E3 2011 – A Purer Demonic Experience in The Darkness II

Stumble into just about any used gaming store, and you should be able to procure a copy of 2008′s The Darkness for roughly the cost of a latte at Starbucks or a meal at Burger King.

After E3 2011, I felt I needed a refresher course on The Darkness in order to fully assess and appreciate the time I’d spent with The Darkness II. I knew I liked the sequel better — I wanted to make sure I knew why.

About an hour with The Darkness reminded me: a plodding, confusing experience marked by terrible gunplay, slow movement and a terrible mapping system that made it difficult to find one’s way around. Plus, the entire experience left me feeling physically nauseous for some reason.

The Darkness II, on the other hand, seems to address all these faults beautifully. Where the first game was a confusing mess of interconnecting New York neighborhoods linked by subway tunnels and vague descriptions of where to go next, what I’ve seen of The Darkness II is more linear and tightly designed. Where the first game limited players’ ability to really make use of the demonic powers bestowed on them during the course of the story, The Darkness II embraces those powers and makes them a constant part of the combat. Simply put, you’re a much more effective killing machine the second time around.

At the helm of The Darkness II is Digital Extremes, taking over for Starbreeze Studios. Digital Extremes put on both a fresh hands-off demo of The Darkness II, a level taking place in a defunct carnival, and a hands-on floor demo of an old build of the game. We started with the video demo, during which Digital Extremes Lead Designer Tom Galt explained some of the major changes between the two versions. It boils down to faster action, smarter enemies and more capabilities on the part of the player to choose how to deal with combat situations.

Story was one of The Darkness’ original strong points. Inspired by a series of comics by the same name, the first game tracked mob hitman Jackie Estacado’s quest for vengeance against his adopted uncle Pauly for the death of his girlfriend, Jen. After murdering, well, everybody, Jackie was able to (apparently) control The Darkness — a demon linked to his family that wants to control him and also gives him awesome darkness-fueled powers, as well as rise to prominence in the Franchetti crime family and become its Don.

The hands-on demo, which may or may not be the start of the game when it ships, finds Jackie in a restaurant with two blonde women, enjoying the life as a mafia don. Within second, gunfire erupts, killing one of the women with a bullet through the back of the head. It’s extremely bloody, unexpected and intense.

A second later, a van crashes through the wall, sending Jackie flying and severely injuring him. It’s a hit, it seems, and Jackie has to defend himself as he’s being dragged through the restaurant by his bodyguard. Almost immediately, we’re allowed to dual-wield pistols, cracking enemies in the face at a high clip as they invade and utterly destroy the restaurant. Jackie’s mangled leg drags behind him, leaving a long trail of blood. It’s a great sequence, and when it finally comes to an end — with Jackie crawling toward one of his assailants, his bodyguard dead, all hope lost — that’s when the demonic tentacles of The Darkness are reawakened.

There’s another long portion of Jackie fighting enemies using his Darkness powers. Unlike in the first game, where Darkness powers were sort of separate from general combat powers for the most part, Jackie wields The Darkness like a consistent weapon in the sequel. Galt calls it “quad-wielding”: Jackie can carry two guns, one in each hand, which are fired individually with trigger buttons. Shoulder buttons control The Darkness, with one side being used to grab enemies and objects and throw them, execute people, and tear off car doors to use as improvised riot shields; the other is for quick slashes and stabs against enemies, sending them sprawling.

This control method works beautifully, and Jackie spends some time killing various rival mobster enemies before the end. The fluidity of combat is pretty remarkable — the player can quickly fire off a few rounds, grab a parking meter and throw it like a spear at one enemy while batting another away with a combination of the Right Analog Stick and a shoulder button. It seems like a lot of mechanics to handle at once, but Digital Extremes has created a pretty intuitive way to control four weapons at one time.

There were some notable differences between the hands-on demo and the closed-door demo we watched with Galt. For one, it seems Digital Extremes has leaned more on the comics for visual inspiration and is using hand-painted textures for everything, but has actually scaled down the cel-shaded look that’s very prevalent in the hands-on demo to go with something a little more muted. The hands-on demo also seemed to be bits of the game cobbled together from various points in order to give a quick 20-minute illustration of what it was like, while the eyes-only demo seemed like a more cohesive level.

Both greatly concerned the group hunting Jackie in order to take The Darkness away from him and use it for its own ends. They’re known as The Brotherhood, and they’re led by a vicious man called Victor Valente. The Brotherhood knows a great deal about The Darkness, having originally been created to capture and contain it to protect humanity, but having since been corrupted by it and now hoping only to possess and harness it, a bit like The One Ring. As Jackie fights through the abandoned carnival in pursuit of Valente, he fights numerous corrupted Brotherhood enemies — some of whom seem to have a bit of Darkness powers themselves.

These guys are smart, and they know how to combat the demon: light. They’ll carry lights into battle and use them to actually flush The Darkness from Jackie and render him a little more normal, so shooting out lights is important. Back in the dark, Jackie gets full use of his powers again, and can quickly snag enemies and rip out their hearts or shoot them in the head. It’s extremely satisfying, and on the whole, the demo was very violent.

Back in the first The Darkness, Jackie was able to summon little imps called Darklings to go off and help him fight. There were four brands of these and they could be given simple directions to aid in battle. The Darkness II does away with that mechanic, instead providing Jackie with just one sidekick Darkling, which is always around to help out in killing, distracting or temporarily subduing enemies.

Mostly what persists in the remainder of the demo is Jackie dealing with enemies, which is all very fluid and cool-looking. The demo ends, after some protracted battles, with Jackie being blasted with light and rendered unconscious — only to wake up in a mental institution. The end…?

Final Impressions
Having played quite a bit of The Darkness in the past, but completely unable to fathom what I saw in it today, The Darkness II seems like a game I’ll enjoy. Most, if not all, of my complaints from the first outing have been addressed by what I’ve seen so far, and what’s more the combat has been reworked to be much more interesting, intuitive, and above all, fun.

About the only thing I can see that might be concerning are enemy variety, perhaps; it’d be nice to see The Darkness II deal with more in the paranormal realm to give Jackie some real challenges beyond the many minions he gunned down last time around and in the demos. Still, there’s a lot of satisfaction to be gained simply from becoming a skillful player and manipulating all of Jackie’s powers, as well as upgrading them with Digital Extremes’ extensive tech tree. These base-level features seem great — now we just have to see how the things built on top of them function.

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