08/01/2010 13:39 | By Simon Munk, MSN Tech & Gadgets

Review: Darksiders

It might star War himself, but this action-adventure's greatest strength is its smart, satisfying puzzles, not combat.

Darksiders (© THQ)

What is it?
Post-apocalyptic action-adventure that borrows from the Legend of Zelda series and features design by Joe "X-Men" Madureira.

What we like
Puzzles and new powers mesh together well. Beautifully realised settings. High-gloss polish that applies not just to visuals, but level design, plot and script.

What we don't like
While there are loads of options for extending combat combos, most players will settle on a few favourites and then stick with them repetitively.

A beautifully detailed action-adventure plays like a grown-up Legend of Zelda.

In Darksiders, War, one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse, isn't one of the bad guys you suppose he would be. Instead, in this Grand Guignol and gothic action-adventure, War has been fitted up as the kickstarter of an apocalypse that shouldn't have arrived yet.

Darksiders screenshot (© THQ)

Stripped of his powers and returned to an Earth ravaged by a war between heaven and hell, War has to regain his powers one by one and track down those responsible for the early Ragnarok. And it's not just the unusual hero/anti-hero that marks Darksiders out as something a little bit different from the gaming norm.

Art of war
The game, designed by comicbook legend Joe Madureira (X-Men, Battle Chasers, The Ultimates), looks like a Brutal Legend-style heavy metal album cover - a fanboy's wet dream of ruined skyscrapers covered in gigantic chains, where zombies and dragons roam the streets and gigantic chasms of plasma spew forth demonspawn. It looks absolutely spectacular, if a little stereotypical. But it plays completely unexpectedly, like a grown-up Legend of Zelda.

Darksiders sees War roaming around the shattered landscape, delving into dungeons and ascending towers to find the next piece of the puzzle in the plot. Each new area is, of course, stock full of grunt enemies to hack through - something War does satisfyingly well. But each new area also means new and increasingly grotesque, inventive and fun-to-attack mini-bosses and boss monsters. As well as, more importantly, new powers for War to unlock.

Darksiders screenshot (© THQ)

The best thing about Darksiders is that each new power you gain is introduced gently. You're allowed space to play with it then, gradually, continuing through the area, you're pushed to solve tougher puzzles, eventually requiring you to combine new powers with existing ones in smart new ways.

Strong puzzles
When you are using and combining your superpowers to solve puzzles is when Darksiders is at its closest to Nintendo's iconic Legend Of Zelda series. And puzzles is what Darksiders does best - smoothly ramping up the difficulty and providing complex and satisfying play.

Powers and items include a giant metal boomerang with which you can lock on to multiple enemies, ticking sticky bombs, a teleportation gun (stolen from Valve's Portal) and an earthquake-triggering gauntlet. All of which are required to solve environmental puzzles.

Darksiders screenshot (© THQ)

And like Legend of Zelda games (and, for that matter, Ratchet & Clank games), new powers will also trigger memories of previously impossible-to-reach areas earlier in the game. So the new powers also unlock areas in already-completed sections, as well as pushing the plot forward and opening up new areas to explore.

As well as new puzzles, Darksiders keeps regularly drip-feeding players other rewards. Souls harvested from enemies and chests can be chipped in for weapon upgrades, new "Wrath" powers (combat spells that make you temporarily tougher, send spikes shooting out of the ground or even turn you into a gigantic "Chaos form") and new combat moves.

So that's the incentive to back-track through previously travelled areas. Annoyingly, areas you can go back to and now open aren't well marked on the map - you'll need to use your memory or just wander around a lot to find them.

Darksiders screenshot (© THQ)

A far bigger annoyance is the other half of Darksiders: combat. Wading through the endless grunts, mini-bosses and huge boss encounters that make up half of Darksiders' play is sadly nowhere near as much fun as puzzling over the next environmental barrier.

Weaker combat
War's moves are never less than satisfyingly crunchy. And there's loads of them - with upgrades constantly fed to you. But despite that, the game is mostly beatable using the fairly simple and old-school technique of alternating between dodging and hammering buttons. Little of the love, invention or craft that's clearly been applied to the puzzle-solving elements of Darksiders has been applied to its combat.

That said, where Darksiders picks up points with its sheer bloody brutality. Bosses, particularly, are despatched with spectacularly over-the-top finishing moves - with limbs, entrails and gallons of blood flying in all directions. The end result is that your melee encounters always look great, even if you do find yourself hammering the same buttons for most of the game.

Darksiders screenshot (© THQ)

Darksiders releases the same week as the combat-perfect Bayonetta. And the fighting elements of Darksiders definitely aren't even in the same league as Sega's witch-with-guns-in-her-heels combat fest. But that's not to say Darksiders doesn't have its own appeal.

As a grown-up, brooding and bloody version of Legend of Zelda, combining good-looking action with exploration and environmental puzzle-solving to test your brain, Darksiders really does provide superbly satisfying play - always testing you, but never vexing you for too long. And as such, it's arguably a deeper, fuller and more interesting game.

Four out of five stars

Darksiders is out from 8 January for PS3 and Xbox 360.

[Microsoft is the owner of Xbox and owner and publisher of MSN.]