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Dust to Dust: Darksiders II finds its spirit animal

At four times the size of the first game, Darksiders II is big enough to make the most committed gamer break out in a bit of a sweat. Don't be daunted; a little bird is here to help you find your way.

At a preview event last week I choked on the output of a fog machine, so THQ quietly let me sit down and play Darksiders II undisturbed for a couple of hours, perhaps as an apology for nearly letting me meet the actual grim reaper. Having seen all the cutscenes already and being a power gamer of the finest calibre (read: knows how to force-skip dialogue), I managed to get well past the opening section press had previously been allowed to come to grips with at E3, and complete not just the entire Crowfather world but the first two dungeons (of what looked like about six) of The Forge Lands.

It was only when I ran up against a boss I didn't know how to beat - probably the answer was in one of the dialogue bits I skipped - that I remembered I had to go back to work at some stage. Otherwise, I think I might have been sitting there until THQ hit me over the head with a shovel and dragged me away. It's not just that there didn't seem to be any reason to stop; it's that Darksiders II is huge. The map I reached at the preview event is just one of four worlds, each of which, according to Vigil, is the size of the original Darksiders. The very first activity the player performs as War's brother Death is not to bash something up but to get on a horse and ride down a long winding path admiring the grandiose scenery and orchestral soundtrack. Not only does this immediately set the tone for what turns out to be a high-fantasy feeling very distinct from the first game's atmosphere, it also gets you used to the idea of scale before you have to look at the overmap and have some kind of panic attack.

When I did get around to looking at the map of the first true world, The Forge Lands, it was after exploring the first town hub - a dauntingly large area in and of itself - and passing through a short navigational segment between me an the open plains. And I do mean open. Directly opposite me, sprawled between cliffs, was some sort of enormous tentacley eyeball thing which later research tells me was a form of Corruption, blocking my path to the Tree of Life, which connects the four realms. Apart from this obvious end goal, the pleasantly green landscape just spread out in front of me, dotted by paths snaking off in six directions.

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Two minutes of pure gameplay.

Although the build I had didn't do much to explain it, I discovered Death is accompanied by a raven named Dust. This handily green-highlighted companion is like an objective marker you can yell at; tapping the left analog stick down caused Death to bark a resentful order to the bird, which flew off in the general direction of the next goal. Out on the overmap, it was easy enough to find the path - a gentle five-minute canter over the bodies of enemies through a good four different environments - but in the dungeons, Dust became really valuable, highlighting the presence of levers, doors, ledges and other puzzle components.

I'm a little afraid of puzzles. I was raised on a diet of Tomb Raider, where when you walked into a cavernous room and the camera peeled off to the sound of some chanting monks you knew you were in for it and promptly called in someone better at basic logic. Vigil is far less fiendish than the old Core team in that it doesn't require you to pull levers in the Fibbonaci sequence (or whatever), and most of the time it's clear where you have to go and what you have to do - even if actually achieving it is another matter. But when the dungeons are so large, and each one is a slice of a larger questline in a game of about 40 hours, you really don't won't to be bothered with going through the wrong door, hitting a dead end, and back-tracking. Send Dust to perch over the right corridor entrance, than hie yourself down it and solve the puzzle at the other end.

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Loot, skill trees and magic.

With this simple little tool, Vigil has taken much of the pain out of what might otherwise prove to be too much game for the average pundit to handle. Completionists and trophy hounds are going to love the optional side-dungeons and ferreting out every single hidden treasure chest, but for those of us who just want to smack monsters, zip around dungeon walls like the world's only attractive spider, and stare in horrified confusion at lever arrays for four hours before realising the door is behind them, that helpful little purple map marker and green glow make the world of difference. Darksiders II is shitting ginormous, and I'll take any shortcut to the action I can find.

Darksiders II arrives on PC, PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 on August 14 in the US and August 21 in Europe. A Wii U version is expected to follow.

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