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Darksiders III Review — Truly Middle-Tier Gaming

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In the review-in-progress, OnlySP concluded that, as a B-game, Darksiders III‘s primary strength is in the old school world design and exploration. Though that is certainly the most outstanding aspect, Darksiders III offers more questions as to whether prospective players should check out this venture. As one of their first new games since assuming the throne of THQ, Darksiders III represents a kind of mission statement from THQ Nordic—what it describes could be the shape of things to come.

WHAT IS A DARKSIDERS ANYWAY?

Three games in, the strengths of Darksiders’s developers are very clear: an old-school world design, a deep love of Zelda and the action-adventure genre, and a willingness to experiment within their house style. Whether or not players enjoy the series, or at least whether they should give their time to such a navel-gazing entry such as Darksiders III (more on that in a moment), depends on how much one can handle the series’s house style.

For this reviewer, the game does not offer a whole lot to latch onto. The Darksiders universe could charitably be described as a Saturday morning cartoon (indeed, writing duties fell to Ben 10‘s Man of Action Studios for this instalment) except that the most successful cartoons do not try so hard for the overly serious, grimdark aesthetic of Warhammer as Darksiders does. Thematic context is minimal and the dialogue mixes attempts at dry humour (most accomplished with Darksiders II‘s horseman, Death) with boring action-speak.

Of course, the value of a game is in its play, but aesthetics go a long way to enamour players, and the world of Darksiders III is lacking in both mystery and appeal. The story is content with being a filler chapter explaining what Fury was up to during the events of Darksiders and Darksiders II, leading to a certain ‘lexical laziness’ that pervades everything.

Throughout Fury’s adventure, boss characters will enter the scene, espouse the value of this concept or that place in the universe, and the game never demonstrates why the player should care. Additionally, for the third game in a row, the generic post-apocalyptic city (possibly New York?) and the humans of Earth are implied to be important for unclear reasons. No matter how deep the background lore is, what the game presents to players is occasionally beautiful but skin-deep. The entirety of creation hangs in the balance in the Darksiders universe, and yet the stakes are never established.

Much of the visuals of the world in Darksiders III can also be described as tiresome. After the Life After People inspired location of Haven, the game’s other levels fail to diverge from “gross”, “dark”, “smelly”, or a combination of all three. Again, the level design is wonderfully accomplished, but when the game’s traversal cribs liberally from Metroid Prime and other action-adventure games, presentation can make a lot of difference.

With music, for example, composer Cris Velasco declines to give the game the same sort of grandeur that Jesper Kyd brought to Darksiders II—as silly as it sounds, music is incredibly important in video games and can make or break the tone of a game world. Here and there Fury’s theme pops up to blare epically, but the rest of the score underwhelms.

On the whole, Darksiders II was also less dreary—taking place in the Norse-inspired Maker lands and beyond, with Death’s aforementioned dry snarkery adding some levity. Much like War in the original game, Fury has no sense of humour. Thanks to this and the meaninglessly cod-philosophical boss spiels, Darksiders III suffers from a distinct lack of charm, something that one hopes Gunfire Games can improve with the theoretical Darksiders IV.

BATTLES FROM GRAND TO BLAND

One aspect untouched upon so far is the nitty gritty of the combat, which puts this reviewer in mind of a beautiful table setting with meat of uneven quality and undercooked potatoes. Although combat is heavily inspired by Dark Souls, the game lacks loot and RPG mechanics; instead, Fury uses a magical hilt that changes from whip, to sword, to daggers, and more as she gains powers throughout the game.

The basic attack and combos (square button, or X on Xbox) always make use of her whip, a genuinely fantastic weapon for its reach and crowd control. Compared with the first game, players will face fewer enemies at a time—and can usually dodge out of the way when surrounded—but the great feeling of whipping multiple mooks in an instant never grows old. The other weapons depend on whichever power Fury has equipped (triangle button, or Y on Xbox) and though they lack the whip’s reach, they each come with their own elemental effects or exploration utilities such as smashing through special walls.

