Our first real glimpse of The Darkness II was, interestingly, of darkness – along with a strange, rhythmic ringing sound. Someone started talking, and the dark faded away as Jackie Estacado – the reluctant, super-powered gangster who was fused with the demonic Darkness entity in the first game – opened his eyes to see the source of the ringing: a railroad spike was being driven into his own left hand.
At the beginning of our hands-off demo with The Darkness II, Jackie is crucified and held captive by some bad people who not only know what he is and what he’s capable of (insight the first game’s villains didn’t have until it was too late), but who want him to voluntarily give up the Darkness so they can take it into custody and put it to use for their own ends. As their leader (a man with half a face) came closer, Jackie recognized him as “the cripple from the restaurant” – and after he’d talked for a bit, the scene faded into a flashback from earlier that night.
The Darkness II opens two years after the first game’s events, and after shooting and chomping his way through his traitorous boss’ crime family in The Darkness, Jackie now heads his own mob. He’s even got a right-hand man – Vinnie – who guides him through a crowded Italian restaurant during the flashback, greeting everyone before finally seating Jackie at a table with two hot women. Like the original, The Darkness II unfolds entirely in the first-person – you’ll rarely actually see Jackie, if at all – so that made it especially shocking when, after a little bit of flirtation, one of the girls’ faces exploded toward the camera.
The bullet that shattered her head was followed, seconds later, by a van that smashed through the restaurant’s window and sent Jackie flying – and sent us back to the present for more exposition and torture at the hands of the half-faced man and his goons.
Like its predecessor, Darkness II has a flair for dramatic storytelling, and if the demo we were shown during GDC is any indication, Jackie Estacado’s fans have a lot to look forward to. “Our mantra for the game is ‘service of story,’” said Sheldon Carter, The Darkness II’s project director, when asked whether the game would be as narrative- and character-focused as its predecessor. While it’s not entirely clear whether the loading-screen monologues from the first game will return, Darkness II will definitely feature the talents of one of its writers, Paul Jenkins, so the tone should be more or less the same – although as the new studio in charge of the franchise, developer Digital Extremes has its own ideas about how it should play.
“The core shooting wasn’t [The Darkness’s] biggest strength,” Carter said, “and we want to make that a strength.”
Once the latest round of torture ended with Jackie absorbing a few punches to the face, the demo shifted back to the (now ruined) restaurant. As Vinnie ordered some of Jackie’s soldiers to take point, Jackie looked down and saw that his right leg was a bloody mess. Giving Jackie a gun, Vinnie started dragging Jackie through the restaurant to safety, giving us our first real look at the game’s gunplay in what amounted to a slow-but-intense rail-shooter sequence. The combat was loud and bloody (and had the same slightly weird gun-hand movement as the first game while Jackie aimed), as wounded bystanders staggered by and more goon-packed vans slammed in through the walls of the restaurant, and it looked pretty cool, particularly later in the demo when Jackie dual-wielded a pistol and an Uzi. But it wasn’t until all seemed lost – with Jackie dragging himself slowly toward a taunting gunman just outside the restaurant’s back door – that things got really interesting.
The second he reached the restaurant’s dim back alley, the Darkness took over, literally tore the gunman to pieces and healed Jackie’s tattered leg. As before, the Darkness takes the shape of two shadowy, dragon-like heads that sprout from Jackie’s shoulders, but this time they’re capable of some (potentially) very cool things. As Jackie waded through hordes of gun-wielding enemies, we were told that the left head is used for grabbing, and that in addition to yanking and throwing enemies around like fish on a line, it can retrieve weapons, ammo and – at one point – a car door for use as a bullet-resistant shield. It can also pull up bits of the environment and use them as projectiles, as demonstrated with an enemy who got a pole hurled through his head, which sent him flying and nailed him to a wall.
It also comes into play during executions, which – in conjunction with the right head, used for slashing – can get pretty nasty. Where the first game mostly just saw hearts ripped from chests and swallowed whole, the Darkness can now pull off moves like “The Anaconda,” in which a victim is constricted with the grabbin arm and impaled with the slashing arm, and “The Wishbone,” which involves each head grabbing an enemy’s ankle and pulling him apart into two messy chunks. Over the course of the demo, it also tugged off enemy heads and sliced them in half, although the names for those moves weren’t revealed.
As before, the Darkness is powered by devouring enemy hearts, which were visible throughout the combat scenes as purple glows emanating from goon chests. The actual swallowing has been sped up a little, but they’re no less important; as Carter said, “The hearts feed into a lot of the systems we have,” which we assume means they’ll unlock new abilities down the road. Also, the Darkness retains its weakness to light, which this time is accompaniedby slightly blurred vision and a constant ringing noise – two annoyances designed to make you want to shoot out the lights and return to the relative safety of the darkness.
As the demon-powered Jackie rampaged into a subway station, tearing it apart along with its attendant enemies, we were introduced to another change: The Darkling. Those who played the first game will remember the Darklings, an assortment of imp-like helpers who collected ammo, killed enemies on command and dressed up in goofy costumes. “They were funny,” said Carter, “but you didn’t really care about them.” This time around, they’ll be replaced by a single Darkling, who – unlike his predecessors – will be a fully realized character, with his own personality and story arc. More practically, he’ll be instrumental in watching your back and helping you solve puzzles, although it isn’t yet clear whether you’ll order him around directly, or have a more indirect control over him.
Another character who’ll play a big part in the story is Jenny, Jackie’s girlfriend – who, as fans of the first game will remember, was killed in one of the most emotionally wrenching scenes ever to appear in a game. During the demo, she appears as an accusing voice in Jackie’s head, and as a vision just before he’s slammed by a subway train. Just how substantial her role will be remains to be seen, but we hope she’s more than just a taunting mental figment, like Nicole in Dead Space 2.
There are plenty of other things to take away from the demo; visually, it looks fantastic, thanks to what Digital Extremes is calling its “Graphic Noir” art style (all the textures are hand-painted to give the game a graphic-novel look). And the destruction of the subway station is practically a wink to the first game’s audience; now that he’s a Mafia don, Jackie will use limos, not subways, to move around the city. It’s a lot to take in, and considering that we didn’t think The Darkness would get a sequel at all, it’s got us pretty excited. We don’t yet know whether Digital Extremes will end up doing the franchise justice – and we won’t for sure until the game ships this fall – but they appear to be off to a great start.
Mar 3, 2011