The company has resorted to drastic measures to stay in business and rebuild its pipeline, which was once packed with hastily assembled licensed fare and colorful games meant to enthuse a younger demographic. In shifting fully to hardcore products like Darksiders 2, THQ shirks the playfulness implied by its name – derived from "Toy Head-Quarters" – and gets down to serious business. If not irreversible, the situation has at least begun to reek, no thanks to the bodies sacrificed on an altar of second chances. The studio closures, layoffs, executive shuffles, and major cancellations (like Insane, a horror game conceptualized with film director Guillermo del Toro) are beginning to pile up.
We look to Darksiders 2 as a portent of THQ's recovery, though Death is not the single savior so much as an ironic proof of life. If the beleaguered corporation can effectively produce and market this important milestone – the kind of high-quality, traditional game that must sustain it from now on – it gives us reason not to write off the other THQ franchises that are on the cusp of widespread popularity. The "AAA" market is probably the worst place to make a last stand, considering the endangering expenditure required to make a big impact.
Maybe it's a worrisome compliment to say that Darksiders 2 looks like a mammoth investment, and a larger, bolder attempt at encapsulating so many things that so many games do so well. To the game's credit, it's not even being constructed with obvious prudence. Texas-based, THQ-owned developer Vigil Games is not only expanding the scope and number of vivid environments, but is going so far as to build optional dungeons.
"You can't really call it exploration if you force people to go through it," Creative Director and artist Joe Madureira told me during a press preview event for the game. Creating a rich world is an expensive endeavor, he agreed, especially when time and resources are allocated to content that some players might just ignore. But the creators want that choice to be there, even if it seems impractical or risky.
Some of that risk will be mitigated in marketing, while more of it will recede because of what Darksiders is best at – that is, what video games are best at. Madureira's bold embellishments and larger-than-life characters don't obscure the classic premise of a hero discovering, traversing and pulverizing a world built specifically around his abilities. Ancient temples are littered with elaborate traps and convoluted door mechanisms because it's our pleasure to overcome them, and to see ancient stone doors swing into life.
Though THQ is also betting on a South Park role-playing game and another sequel for the Saints Row franchise (a silly, open-world antithesis to the humorless Grand Theft Auto), Darksiders 2 seems like it marks the beginning of the company's leanest, meanest ever push for high-quality core games. The quality of Vigil's work will be measured by reviews next week, and its effect on the company's bottom line will be scrutinized soon after. I suspect it'll be a hit, but what THQ needs is a BIG hit. Is that going to happen in the middle of August?
I asked Joe Madureira whether the increased scope and scale of Darksiders 2 was problematic from a financial standpoint; a dooming toll on resources to produce content that some players may miss entirely. The answer, of course, is about balance, and the black art of picking out parts that are truly worth the cost and effort. Death's mantra, as summed up by Madureira, is "ambitious but manageable." Perhaps it's the philosophy that will keep THQ in the game.
Ludwig Kietzmann is the Editor-in-Chief of Joystiq.com. He's been writing about video games for over 10 years, and has been working on this self-referential blurb for about twice as long. He thinks it turned out pretty well. Follow him on Twitter @LudwigK.