Saturday, August 25, 2012

Video game review: Darksiders 2

  They say there are two things you cannot avoid in life, one is death, the other is tax. It is true that death comes to us all. It seems that in THQ's latest game Darksiders 2, the game developers would have the players take control of the grim reaper, Mr. Death himself on an epic journey, not to take life, but to give life... At this stage of the review, I am going to jump ahead and say Darksiders 2 is awesome! This really is my kind of game, and Death is a very likable anti-hero. But what exactly is Darksiders 2? Well, let's find out!

  In 2010, the video game studio Virgil, developed a game called "Darksiders". The first Darksiders game was an action adventure game, blending the best elements between God of War and Zelda. Darksiders 1, received many positive reviews from critics and players alike, due to the solid gameplay, eye-pleasing artistic style and a somewhat interesting storyline "inspired" by the Judeo-Christian Bible (the book of Revelation). The game quickly gained a large fan base, and Virgil studio started to develop a sequel. In 2012, the second installment in the franchise is released. Darksiders 2, promised to be a bigger and better game than its predecessor, and the game was released in August 2012.


The Darksiders universe is set in a fantasy world, "loosely inspired" by the Judeo-Christian Bible. In the world of Darksiders, the "creator" made the angels, demons and the humankind, together with the respective realms for these creatures. The balance of the universe is kept by a group called the "charred council". A demon called "Lilith" mingled the dusts of angels and demons to create the Nephlims, a race of beings which included the four horsemen. The Nephlims waged wars across many different worlds, causing unimaginable bloodshed and destruction. Eventually, the four horsemen grew tire of the slaughter, and defected to the charred council. The Four was granted with incredible powers by the council to serve the balance, and their first task was to destroy their own kind. In a major battle, the four horsemen slaughtered all the Nephlims and restored the balance. Awaiting the time when the 7 seals would be opened, when they will be summoned to bring about the end of the world.

The four horsemen in the world of Darksiders, look at the picture.. yep, there are four of them.

In Darksiders 1, the player took control of one of the horsemen of apocalypse, War. He was falsely summoned to earth when one of the 7 seals wrongfully opened, and War was accused by the charred council of starting the Armageddon pre-maturely that brought about the end of humankind. In the first game, War professed his innocence in front of the council, and was given a chance to return to earth, 300 years after the apocalypse to prove his case.

 The story of Darksiders 2 runs parallel with the first game. While War was on earth trying to find out who set him up, Death, the oldest, most powerful and fearful horsemen set out to find a way to save his brother War from condemnation. Death's plan is to resurrect and restore humankind to atone for his brother's action. On this journey, Death would travel to many places, see many wonders, and encounter many creatures both big and small, there is no way to avoid Death, the pale rider cometh!

The pale rider cometh!

With Darksiders 2, Virgil studio has made many improvements over the first game. DS2 is now categorized as an open world/roaming, action RPG game. There are all together 16 chapters in this game, and Death will visit 6 different worlds. While it is possible to ride the horse to travel between locations, but the more efficient way is to use the fast travel system.

Need to go somewhere? Use the map!
 The combat in Darksiders 2 retains the style from its predecessor, the major difference is that in Darksiders 2, Death is a far more agile fighter than War. Most of Death's deadly moves rely speed and timing. Death can use two different modes of attack, his primary weapon is a set of psyche, the secondary weapon can be a set of super fast gauntlets, or heavy weapons such as axe, mace of hammer which have slow attacking speed.

The heavy weapons in Darksiders 2 are... really big!

During combats, Death can also deploy special abilities to wreck havocs against his foes. The combat is very similar to God of War and Devil May Cry, to win the day and survive an encounter with outer worldly creatures, the player has to dodge, attack and use special abilities strategically.

There are many special abilities in Darksiders 2, knock yourself out.

The boss fights (there are many of them) require the players to observe the movements of the bosses and use tactics to win the fight. Overall, the combat system is solid, and remains the core strength of this franchise.

The first boss in Darksiders 2, the Ice Giant
Darksiders 2 has a very heavy RPG element. Other than the primary quest, there are also many side quests to be found by interacting with NPCs in the game world. While the story for side quests are not particularly interesting, but these quests often require the player to travel to a perilous dungeon or locale to defeat some massive monsters, with fitting rewards to be gained at the end of the quest. The conversation dialogue in Darksiders 2 uses a very similar design in Mass Effect. However, the conversations don't really affect the story of the game at all, and the dialogue often serves the purpose of story-telling rather than impacting the development of the story.

