I recently spent some time in Amsterdam where I got a good few hours of hands-on time with upcoming Darksiders II. It was, without a doubt, one of  the more memorable hands-on events I’ve attended because the whole thing took place in an old church – rather apt considering the religious overtones of the game.

On top of slicing through hordes of enemies and riding undead horses, I got to speak to the game’s director, Marvin Donald. In a balcony overlooking the church’s main area (which was packed with Xbox 360 consoles), I fired off a bunch of questions about the game’s scope, the reasons why Vigil left War behind, and the shift in genre focus.

NAG: How much of the original team from Darksiders I is working on Darksiders II? When did production start?

MD: I’d say roughly 65% of the original team. We just passed the three-year mark in January, so just a little over three years. But part of that 65% number is because we’ve expanded the staff significantly to compensate for putting together a larger title since the game world is quite a bit bigger.

NAG: How much bigger?

MD: Umm, in terms of real-estate or just raw space… about three times bigger. Yeah it’s quite a bit bigger.

NAG: Well, the first game itself was already pretty big and had a lot of trekking around. So a lot more open spaces this time?

MD: Yes, but we also give you the horse right away. Getting around a larger space isn’t too much of an issue. I mean, you’ve got to travel quite a way sometimes, but like I said you get the horse right away to deal with that. It’s a much bigger space!

NAG: You’re using the same engine; any tweaks under the hood that you’re particularly proud of?

MD: There have been some improvements to the lighting system, but in general we just tried to put some polish onto how the game feels and make it feel a little more responsive in general.

NAG: Was there any hesitation leaving War behind? As a character he resonated with gamers and everyone really seemed to like him; Death is very different in attitude and approach.

MD: Yeah there was – we had some concerns because when you’re developing a new IP, you want to build the audiences relationship with the main character. But we said, “You know what? Death is exciting!” So we think more people are going identify with Death and be excited about playing Death because he just has a non-conformist, “I have my own way” kind of way of dealing with things – like a Rockstar sort of attitude. We also wanted something to take advantage of how much smoother and responsive the gameplay was. So we figured going with that more agile character would really encompass the improvements we’ve made to the overall traversal system and combat as well.

NAG: Yes, we noticed combat is much faster this time.

MD: Yeah so rather than take someone who was slow, plotting, almost more strategic and methodic in their combat style and change it to fit with what we wanted to do gameplay-wise, we figured we would take advantage of the opportunity to introduce a new Horseman.

NAG: The title implies a direct sequel, but it isn’t really. Why a parallel story? Did you head into Darksiders I knowing that a direct sequel with War wasn’t planned?

MD: I don’t think we knew we were doing that until towards the end of the production cycle for Darksiders I – it was probably sometime around the last three or four months. Going into it and making Darksiders I from the get-go, I don’t think we had committed to anything. We were definitely in a position because we had a new studio, new technology and a lot of new people working together for the first time so we didn’t really know what was going to happen. There were a lot of things we had on the drawing board originally that we wanted to do in Darksiders I and that’s probably common in most studios; you know you kind of shoot for the moon, but you don’t always get everything you want because of time and budgetary constraints and unforeseen problems. That being said, once we understood what we were capable of as a team, we were in a much better position towards the end of Darksiders I to commit. Even story-wise, because you know we’ve got to back it up with the world that goes with it, we were more comfortable committing to what Darksiders II was going to be.

NAG: Were any of the new features in Darksiders II meant to originally appear in Darksiders I?

MD: Yes! Being able to run up walls vertically and bounce back and forth between them, is one that I can think of off the top of my head. Wall-running also.

NAG: So those were dropped to fit with War’s less agile approach?

