The Darkness II Preview
Despite its flaws, I was a huge fan of The Darkness, an atmospheric and offbeat first-person shooter that combined odd moments of downtime with crazy tentacle-murdering action. The game was a direct result of developer Starbreeze's design aesthetic, one that made it almost a spiritual sequel to their previous title, Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay. At the same time, it was their handling of The Darkness license that ultimately made the game unique.
Developed by Digital Extremes, The Darkness II may be heading in its own direction in some respects, but I'm happy to report that it's being handled at least as well as Starbreeze did the original. This sequel is a more action-fueled title, but one that builds upon the dark tone, ultra-violence, and varied combat of its predecessor.
The story, based on the demo, is told out of sequence. Anti-hero Jackie Estacado is in a bad place—nailed to a cross—with his life force nearly sucked dry by an evil cripple who wants to steal the darkness from him. From there we flash back to a healthier Jackie, escorted by one of his mob underlings through a classy restaurant. Jackie is the don of his crime family now, and he seems to be living the good life, trying to forget about the death of his girlfriend from the first game.
Before he can sit down and enjoy good food with two beautiful ladies, a bullet shatters the restaurant window, passing through one of the girl's heads and hollowing out her eye socket. The other screams as her face is pelted with blood, and a white van crashes into the restaurant in a fiery wreck. Like the fine china, the tone has been set: The Darkness II is one violent game.
As the demo proceeds it jumps between the story of Jackie nailed to the cross and the action in the restaurant. The van crash leaves Jackie's leg a charred, broken mess of flesh. One of his men hands him a gun and starts dragging him to safety. From there the game turns into a shooting gallery. It's a typical first-person scripted sequence, but the game's sick sensibilities keep it interesting. Headshots spray brain matter onto the walls, and innocent bystanders stumble into the hail of bullets.
By the end of the sequence it seems that all is lost for Jackie, but of course, that's when the darkness arrives, lifting him into the air as the two-headed tentacle monster makes short work of the incoming goons. As the game hands over full control, it turns into a quick tutorial on manipulating the darkness. The theory behind combat in The Darkness II is to always give the player full control of Jackie's abilities. The marketing speak is “quad-wielding combat,” and the result is one of the substantial improvements to the sequel.
On a 360 controller, the triggers fire your two guns, while the left bumper controls the darkness's grabbing tentacle and the right bumper controls the slashing tentacle. By grabbing, you can collect and throw objects like poles and saw blades to kill enemies or simply grab the enemies themselves and finish them off in a bloody execution. The slash attack combined with any direction eviscerates enemies at close range.
Combat gives the player plenty of options and simple controls to use them. Near the end of the demo, I used a car door as a bullet shield, ripped the hearts out of dozens of enemies, and performed the “wishbone” assassination: a stealth kill that splits the enemy vertically, leaving behind two bloody halves with exposed ribs and spinal columns. Did I mention enemies' guts dangle around when their bodies are severed? Yeah, it's that kind of game, folks.
The creative ways you can kill seem to be rewarded, too. In the demo, the game was giving out points based on unique kills, Bulletstorm-style. It will be interesting to see how that mechanic plays out in the final game, and whether it maintains its allure or becomes a distraction.
After making short work of a few enemies, Jackie is caught off guard and held at gunpoint, but a darkling rushes to the rescue. These little goblins added a bit of strategy to combat in the original, but here the game gives you a single darkling with explosive personality. Adorned in a Union Jack vest, the little scamp fetches weapons for you and fights right by your side. You can't give it orders, though, so think of it as Jackie's version of Half-Life 2's Alyx or Halo's Arbiter.
Completing the ultra-violent, dark comic book aesthetic is an art style that takes cues from Crackdown and Borderlands, with hard black lines outlining everything. But the visuals are taken one step further. Most of the textures in the game look penciled, as if an artist went in and cross-hatched every brick wall and bloody trenchcoat in the game.
The style is fantastic in the right lighting and with the right characters, but certain scenes (like the restaurant) had characters that looked plastic and awkward. Otherwise the visuals perfectly nail the look of a gritty comic, so hopefully the weaker areas simply need a final graphics pass.
The Darkness II looks to be a focused action game with scripted set pieces interspersed between some truly flexible combat. Before the demo was up, I had escaped from a bloody crucifixion via a button-jamming quick-time event, dodged a subway train in an underground shootout, and went on a rampage with a pump-action shotgun. If nothing else, the Darkness II has all the ingredients for a bloody, action-packed roller coaster. Most importantly, though, the game feels like another entry in The Darkness saga. It may not be as thoughtful and paced as the original, but it keeps to the same recipe, and sprinkles in a few spices of its own.