E3 2011: 10 Thoughts on… The Darkness 2 (Microsoft Xbox 360, Sony Playstation 3, PC)

The Darkness was one of a series of ambitious first person shooters from developer Starbreeze that incorporated excellent storytelling, good mechanics, and excellent ambiance into a product that was incredibly notable, but poorly received. Granted, the ending sequence was lacking in certain respects, but the overall product was a great one, and the game deserved a better fate than it received… but aside from Top Cow fans, no one has any idea who Jackie Estacado is, so the game didn’t exactly have a license associated with it that was going to move copies or anything. That said, someone somewhere decided that a sequel needed to exist, which is an assessment I wouldn’t argue with at all, and so, we now have the cleverly titled The Darkness 2 coming to us, albeit with a different developer at the helm. The game wasn’t widely available on the floor, by all indications, but some observant hunting paid off, and I got a chance to play around with the game for a bit, so let’s see how things are coming along.

1.) The game seems to be continuing the “kind-of sort-of following along with the comics” storyline of the first, as we pick up with Jackie Estacado some time after the death of his girlfriend Jenny in the first game. He’s apparently a big mafia boss now and, by all indications, trying to repress his Darkness power, when some psychos ram a van into the window of the restaurant he’s eating at, killing his dining partners and ruining his leg real bad. The end result is that the Darkness ends up coming out to protect its master, and we get to ruin people with demonic tendrils once again, which is satisfying enough.

2.) I would be remiss, however, if I didn’t mention that this particular plot line is being recounted in a past-tense fashion, as in the present, Jackie is essentially crucified in a warehouse while some hideous guy essentially tries to explain to him that he wants the Darkness, and if Jackie willingly lets it go, his friends and family will be spared (though it’s implied he’ll likely eat it), but if he doesn’t, everyone he knows will be ruined. Jackie takes this poorly, to be polite, and after he manages to escape and basically make his captors regret their decisions, it’s implied that a good amount of the power of the Darkness has been stolen from Jackie, but he’ll never lose it completely so long as he chooses to keep it. I have a passing familiarity with the comics, but not enough to identify what has been named “The Crippled Man” in documentation for the game; at best, I’m guessing it’s some kind of adaptation of Sonatine of the Brotherhood of Darkness, since documentation indicates the Crippled Man belongs to the Brotherhood, but more likely it’s just someone the developers put into the game for their own purposes. Either way, it works as a storyline mechanic, and it’s a good hook to start things off with.

3.) The visual engine has received a noticeable update from the original, featuring a somewhat cel-shaded visual style that compliments the experience well enough and adds to the comic book feel, which I suspect was the intention. The lighting effects and such look great, as expected, and the environments are appropriately evocative of New York, where the game takes place. The Darkness looks as good as ever in action, whether summoning minions or ripping out the hearts of Jackie’s opposition, and there’s a good bit more variety to the ways it can kill people, for those who were looking for this sort of thing in the game, so all in all we can call the visuals improved. The audio is as good as before, which was great, and it sounds like Mister Mike Patton has come back as the Darkness once again, so we’re coming up aces in presentation if nothing else.

4.) For those who didn’t play The Darkness, it’s essentially your standard first person shooter with the novel gimmick of having a demonic shadow monster at your disposal that can do various things to help you out. Neat, huh? Well, The Darkness 2 continues that trend well enough, as the demo has you equipping a few different guns for long-range combat purposes, but spends most of its time instructing you in the ways of how to use your demonic tendrils and such appropriately. As a first person shooter, The Darkness 2 is fair enough; you can aim at enemies appropriately, firing feels natural and the guns sound impressive and powerful. You’re given a selection of weapons to goof around with in the demo that deal adequate damage and show off the ability to dual-wield, though once I got my hands on a shotgun I didn’t really see the point in dual-wielding uzi’s, but it’s a nice inclusion all the same.

5.) Of course, the Darkness powers are the big hook here, and they’re back in fine form this time around. To start with, Jackie summons up the twin tendrils that normally occupy the screen in the first game, with the left one acting as his torture/eating tendril and the right one doing the heavy lifting in combat. The demo showcases the uses of the tendrils fine, showing off that you can melee attack enemies, grapple stunned enemies and obliterate them in creative ways, eat the hearts of enemies to upgrade Jackie’s power, rip open grates, and pick up weapons, among other things. The weapon pick-up option was among the more amusing options, because while the game shows you how to make effective use of this with spiked poles, for example, I ended up ripping a car door off and killing someone with it, and I can’t think of a way that this is not awesome.

6.) The “being in light makes you weak” gimmick from the first game comes back once again here, though, as the Darkness can’t withstand any sort of light, even artificial, leaving Jackie to take out any lights he sees if he wants to use his powers. This comes up a good amount in the demo, as I had to take out several street lights and fluorescent lights in the subway tunnel in order to keep the Darkness out and functional. If the Darkness isn’t out, Jackie won’t die so to say, but his health regeneration is nil at that point and you’ll only have your guns to defend you from certain death, so keeping everyone in the dark is vital to success. The first game made good use of this thing, so hopefully the second game will as well.

7.) About halfway through the game, one of Jackie’s minions shows up to save him from being messed up by a goon, complete with an “ello Jackie” greeting. The minions of the Darkness were an interesting, if somewhat underutilized, gimmick from the first game, as Jackie could summon little imps to help him out in battle by taking out enemies and such. The demo only shows that they can be summoned, and doesn’t really do a lot with the gimmick, but the implication that it’s in the game is enough to show that it’ll be making a comeback, though to what level wasn’t explored here.

8.) What was explored was Jackie’s guilt at letting Jenny die, as specters of her pop up routinely throughout the demo, though what role they’ll ultimately play in the final product remains to be seen. Aside from providing some narrative information, all the Jenny specter did this time around was stand around and run away a bit, until her final appearance, which apparently distracted Jackie enough that he got hit by a subway train. Oops.

9.) The sequence ends with Jackie ripping his hand from one of the two spikes crucifying him down, pulling out the other spike and using it to spike his main assailant to the wall head first. He then takes said assailant’s gun, shoots the other bodyguard, and takes out the light keeping him from using the Darkness, before the Crippled Man informs him that the following events are going to go very hard on Jackie for not playing ball, at which point he locks Jackie in the room and closes the door. If this is meant to be a retail demo, and I suspect it is, it’s a good one, as this is a very good note to end on that might convince a player to check out the final product.

10.) The Darkness 2 looks to be keeping up the trend of its predecessor, between its interesting narrative, good visuals, and weird Darkness powers, but the demo doesn’t really make it a point to showcase anything we haven’t seen before. Dismembering enemies is easier, certainly, and the game feels better in design and structure, but the demo didn’t really show off anything new but the visual engine. Granted, the first game is old enough that a minimally updated sequel won’t draw ire for being too similar, and the first game was good enough that a sequel will likely be great even so, but it’s likely that new elements will be incorporated into the game, and it would have behooved the demo to show off some of them, I find. Still, the demo shows that the final product is shaping up nicely, and so long as everything keeps at this pace the final product should be easy enough to recommend.

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