A conversation with a... giant dwarf?

Darksiders 2 also has a new looting system. In this game, there are literally thousands of armour pieces and weapons you can find. When Death vanquishes an enemy, the creature drops items that can be picked up. If this does not satisfy your thirst for hording equipment, there are also hundreds of treasure chests scattered throughout the game world, each containing items that will aid Death on his journey. The armor pieces and weapons are level based, and the items get better as Death levels up. The loot, item and inventory system is very similar to Diablo 3. The kind of armor pieces you equip on Death depends on your play style, but also enables the player to customize the appearance of Death.

The inventory menu of Darksiders 2
Sample armors in Darksiders 2
 As Death completes quests and defeat enemies, he gradually gains experience points and levels up. When Death gains a level, he is rewarded with a skill point to assign to a special ability (of the player's choice). In Darksiders 2, there are two skill trees. One set of skill is focused on enhancing Death's melee combat (the warrior build), the other set of skill gives Death the ability to summon creatures to aid him in battles (the necromancer build), the type of character build can be further enhanced by the armor pieces equipped on Death by the player.

The menu for skill trees

 Puzzle solving is another main element in Darksiders 2. The puzzles in this game can get quite difficult, some of the puzzles will really make you think hard. Most of the time, Death has to utilize his surroundings and gadgets (such as the portal gun and gripping chains) to solve a puzzle. There are also a lot of wall running and climbing on the dungeon walls in this game, an element very similar to Prince of Persia and Assassin's Creed. In my play through, I was often baffled by some of the more challenging puzzles. Nonetheless, the puzzles are all solvable (if you think hard enough). Personally, I loved the mental challenges offered by the puzzles in Darksiders 2. However, if you are the kind of person who just want to get on with the game and kill stuff, then you might not find the challenging puzzles in Darksiders 2 to your liking.

Finally, apart from the main quest and side quests. The player can also take Death to the Crucible. This is an arena mode where Death can face up to 100 waves of enemies. After every 5 waves, Death can choose to either quit the arena and cash in the reward (such as armors, weapons, amulets, gold or potions), or continue to fight on to accumulate more reward. However, if the player dies in the middle of the session, you loose all previous rewards. Beating all 100 waves of enemy in the Crucible can let the player unlock 2 pieces of Death's most powerful armor, the Abyssal armor (I only managed to beat 55 waves in my first play through and only unlocked the Abyssal boot).

Welcome to the Crucible mode, the winner takes all. The loser goes home empty handed.
In general, the combat in Darksiders 2 is fun, exciting and exquisite. The newly introduced RPG system allows the game to have more replay-ability, and makes the experience more rewarding, while at the same time allows the player to customize Death to suit their play style. Finally, the puzzles in Darksiders 2  present some real challenges to any fans of video games who are not afraid of exercising some brain muscles.

Graphics, design and music:

The artistic design of Darksiders 1 and 2, is done by Joe Madureira (Uncanny Xmen). The looks and feel of the graphics has a very strong comic book style. The sceneries are grand, colorful and fascinating. The character designs are good to look at, and give the sense of high fantasy setting. I really like the way Death looks, with his death mask, spiked armor, a crow on his shoulder and his cool horse. While the artistic design of the game is amazing, the same cannot be said to the the technical side in the graphics department. On the PC version of the game, there are actually no features that allows you to turn on graphics options such as AA, high resolution shadow, textures resolution and so on. The result is the graphics in this game is not as high quality as it should be on modern PC games. The shadows in this game are highly pix-elated (I think I can almost count the pixels). It is very strange for Virgil studio to release a PC game with no options to tweak the graphic settings.

Welcome to the beautiful world of Darksiders 2
 The music and soundtracks of Darksiders 2 are simply amazing, a definite improvement over the soundtracks in Darksiders 1. I have the collector's edition of the game, and I was given a pass to download the soundtracks of the game from THQ website. Each of the soundtracks are very suitable for the different locations and occasions in the game. Finally, the voice actor for Death is Michael Wincott (from the film, The Crow), the voice acting for Death is top notch, very suitable for the character of Death, and certainly made Death one of the most memorable video game characters up to date.

