The Double-A Team is a feature series honouring the unpretentious, mid-budget, gimmicky commercial action games that no-one seems to make any more.
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These door monsters are something else. They’re huge, stony things that hold up the strange flat planes of their upper arms to seal off passageways, but will then stand and stretch and move away when their demands have been met. It’s not the scale that makes them feel like such an expensive and luxurious bit of detailing, though. It’s the gentleness with which they move, padding off into the wider world, giants generating their own quiet rhythm as they go. They are towering, but they feel like they have been based on delicate observation. For all their size there is something gloriously minute about them.
I’ve been thinking about the door monsters of Darksiders all week, because I cannot work out whether I think Darksiders is Double-A or Triple-A. It’s right on the cusp, isn’t it? It’s laid across the fault line. Category questions like this are so often tedious, but the more I think about Darksiders, the more I’m drawn in. For me, Darksiders helps to illuminate what makes Double-A so very, very special.
Somebody certainly spent a lot of money on this game. Great models and animation, a huge scope, famous comic book artists and a very talented development team. The pitch is simple: the apocalypse has come to New York a bit too early. You’re War, one of the four horsemen, and your job is to go back to a scorched earth and find out what went wrong.
That’s the pitch anyway. But this is one of those games whose secret, never-spoken promise was that it would provide a touch of Zelda for people who didn’t have Nintendo hardware. An overworld opened up by the gadgets you found in scattered dungeons. A richly detailed landscape with secrets to be uncovered.
At the time I think I was a bit snotty about all of this. Very stupid of me. Darksiders is far more than a reskin, as if that would be easy enough anyway. It has the big Zelda stuff like trigger-targeting, a horse, that overworld-and-dungeon structure. And yet in the moment-to-moment living, it feels like its own thing, a crunchy anthem of metal on stone, a brawler that’s driven forward with every slicing sound effect.
So I guess that makes it an accomplished Zelda-alike that feels nothing like Zelda? Even so, can be weird to replay it now and see how closely it sticks to familiar beats here and there. The first item you get is basically the boomerang – though far more heavy metal in its implementation. Look through the item shop and you’ll find there are even equivalents for Link’s sweet little glass bottles. It’s as if the developers worried the spell might not work if they didn’t have all the correct relics to hand.
Some kind of spell works anyway. I went back to Darksiders this week to remind myself of its pleasures, and I was swiftly drawn into its lovely, horrible depths for two days. Scalding Gallow, Drowned Pass: Darksiders’ map has sonorous names that make up for a slight greyness that can set in to the surroundings if you pause in the action for too long. Even at its least characterful, however, there’s still something lovely about an open world that sees you regularly trekking through the New York Public Library on your way between dungeons.
And besides, over the last two days it feels like the action has never really paused. Puzzles and traversal are all fine and the gadgets are clever and fun to use. But the combat is genuinely wonderful, huge robot angels whacking each other until that gloriously glossy B button prompt appears over someone’s head suggesting a finisher. Everywhere you look something is erupting or exploding or being wrenched away because of you, whether it’s the Ghostbusters souls that come flying off enemies and can be cashed in at the shop, or a bosses giant wings, plucked and cast aside before the heart is pulled out.
Plucked! Pulled! That delicacy again, in amongst the chaos. Darksiders is a very loud game, but its quieter moments are gorgeous too: a shop announces its presence with windchimes on the breeze, and the shopkeeper Vulgrim’s jeweled skeletal hands click hideously when he tents his fingers to plot. There is a commitment here to craft: dungeons ensure that their lengthiest excursions always drop you somewhere useful, and the whole thing is sufficiently committed to stylish brawling to ensure that one of the first things you’re taught is a simple launcher.
More than anything, Darksiders is having such fun with the apocalypse. And we’re back to the question of Double- or Triple-A, I think. For me, Darksiders illuminates the idea that Double-A sometimes has little to do with budget and is frequently anything but a dig or a slur. It emerges here as a game with a complete lack of self-consciousness. It’s very happy being a game about smacking demons around New York. It’s very happy about biblical cameos who all meet nasty ends. It’s very happy with its lineage and inspirations. It’s very happy with what it is as a game.
And so I am drawn back in, moving from cursed meadow to hideous dungeon, smashing things, collecting things, levelling things up. An anthem of metal on stone. Nothing more – and nothing less.