MD: Well, that’s kind of a convenient reason but honestly we had enough going on with Dakrsiders I and we felt the suite was fairly complete. We’d played around with wall-run in particular but we hadn’t quite refined our ability to place it in levels and make sure that the players can see. Because you’ve got to use flat surfaces and in Darksiders I a lot of the dungones were hand-built maps, but in Darksiders II we use a lot of repeating assets so we have more flat surfaces to deal with. So we kind of piece things together like a system of LEGO essentially. We do our best to make sure the rooms look like they’re hand-built, but in all honesty the artists are making individual pieces and then they’re exporting and bringing them into the editor where they put them together so that the dungeons end up being the final product. I think because of that we have a way of controlling what the surfaces were going to be like and how often you were going to see them. When you’re in a situation and an artist and a designer are building a whole entire dungeon and exporting it all at once, you end up with a lot of unique, one-off areas that require some massaging and touching. Whereas when you’ve got a system that’s procedural, you only have to make your adjustment one time and it’s propagated all over the place. So it made things like that more flexible so wall-run was a little more possible.

NAG: Tell us more about the Crow that follows Death.

MD: He’s a guide system that we’re still working on, but essentially he’ll show you which way to go when you’re lost in a dungeon. When you have a quest, typically the mini-map will guide you to the location you need to go, but once you get to the door of a given dungeon that’s for that quest, the mini-map system won’t guide you and it’s up to you to figure out where to go. But we still wanted something relatively subtle to kind of guide the player along – so ambiently [the crow] will perch and land on things that you should take interest with. You can actively summon the crow and he’ll appear near you and fly in the direction you need to run. That way we feel that we’re not beating the player over the head with the answer so there’s still some exploration and figuring out what to do. In some cases he’ll land on top of a door that you can’t open yet and you have to figure out what you have to do in that room, but at least you know that’s the door you need to go through.

NAG: So the crow is a silent helper this time; was that a conscious decision because the Watcher was very vocal in his guidance in Darksiders I?

MD: We wanted something a little more subtle. Artistically and creatively we just thought Death looked really cool with a crow on his shoulder, so it worked out pretty well.

NAG: There’s a definite shift from an action-orientated adventure to almost an action RPG. When was that decision made? What sparked that change in direction?

MD: Right from the beginning. A lot of us are fans of those games and we wanted to take more of what we look for as consumers, and evolve the product so that it was all encompassing and more of a complete experience; something that grows and feels unique to each person. Players will have a lot more decisions to make about how they want to customise their character, and we think that’s a lot of fun. Choosing the gear that you’re going to have; choosing the stats that you want to elevate; which skills you want to use. In Darksiders II you can’t get everything. There’s quite a bit of randomness so you’re going to feel like you’re the only person that’s got that combination of gear.

NAG: In terms of item quantities, just in the half an hour of hands-on so far, the loot drops are coming thick and fast, so is it a constant trickle of new items?

MD: We’re going to have to do some fine tuning on how quickly you acquire things so that you feel there’s some value there. It’s just one of those things: fine-tuning and balancing will be happening right until the very end.

NAG: So are loot drops and items all randomly generated then?

MD: No, we do have some hand-designed items too that have unique abilities that won’t show up on the randomly generated gear. So whenever you get something we call a Legendary Item, it’s something that’s special. But that’s not to say that some of the randomly generated stuff isn’t awesome; we’ve got a tier system so depending on the colour of the name, what the description is and the level of the item, it’ll go up in power. So not knowing what you’re going to get when you kill someone, when you take out a boss or whenever you’ve got a chest and you open that up, there could be something cool in there too.

NAG: What are you most pleased about?

MD: That we have a ton of content! There are more NPCs, more characters that you’re going to meet; it’s a slightly more complex story that I think is a little bit more interesting this time. Our cinematics are all rendered in real-time, which we had to do because of the loot system so when you’ve got a pair of gloves on or boots or whatever, we wanted to make sure you’re seeing that version of your character. This time I think we’re doing a better job of storytelling in general. I like that we’ve expanded it to include another horseman so that the universe is bigger.

NAG: You mentioned the other Horsemen. We won’t meet any of them in this one, will we?

MD: Umm, no comment.

NAG: In terms of gameplay time, how long do you think an average playthrough would take?

MD: Twenty plus at least.