Technical glitches:

 You might be wondering, with awesome gameplay, very likable protagonist, top notch soundtrack/voice acting, and beautiful artistic design, this must be the perfect game right? Sadly, this is not true. In my opinion, the biggest problem with Darksiders 2 is the list of technical glitches and bugs. Other than the lack of graphics setting features on the PC version, the game also suffers from a lot of glitches that can halt Death's quest to resurrect the humankind. Luckily, none of the bugs are game breaking, but glitches do prevent the player from completing certain side quests. Virgil studio has promised to release a patch in the coming weeks to address these problems. It would be very good if these issues can be resolved. Given that THQ is not in good finiancial status, they have really invested a lot in Darksiders 2, hoping this block buster title can get the company out of its current money troubles. I really hope Darksiders 2 can sell well and THQ can pull through, because I would really like to play Darksiders 3 in the future.

Final verdict:

  I instantly became a fan of the Darksiders franchise when I played Darksiders 1 two years ago. In Darksiders 2, with the solid gameplay, beautiful art design, amazing soundtrack, top notch voice acting, and a very, very likable protagonist. I think Darksiders 2 is currently my favorite game this year. However, the technical glitches and the lack of graphic setting in Darksiders 2 (on PC version) really weights against it, but since Virgil studio has promised to release a patch to address all these problems, I will rate Darksiders 2 as it will be when it will be patched in the (hopefully) near future.

In my opinion, Darksiders 2 scores a solid  9.5/10

Regarding the story:

The story of Darksiders 2, is loosely inspired by the book of Revelation. I think some people might be concerned about the spirituality of this game, in respective to the Christian worldview. Personally, I think we need to keep in mind, this is a "fantasy" story "inspired" by the book of Revelation. This means we need to look at the story for what it is, NOT for what "we think it should represent". (what I mean is, it would be ridiculous to expect a fantasy story, inspired by elements in the book of revelation, to accurately represent Christian theology. Remember, this is a video game story, not a theological commentary making a statement about Christian theology) .

A word of precaution to the would-be players. Darksiders 2 is strictly MA15+, mostly due to graphical violence.

There is one thing I want to mention (warning: Spoiler ahead!!!). In the game's ending scene (the final cut scene), the narrator spoke a sentence that summed up the story of Death: "Thus, from death came life, and the seeds of humanity was resown. But, Death's journey has not ended".

I think this is a sentence that should remind Christians of something we are familiar with. I always find it very interesting that the idea of "an individual's self sacrifice to save others", is such a highly revered idea in pop culture entertainment. If you have played this game, given the entire context of the story in Darksiders 2, perhaps this can be a conversation starter (a common ground) with your friends, who does not yet know that Jesus is humanity's savior, and has died and rose again.

 Happy gaming!

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Book review: The Ultimate Triumph - The limited signed edition

"Barbarism is the natural state of mankind", the borderer said, still staring somberly at the Cimmerian. "Civilization is unnatural. It is a whim of circumstance. And barbarism must always ultimately triumph"
                    Beyond the Black River, 1935

  Empires rise, and empires fall. Throughout history, the earthly thrones of human regimes bud, and fade like leaves in the winter chills. Time and again, these empires and civilizations crumple and quake beneath the invasions from "barbarians". We have all heard of the phrase "barbarians at the gate". The somber reflection of history, seems to indicate a cyclic pattern: The demise of civilization in the waking inferno of red-handed barbarians.

 This is the enduring worldview of Robert E. Howard (1906-1936), the greatest pulp writer of all time; Corruptions and degeneracy manifest themselves as a civilization makes progress. Ultimately, when a civilization is rotten to its core, the "barbarians at the gate", a more primitive group, from outside the gateway, with hardiness and disciplines shaped by their struggle to survive the tough environs, rise up and overtake a civilization and rule in its stead. This seems to be a self repeating pattern, when one glimpses into the flowing river of history.

In Robert E. Howard's short career as an author between the 1920s to 1930s. He wrote more than 600 short stories and 700 poems, and he created some of the most enduring and iconic literary characters of all time, such as Solomon Kane, Conan the Cimmerian, Bran Mak Morn, Cormac Mac Art, Turlough O'brien, Francis Xavier Gordon... these tales impacted the world of fantasy fiction very deeply, and Robert E. Howard is widely regarded as the father of sword and sorcery sub-genre.

