It would be rude to trace a direct, chunky line from God of War towards Darksiders with a blood-red marker pen and a flotilla of exclamation marks; for a start it would pull attention away from the parallel line leading up to the threshold of EA's Dante's Inferno. Ethereal beatings are just in vogue these days. The way to pull in the button-mashing blood-let brigade, it would seem, is to provide an array of combos within the more pointy-tooth-centric and ancient areas of world religion. With God of War we get Grecian monsters and threesomes; with Dante's Inferno we'll get a medieval-eye view of hell with (hopefully) a final boss that's Judas Iscariot encased in ice with lasers for eyes; and finally, with Darksiders, we get the gaming adaptation of the Book of Revelation.
Or at least we get the bit about the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Well, we sort of get the bit about the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. For the purposes of Darksiders the finale of the Good Book has had Tipp-Ex applied and the twosome formerly known as Pestilence and Famine have been rebranded Strife and Fury. With job descriptions thus smudged, and presumably no end of Apprentice-style arguments about exactly who should be PM, the end of the world can now be seen out in a far sexier and teen-friendly capacity.
Well, it would have done if the apocalypse hadn't gone off too soon. Darksiders sees morose horseman War imprisoned on Earth for a crime he did not commit, blamed by all and sundry for getting over-excited and converting the planet into a mixture of mired concrete and lava flow far too early in proceedings. His only guide on this journey is the Watcher, a nasty piece of work with the voice of Mark Hamill, who our big-shouldered hero has been shackled to so that he keeps on the straight and narrow. And as long as that straight and narrow involves slashing zombies into the air and then shooting them in the face with a secondary handgun then all shall be well.
The game takes place in a vast city, newly perforated by meteor strikes and the pounding feet of various demons and breeds of the living dead. Combat mixes the car-chucking of Prototype with upgradable God of War-esque combos and weapon-play - with 'Get over here!' chains, blades, scythes and guns all thrown into the secondary-armament mix. A wrath meter, meanwhile, whirrs away in the corner, totting up your violence to allow access to fiery super-moves - while collecting the souls of the dearly departed will grant you access to new items and upgrades from a somewhat untrustworthy demon called Vulgrim.
What sets Darksiders apart from the rest is its somewhat free-roaming back and forth nature - borrowing the mentality of a Castlevania or a Super Metroid in the way that new upgrades and weapons will unlock previously inaccessible areas of the city. The same goes for individual levels themselves. For example, an excellent level I played in a baby-bat infested cathedral, in the run-up to a rooftop confrontation with a giant, saggy-bat-boobed mother offers, a sense of exploration and discovery that you really wouldn't expect from the screenshots and videos. Environments are much more like hubs than they are a linear set of demons attacking you from every angle, which makes it a pleasing play for any gamer infected with a degree of wander-lust.
Said colossal she-bat, meanwhile, is a great example of the frankly stunning monster design on show - really showing up the artistic streaks of Darksiders' comic book leanings. She's one of the four Guardians from whom War must pluck a still-beating heart, which must in turn be presented to an imprisoned demon called Samael, who can then grant access to the spire of a chap called The Destroyer. Said capitalised foe being the chap who War strongly suspects (presumably rightly given the name) as being at fault for Judgement Day being wrongly marked in everyone's calendars.
To take the bat-mother down (and trigger an almightily good cut-scene that's heavy on wing-ripping), War must throw explosive shards onto her swooping form and then ignite them with a handy chuck of a newly discovered weapon - the giant shuriken-esque Crossblade. It's a stunningly enacted boss battle, full of flaming skids across tiles and beautifully animated dive-bombs, and proof positive that developer Vigil can make its creations as fun to fight as they are icky to look at.
Not everything is rosy though - an angel-blasting joyride on a stolen Gryphon through various lava-filled caves (oddly reminiscent of the flight up to see those aquatic Zora people in Twilight Princess) leading up to the aforementioned cathedral currently feels overly floaty and really quite unsatisfying. The story, meanwhile, will demand plentiful twists and turns - since what's currently on show could happily be scribbled on the back of the proverbial fag packet, if not the back of the Government Health Warning. In fact, if you can find a branch of Ladbrokes willing to let you put a fiver on The Destroyer actually being a dutiful angel type from heaven, then you're advised to start withdrawing cash now.
Despite mild discontent though, in anyone's estimation Darksiders is well worth keeping an unholy hovering eye upon - above all if you're an Xbox 360 owner bereft of the Kratos own-brand of button-mash mythology. The action delivers no end of satisfaction, there's a palpable sense of advancement as you unlock new weapons and abilities, and discovering otherworldly caves, temples and demonic beasties beneath the ravaged modern city is undeniable fun. Best of all though, as the sudden proliferation of Darksiders coverage has surely demonstrated, it means everyone everywhere can come up with lines like 'War, huh? What is he good for?' Answer? Killing stuff. Same as ever.
Darksiders: Wrath of War is due out for PS3 and Xbox 360 within the next few months.