers before they explode. Then there's a boomerang - the special weapon from the dungeon we played - that locks onto multiple targets and can even be used to carry fire from torches to a different point on the map.
Darksiders is hardly the first game to lift things from Zelda. It's a treasure chest that many titles have dipped into - even a few critical favourites like Beyond Good & Evil. Equally, in return, recent Zelda games have been eager to pinch a few things themselves, notably Twilight Princess's occasional looting of Shadow of the Colossus. But the extent here might give you pause: from level design to enemy types, there's a myriad tiny details in Darksiders that suggest the next time Link gets home to his pixie mansion, he may find the window jimmied open and his belongings scattered about.
Happily, however, when we got deeper into the dungeon, we also discovered that Darksiders is a little bit like God of War and Devil May Cry, too, with a far more elaborate, and crunchingly satisfying move-set than Link's. Although it never approaches the complexities of Dante's or Kratos's combat, there's still a wide variety of possible choices, with a ground-pounding area attack, numerous swordplay options, airborne combat where you can swing between hovering bats, hacking them to pieces as you go, and the inclusion of a variety of guns, manufactured by both demons and angels (this raises some theological questions), which we saw but didn't get to play with.
To its credit, Vigil is hardly coy about its inspirations, explaining that the developers have chosen to make the kind of game they themselves enjoy playing - no prizes for guessing which titles were cited. And despite the many borrowings, Darksiders is surprisingly easy to forgive. This game isn't going to redefine action titles, but it seems likely to succeed in its humble ambition of playing the same old tricks in a relatively exciting manner.
The dungeon we played through was a case in point. Although it worshipped rather heavily at the alter of the locked door - every puzzle we saw was essentially about getting a barrier to open, whether by blowing it up, killing a set number of enemies, or finding the right item to act as a key - there's enough variation on the theme to keep things fresh. The game sets up an idea, and then quickly messes with it: Crystal Swords must be inserted into statues to act as keys, which is simple enough at first, until you find an enemy that can only be defeated with the Crystal Sword, and an element of strategy starts to creep in.
The pacing's also looking promising, with platforming sections providing regular breathers in amongst the fighting. It's the usual suspects again: moving around ledges, jumping between pillars, and even tugging about a few tired old blocks. But there are thoughtful inclusions here too, such as War's glider wings, presumably built by Beelzebub himself from some tattered Teflon he had lying around after a spot of evil windsurfing, that allow you to control tricky descents, and can also be used in conjunction with air vents to boost you up to higher platforms.
Darksiders lacks the more elegant structure of the Zelda dungeons, where the design often manages to keep backtracking to a minimum, and there are moments here where you have to struggle to remember which key you're meant to be looking for to work which piece of machinery to open which set of doors and raise which platforms, but although things starts fairly simplistically, the game's soon chaining rooms together into more complex and satisfying spatial puzzles. It also wisely chooses to construct proceedings around a good bit of spectacle - in this case an ongoing fight between a friendly neighbourhood griffon and a huge bat-like dragon, which intrudes into the puzzles on a few memorable occasions, before the victor emerges as the eventual boss battle.
And the visual design is often excellent. This should come as no surprise, as Vigil is co-founded by comic book artist Joe Madureira, the man responsible for bringing a touch of Manga to mid-nineties X-Men titles, and creating the Battle Chasers series. Madureira's War is a charismatic lead with his glowing eyes and oversized fists, even if he's a surprisingly squat and compact on-screen presence, and Ruin, all black flesh and fiery hooves, is about as satanic a hell-horse as you could ever wish for. This attention to detail isn't limited to the main characters: the dungeon's mini-boss, the Jailer, is a brilliant piece of design - a hulking, asymmetrical troll, with a cage set into his chest where the real brains behind the operation, a puny and weak-eyed goblin, lurks.
Environments are equally evocative, and the two overworld areas we saw - a shattered city filled with wrecked buses and toppled skyscrapers, and the sparser wilderness of the Ashlands, with its bleached golden light and dust storms - managed to work as stylish depictions of dereliction, while also looking like entertainingly open playgrounds. The dungeon wasn't bad, either: a traditional church at the outset that increasingly grows more bizarre, elaborate, and volcanic as you work your way down through it.
In the end, we came away from Darksiders feeling slightly conflicted. Some of its thefts are genuinely shameless, but, so far, there's plenty of signs of the skill with which these borrowed mechanics are being utilised. This is throwback gaming that, despite the 3D perspective and general polish, is essentially unchanged since the days of the 16-bit era, and, perhaps in part due to the familiarity, the section we played was undeniably enjoyable. Darksiders certainly seems likely to put its pieces together with style and a fair degree of inventiveness, then, but the finished game may not have many ideas it can truly call its own.