What hurts the general fun of the combat are the double-whammy of camera control and poor performance. Rather than the freer, Ocarina of Time-style camera of the original, Darksiders III‘s camera is stapled over Fury’s shoulders with only slight deviations when targeting enemies, again following the heavy Dark Souls influence. This works well for a slower paced RPG, but Darksiders‘s focus on combos and quick movement will have players quickly pining for the cinematic camera of the old God of War games, or even just one that is zoomed out farther.

As for performance, Darksiders III is still a bit of a mess. As the game was reviewed on PlayStation 4, the reviewer was unable to beta test the latest PC patch—a patch that is undoubtedly necessary, as frame-hitching and other graphical glitches are commonplace in the current version. An action game of this aspiration requires at the very least thirty solid frames a second, or better sixty frames. The final part of the puzzle is the evade and counter system, which relies on timing too much for these performance issues to be overlooked.

Evading works very differently to that in a Soulslike, with no apparent invincibility during the dodge animation (at the beginning). Instead, players have to watch for telegraphed attacks and evade at the instant before an attack lands—if successful, they will be treated to a slow-motion effect and opportunity to riposte, much like the parry mechanic of Dark Souls. Though sometimes creative, the game’s bosses rely too heavily on this evade mechanic and come off as fairly samey as a result.

The game either had to offer a more immediate hook, or present a more technically polished version of itself to reach a full recommendation, but thanks to talented designers, neither is it a malignant failure of basic, budget-game execution.

Next year’s Biomutant combines some of the same old school appeal but with a new IP.

THQ’S BUDGET GAME BEGINS (AGAIN)

The throwback design of Darksiders III, as accomplished by Gunfire Games, is only one of the two forces acting on the game, the other being its budget production. OnlySP has eagerly awaited signs of what the new THQ Nordic’s gambit will produce, and as a first step, Darksiders III makes for an interesting statement of intent.

The game is clearly not polished to the standard expected of triple-A action games; but given the history of these games since Darksiders II, these sorts of action experiences are just not made at the triple-A level—with the exception of Bayonetta 3 as a first-party production at Nintendo, and Devil May Cry V, grandfathered-in by its brand royalty.

At the same time, Darksiders III, despite scaling back in virtually every way from its predecessor, is still obviously a Darksiders title and is unlikely to fail financially, thanks to its surprisingly popular name. The overwhelming majority of people who buy it—fans of the series and the uninitiated alike—will never read this.

Those who are reading this will find a low budget title that is defiantly free from microtransactions and other modern nonsense that is invading the bigger single-player games. Three entries deep into an ongoing series, however, it also carries the same limited appeal as, say, a movie tie-in game from the age to which its old-school design hearkens back.

But gamers also cannot necessarily be that disappointed with the game, which might never have happened thanks to the original THQ’s implosion. Players anxiously awaiting From Software’s Sekiro or even Metroid Prime 4 might get a decent kick out of another one of these sorts of action adventure games. On the other hand, its technical bugs and lack of depth keep it from being a highly recommended title, and a mixed start to THQ Nordic’s budget-game gambit.

OnlySP Review Score 2 Pass

Mitchell is a writer from Currawang, Australia, where his metaphorical sword-pen cleaves fiction from reality daily. When he's not writing, he plays video games and watches movies. While thinking about writing.

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Review

RAGE 2 Review – Glorious Guns but a Shoddy Structure

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RAGE 2 gameplay screenshot 5

A Conflicted Beginning

The opening moments of RAGE 2 are reminiscent of little so much as Killzone. A gravelly voice gives a stirring speech about superiority and the need to quash the rampant spread of lesser humans. The speaker is General Cross, a bald, deformed head—Scolar Visari transplanted across the years and franchises—atop a robotic body. Furthermore, like Killzone, such charisma and character are reserved for the enemy faction, here known as The Authority.

Players quickly get the choice of either a male or female Walker before being tossed into a high-octane battlefield overrun by cyborgs and mutants alike. Armed with only a few basic weapons, Walker is an effective killing machine in this first conflict, and the gameplay experience is as satisfying as they come. The guns are responsive and feel powerful, while the level design invites the kind of non-stop strafing and perpetual motion popularised by classics such as Quake and DOOM.

