Videogames, politics, science, all the important things in life.

Presenting the case against Darksiders

Posted by nfinit on February 27, 2010

Last week you may remember my (not quite unconditional) exuberance for Vigil Game’s Zelda/God of War tribute Darksiders.  And you may remember my contention that, for $40, you could hardly find a better gaming experience.  And while I still stand by that, after a week and roughly sixteen hours plowed into Darksiders, I’d like to present a counter-argument against my own argument:  Darksiders falls apart in its final act harder than the final two months of McCain/Palin presidential bid.

Valve built an entire game around the Portal gun concept. Darksiders crams the same mechanic into the last act of it's 3d platformer

I brought this up earlier with my latest (of many) Bioware rants, but everything wrong with Darksiders could be fixed through proper Quality Assurance– presumably Vigil Games has at its disposal a QA department complete with a team of testers.  My contention is that these studios either are not listening to their QA department or they don’t have nearly as much input over gameplay and balance issues as was needed.

Darksiders provides a classic example of this disconnect in it’s final dungeon, the gimmick of which is three convoluted, vexing light beam path puzzles combined with the teleportation gun from Portal– the mechanics of which were introduced entirely within the last act of the game.

The addition of the Portal gun is where I feel Darksiders started finally going off the rails  Darksiders has such a rich and varied collection of gameplay mechanics that by the time you get to the final act adding More Stuff to the game finally becomes Too Much Stuff.  You’re already dealing with jumps and double jumps and double jumps and glides and two separate grappling mechanics and wall climbs and a horse and what feels like an entire armory of ranged weaponry– Then Darksiders throws in the gun from Portal along with the accompanying play mechanics, all of which must now be incorporated within the framework of a 3d platformer.

To say that the player beings to feel a bit overwhelmed is an understatement.  Added to this is that the Portal gun’s mechanics have no  internal consistency at all.  There’s designated spots in the game where the portal gun will work, and you aim at one to make an entrance and another to make and exit.  But it’s never clear what happens to the first two portals once you fire a third time.  It’s entirely possible to jump through an exit portal and go out your erstwhile entrance whereas the push blocks you’re supposed to drag through the portals for whatever reason don’t enjoy the same luxury.  Also these portals will randomly allow you to fire through them and hit other portal locations on the map, but sometimes doing so wipes out the portal you fired through for no apparent reason, leaving you without a portal on your own end.  And other oddities– sometimes it is possible to double jump when exiting a portal, sometimes not.  Sometimes you carry your momentum through when exiting, sometimes not.  Sometimes it’s possible to fire a ranged through a portal, sometimes not.  For some reason you’re not allowed to drop through a portal and land atop a push block, despite being able at all times to simply walk up to that same block and jump atop it.

untitled-26.jpg picture by bigredcoat

Gaze upon this, and know despair

And all this would be frustrating enough if you were not  also dealing with Darksider’s voluminous and finicky 3d platformer mechanics.  The double-tap-hold mechanic for activating the glide jump, for instance, fails randomly and it’s unclear why aside from perhaps being a split instant off in the timing– also it feels like your character has to be in the right frame of animation before a jump will register, meaning that if your foot hangs off the edge by the barest inch then the jump will refuse to take hold and you plummet to your (thankfully temporary) doom.

This is the underlying problem with Darksiders– what’s going on seems arbitrary; that most of your failures are not attributable to lack of skill on the part of the player, but a combination of poor mechanics and the developer’s inability to get across exactly what they expect from the player at any given time.  Most of the game’s puzzles don’t revolve around logic, but around stuff that you expect would work within a videogame because the devs have expected you to have spent a large chunk of your life playing videogames– in other words, the world revolves around videogame logic.  And in a way that’s refreshing because with this mindset Vigil Games didn’t  have to go out of the way to explain how to push blocks; but at the same time it is frustrating when the game throws a handful of puzzle elements onto the screen and expects you to just start using them with no explanation given as to their use or how they interact.  In one section you’re given a set push blocks and scales without any clear understanding what the blocks do in relation to the scales or how exactly push block interact with portals generated from the Portal gun.  You are expected to instinctively know how these elements interact.  And that would be fine, but even as someone who’s come into Darksiders with an entirely unhealthy amount of experience playing videogames, most of the time I just randomly pushed and pulled and hit switches until I triggered a cutscene and knew I’d “solved” the puzzle.  But I didn’t really solve the puzzle as there was no real puzzle to solve, no more so than you could “solve” a jigsaw picture of a random Jackson Pollock painting.  You just hunt and peck and guess and hope.

As a result, when one of these endgame puzzles opens up, I’m not tempted or intrigued by a new challenge the game has presented.  Instead I feel like turning off the system and playing through Bayonetta one more time.  This goes beyond mere frustration– this game actively crushes any interest or desire to play it.

And to return to my original point, none of this happens if Vigil Games’ Quality Assurance department is operating correctly and they are listening to it.  Testers and/or focus groups would be able to look at this issue and deliver the correct feedback to the devs and crimes against gameplay such as Darksiders’ grappling mechanics (Oh yeah, I didn’t mention this earlier but somehow Darksiders also gets grappling wrong) never happen.  One or a combination of these three things is taking place:

Darksiders_screencap.jpg picture by bigredcoat

Hope you enjoyed that one horse level, because you're never using him again

1:  Testing and QA is not allowed to offer feedback in regards to gameplay issues; only bug testing and reporting glitches.

2:  The QA and Testing department became so intimately familiar with its mechanics that these issues seemed inconsequential

3:  The devs simply didn’t listen/never had time to implement fixes.

Here’s what I want to know– is it asking too much to have open betas for single-player videogames?  Clearly it’s a concept that works well for multiplayer shooters, and MMOs are in a state of open beta for the entire time they’re operational.  But once a single player game’s code hits disc, it’s all but impossible to make sweeping changes, and stuff that gets lost in the insular culture of a development studio becomes permanent and inviolate.  Mass Effect 2, for instance, has a little-publicized but highly annoying bug where the text is all but unreadable on SDTVs.  If enough people outside of ME2 were allowed to play even an hour of the game before code was finalized, that could have easily been rectified.  Same thing happened with Capcom’s Dead Rising.  The PC port of Grand Theft Auto IV was a notoriously glitchy mess and may well have ruined the reputation of the entire franchise in the minds of PC gamers for good.

Back to the game in question, Darksiders– The most frustrating thing about the final act is that the game was remarkably well done leading up to that point– and this may belay a flaw in my logic in regards to open betas resolving this issue– there’s just no way this issue could come up if you’ve not already invested 16 hours into this game, by which point you feel kinda dumb if you can’t grind out the final 3 hours or so.

So in retrospect, is Darksiders still with the $40?  With the final section of the game in its current (and permanent) state, I can’t say that without qualification.  However, if you can be comfortable packing up the box the moment the final dungeon is unlocked and never touching the game again, it’s a fine, if decidedly b-level experience.  You’re still getting a lot of content for your money, just not a finished product.


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