 Readers of Robert E. Howard's stories, are inevitably aware of Howard's disillusion with the notion of civilization. What could drive a man to despise civilization so much? Howard's did not arrive at his worldview by observing the history alone. To understand the elements that shaped Howard's worldview and writings. We need to understand something of Robert E. Howard's life. Howard grew up in a Texan town called "Cross Plain" in the 1920s. When his family first arrived at Cross Plain, it was a little town, peaceful and God-fearing. Sooner than later, the oil boom swept the town off its feet, and in the pace of a few years. The town was transformed from the inside out. The riches brought by the oil boom, also brought corruptions, violence and all sorts of negativity that impacted the community. As the Howard scholar Mark Finn correctly observed about Howard's experience growing up at a boom town:

"He saw the hypocrisies of the boom clearly, an ironic state of affairs that allowed for "progress" and "civilization" to come with their own predators and brigands. He watched as the quiet, God-fearing town suddenly became a wild and lawless place. He watched as the backdrop of his early childhood descended on an area of the country he had come to know, and he saw the effect it had on people his family knew very well".
                             Mark Finn, Blood and Thunder: The Art & Life of Robert E. Howard

No wonder so many of Howard's protagonists are barbarians. These characters are neither savages, nor are they men pampered by the spoils of civilization. While Howard despised civilization, nor does he revere the idea of "noble savage", Howard did not think human beings would be better off if we were in a status of complete savageness. Howard's barbarians are not just muscle-bound, fighting simpletons. Howard's barbarians are often portrayed as heroes contemplating with life, with naked honesty, stolid ferocity and iron determinations to uphold their principles, no matter what trials they face. Under Howard's pen, his barbarians contrast the hypocrisies of decadent men wearing the serpentine mask of civilized mannerism. It can be said that by creating these characters, Howard was stating his disillusion with the civilization, and the negative aspects that accompanies it".

Since Howard's death in 1936. Most of Howard's literary creations have been greatly diluted with  B-grade pastiches, comic books and Hollywood movies. Sadly, while the popular media has made many of Howard's creations famous, but they have also created stereotypes that Howard's literary inventions are cheap, cheesy, and second grade literature thriving on violence and sex appeal. Needless to say, none of these stereotypes are true. Recently, there has been a resurgence and increased demand for publishing Howard's original writings, unadulterated and unabridged. In 1999, the book publisher Wandering Star released a book called "The Ultimate Triumph". This is the second volume in their series of "Robert E. Howard Library of classics". The name is taken from Howard's famous quote from the story "Beyond the Black River" (the quote at the beginning of this review).

This book collects 7 of Howard's iconic stories on barbarism vs. civilization. The genre of the stories in this volume, range from sword and sorcery to historical fiction. The book is also illustrated by Frank Frazetta (1928-2005), the legendary fantasy artist who provided over 120 black and white drawings, and 4 color plates to illuminate the text. The limited edition of this book was restricted to 1500 copies, signed by Frank Frazetta, in hardcover format and encased with a beautiful slip case.

 The stories collected in this volume are:

Beyond the Black River - Arguably one of the best stories Howard ever wrote, an unique Conan story with the background of the frontier setting.

The House of Arabu - A horror/fantasy story featuring Pyrrhas the Argive, the Greek Barbarian

Spears of Clontarf - This is a historical fiction story based on the event of Battle of Clontarf in 1014, an epic battle between the Vikings and the Celts. This is a story containing all the classic Howardian elements.

The Night of the Wolf - The Irish reaver Cormac Mac Art is entangled in a conflict between the Vikings and the Picts.

Spear and Fang - The clash in a prehistorical age. A Cro Magnon man vs. a Neanderthal man, it doesn't get more barbaric than this.

The Valley of the worm - A Beowulf like pseudo-mythological tale from the dimming memory of mankind.

Lord of Samarcand - This is probably the darkest heroic fantasy story from Howard. A historical fiction based on the history of Timur (Tamerlane), who dreamed of restoring Genghis Khan's Mongolian empire. In the story, the protagonist is a Celtic outlaw called Donald MacDeesa who, through a twist of fate, served under Tamerlane's army of conquest.

In addition to the stories, this collection also contains five of Howard's poems.