As veteran gamers might expect from past experiences, the battle goes badly. The heroes are killed, and Walker’s hometown is razed. In using this premise RAGE 2 attempts tired pity-me story beats to invest the player (at this point, unsuccessfully). The hometown hero (and Walker’s mother figure) is slain in the battle, which begins a quest that combines personal vengeance with the global desire to do what is best for the world: stop the monsters.

Before that, players must first expand their skill set, and so the sublime first-person shooter gameplay is joined with RPG mechanics that promise immense depth to the gunplay out in the Wasteland, though the first of these so-termed superpowers is underwhelming, providing the ability to dash out of harm’s way.

RAGE 2 gameplay screenshot 1

With the story set up, the game shifts gears, putting players into an armoured vehicle, and the grippy handling feels as good as the gunplay. The vehicle physics are decidedly arcade-infused, caring little for such nuances as terrain. Instead, all that matters is putting the pedal to the metal and tearing off towards the first objective (and trying to not get too sidetracked in the process).

Despite all of this—the satisfying gunplay, the competent (if so far unspectacular) story, the pleasurable vehicle controls—something feels missing in RAGE 2, a certain spark that will make everything just click.

Gunplay To Die For

Shaking the dust of the ruined Vineland from Walker’s boots for the first time is a bit like bungee jumping. Although the player’s time in the village has been short, they have become acclimatised to a certain po-faced tone and blazingly fast gameplay. Suddenly, though, the security of familiarity drops away as Walker freefalls into the wasteland.

Three story-focused questlines are provided as immediate options, but every path is peppered with distractions and side missions that beg to be roughhoused. After only an hour’s random exploration, the overworld map is littered with icons denoting all sorts of miscellaneous activities.

The Arks, in particular, call for attention. In the fiction, they are similar to Fallout’s Vaults in their stated purpose of repopulating the world post-apocalypse, but they serve primarily as a means of increasing Walker’s abilities. As enticing and—importantly—useful as the Arks are, they highlight a problem about the open world that manifests quite quickly: almost every Ark is blocked by a cohort of enemies, with another set arriving once Walker has acquired her newest skill.

Indeed, most of the activities scattered about the world amount to combat challenges against ever more dangerous foes. Occasionally, random NPCs will offer races, but these are not frequent enough to offset the sheer number of bullets that players will fire both on foot and in their vehicles. Thankfully, many of the enemy outposts, bandit dens, and bounty hideouts feature bespoke, open designs, meaning that players are never at liberty to settle into a single pattern of clearing these challenges.

RAGE 2 gameplay screenshot 2

Further adding diversity (though not nearly enough) are the different combat proclivities of each faction. The Goons and The Shrouded will be the most familiar to gamers, each showcasing a combination of pop-n-shoot gunplay, explosives, and close-range attackers. The mutants are more animalistic, preferring melee. Meanwhile, The Authority uses brute force and high firepower to wipe out any opposition. Although players need to be aware of the unique tactics and skills of each faction, none force the player to change their strategy; the best approach is always to move fast and keep pulling the trigger and, eventually, every enemy breaks down into scattered giblets.

The ever-expanding suite of options, compelling gunplay, varied level design, and satisfying difficulty all ensure that these encounters are never boring, but these traits are not enough to prevent a growing sense of tedium. In many ways, venturing unstructured through the wasteland feels as though the developers had a hammer of a gameplay loop, so every problem had to be a nail.

The bungee jumping analogy, then, comes full circle. After the thrill of freefall, the cord snaps back and the jumper, before too long, arrives back on terra firma. RAGE 2 follows this pattern, as the freedom of tearing across a vast environment always reins itself in to fighting.

However, novelty is not that not-quite-identifiable thing that lurks just beyond reach. Even moving from vehicle to foot changes things up, and the ridiculous amount of options in combat keeps things perpetually fresh.

A Story Lost Amidst the Bombast

The claims about story being a focal point of RAGE 2’s development ring hollow. A forgiving estimate of total narrative-led play time would clock about six hours—a realistic estimate, four. The disappointment spans more than just the brevity, however.

