Saturday, May 26, 2012

Darksiders Review

THQ is a member of an old guard of publishers, names and logos of which appeared before countless titles throughout the nineties. Like other members of the old guard, the company got huge and fat and rich off of producing 5-10 games a year and selling them between $40-80 a pop to parents who bought games for their kids entirely based on the license attached to the box. “Oh hey, my reprobate overweight douchebag suburban son likes wrestling; let’s buy him the newest looking wrestling game with the longest title and latest roster.” Not kidding, that shit sold like gangbusters. 

                Then the future happened and every game had to have fancy three dee graphics and interesting mechanics and later some king of online multiplayer component or else it wouldn’t sell. Games got more expensive to make and the strength of a popular license wouldn’t go as far as it used to. So they’re all shutting down and collapsing and folding into larger companies because producing three or four games a year just isn’t instantly generating cashflow like it used to. Right now in the news 38 Studios and subsidiary developers Big Huge Games are both unilaterally collapsing after producing just one game together, a game that took three years and some unreasonable number of millions of dollars to make. Rhode Island actually lent them $75 million to bring the studio to the state because they were probably still thinking in 90s terms where games are instant money+job generators for skilled white men to flow cash into the state. Unfortunately the studio made some godawful decisions in the current gaming climate, opting to produce a Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game, a genre where if a game isn’t named World of Warcraft, it’s probably going to lose dicktons of money because of the sheer development size of it (World of Warcraft’s data is up to 25 GB. And this is a game made in 2004, before any of these HD-DVD things or nonsense) and the fact that you’re automatically competing with a game that’s 8 years old and still has around 10 million players. 

                So now the studio is collapsing and they can’t make payroll and it’s really not the fault of anyone in the studio. Their first game, Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, wasn’t that bad and moved around 1.2 million copies, but in order for it to have broken even it needed something like 3 million copies sold thanks to its multiplatform nature and development cost. These numbers are astronomical, I shouldn’t need to tell you. Back in the 90s, the “golden age of gaming,” a game could sell maybe 100,000 copies and be considered a moderate success. Games were priced more reasonably to their development costs, and everything overall was cheaper to do. In the modern games era we’re tacked to the $60 new price point, just $10 more than the last generation’s price fixing scheme (you know it is) while games cost around twice as much to develop, a bump from around $8 million to $20 million on average. Games also take more time and effort to generate the high definition textures and models and 30fps animations and bug testing. What’s ironic about all this is that games themselves haven’t gotten any more complex or longer, but in fact the opposite has happened in interests of cost savings, which brings us to Darksiders.

                Darksiders is the very first step in the new direction that THQ intends to move as a publisher, away from licensed kids games that are getting too expensive and too difficult to sell (Yet they’re still making a Spongebob Squarepants game for the Wii U. Maybe they’re just reprioritizing towards their best-selling kids games) and towards original IPs wholly owned by the corporation and thus completely monetizeable. Darksiders was produced by Vigil Games, a studio founded by a pair of guys who met in college and started a bromance that has lasted over ten years and Comic Guy Joe Madureira (Portugese for “incredibly sexy”) who was the only reason I went to the first Wizard World convention here in New Orleans, but he canceled last minute because he was busy working on Darksiders 2, crushing my hopes and dreams (I still love you please call me). Also some other dude that I can’t find any info about online. 

                The game on the surface is about Prince Arthas War, one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse and his super-manly quest for vengeance after the apocalypse happens early and everything goes wrong. There’s some background mythology on a “three kingdoms” approach to this where there’s three kingdoms of reality, man, heaven, and hell; and there’s some loosely explained third party called the charred council that created and operates the horsemen. Big props for the way the game tells the story, nothing is explained to you in didactic style, either by a magic codex or by grating, supercilious NPCs. The game actually ends with a pretty open-ended cliffhanger, as all that really gets done is War’s vengeance quest (and you beat the final boss guy). The only problem is that the story is mind-crushingly stupid. Every single character oozes testosterone from their giant, muscly pores. The dialogue reads like it was written by a WH40k fan that got C’s in high school English. The plot apparently dispenses with the concept of motive, instead simply saying “this character does this” and leaving it there. The real problem is that none of these characters feel like sentient people, much less intelligent or interested people. They feel like excuses to propel a game forward. And hey, that’s exactly what the plot here is. 

                Which actually turns out okay, because as a game it’s pretty darn great. It’s derivative as all hell, but most of the best video games are, and the game picked the right franchises to be derivative from. It’s a third person action game that plays almost identically to The Legend of Zelda, albeit with more manly and complicated combat. Sections are divided between puzzles and combat and the occasional gauntlet-of-enemies-to-be-defeated-with-special-weapon segments.  Like I said, this is not a bad thing. There are not enough legend of Zelda clones on the market, and Nintendo seems content with releasing one ever 5 years, which is awful and terrible and totally unsatisfactory. 

                Everything of course is much more gory and manly than Zelda. The game even has a mature rating, though aside from the ridiculous blood everywhere (this games versions of Zelda’s keys are actually little daggers you stab through the eyes of barriers to your progress, eliciting a huge spurt of blood) there’s nothing particularly mature about this game. The only time vulgar language is used is towards the end when the sole female character is called a “bitch” and a “whore,” both pretty jarring as the only severe insults throughout the game (other than ludicrous threats of murder from silly-looking demons) and both towards the only woman in the game. This is a boys only club, folks. Women aren’t allowed.  But hey, that’s not really out of the norm. What was the one female in Gears of War 1 again? Some woman literally half the size of the protagonist wearing a short skirt?

                Anyway, overall Darksiders is not that bad. It’s probably worth your time if you like Legend of Zelda and you can check out from the library for free like I did. Just be prepared for everything that’s wrong with modern games on this disc. We’ve got gameplay pretty down, but presentation still leaves a lot to be desired. Darksiders 2 is out this August, to star another horseman, Death. THQ is doing slightly better financially, and the success of this game is probably going to be a major factor of the publisher’s health going forward. 

                THQ is a great story, though. They had a CEO that became really adamant about producing a drawing tablet peripheral for kids to play games with, a fiscally untenable move in any case that isn’t Guitar Band or Rock Hero. The uDraw tablet underperformed massively and is the number one reason for the publisher’s stock sliding so badly at the end of last year. They fired that guy (and I’m pretty sure he wrapped a corvette around a tree afterward, as is the natural life cycle of sociopathic executive)  and a bunch of other people, but they took the smart move of leaving their dev studios intact and simply refocusing their efforts to other games. Darksiders is one of the original wholly owned IPs that THQ hopes to turn into a comic series, a cartoon, a series of novellas, a card game, maybe a movie, and so on. Viva Capitalism!

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