Giving Up: Darksiders vs Just Cause 2

Not too far back, I played Darksiders and Just Cause 2. These are two of the more successful mid-tier releases of 2010, at least critically. They’re each in genres which I have a fair degree of affection for. But neither game grabbed me. I finished one of them, and quit the other. Thus these seem like more prime candidates to examine via my “Giving Up” rubric.

The griping begins after the jump:

Let’s dispense quickly with the story-aspect. Just Cause 2 inherits all the typical story-telling issues from its Grand Theft Auto progenitors. You’re either stuck doing random favours for unlikable, one-note thugs, or playing around in the open world. Either way, you lose sight of the overarching plot, and never feel like your actions have much in the way of weight or consequence. I tuned out quickly.

Darksiders clearly put a lot of effort into its narrative, but again does a lousy job of simply setting up the story. Not being able to understand what had happened to War (our protagonist), or who had betrayed him, or why, or who was or wasn’t on his side made it awfully hard to sympathize with him. It doesn’t help that War is a thoroughly uninteresting character who never evolves beyond his “honourable guy is angry and out for revenge on those who betrayed him” archetype.

I can forgive a lousy story. Lord knows I’ve done it in the past. But the core gameplay loop in Just Cause 2 just isn’t as fun as it should be. There are moments of craziness – plummeting thousands of feet through the air out of a plane, explosions all around – but these aren’t the norm. Most of the time is spent either getting to an objective, or engaging in combat, and here there are problems. Regular guns aren’t very powerful, except at close range. The weapon-carry limit doesn’t help. (You get one power weapon and two weak, short-range guns – meaning that you get either mid-long range effectiveness (assault rifle) or explosive power (rocket launcher) but not both.) Using the grappling hook from anything other than short-range was risky, since I’d all too often hit the ground, or a ledge in front of the enemy, and find myself yanked right into the middle of a group I was unprepared for. Ideally, I think what the game was going for was to have the player use the mobility afforded by the grappling hook to bypass enemies, or else dart in to close-combat, and then again to dart out quickly to recover health when things got rough. But it doesn’t tend to work out that way. Mission objectives too often involve escorting NPCs, or dealing with targets that are so well defended and so well inside a base that bailing out to heal isn’t an appealing option. On-foot bosses in particular tend to be awful bullet-sinks. Even with a rocket launcher I rarely felt like I had enough explosives to level an area while on foot.

So what tended to happen was that I’d resort to picking up a turret, or getting in an APC, and slowly inching through the base, sniping targets from as far away as possible, and abandoning all that mobility that was supposed to be the big draw of the game. This is a case where the mechanics of the game didn’t encourage me to experiment and play in the combat-sandbox in an enjoyable way. What should have been high-flying, dynamic, improvised encounters turned into slow slogs.

Just Cause 2 also has structural and pacing problems. The world is just too big, with too many distractions. For me, one of the main joys of an open world game is getting to go back and forth over familiar terrain a few times – learning its features, how to navigate and fight effectively in it. The world is huge and the road-system in the game never seemed particularly effective at getting me to a quest-giver, so I’d most often just fast-travel there. (It doesn’t help that the game will constantly throw up collectibles and power-ups and things to blow up along the way. I realize it’s doing this to encourage me to play in its playground, but the emphasis on completion – the game throws up a percentage indicator of how much you’ve done of what there is to do at each settlement, and awards a substantial bonus upon completion – means these distractions too often devolve into the tedium of searching for that one missed collectible.) Once I’ve triggered a mission, I’d more often than not find myself teleported halfway across the map to somewhere I’d never been before. With all this bouncing around, not only did I not become familiar with the environment, I lost whatever sense of cohesion the world could have had. I’d be in a jungle one second, then a desert, then a mountain-top, in rapid succession. The game almost might as well have been a linear, level-based action game for all that.

With Darksiders, it wasn’t that the game was frustrating to play, it was just boring. The combat was fine, if repetitive. The slavish devotion to the Zelda formula was kind of absurd, but also kind of endearing. While I didn’t find the combat exciting, it was at least challenging and well-balanced. What really killed my enthusiasm for Darksiders was the puzzles. They were incredibly rote and predictable. Up until the last dungeon, just about every one was of the “use the item on the glowing object” type that required absolutely no thought. And there was never any challenge to navigating the dungeons – it was always straight ahead to the next room.

As I said, the last dungeon was better. It had a hub-and-spokes design, and the return-trip down each spoke was a novel sort of escort mission, which re-used previously traversed spaces in interesting ways. Notably this is also the only dungeon whose big chest has an item that isn’t a direct analogue of one from Zelda (though it is obviously inspired, right down to its colour-scheme, from Portal).

So why, after all these gripes, did I quit Just Cause 2, but push through on Darksiders? The quick answer is that I hit a significant difficulty spike on a mission in Just Cause (having to get in the front door of a base on an escort mission under a hail of rocket-launcher fire) while I didn’t hit one in Darksiders (at least after the boss of the first dungeon). More than that, though, I think, even though the narrative in Darksiders didn’t interest me in the least, it at least had a sense of progression and escalation to it. This is another case where Just Cause 2’s size worked against it. Nothing I did felt like it had any significance in so vast a world. If the game had been trying to make a point of illustrating that it would have been one thing. But it wasn’t. The intent of the game was clearly that I play a bad-ass hero-type. So not feeling like I was accomplishing anything of significance is quite the failure on the game’s part. (Now there’s and interesting idea: a game which by design features an impotent player-character, one who sets out trying to change the world, but is gradually forced to come to terms with his own insignificance. I guess Dreamfall and Bioshock flirt with this idea, but neither really wallow in it, which is what I have in mind. Hard to see how such a game could be fun to play, though.) Anyways, one last thing to emphasize about these two games is they’re clearly not terrible. They’re competently made, with some good ideas, some of them even original (at least in Just Cause’s case). But neither Darksiders nor Just Cause 2 was right for me.

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