The Ultimate triumph, showcased some of the most iconic barbarian stories written by Robert E. Howard. The theme of barbarism vs. civilization dominated recurs throughout all of them. Howard wrote these stories with poetic lyricism, together with his signature style of "blood and thunder". The stories are fast paced, furiously energetic and flamboyantly entertaining. Howard wrote with the intensity of a hunting wolf, at times, the text seems to be bursting into a raging fire from the sheer energy emanating from Howard's prose writings. The readers are transported to worlds and ages crafted by Howard's vivid imaginations; back to the field of Clontarf fighting alongside Turlough O'Brien, to the dark forest beyond the Thunder River and joining Conan in his struggle against the Picts, or as a witness to the death throne of Tamerlane, the last great conqueror of the world.

My take on Barbarism vs. civilization -  Part 1: The Ultimate Triumph

The theme predominating the selection of stories in this entire book, as its name suggests, is the ultimate triumph of barbarism over the decadent civilization. Does Howard's view have any credibility? Personally, I think his view is a very honest take on this known tension that has echoed throughout ages.

In our 21st century world, we often boast about our own achievements. We boast in our technological advancements, we boast in our culture that revere human rights, and we boast in our improved quality of life style in the western world, such as fine food, fine drinks, and top notch entertainment. But I often wonder, are our accumulative efforts really making the world a better place? New atheism movement wants us to believe that our collective efforts can drive our society to evolve to be a better place for all. The question is this, while the quality of life has improved in the first world countries, but if our 21th century civilization is really that great, than why isn't everyone happy? Can our own collective efforts bring us perfect happiness, or at a deeper level, perfect joy?

On the contrary, it seems that our "progress" and "advancement" came with some heavy prices. A few examples: Our rapidly improving technology has enabled us to make damning weapons that can wipe out an entire city in one blast in a matter of seconds. Our internet technology has allowed people to mass produce, store and view child pornography, and also enabled wholesale global human trafficking and sex slavery trade, all of these were not available before the birth of the internet. Our over reverence of human rights has gone haywire, producing a society where people are becoming more and more individualistic and apathetic. On the other hand, the improved quality of lifestyle has produced a materialistic, consumerism based society, where people's lives are dominated by the pursuit of personal pleasure, a facade jungle, a colorful disguise masking the invitation to unfathomable degeneracy. One only needs to stay sober for a while to ask a question, that despite our "progress", is our 21st century world is really better than the world where our ancestor fought, died, bled and inhibited?  Have we misplaced our faith on our own ability to make things better?

Please understand, that I am not undermining the value of our technology, reverence of human right and improvements over the quality of life. Nor am I against the pursuit of personal pleasure. These things are good. I am just trying to assert an honest statement, that it would be extremely arrogant of us to use our 21st century worldview and our 21st century morality (which are not perfect anyway), to step into history and pronouncing the superiority of our civilization over those who treaded before us. And perhaps, our faith in our own ability to make things better needs to be re-evaluated.

In this regard, we cannot be sure our civilization is "progressing" instead of "regressing". What if our society is, in reality gradually plunging into degeneracy, hidden underneath the illusion of our proud progress? What standard we should use to measure this? If history does repeat itself, that civilizations inevitably become decadent as it becomes drunk in its glory, then one day when our civilization is rotten to the core, what manner of barbarism, or barbarians will flood through the gateway of our civilization, bearing the black doom on their shoulders? Will such a day become a reality?

Perhaps, pondering on the question of barbarism and civilization is only scratching the surface of a deeper problem. Are humankind locked into the inescapable destiny of this seemingly eternal pattern? If barbarism is to ultimately triumph over civilization that grows degenerate, then we can say the cause of both barbarism and corruption of civilization lies within our own hearts. Perhaps, we need an alternative. Maybe, instead of trying to achieve the ultimate triumph with our own efforts, we need to let love triumph? If the central teaching of Christianity speaks the truth, that God loved us first, while we were still sinners. Then we can have faith that, in the face of barbarism and the failures of our civilization, love, will ultimately triumph. Had Howard realized this, I wonder if he could have made even more impact to the world of literature, by not putting a bullet into his head on that fateful day in 1936.

 I am including some illustrations entailed in this book (found below), for the purpose of this book review. I do not own the copyright to these artworks, the copyright of these artworks belong to Frank Frazetta Properties LLC.