E3 2011 - The Darkness 2 Eyes-On
E3 2011 - The Darkness 2 Eyes-On
Digital Extremes has fallen into mild disrepute as of late. Homefront didn't quite set the world on fire and Bioshock's success was mostly down to the folks at Irrational. So as a huge fan of the 2007's The Darkness, I was skeptical that Starbreeeze Studios (those Scandinavian psychopaths) weren't at the helm. I still have a modest mountain to climb in terms of being truly satisfied that Digital Extremes can carry the torch on this one, but the brief showing I was privy to at this year's E3 shows a fine return to form for the gory shooter.
To recap for those of you who missed the flawed yet progressive original, Jackie Estacado is a mob hitman who, on his 21st birthday, during an attempt by his 'uncle' Paulie on his life, is bestowed a great power and a harrowing burden; he is granted the 'gift' of the Darkness, a demonic life form (voiced astonishingly well by Mike Patton of Faith No More, who reprises his role here in the sequel) which uses him as a host, a symbiotic creature hell-bent on controlling him. The Darkness forces Jackie to watch Paulie execute the love of his life, beckoning him to embrace his desire for revenge. Ending with a tentative power balance struck between Jackie and the Darkness, he ascends to his rightful place within the family.
With The Darkness II, Jackie has been a formidable force within the New York mob for two years, and his Darkness powers have remained long dormant. The emergence of a cultish organisation called the Brotherhood whose sole aim is to steal the Darkness sees Jackie having to embrace his heritage once more and let the Darkness emerge and chaos ensue. “The Brotherhood are featured in the comics” says Tom Galt, the game's lead designer. “But our history and our interpretation of them is a little bit different. We've just kind of taken the spirit of it.”
Galt's demo showcases Jackie running around a New York and brightly lit and colourfully distracting carnival. The game's frenetic pace is matched by the quad-wielding of tentacle arms and firearms (returning but enhanced from the first game) and the ridiculous degree of destructible and manipulable environment. The game now gives you scores for more creative kills, which the cynic in me wants to lament on account of being reminiscent of Bulletstorm (ugh), but the optimist in me hopes will be a neat side-prospect for those who enjoy keeping tabs like in inFamous. The original game's aesthetic-narrative minimalism does run the risk of being uprooted if Digital Extremes choose to focus too heavily on scoring, but hopefully a delicate balance will be struck.
Not only do scores now pop up, but the art-style has taken a huge turn for the surreal, with a pseudo-cel shaded look gracing the entire world. While worrying at first, it blends perfectly with the absurd nature of the story within minutes. “Our art team is fantastic” Galt continues. “They're just doing an amazing job on the brush-stroke style.” The team have forgone the usual digitising of photographed textures in favour of hand-painting every single texture in the game, lending itself perfectly to the comic book vibe. Make no mistake, The Darkness II may be going in some unexpected directions, but it's all with intent and purpose. That Digital Extremes have a clear vision for what The Darkness II should be is without a shadow (no pun intended) of a doubt.
The original game pushed boundaries by weaving together the narrative and the player's in-game abilities. The incredible powers bestowed upon Jackie twisted the game's focus from survival at the outset to outright sadistic brutality at its climax, and Digital Extremes is aware that The Darkness II has room to add to this morbid, psychologically messy concept. “It's an interesting power-struggle between the Brotherhood and Jackie” Galt muses. “At first, [Jackie is] incredibly powerful against these mobsters that he fights – he's just tearing them to shreds. But then we amp it up and introduce the Brotherhood and you're still powerful but you need to learn how to deal with these guys that are throwing flares at you and using light cannons on you.”
Our demo clearly showed what these new enemies can do. Understanding that the Darkness is fuelled by shadows, the Brotherhood will shine a floodlight on you, only for you to turn the car-door your tentacle just ripped off from a light-shield into a throwable weapon to take out the light source. And all very naturally as well – contextual controls make the use of environmental havoc roll fluidly. Left trigger will use your left tentacle to impale a nearby mobster, grab a filing cabinet for defence or hurl a lamp-post at someone depending on the situation. “There is one thing we really wanted to amp up” Galt asserts. “That was just how you interacted with the world and with your enemies using the Darkness powers. The story was awesome so we're trying to match what [Starbreeze] were doing there, but we're just trying to nail that action and really get the players to use the demon arms and Darkness powers in creative ways.”
*** SPOILER ALERT***
I ask Galt about the slower sections of the original game, and about the considered character building it harnessed so well. “A big part of what made The Darkness so great was that you really got to know Jackie on a personal level. Seeing Jennie's death, lying with her on the couch – it's those moments with the characters which set it apart from other action games. We definitely have moments like that as well where we're trying to slow it down and really give you a chance to learn the characters.”
Indeed, The Darkness still stands as one of the most narrative-heavy first-person shooters of this generation, and in spite of several noticeable changes to the way the game operates, Digital Extremes clearly recognise the first game's strengths and are endeavoring to replicate where it worked and improve where it faltered. The experience of being Jackie and reigning down vengeance looks to be harnessed every bit as well as the first game, and newcomers should prepare themselves for a shooter which knows how to offer real escapism, genuinely drawing you into their world and messing with your head while they do it. If Digital Extremes can see this promising brief look through to its conclusion, we should see an affecting, intense and disturbing experience on our consoles when The Darkness II launches on October 4th.
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