Walker is exactly the kind of faceless, figureless protagonist that has plagued the shooter genre for years. Her bland, no-nonsense demeanour is a dampening lens through which to view this madcap apocalypse, and it undercuts the otherwise energetic tone. Whether interacting with the dour John Marshall or the despicable Doctor Kvasir, Walker remains unflappable, the consummate professional, and that is to the detriment of the whole game. Indeed, her personality—or, rather, the lack thereof—is a clear demonstration of that missing something that has proven so elusive. More on that later, though.

With the story being so short, the lack of impact should come as little surprise. The invasion of Vineland in the opening moments is, by far, the most interesting plot point of the entire game. Such narrative necessities as momentum, surprise, and emotion are jettisoned in favour of a straightforward quest for revenge. Unfortunately, the story is so comprehensively forgettable that nothing else is worth saying about it.

RAGE 2 gameplay screenshot 6

To return now to that something; Walker may want for a personality, but the game does not, and this juxtaposition highlights a central shortcoming: a lack of cohesion. RAGE 2 feels like a Frankenstein’s monster of conflicting visions. The remarkably tight combat and hand-crafted locations are designed for the most frenetic of shooters. However, the wider world makes the gunplay feel like just one part of a design that incorporates meaningless RPG progression and purchase mechanics and a considerable amount of driving from one location to another, with regular pit stops to clear enemy hubs (until that process becomes more tiresome than it has any right to be).

Even the world feels disparate, the map stitched together out of box-ticking biomes. To be fair, the deserts, jungles, waterfalls, and canyons all bear the same breathtaking beauty, but they all blend together into a meaningless mish-mash, with the gameplay locations instead being primarily industrial warehouses. The natural environment is wasted, which makes the open world seem like nothing more than padding—another area where mismatched design principles lead to a game that wants to be everything and suffers because of that ambition.

A Slipshod Structure

Bethesda has already laid out a roadmap of post-launch support for RAGE 2, and that has raised fears among the community that the game adheres to a service model. Such concerns can safely be laid to rest. Although the storyline leaves much to be desired, RAGE 2 is plump with content, as evidenced by the dozens—maybe even hundreds—of markers sprinkled across the map.

Unfortunately, the game suffers too much from its freeform design. Players are immediately free to hunt down the Arks that unlock new abilities. As such, every skill and weapon can be unlocked within a handful of hours, which is disastrous for pacing. Even more troublesome, the RPG mechanics serve no real purpose. Players need never purchase a single upgrade to succeed, and the sheer number of different currencies make doing so a chore anyway.

Because of this lack of structure, a game that could still be interesting 30 hours in can also feel worn our within a dozen, and that suggests the post-launch support will likely only appeal to a dedicated fanbase. The challenges, vehicles, and events scheduled to arrive in the coming months will likely not change up the core gameplay structure all that much. Instead, judging by the little information already available, they may simply give dedicated fans more of what they desire.

RAGE 2 gameplay screenshot 8

On a completely different note, but equally as concerning as the game structure is the enemy design. Beginning with General Cross and extending across the Goons, mutants, and other factions, RAGE 2 seems to take a perverse pleasure in vilifying the Other, the outsider, the disabled, the religious. Even Doctor Kvasir, as a former Authority scientist with questionable morals, is a deformed being. By contrast, the undisputed heroes are all healthy and whole. While problematic in some respects, this subtle and most likely unintentional subtext is easily overlooked and unlikely to affect the enjoyment of most gamers.

Simply put, RAGE 2 is a strange beast. Perhaps that was inevitable as the follow-up to a middling first effort developed across two very different studios. Perhaps that shared production is also the reason for the lack of unity. Whatever the reason, RAGE 2 is clearly best suited to a particular kind of player. The game offers an often-beautiful environment combined with easy, enjoyable traversal mechanics. Comprising the bulk of the experience is some of the finest and most diverse gunplay combat to be found gaming today. However, these charms are let down somewhat by the lacking story and structure and a general feeling of a tonal mismatch between the bland protagonist and the madcap world.

OnlySP Review Score 3 Credit

Reviewed on Xbox One X.

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